For Katherine-Mary Pichulik, a hugely talented and creative South African entrepreneur and jewellery accessory designer, the inspiration for her work comes from the alchemy of transforming everyday materials through craft, touch and design, and elevating them into something precious and covetable.
Lionesses of Africa caught up with Katherine recently at the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair in Johannesburg and chatted about her entrepreneurial journey and her design philosophy.
Tell us a little about the business and how you got started
My business started just over 2 years ago. I originally studied fine arts here in South Africa and then did an internship at a fine arts magazine in London, and whilst there I needed to earn some money so I went to work in a bakery in Brixton doing the very early morning, 3am shifts. After that, I went travelling and backpacking in Spain and then India, and on my journeys I started to pick up a trousseau of interesting objects. On long train journeys, I began to weave them together into jewellery design pieces just to keep my hands busy. On my return to South Africa I carried on making these pieces, eventually creating a small collection of around six pieces in total. I found that people would want to buy them from me whilst I was wearing them. A friend of mine photographed the collection and it appeared in a very well known blog, and then I was asked to do the accessories for the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Cape Town for a brand called Alesso which is an amazing Kenyan carbon neutral brand, so I did the accessories for them. From there, I have simply been following the demand and my business has exponentially grown as a result. What has been incredible is that this business has grown totally organically, with no seed capital injected into it. What has been the key to that is the fact that my margins are good because my materials are not so expensive - they are unusual materials because I am working with rope, so they are kind of industrial materials.
"The whole ethos of the Pichulik brand is alchemy of transforming everyday materials, and through touch and craft and design, elevating them into something precious and covetable."
Tell us about your team and the philosophy behind your methodology of working
Everything is locally sourced, locally made - I have a beautiful team of women crafters across the African continent that I am training to make my pieces. These women come from all different backgrounds and the whole ethos of the Pichulik brand is the alchemy of transforming everyday materials, and through touch and craft and design, elevating them into something precious and covetable. As a result, the women wearing these pieces are inspired to be courageous and powerful. Also, the women who make the pieces, as a result of their experience of being in an incubator within my team and making the most of the various offerings that I provide for them, they too go through a process of alchemy, change and growth. It is about brave women making bold jewellery for other brave women.
Often in the African craft sector, you have this very disenfranchised backend to front end, where the crafters are not connected to their products, they don't know where they are shown, who the buyers are, and there is no context for what they do. Personally, I don't think this is ethical and it certainly doesn't empower these women crafters or their development, because what it does is actually not cultivate skills development, instead it is maintaining a very specific skills base which these women have little chance of progressing from.
At Pichulik we have a studio in Woodstock, Cape Town in South Africa and we all craft from there. I also have other programmes where our crafters can take home work. In terms of overall development, I also have an education programme for our crafters, so for example, the woman who has been with me the longest currently is undertaking a Business Management Diploma through evening study courses which are paid for by the business. I also provide the women with regular readings which focus on self development and self actualisation. What I am really excited about and what really motivates me is not just this notion of employment, but instead the empowerment of women, and cultivating a real sense of self-esteem and self worth, and a feeling that you really can ascend out of your current personal circumstances.
"The process of just beginning on your entrepreneurial journey is already the first step towards achieving success."
What have been some of the main challenges you have faced on your entrepreneurial journey so far?
The largest challenges relate to cash flow. In the beginning it is fine to grow organically but you do reach a tipping point, especially when you start working with larger retailers. For example, I supply Anthropology in the US. Companies like that work on a 30 to 60 day payment plan, so from your buying materials production to its landed timeline of 60 days, you are looking at a long payment turnaround for your products. So the challenge is how to bridge that gap and that time period - so far, I have personally managed the cash flow, but it is still a challenge.
Also, being in South Africa, there are infrastructural challenges, such as the import of materials. Although we source predominantly locally, there are some items that are not produced locally and we have to import those, around 3% of the total materials required to construct our pieces. But we find it is very difficult to get those products into the country, suppliers are often unreliable, and challenges such as strikes at the Post Office in South Africa also cause problems, because costs quadruple when we have to use alternative courier services. This also affects delivery schedules and impacts on customer expectations. Another challenge is that international markets are often sceptical about purchasing from Africa, raising issues around transportation of products, possible fraud in various countries, etc.
"The minute you set something in motion, the moment you begin, you have this incredible thing where everyone and everything seems to come together to support it, simply because you are pointing a compass and heading towards fulfilling your dream."
What gives you the most satisfaction as a woman entrepreneur in Africa?
My biggest prerogative is redetermining the way that business should be, and using the nature and skills of a woman and making that the imperative. In the process, it makes for a far more communal and sharing space where it is non-competitive and actually embracing. I feel that experiencing this within my studio together with the women who work with me, creates a unique environment of nurturing, caring, sharing, crafting and inspiring. These qualities reveal themselves in the work, and also in the feedback received from my buyers and the women who own my pieces - everyone shares their own personal stories linked to the pieces, because jewellery comes from a lineage of storytelling. Ornamentation in its tribal sense was used for women to share stories, to mark initiations and to pass down wisdom. So I love the idea that both from the backend of my business and the front end, I get to network with a great variety of women and share their stories.
What has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey?
I have received some amazing accolades, such as the Emerging Entrepreneurial Woman of the Year award, which means I have been accepted and acknowledged not only from a design perspective, but also as a businesswoman - the awards adjudication process means they are looking through your books and at your business as a sustainable enterprise. I therefore found this particular award to be quite a nice accolade, particularly as I was able to have my women come to my gala evening, and I was able to stand up there in front of them and share in that moment with them - it was very special. Also, winning the African Fashion International Accessory Designer of the Year in Africa award, and being amongst the most amazing nominees and women whom I really respect. However, the real highlight is the joy I feel in the day-to-day business of knowing that I come into my studio with this awesome team, and see them creating their own designs.
"You also need to stay true to your business vision each day - come to the drawing board daily and continue and persevere until it becomes a reality."
So, what are the future plans for the business?
I have noticed since creating this design space that it has really become about storytelling, and what really does drive my sales and creates this community of women is content. So, we run our Brave Women series online and we document those brave women and pioneers of Pichulik - we work with a South African documentary filmmaker, we use South African music, and we are doing our second instalment in the series now. I also do a lot of collaborations and love the challenge of working in a new material, and working with different groups of people, so we are currently working on some beautiful basket bags with Design Africa using contemporary designs but traditional weaving crafts. All the women who weave these bags are from a township in Dunoon, just outside of Cape Town, and all of them are Sangomas. As a result, all of these incredible stories unravel through these amazing women and translate into the end design products. So, that part of the business is really growing and in turn creating more women entrepreneurs who are able to create these designs from their homes and profit from their efforts directly.
What advice would you give to other aspirant women entrepreneurs?
The minute you set something in motion, the moment you begin, you have this incredible situation where everyone and everything seems to come together to support it, simply because you are pointing a compass and heading towards fulfilling your dream. The process of just beginning on your entrepreneurial journey is already the first step towards achieving success. You also need to stay true to your business vision each day - come back to the drawing board daily and continue and persevere until it becomes a reality. Also, seek out a mentor, get advice and encouragement - if there is someone who inspires you, then contact them and ask them to share their experiences and advice. Women are great at sharing and opening up networks, so make the most of them and ask for help if you need it.
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Why LoA Loves It….
We love Katherine’s design and business philosophy underpinning the development of the Pichulik brand. She is absolutely passionate about women’s empowerment and the creation of a network of women micro-entrepreneurs on the African continent, all creating unique pieces and being acknowledged and rewarded for their efforts. She is taking the best of African women’s craftsmanship and weaving it into a contemporary jewellery and accessory context that appeals to a wide global audience, with a design aesthetic and sensibility that is very much of today. Pichulik is a unique African brand to look out for. --- Melanie Hawken, Lionesses of Africa founder and editor-in-chief