Sunday Tribune: Enterprising pair make it big in smalls

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Entrepreneurs Nick Stein and Richard Frankel have taken undies to a new level by bringing popular Australian eco-brand Boody to South Africa, writes Shirley le Guern.

Boody, launched in October 2015 in a few independent health shops and six Dis-Chem stores, has put a whole new spin on smalls. After all, who would have thought of buying underwear made from bamboo or even considered purchasing their knickers and babywear from a pharmacy instead of an upmarket department store or boutique?

The answer is Mount Edgecombe-based entrepreneurs Nick Stein and Richard Frankel, who took undies took undies to a new level when they brought the popular Australian eco-brand Boody to South Africa two years ago. They already had two established businesses. One was Girly Things, which supplies lingerie and sleepwear under private label to major retail chains such as Woolworths and Miladys.

The pair’s entrepreneurial journey began with a decision to return to South Africa in 2005 after a five-year stint in Australia. Instead of taking on the job market, they decided to pool their complementary skills to launch their own business. Frankel, who managed production for Australian lingerie and sleepwear company Gazal, had extensive experience in the apparel and lingerie business. Stein, who had worked in the banking and financial consulting sector and was human resources director for a large American IT that operated in Australia and across 13 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, had the finance, logistics and business skills. ‘’That’s why we work so well together. We don’t step on each other’s toes. Richard oversees the design, product and sales side and I am on the finance and logistics side,’’ Stein says.

A third Australian partner, Herschel Aronstan, also came on board, adding to the mix his 35 years of experience as the owner of a large sleepwear factory in Cape Town. The partners started out with ‘’arecce’’ to South Africa in late 2004. The timing couldn’t have been better. Local clothing production was in a major decline, especially when it came to lingerie, and retailers were increasingly sourcing product from abroad. Their business partners’ connections opened the door to Woolworths. Frankel’s experience in producing Gazal’s designs in China, where technology and fabrics were ‘’far superior’’, proved invaluable.

Having settled in Durban, they stared working from the spare bedroom of their Berea flat with little more than a trestle table and plenty of passion. They admit that there were challenges. These include raising the funding to pay for large orders upfront and managing the import quotas on Chinese goods. ‘’The success of our business has been not thinking that a challenge spells the end. We looked for better solutions and what we could do to adapt,’’ says Frankel. Another even bigger problem was the unpredictable currency fluctuations which hit hard in 2009 with the global recession.

The launch of their second business, Boody, was another ploy to both adapt and spread risk. With many retailers dealing directly with the Chinese to eliminate the middleman and bring down prices, they were on the lookout for a related opportunity that did not compete with their existing business or those of their customers. They discovered Boody about three years ago. ‘’We travel back there every year and keep tabs on what is going on in this market,’’ says Frankel. ‘’Our partner in Australia saw this brand starting to become more prominent and told us about it. We approached the owners in Australia.’’ Boody was launched locally in 2015 with a range of adult basics, undies and socks. Dis-Chem was looking to expand its organic offering and Boody opened up a whole new product category.

From the original six stores, the have now grown the Boody distribution network from 17 outlets a year ago to over 100 today. They have also just introduced a Boody babywear range and are about to launch in 10 stores in Mauritius. The reason for this success, according to Stein and Frankel, is that consumers are shying away from synthetics and gravitating towards natural textiles.

Distinct Brand

Even though South Africa lags behind international trends, demand for fabrics that are both skin and eco-friendly is gathering momentum. ‘’What really attracted us was that there was nothing like this product here. It had a story to tell, said Stein. ‘’It’s not just another underwear and clothing range. ‘’We started to talk to the Australians about a year before we got into stores. It took a bit of time to map out how it would work. ‘’We felt that, as a completely new and distinct brand that needed to find credibility in the market, we needed to identify a pharmacy group that would be our reference point.’’ It also came with another first – a display stand made from recycled car parts that accommodates a full range of 286 pieces as well as a guide to health benefits.

Retailers are coming round to the idea that, because bamboo clothing helps in managing conditions such as eczema and thrush, it is also a perfect complementary product category in the healthy living/healthy environment niche market. Boody clothing is made from fabric created from organically grown bamboo fibre and is hypo-allergenic, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal as well as ultra-absorbent. Moisture wicking properties pull sweat away from the skin to avoid irritation, making it perfect for the hot South African climate. Bamboo is sustainable, it requires no pesticides and relies only on rainwater to grow. With this comes a far more discerning customer, though. ‘’We were pleasantly surprised at the market that already existed in South Africa. It’s a very loyal and well educated one. ‘’We field a lot of queries and it is quite interesting to see what customers want to know. There’s no pulling the bamboo over their eyes,’’ says Frankel.

Boody is not the only clothing containing bamboo out there, but Stein says the differentiator is its Ecocert certification, which vouches for organic, sustainable growing and ethical manufacturing processes. ‘’We decided that we needed to establish Boody as a brand within South Africa over a longer period before we introduced a new category such as babywear. ‘’ We also wanted to wait and learn a few lessons from the Australians and see what worked and what didn’t,’’ he says. New ranges are also in the pipeline. With some consumers already using Boody for low-impact exercise, the logical next step has been to launch Boody Body, a range of functional gym wear. A sleepwear range – Boody Bed – is expected to follow in 2018.

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