Without deliberate design, Maria McCloy has been a pioneer throughout much of her career. “People reading your magazine would probably cringe, but there are no spreadsheets and I don’t have a business plan. I just do it.”
Fresh out of university in the heady creative energy of South Africa’s early democracy, McCloy and two partners founded multimedia company Black Rage Productions. It was the starting point of an exciting, ever-evolving career, and McCloy credits the network of contacts that she built up at Rage for the success of her mini empire.
Rage grew quickly into a television production company that produced several art and culture magazine prog-rams, a record label that rode the mus-ical wave of Kwaito, and a website that became the go-to guide for urban culture.
Although she rejects formalized business structures, McCloy is always on the lookout for a new opportunity, and her instincts tend to be spot on.
“One holiday I was home in Lesotho and I met a guy selling wire earrings – lots of people there sell lots of wire earrings – and I thought, wow! These are amazing,” she says.
McCloy managed to convince David Magwai, a vendor selling jewelry outside a cathedral in Maseru, to customize his wares for her.
“I said to him: ‘Please make these bigger for me’. And he said: ‘Your ear is going to break off, but okay’.”
Back in Johannesburg, some of the artistes McCloy had met through Rage noticed the earrings and soon she had a customer base of musicians, writers and actors.
Then Stoned Cherrie designer Nkhensani Nkosi featured them in her collection. Mantsho founder Palesa Mokubung and industry doyenne Marianne Fassler followed suit. Of course, having the likes of award-winning singer Lira wear the earrings did not hurt their popularity.
“People in the office were keen on (the earrings), so I started giving them as gifts and then those people bought them as gifts, and the process grew organically,” McCloy explains.
It prompted McCloy to turn her love for accessories into a small business. She formalized her trade, selling earrings, clay necklaces, and vintage bags and sunglasses at a craft market once a month.
It was during Rage’s promotion of the Congolese gangster film, Viva Riva!, that McCloy’s dual passions united. As part of the publicity for the movie, she was asked to put together a media gift bag. McCloy took the standard press kit one step further and came up with a clutch bag sporting the film’s logo – and added a new range to her business.
She started selling clutch bags in unique African prints. Even when demand increased, she says, each bag remained unique, as the geometric prints and bright colors of the fabric gave shape to a different accessory each time.
“Cloth had always been a big part of me; I wore it as a headwrap. At home my mother had a big pile so I think it really resonated with people to see it on a clutch,” she says.
McCloy happened on her next big idea while shopping in Johannesburg’s inner city. It was the push she needed to establish Maria McCloy Accessories.
“I saw a pair of shoes, very bridal, in a traditional wedding shop, a pair of seShoeShoe shoes… Clutches may be a bit more specific but everyone needs shoes.
“The whole thing with the shoes and the cloth is that it shouldn’t just be saved for a special occasion, it should be worn every day. We think Western clothes are normal and African clothes are for traditional occasions, but actually no, use it everywhere. It’s beautiful! Don’t wait for the West, because that’s what happened. The West decided African print was in and we jumped on it when we’ve always had this stuff,” she points out, clearly exasperated.
The fashion world’s current fascination with traditional African prints has certainly helped Maria McCloy Accessories. “I want it to be forever because this is in our history,” says McCloy, who is looking forward to working with historically significant textiles, such as Asa-oke, the hand-woven fabric from Nigeria, and Kente cloth, the silk and cotton material native to Ghana.
One Sunday I stop by McCloy’s stall in Maboneng, Johannesburg’s gentrified inner-city precinct. Her customers come from all walks of life – locals and tourists. I watch as a teenager swaps his trainers for ankle boots covered in a tan-and-brown print originally from Mozambique. Next to him, a woman tries to work out if her iPad will fit into one of McCloy’s custom-made journal holders.
As the popularity of her collection continues to grow, McCloy has started receiving queries about bulk orders, and is even considering starting her own manufacturing line. She already employs three people and is on the lookout for an investor to take her business to the next level.
McCloy readily admits that her success cannot be attributed solely to chance. Since she was a child, she has had a keen eye for accessories and prints, as well as an interest in fashion and art trends. And after a long career in the media industry, her extensive social network has been instrumental to the growth and popularity of Maria McCloy Accessories.
“My customers have been extremely supportive… They’re also my muses because sometimes they’ll ask for a certain shoe or a certain bag,” she says, explaining how the range expands as she tailors to the trends set by her customers.
McCloy credits Buti Mabote as one of her most important support structures in running the business. Their relationship is so multifaceted that it defies a formal definition. Mabote started out as a customer, but today he manages the logistics of Maria McCloy Accessories. He
liaises with clients and mans the stall when McCloy is away at her day job, which is in public relations for mass media company Viacom International.
“I realized there’s potential and I’m happy for Maria because she has invested a lot in this – time, her own money, ideas… I’m just there as support to make it happen for her. I’m quite happy to see (the business) growing, because as she grows I believe I’m growing,” Mabote says.
“My wife and I are normally here every Sunday, even if we’re not selling for Maria. It’s part of us. If you look in my car, in the boot, there’s something of Maria’s in there, whether it’s a shoe or cloth or a bag.
“Every day I have to do something for Maria, every day,” he says proudly.
“When she grows, I grow also. And I can say we’re friends now.”
Mabote’s attention shifts to a customer who has picked out a large pile of clutch bags and pumps. Alison Vieira explains that she is Canadian, and travelling the world in search of indigenous designs, crafts and products to sell in cosmopolitan Toronto.
Amazed by the success of a small, independent retailer, Vieira says she hopes to do more business with McCloy if the samples go down well in Toronto.
McCloy is pleasantly surprised; it seems her business has grown yet again.
Maria McCloy Accessories does not rely on the business school-sanctioned models of calculating risk and predicting margins. Instead, its evolution is a result of McCloy’s entrepreneurial spirit and instinct, combined with the power of human connection and a personal touch.