Rayana Edwards: I had to figure out a different model

Rayana Edwards fuses culture and clothing to empower women through her business Harem Clothing and her project Sari for Change. Harem Clothing focuses on creating modern modest dressing for women of all ages. Sari for Change trains unemployed women to reproduce new garments from donated saris. Upon completion of the Sari for Change training, the women are encouraged to launch their own businesses. They also continue to receive mentorship and have the opportunity to partner with Harem Clothing. Through both endeavours, Rayana not only dresses women but creates employment opportunities for them.

Rayana aims to promote sustainability within needlecraft and manufacturing industries, and incorporates the ethos of sacred economy into her business and her project. She is currently exploring the concept and process of township economies, which she is excited about  introducing all over Africa.

I caught up with the South Africa-based entrepreneur and life coach via email to talk about her work.

Tell us about yourself

I am a mother to 5 daughters ranging from age 6 to 26. I have this absolute love affair with culture and travel. My fashion story started when I was living in Kenya; I was so inspired by the raw talent there.

People were curious about me and my sense of style, as I often fused items from various cultures. I could wear a scarf from Ethiopia, sandals from Kenya, and a jalabar from Morocco, and blend it all in a way that made it effortlessly stylish and interesting.

This was not new to me as being from Cape Town, we enjoy a heritage of rich cultures fusing into each other. I would travel and often shop for 20 different people, working with endless lists. Soon, I opened my first boutique in Westlands, Nairobi called Cape Connections.

Tell us a bit more about Harem Clothing – what is it and why did you decide to start it?

Harem Clothing literally means a sacred space for women. I started Harem Clothing in Johannesburg after having my last and most unplanned daughter. I was studying for my life coaching diploma while waiting for her to arrive, and really became so obsessed with our inner realities.

Questions like: why the need for retail therapy? what makes us happy? and why are we here? seemed to be topmost on my mind. This journey allowed me to give birth to Harem. I needed a space where I could dress women but also give them the tools to feel good inside.

Harem was that space where you could come in for floaty feminine clothing, coaching on the self and emotions, and a bit of culture in terms of décor and artifacts that I sourced on my many travels globally.

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What steps did you take in starting Harem Clothing – in terms of fundraising, production, marketing and distribution strategies?

Harem was 100% self-funded. I sold my property and the proceeds of the sale allowed me to start Harem.

Most of the production was sourced in India and Vietnam at the time, and I focused on a niche market, namely modern modest.

Starting out as an entrepreneur is difficult. You are faced with challenges ranging from breaking into the market to having a constant stream of revenue. What key challenges did you face when you started out, and how did you deal with them?

When sourcing stock, the bulk of your money lies in what does not sell as eventually it ends up on a sale rail at cost price. The biggest challenge was making purchases based on clients needs.

It so easy to get distracted by a ‘must have’ only to find out it might not be appropriate for your client. The point here is to know your clients and their needs really well.

As a serial entrepreneur who has also failed, I learnt to build and improve and always redefine by going back to the drawing board. Looking back now, I see it all as a stepping-stone and preparation to start digging into the more meaningful and relevant issues we are challenged by today.

What kept you going in those early days?

Exactly on the point above. I literally personalized each purchase overseas as I knew it had to be sold the minute it landed. Once the stock arrived, it was the greatest joy to see the correct design to client matches.

I am also blessed to have a very supportive family, and my daughter Mishka, shortened her gap year overseas to assist in the business. She has been one of my first mentees and today she owns a successful store catering to her age group called Me and You Clothing Boutique.

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when Harem Clothing was starting out?

Financial planning was my weakness at the time so I would often ignore what I least liked. I now know to work on converting a weakness to a strength.

I also have an exercise I do with everything, and that is the SWOT analysis. What are the strengths, where are the weaknesses, and I identify the opportunities and threats.

You are also the founder of Sari for Change, what inspired this project?

I started to source production locally and realized what a difficult process it was both in terms of skill and costs of fabric. I am a very tactile person and my idea of having fun is to be able to walk through a fabric store or market, and feel and smell the fabric.

This was mainly how I learnt fabrics in the early days. With a sari, I realized there was all of 6 metres that could be used for fabulous garments as saris came in rich colours and silks, crepes and satins.

As entrepreneurs, we are very close to our businesses and the business depicts what we are feeling. For me, it was about giving back, and wanting to work with women who mattered around me.

Paying homage to an old adage…charity begins at home. With this is mind, I had to now had to figure out a model. I believe you have to do something different for a different result.

Sari for Change newspapers
Sari for Change newspaper bags

How do you select the women that participate in it?

They must be motivated and aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Passion and commitment are the qualities we look for and they must really want the change for themselves, holistically.

I surround myself with women that understand that we are more process driven than outcome-based. Selection processes normally start with a creative workshop I call “tapping into the inner creativity.” It is an all day workshop with many processes systematically in place that allows someone to really hone in on all of their senses.

What kind of support in terms of training, design, equipment, production and marketing, do you offer the women when they join Sari for Change and after they start their own businesses ?

They are able to train or continue their internship with Harem. Once they start up on their own, we ensure they become one of our suppliers in production. Basically, we try to create a diverse structure in sourcing for every part of needlecraft.

We further expose them to our networks and allow them to scale their products to market. We also raise funds for equipment needed as a startup. Our intern fashion designer assists in the patternmaking processes.

They are expected to come up with their own marketing plan which we then support. I often profile them on our networks and social media pages.

Afro Amour, A Sari for Change partner
Afro Amour, A Sari for Change partner

What difficulties have you have faced in the Sari for Change journey? How have you tackled them?

The difficulties were mainly with funding or the lack thereof. However, after a bit of self-funding and many attempts at crowdfunding, the value came when I started working with good networks.

For instance, The Art of Living initially endorsed our project as a charity or service project. This means that their members were able to donate these saris and allow for unemployed women to get skills.

I am a director of Meaningful Change, an NPO that focuses on bridging the gaps in society. This collaboration was needed to ensure that Sari for Change became a reality.

You are working towards building a model within the needlecraft industry that aims for sustainability. You had mentioned that Sari for Change speaks to this. Could you tell us about this?

Sustainability in this sense means increasing the capacity and well-being of the people and communities behind fashion. The first concern was around women traveling far distances, leaving their homes at very early hours, to get to their workplace; transport costs would be where the bigger part of their wages would go to, and the infringement on the family and quality of life is huge.

Thus, we started the township economy and encourage our entrepreneurs-in-training to open up businesses nearer to where they stay. We also provide a meal to our trainees as we realize that most of them would come to work hungry.

We encourage them to make clothing for themselves first as this gives them a better sense of what they are producing. The main vision though, is for us to be significant contributors in this industry and for the women to be able to pay it forward in both skill and entrepreneurship learning.

Could you please tell us what a sacred economy is?

A sacred economy is where you have like-minded people supporting a common purpose. We all do our part in ensuring we all succeed. It’s not about accumulation of wealth but rather sharing in it, and ensuring that we are building a community of ambassadors for each other.

Sacred is anything that is of God, and we are working with our talents and creativity which is God-given.

How have you been able to incorporate the ethos of a sacred economy into Sari for Change?

One of our fashion designers is currently on a UN youth leadership programme. The seamstress she employs is filling in for her so we ensure that she is able to understand what is done on a production line.

We share the learning and when we outsource our bigger orders, it goes right back to our entrepreneurs. When there is an urgent need amongst our mentees, we rally together to ensure a solution. We recognize each other as a resource and work together.

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The women of Siri for Change

How does Harem Clothing fit into this economy?

My own modest modern line is produced in-house but most importantly, each entrepreneur has a chance to work and produce for Harem. Our new website will include all entrepreneurs and Harem will become the central online marketing platform.

They also have the opportunity to work at Harem exhibitions, events and stores, and are often left to their own design and direction.

What steps can aspiring and current entrepreneurs take in order to contribute to a sacred economy?

Share resources or space – often this is the biggest challenge. Consider the power of collaborations. Promote each other and talk about your products on social media. Buy local and appreciate the products being made.

The African narrative is so essential at this level as our focus is on slow fashion rather than mass-produced goods that are continuously dumped in Africa, enslaving yet more consumers.

Become conscious of who made your clothes and what their conditions were. Surround yourself with like-minded people and form little groups of interest.

You had said that you are currently exploring a township economy. Could you please define what that means? What does it entail?

By township economy, I refer to a need that is filled by a community-based enterprise. At present, we have street vending, taverns, spaza shops, hair salons and child-minding. The closest to what we do would be the traditional tailoring shop.

In South Africa, we have huge shopping malls which have also crept into our townships – Maponya Mall, Cosmo City Mall – to name a few. They have seen the gap and yet entrepreneurship has been alive in our townships forever.

Why are we not offering new solutions? If we are able to shift consciousness to support each other in business, we can be part of building each others businesses to this level.

So we encourage entrepreneurs to start producing what they sell and to build a better capital base within their own communities. My challenge to our boutique owners in Cosmo City is – if there are 40,000 women living in this area and should 1000 of them spend R50 each month at your store, that means a turnover of R50000?

What do you need to do? It’s as simple as this – you can achieve sustainability and profitability with a good plan as the masses are based in the townships.

How can entrepreneurs and people invested in empowering women, in particular, contribute to this?

I would really like for this grow out of South Africa and would love to hear from fashion designers and creatives in this industry to start up more groups in Africa.

A synergy between entrepreneurship, emotional wellness, and skill development is needed. We need to develop key partnerships that ensure holistic growth from the ground up.

What is your ultimate vision for both Harem Clothing and Sari for Change?

For Harem Clothing, our vision is to be able to mentor and coach more women into sustainable and profitable businesses, and to collectively build a proudly African brand that depicts all of our cultures and diversity, creating an identity that we are proud of.

At Sari for Change, the notion of creating beautiful garments, accessories and décor items made from recyclable elements becomes a stronger reality in a consumer-driven world. We also have a vision of seeing our products in European and American markets, rather than stripping ourselves of our creative talent by buying secondhand garments from them.

Let’s reverse it! So right now our store in the township of Cosmo City is busy producing a kaftan range using the saris for a new online store in Gothenburg, Sweden. Our ultimate vision here is to replicate our township model throughout Africa.

Lastly, where can our readers find Harem Clothing and Sari for Change products?

On our new website. We are also in stores in Naivasha Avenue, Cosmo City; Northcliff Corner Shopping Centre, Johannesburg; and Ravats Persian Carpet Gallery, Pretoria.

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