“I founded this company when I was sick,” Carla Frankel says with a shaky voice, when we meet in Botswana in April for the Forbes Under 30 Summit Africa. When she says that, the people around her listen, as she unravels to FORBES AFRICA the story of how she created the Top Drawer Collection, retailing personalized luxury sleepwear, in South Africa.
“In life-altering moments, I stood at the crossroads and pushed boundaries and used negative experiences to create really great products and experiences, rather than choosing the road of defeat and victimization.”
At the age of 21, Frankel was walking around campus and suddenly felt her feet burn, which actually turned out to be Sagittal Sinus Thrombosis.
“In other words, I had a stroke!” she recounts. Two years before that, Frankel had already been diagnosed with two autoimmune diseases; antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) as well as Lupus. During her second year at university, she had another stroke during a four-hour exam. This resulted in three weeks of hospitalization and Frankel being unable to finish her exams.
It was during the recovery phase that she realized that the only thing in that “dark period” that lifted her spirits was the pair of matching pajamas her mom had bought for her from retail chain Woolworths.
“We would make quite a moment of them, put on face masks, and watch our favorite movies. Those pajamas with my mom weren’t just pajamas — they were a layer of comfort and safety. They were an armor of sorts to me that helped me feel beautiful and safe even while so disconnected from myself, in this foreign body that didn’t feel like mine.”
Coming into this moment feels almost full circle for Frankel as she admits that she started reading FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 lists five years ago and had always been inspired by the stories of the founders in them.
“I noticed that a large commonality in each person was overcoming challenges to create solutions and innovate. Most of all, I found inspiration in how most of these people made the choice to voyage forward into the path of success despite circumstances being against them.
“A near-death experience is the reason Top Drawer Collection exists, and with every negative health experience I face, a new, even better product is born to meet the need that I would only know how to fulfill by walking through the thorns and making it to the other side.”
Within six months of starting Top Drawer, Frankel says she received orders from South African celebrities such as actor-producer Connie Ferguson and influencer Kefilwe Mabote. Corporates like Unilever were also ordering sleepwear from her. Even when Covid-19 hit, she still managed her business.
“We have reached the market cap for the units that can be produced locally. I sell what I have, and there is a waiting list unbelievably long for those who didn’t manage to secure a set on a restock day. I am very grateful for the desire for the product.” Frankel says.
Words and Curation: Chanel Retief
Art Director: Lucy Nkosi
Additional Research & Reporting: Lillian Roberts
Photography: Ilan Godfrey for Forbes
Videography and production: Timothy Pierson for Forbes & Chad McClymonds for Forbes
Video Editor: Chanel Retief
Styling: Katlego Magano of Oak Ave; Assistant: Tumelo Nkwe
Hair & Makeup: SnehhOnline Beauty; Thapelo Letsebe
Location: Image Lounge, Botswana and 2022 Forbes Under 30 Summit