Showcasing at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week is one of the crowning symbols of success within the South African fashion industry. Meet Layla Cassim, co-founder of Cape Town-based clothing line LAZULI, who’s successfully showcased LAZULI at MBFW twice – all while studying towards her Medical degree! We spoke to Layla below about the challenges of co-owning a locally-produced Fashion, Art & Lifestyle brand, while balancing her studies as a final year Medical student…
Full name: Layla Cassim
Current title/company: LAZULI
Educational background: MBChB VI (Bachelors in Surgery and Bachelors in Medicine Final Year), University of Stellenbosch.
Current city: Cape Town
Layla, you are currently the co-designer for Lazuli, a South African locally produced Fashion, Art & Lifestyle brand established in 2011. Could you take us through the journey to where you are now? When did you ultimately decide to enter the fashion industry?
LAZULI started as a natural progression. My parents, Anver and Foziah Cassim, founded and established a Children’s’ wear brand, Seven Ounce Children’s’ wear, over 27 years ago. They started as young entrepreneurs, selling their locally produced garments on Green Market Square in the early 90’s. They were one of South Africa’s first non-white retailers and so at a young age, I was exposed to the fashion and retail industry. Being exposed to the production and business aspect at a young age, gave me insight into how a retail business and fashion business works. As we grew up, my sister and I would always design our own garments and outfits. I loved the fact that it was artisanal and hand crafted, knowing the workmanship and quality of the garments. My friends loved the pieces and always wanted to know where I bought my clothing. The three of us started designing unique and distinct pieces. We started out selling a few items at home. By then my mother, sister and I had all had our own interest and it became a common denominator between us, making it a fun and exciting hobby. We then decided to sell at Markets around Cape Town and from there, thanks to word of mouth, there was a greater demand for the product. The three of us decided to officially start a brand and not just a label. We saw potential in the brand and it was so fulfilling to see the response that we had from customers. We decided on the name Lazuli as we love the Persian/Afgan stone, Lapis Lazuli. The stone to us, represented dynamic, confidence and it was blue – the colour of denim (a continuation of Seven Ounce – Weight of Denim). With my sisters Fine Art background, my mom’s design background and my Medicine background, we decided that the brand should encompass art and lifestyle, supporting other local artisans and brands around South Africa. Our biggest step was doing Mercedes Benz Cape Town Fashion Week. It was a huge risk, as we are a new brand in South Africa, and we were not sure about how people would respond. It was one of the most fulfilling and successful decisions that we had made. It was very well received and to be considered as a young designer in South Africa, in one of South Africa’s largest platforms, was an amazing opportunity. That is the story of how Lazuli started. There are many things that we have planned for the future. It is only the beginning for the brand and we are continuously learning along the way. Ultimately, there was no ultimate decision, it was just a natural progression in our lives – and having been already exposed and a part of the industry at a young age served as a catalyst.
You currently co-design for Lazuli while balancing your final year as a Medical student – two careers that are stark contrasts of each other! What would you say is the trick to the Millennial woman balancing the various sides to her?
Being a young South African is an amazing thing. With the background or history of South Africa and compared to what it is now in 2015, is a huge contrast. I feel privileged to be able to study in this country. I am humbled every single day with everything that I am exposed to as a medical student. It is a tough course and it is a lifestyle change, but I feel that studying medicine has taught me many skills in coping with running a business. The fashion industry has taught me so much with understanding people.
To be able to balance the two career paths, I feel that you have to be extremely open-minded. You have to work very hard, sacrifice, persevere and handle criticism. Both aspects in my life have taught me these values and I am learning new things every day. As a medical student, you have to be focused and hold a great responsibility of having the main goal of serving others (patients), to do good and be a change agent in society. On the other hand, when running a business, you are employing people who rely on an income that you provide for them, so it is also a great responsibility, but in a different form. I think that what is vital for balancing the two contrasting careers, is passion and being humble. You have to have the drive and confidence to succeed in both fields, yet you have to be willing to change and learn new things every day. The most important aspect of balancing is having an amazing team. I am very fortunate to be a part of an inspiring team of women who work together with a common goal.
As a final year medical student and fashion business owner, what attributes would you say best contribute to your overall success – hard work or business acumen?
I think that there are many aspects that contribute to success. Being a final year medical student is extremely stressful. You have to be able to take responsibility in treating patients, whilst studying volumes and whilst working long hours under examination conditions most of the year. I have learnt to make decisions quickly but that have some form of insight. I have learnt to handle myself in extremely stressful situations without having emotions take control (comparing stressful situations to patient resuscitations). It teaches you how to prioritise, how to “hustle”, persevere and sacrifice. Having a business makes you aware of worldly things, the economics of the country or world and most of all, about people (how they live, what they want). I think that both medicine and business have helped me understand people, and business and made me more aware of life. I am so fortunate to be able to run the business with such an amazing team. Without my mother or sister, Lazuli would not be able to exist.
The South African fashion industry is particularly difficult to penetrate, yet you have shown your resilience and success through showing at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Cape Town two years in a row! Could you give us a glimpse of what it takes to breakthrough a difficult industry such as fashion?
I think that it is important to note the importance that fashion, arts and culture hold in this country. It is a business and it encompasses a variety of professionals who are extremely talented. That alone marks the standard of being able to succeed. To be able to be regarded as a brand, you have to have a unique product/concept that is relevant. Besides the artistic part and passion, you have to have a viable business and be able to relate to people or inspire people. With that, being constant and continuously working hard is a key aspect in being a viable brand. You must be able to handle criticism and at the same time, believe in your brand. We are still an up-and-coming brand and we feel very privileged to have been regarded as a brand in South Africa. It is one of our greatest accomplishments. Being on a platform such as Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Cape Town has really made the brand more recognized and it is a platform where people trust the quality and identify with it.
What does the South African fashion industry need?
The South African Fashion industry needs more support from the Department of Trade and Industry in sending designers to international trade shows where South African brands can flourish on and international level. There are so many talented designers and businesses who are unable to participate in international trade shows and fashion weeks due to the lack of funding (it is an investment for any business and all businesses require that support). The South African Fashion industry also needs to be recognized and supported by the South African community. With all the international chain-stores and “made in China”, mass-produced items, it is difficult to stay viable. People need to support local and embrace the local talent. I think that people are not always aware of local brands and perhaps the South Africa chain stores need to invest in the local brands and promote local.
Tell us about LAZULI – what distinguishes it from other local fashion houses?
Lazuli is a concept that is created by a team, all with three diverse ideas. We try to come up with items that are unique but classic and we try to stay true to our design DNA whilst keeping in mind dynamic trends. What distinguishes the Lazuli brand from others is that our design aesthetic is unique to us. We try to stay true to our aesthetic and incorporate our own interpretation of what is now. With that, we try to come up with prints and textures that are unique and one-of-a-kind making, garments exclusive and inimitable.
It cannot be easy juggling your studies and your fashion brand. In your journey to excelling in both endeavours, what have been your biggest challenges and how have you been able to overcome them?
Being a medical student, you are required to do clinical work, especially in your final year. You have to physically be in hospital and be trained as a health professional. It has been very difficult as I would like to be the best doctor that I can be and in order for me to be trained, I have to be devoted to my time in hospital. At the same time, in order to run a business, I have to be devoted to production, staff and all aspects regarding running a business. This has been my greatest challenge, having to juggle both careers. The only way that I am able to do this is by having an amazing team that I work with. My mother and sister are co-owners of the business and are extremely supportive when it comes to me studying. I can trust them completely to take care of the business when I am unable to be present. As for being a medical student, I have had to prioritise this year and sacrifice not being able to do certain things in the business as my degree is my first priority at this time. A key aspect in being able to juggle both careers is organisation. During my “free time/ holiday”, my mother, sister and I have planned and managed all aspects for the year. Planning and management is an integral part of business, even though in life not everything happens as planned, we have prepared ourselves for the year as best we could. It takes sacrifice, responsibility and good management to overcome juggling both careers.
What is a typical work day like for you?
As a final year medical student, a typical day is waking up at the crack of dawn and seeing patients on ward rounds and prepping them for surgery or the various treatment options that they have. The time that I have in between (which is an hour out of a 12 hour day), is replying to emails and calls during the day. Once I get home, I discuss plans and ideas with my mother and sister. It is hard work, but it is extremely fulfilling and exciting. There are times where we are tired, but the end goal is worth it. I generally plan collections and ideas/concepts/trade shows/fashion weeks. My mother’s day is typically working at her head office, running her business as well as Lazuli. She works with the pattern maker and seamstress to ensure that samples are made for production. Her day is extremely busy but she is inspiring to watch as she manages being a full-time mom and running her own business. My sister’s day is working on concepts, art and painting. She is responsible for the photographic work and many of the prints involved in the collections. My Dad also has a place in the Lazuli brand – he helps us with the financial aspect and business aspect of the business, although he runs his own business full-time. I think that what keeps us grounded is that we are hard-working and have a respect for one another that allows us to manage the business as best we can.
Advice for aspiring fashion designers?
Advice for aspiring designers is to stay true to what you believe in. Stay true to your design aesthetic and be unique in your approach to your brand. Be prepared to work hard and be criticised. You must be able to persevere through difficult times and most of all be inspired and let passion (with insight) drive everything that you do!
Morning or night? Night (my name means night).
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
I would love to have lunch with lots of women (there are a few surgeons who I have met in hospital who are inspiring women in their field – Dr Mahoko, Dr Nerina Wilkinson). But ultimately, my Mother she inspires me and I wish that I had more time with her (very cheesy). We would order yummy food – Mom would order salmon and cream cheese bagel, I would order something Asian.
I wish I knew how to… speak more languages.
African women are… inspiring!
South Africa is… the epitome of the future!
Worst money mistake… not taking more risks with money. Maybe a pair of crocs for hospital which I don’t really wear.
Best investment… Starting and investing in Lazuli.
Motivation in 3 words…Be the change!