Handbag designer Adrian Furstenburg’s worst nightmare came true one cold winter morning when his studio was covered in soot and his business was razed to the ground.
Don’t be fooled by his infectious smile and designer clothes; beneath his tough exterior is a layered story of depression and despair.
On a rainy autumn morning in Johannesburg in March, we meet Adrian Furstenburg in the small affluent suburb of Parkhurst.
Ironically, he is dressed in black – a symbol of grief – to recount the day when his design studio, including stock and equipment worth R70,000 ($5,800), burned and was razed to the ground.
“The damage was so painfully clear in the bright, winter morning light,” says Furstenburg.
To get to this story, it is important to start from the beginning.
Furstenburg was only four years old when he first said he wanted to become a fashion designer.
“I was at my granny’s house and we were watching a fashion show on television, and as we were watching, that is when I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life,” says Furstenburg.
However, his father, a farmer, had, other plans – he wanted him to pursue law.
Somehow, Furstenburg found a way to persuade his father to allow him to enter a career not so distant from the fashion industry.
“It was the early 2000s and it was pretty cool to study graphic designing, so he said ‘that’s okay, I will pay for you to study graphic designing’,” he says.
In his last year at college, he specialized in textile design, which led to him crafting a career as a handbag designer.
“I think that is one of the wisest decisions that I have ever made, there are definitely no regrets,” says Furstenburg today.
As part of a college assignment, he was required to do a practical project.
“I weaved this beautiful piece of fabric and then I actually made a handbag. This project is where my passion for handbags started,” he says.
After he graduated, he started freelancing as a designer and stylist, set on his journey of one day being a fashion mogul selling swanky handbags.
But his worst day was lurking around the corner, ready to throw him into a state of melancholy.
It was June 6, 2012.
“The day isn’t etched into my memory. I recall it from a much deeper, more visceral part than that,” he says.
He and his business partner at the time, Nkululeko Msibi, of 2souls clothing, had recently set up a small studio just off Gandhi Square in central Johannesburg, where they produced every kind of clothing and accessory to keep their bank balances and ambitions afloat.
“We landed one of our biggest projects producing costumes for a major dance production. We spent hours planning, designing, sourcing, selecting, sewing, stitching. Their budget was strict and the schedule was even tighter with virtually no room for error,” says Furstenburg.
But a disaster that would discredit him and Msibi was about to blaze through their studio.
Furstenburg was picking up materials from a supplier before heading to the studio that Wednesday morning when he received a frantic phone call from Msibi.
“Fire was really the only word I got from the conversation,” says Furstenburg.
He describes how surreal everything felt in the bright, winter morning light when he arrived at the studio.
“The thick smell of smoke hung throughout the building. Inside the studio, sooty black licks ran up the walls where the fire had devoured our machines, stock and the rails of costumes for the production,” says Furstenburg.
This was just three days before they had to deliver the costumes to their client. They were also not business savvy-enough at the time to have insurance.
“We sat sobbing on the ashy floor. The nausea swam in my stomach as the reality of the situation gained momentum in my head.”
“I called the client, trembling. The shouting started on the telephone and didn’t stop until they left our charcoal pile with a few pieces that had escaped the flames while stored in another studio,” Furstenburg recounts.
They were livid – understandably so.
“They were so outraged, because I was dealing with their dream as well. It was a costume production. They had a look of utter hatred and disgust on their faces,” he says.
They lost the clients.
“I spent two weeks in a blur of fear and guilt… Almost no one trusted us with their work and the landlord suspected that we were to blame for negligence,” says Furstenburg.
He went home, depressed for weeks, not knowing what his next move would be.
“I don’t have children but my business is my child. I have fought very hard for it. Seeing it die was the worst day of my life. I took about two weeks where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this anymore,” he says.
Fortunately, it was soon established that the fire was caused by old wiring. They salvaged what they could and Furstenburg decided to change his focus from production to styling – that is how he slowly managed to recover from what was his worst day.
He started from scratch, working on freelance projects making very little money.
“It was far from ideal and barely sustainable but somehow my resolve strengthened not to allow this incident to raze me permanently,” says Furstenburg.
The passion for designing handbags ignited within, in 2013, he equipped himself with business training at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship.
When he completed the three-month training, the center placed an order with him for 70 small, original-design messenger bags to be given as gifts to guests at an event held during one of FORBES AFRICA cover stars Richard Branson’s visit to South Africa.
“It could be said that someone else spotted what I had to offer before I had known exactly, and acting perhaps more in response to a veiled instruction than personal confidence at the time, I started making bags,” he says.
“Amusingly, whatever I might have lacked in self-belief was effectively offset by a desire to wow anyone and everyone and so I almost simultaneously entered the Independent Handbag Designer Awards of that year [in New York],” says Furstenburg.
It took four years of applications before he was accepted in 2016 into the All About the Logo by Guess Handbags category. He was the first South African applicant accepted – and the first to win. This opened doors for him locally and internationally.
Furstenburg is currently working on a procurement deal with an international airline. If successful, it will be the golden game changer that takes his business to the goal of netting an annual profit of $1 million by 2019.
Six years after his worst day, Furstenburg is not without challenges. But he is continuously taking it one step at a time, ensuring that the fire he has for designing world-class handbags never burns out.
“I must admit that I get a little breathless reflecting on the trajectory that the business has followed in the last 15 months, not least because of the risks we’ve survived and the gratitude I feel to those who’ve guided and supported me,” he says.