A FASHIONABLE hat is a mainstay for most women for most occasions, be it weddings, funerals, or simply attending church.
Saturday Leisure caught up with Fungai Ngwenya of Andile Royal Hats Boutiques who, most women would love to meet as she is the face behind one of their favourite accessories.
The milliner (person who makes or sells women’s hats) who operates from Haddon and Sly complex in Bulawayo took time to share her secrets on the art of custom-made hats.
She said she left South Africa to come and practise her trade locally as she felt she had a role to play in developing the economy of the country.
“I had been in the designer world for a long time as I studied for a degree in Fashion Designing at Intec College in South Africa. After the training, I started making clothes and other things.
“I later decided to add more to my trade and trained to make hats in South Africa five years ago. However, most of my clients were based in Zimbabwe so I decided to return home to practise my trade closer to my customers. I then registered and opened Andile Royal Hats
Boutique where I showcase my talent from,” she said.
Explaining why she decided to focus solely on making hats and fascinators, Ngwenya said: “I realised that as women, when we go to church, we need to look elegant, presentable and lady-like. Nowadays, this trend of fascinators is very popular with the younger generation as before, it was solely a preserve for older ladies.
“Now, there are high-end events that they attend, weddings and even high teas, where these fashionable hats are a hit so they are now the biggest clients today.”
She said she makes it a point to make hats and fascinators for young women by designing them in very trendy ways that resonate with their youthful personalities. The mothers and grannies also have a style set aside for them so no one is left out.
“The hats are custom and hand-made from scratch. I buy my material from South Africa and use a small machine from home. Everything else is handmade, it’s not very difficult, but you need the skill.
“I use molds to shape the base of the hat, cut and make flowers. Everything is handmade and the materials are rough on the hands and I use some chemicals which many women would not like to touch, but that is the only way you can perfect your craft. Women do not want to get their hands dirty, but that is where the money is.”
Ngwenya said it takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to make one fascinator and on average, she makes six hats a day at home.
Asked on the market response, she said it was good adding that most of the marketing is done through social media.
“The response is very good because there are many people who approach the business after seeing social media posts. Also, word of mouth is really good for me. I always ask my clients how they found out about the boutique and they tell me that it’s via Instagram, Facebook and other are referrals.”
Some of the hurdles faced in setting up the business, the milliner said, included paperwork.
“It was quite a challenge, but I am glad that I managed to register the business and I am complying with all regulations. The other challenge is that such businesses tend to be seasonal. Between January and April, business is very good, moving to June and July it’ll generally be low. Then it picks up in August to October, but in November there is nothing because of cultural practices where no events in respect of marriages and unions are observed. December is obviously a big month and there is a lot of business,” she said.
She said Covid-19 has been the biggest blow as there was virtually no social function that took place as there were no lobola ceremonies, weddings and high teas, something which saw businesses like hers struggling.
But she did not let this deter her as she continued making her hats and marketing her products online.
“I just kept advertising on social media so that people know that the business is still there. And luckily, I found clients that were willing to buy hats despite the fact that there were not many functions. I am hopeful that as the lockdown regulations continue to relax, then more social events will begin to take place, thus leading to our businesses also picking up,” she said.
Ngwenya said women need to be more enterprising in times like these.
“There are so many things that a woman can do to earn a living so they should not sit and assume that things are very hard and no business can be done. One thing that is lacking is that people do not support each other’s businesses. Like now, we’re seeing locals in Bulawayo buying things in Harare while we have the same products here as there’s just some belief that Harare products are better. But we can equally compete.
“All we need is to ensure that we support each other locally and that way, we will grow as Bulawayo businesses,” she added.
She went on: “How can I go and buy tomatoes far away when there is a woman trying to make ends meet by selling tomatoes just at my street corner. It is better to mingle with other ladies as these synergies are important in that you get ideas from those that are already in the trade and start your own businesses.
“It’s not enough for ladies to sit and wait and not start small businesses, we need to empower ourselves and be economic contributors just like our male counterparts.”
Women, Ngwenya said, must enroll in hand and home craft courses so that they learn a skill and generate income for themselves.