Growing up in Soweto as the child of divorced factory workers, street-wear brand Thesis Lifestyle co-founder Wandile Zondo’s dream was to study computer engineering. His marks were good, but there was no money for tertiary studies when he finished school in 2000, so he took the opportunity to join Edgars in an entry-level position.
The young Zondo spent his lunch hours in CNA, reading books and magazines on business and self-improvement and voraciously soaking up knowledge. His cousin, a mentor, explained his destiny did not have to depend on his education, but on how he shaped his financial future.
Zondo and his friends were into street culture and music. “We would buy second-hand clothes, change them around and sell them as street wear,” he says. He was also “under the wing of the late Wandi [Nzimande, co-founder of famous streetwear and lifestyle brand Loxion Kulca] for a long time”.
“One day, we were chilling at the taxi rank, and this guy said he had to go and submit his thesis at Wits. He explained to us what a thesis is – this idea that it captures the thoughts of the author in an authoritative way – and that’s when we decided to call our brand Thesis.”
A brand is born
Thesis Lifestyle was registered in 2005. Zondo, who was still working at Edgars, drew up a business plan using a template from the internet and presented it to his cousin, who – along with another cousin – helped with funding (the rest of the capital came from Zondo’s two “maxed-out” credit cards).
“We started creating clothes.”
The next dream was to start a shop and on Youth Day, 16 June 2007, Thesis Lifestyle opened its doors in the premises of an old record store in Mofolo, Soweto. It took “seven to eight years” before he took a paycheque, Zondo laughs.
Today, the small business employs 10 full-time staff and contracts several small suppliers, including fashion designers, photographers and a graphic designer, on retainer. Two more outlets have been opened: in Orlando and Protea Glen.
Thesis also has a successful online store – thanks, says Zondo, to its inclusion in Hollard’s innovative Big Ads for Small Business campaign. In 2021, the insurer shared its advertising space – such as billboards, street poles, print and digital media – with deserving SMMEs to help them thrive in tough times.
The free exposure has translated into growth, specifically with the online store, says Zondo. “When people see you featured on a billboard in Alberton, that’s a real call to action.”
Big Ads for Small Business, he says, was “the plug” that helped to “switch on” Thesis Lifestyle, and exposed it to different markets. An introduction by Hollard has also led to discussions around new opportunities with the Edcon retail group.
The campaign provided a big boost, and Thesis survived Covid-19. But last year’s July riots hit hard. “The economy has taken a huge beating. With people losing jobs, why would they spend money on a T-shirt or a hat?” says Zondo.
Thesis is “rooted in the township”, with a focus on “positive lifestyles” and social impact, says Zondo, who loves the outdoors.
Speaking of its “communities” rather than its “customers”, the brand incorporates cycling and running communities, promotes food gardens, and invests in initiatives such as running and music events.
Creative director Galebowe Mahlatsi drives design, but Thesis also provides a stepping-stone for young designers.
With an average price point of around R250, Thesis is known for its cool T-shirts, sneakers, socks, beanies and more, but, particularly, for its bucket hats. “We designed our own, unique shape that has never existed before. If there’s one constant in the brand, it’s our willingness to take the everyday and give it a slight tweak to make it unique,” says Zondo.
The target market falls roughly in the 25 to 40 age group, with a focus on the “so-called ama2000s” (people born around the year 2000), says Zondo.
From township to the world
“Our DNA is the township, but our second biggest market is Gaborone,” says Zondo. And there are bigger plans afoot.
“What we projected for a whole year in 2007 is now what we make in a month. We have to open up new avenues [and] we’re working on hitting the international trade shows next year. There’s a hunger for South African content globally.”
It’s not easy, though, he concedes. Apart from load-shedding and uncertainty about the future of the economy, there are challenges around access to capital and breaking into new markets – as well as the decline of the South African textile industry.
As business manager, Zondo now spends much of his time securing support and investment for Thesis to tap into the international market. (The other co-founders are no longer with the company.) “We’re going to supply a full ready-to-wear range that we can sell in euros and dollars,” he says.
“We’ve built a solid brand; now we’re building a business.”
There are no shortcuts in entrepreneurship, stresses Zondo. “Patience is everything.”
He concludes, “I’m chasing my dream to make Thesis a global company. Apart from that, I want to be the best partner and dad, the best mama’s boy, the best uncle, and a good friend. It’s the gratitude I have for the opportunity to chase all these dreams that keeps me going.”
* Read more about Thesis Lifestyle here: https://www.thesislifestyle.co.za/. Follow their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/ThesisLifestyle/; Twitter: https://twitter.com/ThesisLifestyle; Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thesis_lifestyle/. Find out more about the Big Ads for Small Business campaign: https://www.hollard.co.za/bigads