Design conscious consumers across Africa and around the globe will love the highly individual and stunningly beautiful handprinted and illustrated designs and products from South African designer and entrepreneur, Victoria Verbaan. Her uniquely named company, Victoria Verbaan and The Smoking Daxi, is one to look out for on the African design scene.
LoA recently chatted with Victoria and got learn more about her entrepreneurial journey.
Brilliant name for a business, tell us where the inspiration for it came from?
Well, at home we have always had daxis (daschunds) as pets growing up, so I am passionate about them. There is one particularly special guy whose name is Harry, and we have had him for eleven years now - he’s an old man today but still very special with a real spring in his step. When I started the business a few years ago, he was an inspiration and you would often see him appearing in my work, both in my fabric collections and in my wallpaper designs. But, I have moved on from there and the business has evolved over time. I try to keep things fresh, so my work is very different today than when I first started.
Tell us about your business, Victoria Verbaan and the Smoking Daxi, and how you got started.
We started the business back in 2009 and I really wanted to build a brand that was uplifting, a real ‘feel-good’ brand, and personally I love to be able to interpret my artwork which is 2D and turn it into something functional. I originally studied fine art at UCT in Cape Town, and then I later changed direction to specialise in graphic design and art direction. I have always illustrated and have been a freelance illustrator, and I have always dabbled in small business ideas. Even when I was working in advertising and retail, I always had little business ideas such as putting my designs onto t-shirts or handbags and looking to retail them - I also did small ceramics. So, there were all these small stepping stones which I was taking and which eventually led me to take the entrepreneurial design plunge. So, in 2009, my brothers said to me, “You are passionate about textiles, you are passionate about product development, so why not just go for it”. So we decided to launch my product range at the Design Indaba in South Africa in 2009 and the business was launched officially as a result, with my older brother helping me on the marketing side of the business, and my younger brother assisting me on the financial side of things. It is awesome to have them on board, as they are my sounding board, which I need as my creative attitude is very much one of ‘lets just do it’, whereas they encourage me to think things through carefully first. Having started out in business really fast initially, we have since pulled in the reins and today we do things at our own pace and, as a result, we really get things right.
Introduce us to the various collections that are at the heart of your business.
We have fabric collections, wallpaper collections, bags, etc, all hand printed and made in Durban where I am from, except for the silk scarves which are produced in Shanghai as it is really difficult to print onto silk here in this country. The interesting thing is from a design and business perspective, I never know what I am going to be doing next because my philosophy is to really just do what I enjoy doing. However, everything starts with an illustration (the artwork), and from there I interpret it across fabric, where I will tweak it and it will be amazing as a fabric collection. I did an exhibition two years ago in Durban where the organisers very much wanted there to be a Durban theme to the event. So, I used the design motifs of palm trees and monkeys, which are very much of the place, and it turned out brilliantly across both fabric and wallpaper. If I hadn't done that exhibition and been inspired by the theme, then I would never have created that range of fabric and wallpaper.
How did you learn all the specialist skills required to create wallpaper and fabric collections?
Interestingly, my approach is to go with my gut instinct. Over the years, I bought a few books on how to ‘step and repeat’, and watched a few YouTube videos, and I figured out the skills myself. The good thing is that I work really fast and hopefully that also keeps the designs and products really fresh and with a spontaneous quality to them. I still work on a small basis in terms of creating the designs and end-products, and that is because we are a niche design brand. I use small teams of people and predominantly small family-run local factories, and outsource my production to them. We do the sample books to showcase the designs and we have an on-line retail shop. We used to supply retail outlets a few years ago, but since then we decided to take a completely direct retail sales approach to the business. It keeps things more affordable this way.
What have been the main challenges to being an entrepreneur and designer?
Cash flow! This is the biggest struggle. Also, in the design business, you never know what the customer reaction and response is going to be to any individual product you create. It can be extremely disappointing at times. However, I am quite realistic and I am not precious about my work, so if something is not working, then the best approach is simply to move on to something else - another idea, another design concept, another collection. Participating in exhibitions and shows is always a really good test of your creations and designs, as you get to meet directly with the customers and get their reactions at first hand.
Other challenges I have faced include production from a quality perspective and ensuring that those manufacturing my products can delivery on time and to the quality I expect. This has been a struggle over the years, but today, I work with the best of the best. It has taken a five year journey to reach this point, but they now understand me, I understand them, they understand the business, and they know what is expected.
As a successful entrepreneur and designer today, what gives you the most satisfaction?
I love the flexibility that being an entrepreneur gives you. I love being in control of my own life, and being able to take an afternoon off if I want to, although I can’t actually remember when I last took a holiday or didn't work a weekend. But, because I love it so much, and the work is so satisfying, such things don't really matter. I also love the freedom of just being able to put a design, collection or product out there and seeing what happens. For me, as a designer, an artist, and an entrepreneur, this is ideal in my eyes. Also, not being dictated to by anyone else is extremely empowering. Ultimately, I get huge satisfaction from people’s reaction to the product range, that instantaneous response to something I have created. I love to get continuous feedback from people, and I find social media is also another very powerful way of connecting with customers and getting feedback. It gives you the reassurance to know that you are on the right track.
It is interesting, the trend is for people to look for something different in terms of lifestyle and experiences in their lives - they seek out small and interesting shops, tiny cafes with personality, places and things with a personal connection. They also want to feel they are part of something, part of a creative process. People like to come into the studio and sit with me, and see things being made. When we launch a new product line, they like to come in and try it and chat to me about the design and I love that. My studio is very much an open door environment, so I do have a lot of people popping in, and I am about to look at opening a small shop as well. I am in quite a unique set-up called the BelleVue Campus in Natal and it has a trend forecasting institute which does quite a lot of work with international clientele, there is a lovely cafe/restaurant and an art gallery on the Campus, and quite a few small fashion designers, so it is quite a creative hub and a really beautiful and inspirational space. We have also recently started the BelleView market on the last Friday of every month, and all the local designers and entrepreneurs showcase their work - it is a really busy environment with lots of visitors. Because I am not in retail environments, and I like it that way, I think it makes the products more desirable - they are not in the mass market, with every second person wearing or using them. So it means that people have to come to my studio or the market to buy my products and designs.
What has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
I think it is really the international exposure and response, and also being named as “One of 20 Reasons to Visit South Africa” in the prestigious Wallpaper magazine in 2011, which was wonderful. And I think just getting to the point where I feel comfortable in backing the brand, and it has been a process because I am a perfectionist, and I have had to learn that it is important to just get your products and designs out there, regardless if it is 100% perfect or not. It is perhaps one of the hardest lessons to learn for a creative entrepreneur I think.
What are your future plans and aspirations for the business?
I would love to open up my studio as a showroom for small retail and hope to see this happen in early 2015, and then also to look at Johannesburg and Cape Town. Also, because we get enquiries from overseas, for example in London, New York and Australia, I am exploring the possibility of getting some agents on board to represent me in those countries.
What advice would you give to other women entrepreneurs?
Follow your heart, go with your gut, don’t be afraid of a no, just keep going. Remember at all times to remain upbeat, that is my own personal mantra. Because it is difficult, and there are major struggles as an entrepreneur, but if you are passionate about what you do, and you are doing something that you love, then the money eventually comes.
Visit Victoria's website here.
Why LoA loves it….
When we first met Victoria Verbaan at the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair in Johannesburg in November 2014, we were blown away by her beautiful designs and products, which really shone amongst all the exhibits at the event. Victoria’s work shows a real artist and illustrator’s eye and hand, and the results are truly exquisite. Her silk scarves are simply stunning and a real must-have in any discerning woman’s wardrobe. We think Victoria is on her way to big things in the future - watch this space in the coming month. --- Melanie Hawken, LoA founder and editor-in-chief
This post is part of series that celebrates Africa's women designers during the month of February.