By  on July 17, 2014

JOHANNESBURG — Suitsupply rarely does things conventionally.

To launch its presence in South Africa, the Dutch tailored clothing retailer took over a sprawling, colonial-style villa in the posh Johannesburg suburb of Hyde Park, setting up a pop-up shop with a full range of merchandise on the main floor, from suits and shoes to accessories, and a tailoring atelier upstairs, for the next six months.

There’s very little by way of street-level signage to indicate that a shop awaits behind the heavy iron gates, so anyone who ends up at Suitsupply does not do so by mistake.

“We chose a very destination kind of format,” explained Fokke de Jong, Suitsupply’s globe-trotting chief executive officer, who was in town for the store’s formal opening earlier this month before jetting off the next day for Cape Town to shoot the brand’s fall campaign.

“You really have to go out and find us,” he added. “But once you do, you’ll discover an international and charming setup, in a nice, relaxing environment.” Indeed, it is a welcoming space; when not a pop-up shop, the villa is an elegant and luxurious guesthouse.

“We hope to move to a permanent location after the six months are up,” said Tania Habimana, Suitsupply’s general manager for South Africa, who also heads up the brand’s African expansion department. “This place — with 120 square meters [1,292 square feet] of retail area — has its charm; it gives that exclusive feel to our customers, but it’s temporary. We don’t usually go into malls, just because you can’t give that level of service in a mall, but this is an open adventure. We’re at the start of it, so we’ll see how it goes.”

De Jong, himself a frequent traveler to Africa — for the last couple of seasons he has chosen Cape Town as the location for the brand’s campaigns — said that the malls, particularly the nearby Hyde Park Corner shopping center, are already saturated with luxury brands. “While we felt that something was definitely going on in this market because of all the luxury brands coming into the country, we didn’t want to compete for the same customers in the same location.”

But being in Johannesburg first before Cape Town was important. “It’s the financial capital of South Africa. It’s possible to have a very successful store in this city.”

He said that prior to entering the South African market, Suitsupply already had an existing online customer base in the country. “We had some high-profile customers ordering from us regularly, so a physical store was the logical next step.”

Open a little more than two weeks, the store has drawn customers who know the brand from other locations or its online presence as well as new customers, according to Habimana. Among the early bestsellers are the three-piece, Blue Check Havana, a 130 winter-weight Barberis wool fabric. “It’s a sharply tailored suit with a slim fit and a dandyish feel,” Habimana said.

Suitsupply is manufactured in China, but the fabrics, Habimana said, come mostly from Italy, in the Biella region. With South African duties at up to 45 percent for imported clothing, keeping prices in line with international retail prices was a challenge, but also a necessity. Suits start at around 4,000 South African rands, or just less than $400.

When asked about a possible Cape Town presence, De Jong said: “African expansion for us is nice, but it’s an experiment. Strategically, our main growth is still in China and the U.S. And Europe is pretty strong for us.”

He said that when entering any new market, the strategy is “to establish a beachhead into a market and build the business at such a pace that it allows us to secure quality of execution. In the U.S., we have grown the business to 12 stores in three years, and we are planning to open another eight to 10 stores in markets like L.A., San Francisco and Dallas in the next 12 months. This as a very manageable growth path in relation to the existing stores.

“We do [the same thing on] different continents. In Asia, we started a year ago with a successful store in Shanghai and we’re opening a second and bigger store there this year, as well as new stores in Singapore, Hong Kong and Chengdu, China. Parallel to that, our management structure in that region is growing, so it can facilitate further growth there. In Europe, the economy is picking up and we are expanding our existing 40 stores there with several new locations, among them are Moscow, Zurich, Madrid. In that context, our presence in Africa is still in the earliest phase. With our opening in Johannesburg, we established our first beachhead, which could lead to further expansion, but there is no rollout plan for Africa yet.”

Habimana added: “Africa is a dynamic and exciting market but a set roll-out plan is not our strategy. Instead, we’re staring small and adapting as we go.”

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