Best Foot Forward
Who says beauty and comfort are mutually exclusive? Not Samkelisiwe Mtshali, whose range of leather shoes and accessories, Samke Style, offers both.
Samkelisiwe admits that she never thought she would make a career of designing shoes – even though she’d always had a flair for design. As a teenager, she would nip, tuck and tweak her clothes to give it her own signature stamp, she recalls (much to the dismay of her parents, who believed she was wasting their money).
Although she was “just playing” with design at this stage, she started taking it more seriously once she started travelling. Watching city slickers bustling through New York in their chic flats, she had an epiphany: “I had never thought that shoes that were comfortable could look really good, too. Until then, I’d never come across any that presented this seemingly elusive combination.”
Although she had a corporate career at the time, she was eager to explore the niche she was convinced existed – and so, in 2016, Samkelisiwe started researching production facilities. Her investigations led her to a business associate who agreed to mentor her while also helping her get to grips with business challenges.
Working together, they produced their first sample; a boot stylish and versatile enough to be worn in both summer and winter. Samkelisiwe initially targeted the network of customers she had built up selling clothes (a side hustle she had taken up while still working in the corporate world, and which first planted the seeds of entrepreneurship), and whom she knew shared her particular aesthetic. She also reached out to audiences on social media, then took the feedback received from this market to shape new designs. “Samke Style isn’t for dedicated followers of fashion; we’re not about paying homage to the latest trends. This is a brand for people who appreciate classic, timeless style – you’ll still be wearing our shoes next season, and the next,” she says.
Although Samkelisiwe has explored the retail environment, she notes that her greatest success has come from her online store. Surprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic has been especially good for her business – perhaps because potential customers have more time on their hands to browse the internet.
She’s also found word of mouth to be a very effective marketing tool, which is one of the reasons she is a strong believer in the power of networks. She does her utmost to develop and leverage these, often with excellent outcomes. For example, it was through her network that she came to hear of the New York Shoe Expo, which she attended last year with funds obtained through the Department of Trade and Industry. “This was a fantastic opportunity to learn from some of the industry’s greats. Some of the exhibitors were companies that had been founded more than 30 years ago, and there was so much knowledge to be gleaned.”
Attending the prestigious international show is one of her career highlights, Samkelisiwe reveals; another is the launch of her CSI arm, which encourages corporates to sponsor school shoes for children in need. The value of this initiative is significant, as learners are severely impacted by the lack of this essential item. Often, they are forced to miss many school days simply because they cannot walk to school in inclement conditions.
As much as Samkelisiwe values the contribution she is able to make through this project, she acknowledges that it brings with it many challenges, such as seeing corporates renege on promises to purchase shoes. But, she says pragmatically, such stumbling blocks are to be expected when you’re growing a business. “This journey has taught me that it takes time and patience to build a brand,” she concludes.
Author: Lisa Witepski