| Tokelo Motsepe

Lalesso | #behindthebrand

Olivia Kennaway, born and raised in Kenya, came to Cape Town to study fashion, which is where she befriended Alice Heusser, not knowing how that would mark the start of something more than just a friendship. Read on to discover Olivia's more than 10 year long journey with luxury African fashion and lifestyle brand LaLesso.


Q. What inspired the start of Lalesso and how did it come about?

A. I came here [to Cape Town] to study over 10 years ago, which is where Alice and I met. She came to visit me back in Kenya one school holiday and we were visiting Lamu [small town in northern Kenya] and came across some beautiful kanga's, which inspired the idea of making skirts from the beautiful kanga's, initially for ourselves; but when we saw how people took notice of them when we wore them, we thought to just make and sell them. We found a Tanzanian tailor in Observatory, who understood the kanga's and helped us make hundreds of these skirts, which we sold and were kind of winging it throughout our studies.

As we wrapped our studies we grappled the decision of having to find a job or pursue this new venture, and a pivotal encounter with the Ethical Fashion Council from the UK in one of my last few lectures and after their talk on what ethical & sustainable fashion was and the shift from cheap Chinese imports to more conscious & sustainable production, which really shaped my outlook on a lot from then. I went on to move back home [to Kenya] after school and there were always these two ladies that worked in sewing across from my parents home back then and I asked if they would like to come and work for me and they were happy to. In about two or three years we went from a team of two to seventeen, all working out of my parents garage.

At that point I had moved over to London to market the brand there. In the first year that I'd moved there, I'd completely missed the buying season by 6months and was so oblivious to it cause I had no idea what a buying season was, but somehow through perseverance we managed to get a concession stand in Topshop in Oxford Circus in the flagship store for like 3 years.

Those early years were very different who we are now, it's been an evolutionary journey.


Q. What did you study? 
A. I studied fashion design at Cape Tech (now CPUT).
Q. How did you come about the name Lalesso? 
A. The well-known kanga is really a nickname, it's proper name is Lalesso and I grew up with this fabric being a part of my life. It is also the fabric that inspired us to make those initial skirts all those years ago, which lead to the starting of of the brand; so it was only fitting. And though we don't really use it as the main fabric in our ranges, it still serves as inspiration for some of our prints, with its vibrancy continuing to be so inspiring to me throughout life.

Q. What do you believe sets your brand apart and makes it different?
A. It's a combination of factors, namely our prints which are synonymous with the brand, our summer-centric feeling and our sustainability, not just social impact but also the environmental impact; and not just doing it ourselves but also raising awareness through doing It, so it might inspire others - those are the three things that come together to set Lalesso apart.
Q. What would you say has been your greatest achievement since launching the brand?

A. When I moved back to Kenya from London, I really felt I was spread too thinly between managing the production of the brand, as well as handling the marketing; so I looked at outsourcing the production, but the team I had built up had become quite skilled and I didn't want to just abandon them. I had gotten quite involved with the Ethical Fashion scene in London and pioneering that and was aware of the demand for ethical manufacturers; through that I was able to facilitate my team being apart of the foundation of what is today known as Soko Kenya and they do so much more now, producing hundreds of jobs and upskilling communities and it feels awesome to have been able to be apart of that; it makes it all that much more meaningful.

And we stock a really big department store called Holt Renfrew (a high-end department store in Canada) and are required to package our products in plastic bags as a wholesaler and I managed to find biodegradable plastic bags for us to use [wanting to minimise out impact on the environment]. I sent our samples over to Holt Renfrew when we were doing our marketing and they inquired about the biodegradable bags we used and went on to implement it across all their suppliers, that all products be packaged in this biodegradable bags from then onwards. I was overwhelmed when they let us know, to think this little brand from South Africa is influencing their packaging solutions.


Q. What was most challenging in starting up the brand? And how did you overcome that?
A. Cash flow. We were very young when we started and the fashion design course I did gave me a tiny bit of business training and not enough to really guide one through actually starting a business. When starting out it's easy to get caught in the excitement of getting large orders, producing and not knowing how to juggle the different variables that come with that. And we overcame each hurdle differently, but negotiating better payment terms with suppliers was one that was vital.
Which African brand(s) would you want to collaborate with in future?
A winter capsule with Maxhosa by Laduma has always been a pipe dream, we have yet to do something for winter and would be amazing.
Q. Where would you like to see your brand in 5 or 10years?
A. I would like to see Lalesso establish itself as an African resortwear label with a global contemporary appeal. I look forward to creating african summer homes in different countries, in LA, Accra, etc. Spreading the african summer love everywhere by growing our retail presence.
Q. How do you balance your work and personal life?

A. I just moved onto this office space about a week ago and before that I was working from home and that was a lot more challenging, cause 5 'o clock coming means nothing and now at 5pm I wrap up and head home and turn off. With that said, feel my work shouldn't be something I resent or feel like it's a chore, I really love it. I walk my dog every morning on the mountain and use that time to open my mind up, think of new ideas and be creative.

There does seem to be a bit of a blurred line between the two, but I don't really mind that. I love my job enough to let it infiltrate my personal life.


Any words of wisdom for anyone looking to start up their own brand?

Have a plan. Know who your customer is, that can keep your from straying and getting distracted and end up barking up the wrong tree; make sure you understand your market. And plans can change, you don't have to stick to It, but it does offer a good framework for what you want to achieve.

For more on Lalesso - https://www.lalesso.com