Africa Dispatches: Butan and the gutsy art of brand-building
by Mandy de Waal (@mandyldewaal) Converse. Levi’s. Nike. How do you build an African brand without major cred in a competitive consumer sector that’s besieged by international heavyweights with lank budget? Ask Julian Kubel of Butan, and his answer will be part sweat and some tears, a touch of naivety and unlimited guts. Kubel’s been building the Butan Wear brand in the South Africa’s fashion sector since early 2006, but his decade of struggle is only beginning to pay off now.
Kubel has been asked to showcase Butan at Agenda New York City, a tradeshow in the heart of Manhattan that presents street, surf, skate and lifestyle cultures — and the brands that represent these — to buyers for the European and US fashion markets.
“Business is now snowballing”
“We’ve also moved into stores in Windhoek in Namibia and Gaborone in Botswana,” says Kubel in a telephonic interview with MarkLives.com. “The past few years have been difficult, but now business is snowballing. I’ve put in the hard work and the brand is now gaining real traction.”
Butan Wear is a brand that’s all about South Africans crafting their own identity. A fashion label that self-identifies as being “entrenched in the urban lifestyle and vibrant underground culture of South Africa’s streets”, what’s key to this brand’s identity is its inventive approach to fashion. It produces highly concept-driven designs that epitomise SA’s cosmopolitan roots.
Its success is due to it being a strong local and African brand. An anagram of the word Bantu — from the Zulu word ‘abantu’ that means ‘people’ — Butan is all about reclaiming what’s been lost to history and re-owning it. “Butan is about owning our history. About honouring past traditions but giving them new meaning,” Kubel explains.
“This is an African brand”
“The Butan designs take a lot from SA culture and tradition, but repackage this in a modern way in terms of streetwear. This is an African brand and our garments speak to our experience of living in this country. In the old days, local fashion used to take a lot of reference from the US. It was all about creating a cheap imitation of what already existed in the west.
“But now we take pride in our own traditions and create signature garments that speak to the experience of living in the complexity that is Africa, and understanding the depth and complexity of what it is to be South African.”
Butan Wear is a tangible expression of today’s zeitgeist. It speaks to a younger generation that is ambitious, individual, influential, relevant and continually reinventing itself. It is currently the label preferred by the who’s who of SA’s Hip Hop and electro-street culture scene, people such as Proverb, Kwesta, Slikour and Driemanskap.
But seven years ago, Kubel almost lost it all. “In 2008, I nearly went bust when the financial crisis took hold. In 2007, the brand was doing well and I didn’t anticipate a slump in the economy. I took all the money that I had made from selling Butan Wear, and invested it in fabric. But, when the downturn came, things changed,” he says.
Not formally trained
The stores Kubel placed his urban lifestyle gear in weren’t performing and his cash flow slowed to non-existent. “Stores were paying me slower and I wasn’t geared up for this,” admits Kubel, who wasn’t formally trained in business or fashion.
Kubel had studied mechanical engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT) but was already an entrepreneur by the time he got there. At school, he’d started a small business printing branded T-shirts, which exposed him to the basic ins and outs of the garment trade. Before he knew it, he was making T-shirts for UCT Radio, faculties and residences, and eventually he got a contract with UCT to produce the university’s ‘official’ T-shirts.
After varsity, he started the Butan brand as a pet project, but he only managed to break through in the fashion sector when he moved cities. “I struggled in Cape Town because I seemed to have reached a ceiling in terms of the market.” In 2010, Kubel packed his bags and moved to Jozi, where he was exposed to a bigger market and more-lucrative deals.
Retailer changed its strategy
His first deal with a sports fashion and lifestyle retailer was so big he had to bring on equity partners. But, despite their contract, the retailer changed its strategy and asked Kubel to uplift R400 000 worth of stock just before the festive season.
“I nearly threw in the towel. At the point when I had made a major breakthrough with Butan, I was disappointed again. But, within a week of receiving the bad news, I was determined to make it work,” he says.
Kubel decided not to litigate, but to find a new retail partner. A few days later, he struck a deal with Shesha stores, a clothing retailer with outlets in enviable locations such as Melrose Arch, Canal Walk and Rosebank selling limited-edition street-style sneakers and apparel. This meant Butan would be placed alongside top international brands such as Nike, Converse, Guess and Alpha, the makers of sought-after military-styled jackets.
“Within a week of facing failure I found a solution that wouldn’t tie us up in court or hurt the brand. I had a new retail partner, and not just any partner, but exactly the right people for our brand,” Kubel says.
Effort paid off
The effort paid off and Butan performed so well that Kubel now delivers not just to one but to all eight of Shesha’s outlets. In total, Butan is available in 20 fashion retailers countrywide and is stocked by online clothing store, Spree. Then there’s Namibia, Botswana, and who knows what will happen in New York.
Take a look at Butan’s Instagram account and you’ll get a strong sense of its relevance, design aesthetic and visual narrative. This is a brand born of struggle, that’s grown up with its people, that lives in the hoods, the clubs — and is now a part of that space where cultural icons are made.
Mandy de Waal is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow her on Twitter at @mandyldewaal or email her at MandyLdeWaal [@] gmail.com.
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