Words: Aluwani Ratshiungo
Mpumelelo “Frypan” Mfula is a social entrepreneur best known for curating and selling streetwear and youth culture. Through his online store, RHTC which was founded in 2012, the 27-year-old markets and distributes local streetwear brands.
He also started The Playground, which creates “mobile, multi-functional premium but affordable” furniture.
We spoke to Frypan about moving from an online store to a physical store, the intricacies of being a young black entrepreneur and what the business of selling culture entails.
How’s it going since you opened the physical store?
Frypan: We’ve been open for a few months and it feels like it’s been longer because we’ve been caught up in daily operations. People feel like we’ve been here for longer because of the impact we’ve made in the space and our relevance in the space makes it like we belong there and we should have been there for a longer time. It’s been a lot of learning moving from the online space to a physical space even though I’ve worked in the physical space with and for other brands but it’s been an amazing experience.
Was it not supposed to be a pop-up store?
Frypan: Initially, it was. In my head, I knew what I wanted and I had to introduce the idea to people. Initially, the idea was to introduce people to a collaborative space where RHTC – which is what they know – would coexist with The Playground. The Playground was relatively new, people didn’t know what it was about. Both of them formed that space and the aesthetic of that space which pretty much looks like a playground with the grass, wood, and white elements but still distributes local streetwear. So we had to introduce people to the idea in a very sly way and, you know, getting entry to that space as well is not really the easiest for young black entrepreneurs so we had to find a strategic way to get in. By getting in, showing value, and being undeniable. Going forward was a matter of like ‘you see what we did? Just give us the damn lease!’
So getting a lease was an issue?
Frypan: I mean, getting access to spaces is a challenge, any young black entrepreneur will tell you. You hardly get taken seriously because there’s not much reference of a lot of us being in that space so getting things such as ama lease becomes a challenge and such a far-fetched concept so much that when we got into that space it opened people up to the possibility of having a store there. I think it’s the start of a new era of relevant streetwear brands or entrepreneurs getting into these spaces and giving context where it should have been a long time ago.
How do you go about curating the streetwear brands?
Frypan: Our mission is simple: local streetwear should be uniform for everybody who walks these streets. Literally, every second person you see should be wearing a local brand; it only makes sense. And that is our mission. I don’t think we’ll leave Braam until we fulfil that mission and I think we’re doing a good job so far. I see a lot of kids wearing brands we sell and brands we’re not yet selling but are local which is a good indication. A big part of that is how we make spaces for retail accessible for the brands. We’ve simplified it, cut all the bullshit that goes into the admin of getting into spaces such as these because our idea is to democratise access to markets.
So it’s simple, all people need to do is just come to our store with enough samples to be taken seriously and we take it from there. If they’re not around here then all they need to do is just email their product images and brand bio to email@example.com. It’s that simple.
What about payments?
Frypan: We’re very aware that local brands are small businesses and they need cash flow. We get the stock on consignment and every month we give you a sales report to show how much was sold and how much is left and if it makes sense to you then we deposit the money at the end of the month. So it’s like a salary. We know that they need cash flow so they can get more stock, so it’s that simple as well.
How much do they pay you?
Frypan: There’s a listing fee and that fee is pretty much to give them access to more than just the retail front. I can’t tell you how much it is. That’s open to brands that qualify then we can put greater context into it. That context is pretty much our business model so I can’t tell you much about it until you’re really in it. What I can tell you is, because of the strong brand we’ve built, we’re able to give these brands access to a larger market like a festival they’d normally pay R800 for, like Back To The City. There’s privileges you wouldn’t normally get at a normal retail store. There’s so much value in working with us.
Is the listing fee your only source of revenue?
Frypan: The listing fee just covers primary costs and it’s justified by something so simple. We’re at a prime space and competing with international brands. International brands have a huge profit margin. At times five to ten times more than you would get with a local brand, mind you. So that allows them to cover direct costs in these prime spaces. With us, we’re working with brands that don’t have much to offer compared to ama profit margin wama international brands. For us to exist in that space and for them to strive, we need structures such as listing fees. That’s what our business model is based on. How do we create a sustainable business model around this? What we don’t want is for us to come, create a spark and then we’re gone ‘cause our model was weak.
Has the business improved since you opened the physical store?
Frypan: It’s much better. The online store itself is much better than it used to be. Simply because, I guess, people are thinking ‘okay cool, these guys have a physical store so if I don’t get my stuff I know where to go’. Getting a physical store has helped with that. More sales happen at a physical space but that has promoted more online sales too. And it’s simple, to get content for the online space, things have to happen on the ground. Now that we’re on the ground we’re able to create content for the online space.
So you’re happy?
Frypan: Yeah, we’re happy with where we are but we’re not satisfied.
What else do you want?
Frypan: We need to open more stores. Not for the sake of opening more stores but there’s a need for cultural spaces. ‘Cause that store doesn’t sell clothes…
…it sells culture…
Yeah, and it’s not just something that sounds fancy. We do meet and greets with international designers, workshops, and furniture exhibitions at the store with a musical element. So we’re pretty much a home for all these elements that are drivers of street culture. That’s why we’re saying we sell culture. It’s not a store; I guess it’s a place that sells culture under the guise of a store to sustain it.