As the saying goes, friends don’t let friends shop at chain stores, jokes Cathy van Rooyen who, together with husband and business partner, Brett, has just opened the Willow boutique at Windermere Centre.

Willow is the couple’s first foray into full scale retail and one that has been an exciting and sometimes challenging journey. 

The many journeys to and fro between their Station Road cut, make and trim operation and the Willow shop have been exhausting but, now that all is in place, well worth it, the couple agree.

Willow has been modelled on The Boutique, a unique on site retail showroom within their factory at The Design Factory in Station Road. This has now been closed. Willow will have the same sophisticated feel and stylish and classy look.

The soft colours and trendy layout as well as the elegant clothes on the rails are the work of Cathy who started out as and English and French teacher. She pursued her love for colour and texture, soon discovering that she had an eye for design. Backed by a skilled pattern maker and her business savvy Brett who has been in the clothing business for 17 years, she’s the visionary who selects the beautiful fabrics and transforms them into distinctive ranges.

“The design aesthetic is classic which could sound boring. But I believe in producing styles that suit a range of people. We are known for our quality. Often, people focus on the trend factor and on price and then sacrifice quality. I have an eye for beautiful fabrics. I’m inspired by nature which is why, for me, the idea of a willow tree and a quiet spot beside a river resonated with me. You have to have an authentic brand that reflects where you are at as a designer,” she says.

Willow will also stock Barrington jeans, which the van Rooyens are making under licence with Jocelyn Moodley. Her step father, Peter Barrington, launched this very popular brand during the 1970’s.

The couple found that these jeans actually had a following. Cathy explains that, over the years, people have ‘followed’ these jeans from location to location no matter how inconvenient simply because they liked the cut.

That kind of loyalty still distinguishes the jeans market today.

Barrington was the perfect fit with Collins Collection, the brand that was established and developed by Robin Collins over 17 years ago. Shortly after being admitted to the bar, Brett decided that law wasn’t for him and teamed up with Robin. In 2010 Robin retired and, he took over the business. Cathy joined him in 2012.

Up until now, both brands have catered for stylish older women who like to invest in timeless, quality garments. Unfortunately, says Cathy, this is a market that is often neglected by the fashion industry. 

Both brands are now bridging the gap between older and younger women. In Willow, the idea is to create a shop where mother and daughter can shop side by side.

“Up until now, both brands have been supplied to exclusive boutiques across the country as well as in Namibia and Botswana.

But, about two years ago, they discovered that they were in a quandary as all but one of their customers in Durban had shut down. With the bulk of their sales coming from Gauteng and Cape Town, they realised that they had to put a concerted effort into re-introduce their brands to Durban.

Their decision to move to a bigger factory came at about the same time. Located on the first floor of the dilapidated predecessor to what was to become the Design Factory, they found themselves quite literally bursting at the seams and at an important cross road.

“It was like a rabbit warren. Barrington had just joined us and we needed more space,” Brett recalls. The building was sold and when the new owners explained their vision to them, they felt it was unrealistic and were extremely sceptical.

However, they were persuaded to go up to the fifth floor and look at a far bigger area. Even that was not very inspiring and the wall that cordoned off the area that was to house The Boutique was falling down. But, when they saw the window at the back that looks over the stadium, they were sold.

Their small cut, make and trim operation which employs 11 expanded from a cramped 220 sq/m to 550 sq/m.

Up until then, they had hosted pop up factory sales but weren’t keen to create a factory shop both because of space constraints and because the notion of selling seconds and over runs compromised the integrity of their brand.

“We didn’t want a factory shop. We weren’t a second class brand,” says Cathy. They came up with something that was ‘factory chic’ and more like a showroom.

The Boutique opened in June last year and, from the get go, exceeded all expectations.

Gone were the dusty bins of clothing and sagging rails and in came a polished space with an employee dedicated to assisting customers at The Boutique.

Despite being on the verge of becoming officially hip and fashionable, Station Road remained very industrial and, when people walked through the doors into the trendy space, they were, more often than not, very surprised.

The outlet grew by world-of-mouth and via social media.  Within a very short space of time, their customer base grew exponentially.

Because they did not have the footfall of a large mall, they organised shopping events to draw customers – a Saturday morning coffee and cupcakes, a morning where customers were invited to shop with a stylist.

Cathy says that the boutique was effectively a conservative means of testing the retail waters. It was possibly “playing at retail,” she concedes.

Brett began thinking about setting up a shop in January this year. It was a case of “be careful what you ask for” he admits. They looked at a couple of possibilities.

Windermere Centre was in the midst of a revamp and, when he noticed a vacant shop next to the new Woolworths, he approached the letting agent clad “shorts and slops”, he remembers.

He was told that while his enquiry would be passed on to the centre owner, there was already a waiting list for this prime spot.

A visit from the owner to The Boutique shifted them to the top of the queue and the van Rooyen family headed off for a holiday to contemplate the prospect of opening their shop.

Despite some reservations they knew retail was the way forward.  “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are probably not big enough,” Brett laughs quoting the old saying

With a 17 June opening, Brett and Cathy say they are excited at the prospect of launching a boutique stocking beautiful garments that are all locally made. While some limited edition items are produced in their small CMT operation back in Station Road, orders are also placed with CMT operations in the city.

“We do feel strongly about that,” Brett stresses. He had a ringside seat when the local clothing and textile industry was destroyed by a flood of cheap imports during the eighties and nineties. Today the skills needed to make a blouse or pair of jeans – and it takes 35 and 45 different machinists along a production line to make each of these respectively – are in short supply. Because no textile mills are left, even they have to import their fabrics.

The good news for Willow is a resurgence of people keen to support local brands and businesses in the name of nurturing the city that they love.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about us. People need to support local industry. It’s tough out there. Job creation motivates you to maintain and grow your business. Clothing is a dynamic game and it is not for sissies – but it is creative and fun. We have got great staff – with that you can only move forward and get it right,” says Cathy.