There is something wonderfully evocative about wandering through Lisa Ackroyd’s incredible Johannesburg-based Colony store and studio, and seeing at first-hand the most beautiful and meticulously hand-crafted leather accessories being made. The sights, sounds and smells of leather being hand-worked by Lisa and her dedicated team of craftspeople, all of whom have been trained by her, are truly memorable.
Lisa Ackroyd established Colony Design in 2012 as a leather design label rooted in her unbridled desire to create a hand-crafted leather and canvas collection. This passionate maker and crafter marries traditional leather materials and craftsmanship with contemporary design to produce products that are both beautiful and highly functional.
LoA spent a great morning with Lisa at her store and manufacturing studio this month to find out more about the creation and building of the Colony brand.
"With every new range we produce, we look at new techniques that can be learned through the new designs, which means it is an ongoing training and development programme for the Colony craftspeople."
Tell us a little about your entrepreneurial journey
It all started when I was studying at TUKS University in Pretoria and I finished my degree in Quantity Surveying with Honours. In my final year of quantity surveying, I realised that what I really wanted to do was to realise my dream of having my own company, and that if I went into a career in quantity surveying, it would take me years to achieve that dream. So in 2011, I decided to do a short course in leatherwork whilst on holiday, because I have always had a real love of leather. I was taught by a master leather craftsman from the Western Cape, learning how to make accessories such as a travel bag, a belt, a wallet, and that was where my entrepreneurial journey started. I took a decision to give it six months to learn my craft, and started to make small leather items, in the first instance for family and friends, just getting my hand/eye coordination right and putting the essential leather crafting skills in place. Once I had completed my degree, my decision was made, I knew I wanted to start my own business.
It was quite daunting at first because I didn’t have any startup capital, so I set up a studio in my home, I sold some of my personal things, raised some money in order to buy the leather to work with, made and sold those products reinvesting the money in more leather, and took a really bootstrapping approach to starting my business. I told myself I would give it a year and see if the business would grow and move in the right direction. I started with just myself working in the business and making all the pieces, but after a year, I employed someone to work with me. From that point onwards, I developed the whole brand identity of Colony and launched the brand formally in 2012, although we only properly launched our first product range in 2013. The first year in business was spent working on the designs, setting up the supplier networks, and the business infrastructure, etc.
"We try and source as much of our material as possible from South Africa, and we work with local suppliers to custom-make the leather and other materials we need."
What type of things did you produce for your first range of products under the Colony brand?
I wanted to have a range of ten products that would cover all the different aspects of manufacturing, starting with the smallest items such as wallets and belts, through to handbags, totes, and travel bags. The idea was to have a wide range of products that could cater to as many different clients as possible. The first Colony range was really a testing phase to see what clients were interested in, what products sold the fastest from the range, and what products would need to be adjusted or changed in terms of design or functionality to appeal to customers. Today, we have our second Colony range launched.
How did you market your products in the early days without a retail store?
I started the Colony website in 2013 and I had an official launch here at 44 Stanley Avenue, inviting a lot of people from the media to come and see the products and to generate some coverage for the Colony brand. During my first year in business, I didn’t do any direct marketing, it was all word-of-mouth. Obviously at that time, we couldn’t produce our products at high-speed as they were all hand-made, so for the first year we were busy all the time, just myself and my other craftsperson. At that point, we were still learning and gaining experience in our craft. However, in June 2014 we opened our Colony store here at 44 Stanley Avenue in Johannesburg, a place I have always loved. In fact, when I first started the business, I thought that if I could have a shop here, I would be so happy. The landlord of 44 Stanley Avenue was at my launch event and he told me about a space opening up and asked me if I would be interested in opening up my shop here. It was perfect for us because I could have the shop downstairs and the workshop upstairs - it’s great because clients love to see what we do at Colony, and how we do it. I encourage visitors to go up into the workshop and see the products being crafted, as it is not something they would normally see, and they love the experience. We show them how we do the hand-stitching which is an interesting process, and how a bag is actually put together - it is a great way of them engaging with the product and the brand. When I get involved in custom projects, I like to include the client as far as possible and let them be a part of the product as well, and I really enjoy that process. These days, I don’t do as much custom work as I used to, because our focus is on designing and producing our own Colony range.
"Everything is hand-made in our workshop here in Johannesburg by myself and my team of four craftspeople."
So, what makes a Colony product unique?
What I would say is that with our products we do a lot of field testing before we put them out into the market. So, with our latest range, we have had more time to do our field testing, to look particularly at the functionality of our products. For example, we appreciate that our bags should not only be beautiful to look at, but they also have to be practical, highly functional, and last a lifetime. As a result of our field testing, we changed some of our designs in our last range. At the moment, we are working on a brand new Colony range which is due to be launched in June this year, and which will include a lot of new products, such as camera accessories, more laptop bags, and some new handbags. We are also going to be using some wonderful canvas in our range this time.
In terms of raw materials, we try and source as much of our material as possible from South Africa, and we work with local suppliers to custom-make the leather and other materials we need. Ultimately though, everything is hand-made in our workshop here in Johannesburg by myself and my team of four craftspeople. In fact, with every new range we produce, we look at new techniques that can be learned through the new designs, which means it is an ongoing training and development programme for the Colony craftspeople. The wonderful thing is that we have the same team today as when we started. Actually, it is rare to find specialist leather craftspeople in South Africa as it is not a big industry in this country. In fact, the people I have employed did not have any previous experience when they joined the company, they have been taught their specialist skills during their time with the company, and whatever skills I have learned, I have passed on to them. It is an ongoing process and I continually do research into different manufacturing processes to see how we can improve as a team.
What have been the main challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur?
For me, the main challenge was in finding the right employees for the business, and it was a struggle in the early days to find people as motivated as I am, and willing to put the extra hours in when needed and be passionate about what they do. The next challenge for me personally, seeing that I am the only person actually running the business, is balancing the manufacturing and design with the back-end strategy of the business, the marketing, etc. There is a very fine line between the two things and you have to balance them out perfectly. It is difficult because I tend to want to focus more on the design side of the business, which I love. Going forward, I am looking to get more people involved in the marketing and other management aspects of the business.
"We want to look at fulfilling larger contracts in the future, so to be able to supply at that larger rate, we have to ramp up our manufacturing and expand."
What are your future aspirations for your business and the Colony brand?
The main aim for the next few years is to start exporting a lot more. We have done a lot of private exports but nothing large-scale. So, we are now working on getting our production to a point where we can sign a contract with an international retailer, ensuring that we can produce at a rate that they require. We are looking to get all that perfectly in place, with an eye on future exports to countries such as Belgium, Netherlands and Germany in Europe, and also the USA, where we have contacts. We will start with those four countries, and then move outwards from there at a later stage. With that in mind, we are currently looking to get a new factory here in Johannesburg in the next three months where we can install all our machines and increase our production - we are also looking to employ more people. We will be starting the interview process within the next few weeks. The challenge is that we cannot keep up with the demand for our products at the moment, and we want to look at fulfilling larger contracts in the future, so to be able to supply at that larger rate, we have to ramp up our manufacturing and expand.
What piece of entrepreneurial advice would you give to other women looking to startup in business?
If you are at the point of deciding that you want to start your own business, you need to make sure that you have 100% passion for whatever you are doing. You may have the initial interest in becoming an entrepreneur and the money to startup, but it will not work unless you are 100% passionate about what you are doing. It is also an essential factor needed to address all the challenges that you are going to face, and ensure the longevity of your business. It is also essential to have the right support, the right people surrounding you, good advisors and mentors to point you in the right direction.
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Why LoA loves it....
There is something really special about going into a talented craftperson’s studio and seeing them at work in those wonderfully creative and inspirational surroundings. Entering the world of Colony Design and meeting Lisa Ackroyd and her team, busy crafting their beautiful leather products above their fabulous shop in 44 Stanley Avenue, Johannesburg, is truly inspirational. We especially love the fabulous, big leather travel bags which inspire you to immediately embark on a travel adventure across Africa and beyond. Get ready Europe and the USA, you will soon be able to experience the beautiful and uniquely African Colony bags and accessories for yourselves. --- Melanie Hawken, Lionesses of Africa founder and editor-in-chief