Nicole Van LouwCole’s Closet SA

Favorite quote: You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose, you will embarrass yourself, and you will suck at something. Here’s the thing, you don’t quit, and you don’t fall back. There’s a saying which goes, if you hang around the barber shop long enough, you will get a haircut. You will catch a break. Sometimes it’s the best way to move forward, never be discouraged.”

What is your story (tell us about yourself)?
I graduated with a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree in 2017, I’m currently a legal consultant and en-route to becoming an admitted attorney of the High Court of South Africa. But, I always had a knack for fashion. And not just any kind, I would predominantly be drawn to single statement pieces or minimalist looks that suited any body type but made the world of a difference, I loved seeing an LBD (“little black dress”) on a size 32 and equally as excited when I see the same fit on a size 42. During my time working at a law firm, I hadn’t felt the chance to fully express my freedom in fashion as it was and still is a suited environment. Instead, I channeled that energy into creating my own brand, and to share my favorite trends with women in South Africa who needed a fast, sexy and simple outfit fix.

When did you start your first business and what inspired you to start?
The concept for Cole’s Closet SA started in early 2020, and it was actually my first business. I currently have two fully operational businesses. The latter being toward my profession. My entrepreneurial streak in clothing began when I was in University in and around 2015-2016. During my spare time, I would always find a means to make extra cash and this is where I was introduced to fashion. I worked at various nightlife events, yacht events, sport events, designer events, modelling shows and my pivotal moment, was an H&M campaign where I was invited into their show house in Cape Town. This is where my love for sustainable, everyday fashion grew. Once I graduated and earned a place working in a law firm for just under 3 years, I saved enough capital to start my own brand, I wanted to be an affordable brand for the girl next door, young student or for the everyday working woman who needed a simple, elegant, statement piece for her next big event, date night, girls night or just to simply run errands while looking great.

What is the Key Objective(s) and Vision of your business? (Has it changed overtime or is has it always been this?)
The key objective of my brand is to be fast, effortless, affordable and modest (well to a certain degree for our sexy pieces). I want to celebrate every woman, every body shape, in every meaningful and possible way. The vision for my brand would be for any woman who has had a frantic working week or a student who’s had many deadlines to meet, to wake up on a Wednesday morning, pick up their phone, visit my Instagram page and place an order for a last-minute party for a Friday night. You could say this changes overtime, with lockdown and all, and customers generally staying home more, it’s always refreshing to revisit how you could adjust things up a bit, I see it as a challenge.

What challenges did you face in your journey? What’s the biggest obstacle you had to overcome (are still overcoming)?
The biggest challenge is remaining consistent. There’s nothing that speaks more about consistency than remaining relevant in the trend space. I’ve had the biggest obstacle when my business was on the verge of closing down because I had mentally run into a low point in my life, it became hard finding my passion again and I ceased to trade for 2 months early into 2021, to take some time out and to realign my being. The hardest obstacle was getting back up again, and this is where I ran into the consistency hurdle. The energy shift and mind focus changes drastically when you’ve decided to do better for yourself. However, I was fortunate enough to receive great support from repeat customers and new customers who informed me countless times to keep going and to not throw in the white flag too soon.

How did you manage to navigate your company through this period of the Covid-19 pandemic? (What business strategies/operational adjustments have you made over this period and how has it impacted your business model?)
During the COVID-19 period, I’ve had to revisit and I’ve had to rebrand my clothing line. I spent plenty of time going back and forth to the drawing board. This wasn’t an easy time as I had to make mainly cost-effective decisions for my business. It’s not what I wanted at the time, but rather what I needed to do. And to know the difference is very crucial. During this navigation period, for example I’ve had to introduce a new range of lounge sets, tracksuits, and gym sets, which meant a bigger capital injection. I’ve had to do less with the evening wear and more towards daywear, and to this day, I must admit, it is quite hard to try and separate your brand from the rest if the trend is similar. I often ask myself, how do I differentiate my brand, to what’s in the malls currently? This is a daily task, and this is how the consistency, offering exceptional service and staying relevant plays a role. Setting yourself apart is a never-ending quest, but I do believe this has opened up my market space, as I’ve experienced and grown to bond with all my customers.

How do you approach networking and building partnerships in your industry?
I would consider myself quite the social butterfly and I tend to dress my friends up in my pieces when we’re having a girl’s night or attending events, this is where word of mouth comes into play. This could be an opportunity where you open up the free marketing arena. It becomes important as this is how you may reach a network and partnerships with entities or brands who would be willing to work with you. In any given business venture, you have to prove you’re legitimate, be as original as possible, have a business plan, have a business profile, have some online presence and when back your business up, it becomes easier for you to approach networks and partners. This could either be done by signing up to conventions in the line of work you’re interested in, sending emails to prospective clothing lines and manufacturers, applying for internships, attending free fashion shows or by simply having a mutual friend or acquaintance introduce you to a room full of people who are smarter and more accomplished than you.

Do you have (or ever had) a mentor in your journey, and do you believe it helped (if yes, in what way)?
Having a mentor is so critical, I cannot stress it more. I’ve had the opportunity to experience mentorship in my legal profession. The principles to which I apply to Coles Closet, more specifically the technicalities and running of the business itself. Are the same principles I learnt in my mentorship. Having a mentor broadens your mindset, we all need guidance and we need to learn gratitude. A mentor fulfills this part of your journey, I believe that not all transactions in life is directly linked to money. Your best lessons are learnt through experience, tact, perseverance and tenacity. A mentor embodies all of the above and the lessons you walk away with from mentorship is priceless.

What is your perspective on the South African entrepreneurial landscape before and after Covid-19 pandemic? (Would you say the “new normal” context drives more or less opportunities for entrepreneurs?) How can entrepreneurial policy development aid in expanding opportunities in this new context?
The pandemic has forced business owners, entrepreneurs, investors and the like to re-strategize, revisit and regroup their ventures and work-related decisions in a drastic way. To me, it seemed as if it were a sink or swim situation from an objective standpoint, and those who managed to stay afloat were able to either adapt or holistically restructure the way their ventures viewed itself and how their visions or goals were affected. Here, you had to step outside of the box. The new normal context forces you to work harder, which I think is a blessing in disguise, you get to see a part of your entrepreneurial side that you would never have learnt had you found yourself to be in a place of complacency and success. It’s an unspoken truth, I firmly believe that entrepreneurial policy development needs to create a safe space for businesses to fail. Most people in our country are afraid to start somewhere on this journey because what is mostly heard are success stories and not enough failures to these successes, expanding opportunities right now during this pandemic would be for new entrepreneurs to be taught how to properly recover from a failed venture and the concept of trying again, reinvention and regaining strength to push harder and further is important.

In your opinion, what are the secrets to being a successful entrepreneur?
There is no secret to being a successful entrepreneur. Being humble is key. To this day, I do not consider myself successful albeit having successful turnovers in the businesses I started in the past. There is always so much more to learn and there is so much more of yourself to give in this life. Fixating on the idea of being successful in my view, will disrupt our generation. I believe that our present generation has been able to shift the paradigm of living on such a high scale, and if we continue to do so, there’s no telling what the definition of being a successful entrepreneur will be. Will it be working your dream business as a nomad remotely on an island, or will it be owning the top building in the richest square mile in Africa for the same risk and reward? There’s no telling what success is with the future we hold in our hands.

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
You are what you make yourself out to be. If you, fully believe you have something to give. Give it your all. Do not work alone. Whether it is a person you speak to once a week for business advice, or asking for assistance on a simple responsibility, or whether you are feeling overwhelmed and need somebody to talk to, do not be afraid to pick up the phone and seek words of encouragement from a close family member or friend. Take time out to do the things that you love while you are on this journey. Listen more, speak less. Manage your time effectively and do not forget to have fun while you’re at it!