Urban Zulu: Papy Nakuw’s thriving heritage-fashion business

Urban Zulu is a contemporary-traditional fashion line for men and women that recently showed at New York Fashion Week. We caught up with founder Papy Nakuw to find out about his business journey

Papy Nakuw (37), founder of African contemporary fashion line Urban Zulu, is a Congolese-born artist who grew up in KwaZulu-Natal.

Nakuw says he started Urban Zulu unofficially in 2001, explaining that he discovered only much later on that the business he has now began long before it became official.

“I realise now that everything that was done since 2001 was always part of Urban Zulu,” he says. “We opened the first retail store in 2008 in Durban. But before that, we were just like any black youth yase Kasi selling from the boot of a car.”

READ MORE: [GALLERY] Trevor Stuurman, the new ambassador for Superga

Since the first Urban Zulu store opened its doors, Nakuw says some of his biggest challenges has had to do with his lack of understanding of how business works.

“When you’re starting something that’s in the model of a business but you don’t have any business background, it becomes a problem for you to sustain that business. You might have everything – the talent, the finances and the equipment – to put together a good brand, but without the proper business knowledge you’re almost meant to fail because you don’t have those necessary tools.”

But, he says, “When you’re already in the water and you’re wet, you have no choice but to swim.”

Someone can fund you for R1 million, but will you be able to manage that money so it’s sustainable and comes back tenfold?

His business has always been self-funded, which Nakuw says wasn’t a problem – the problem was the ability to manage those funds.

“Money can be made anywhere, but the challenge is keeping the money,” he says. “Someone can fund you for R1 million, but will you be able to manage that money so it’s sustainable and comes back tenfold?”

Building a clientele was never an issue for the brand because of how fresh the idea was. It made life easier for customers: if someone wanted an item of clothing in traditional print, they’d have to have had it made – Urban Zulu, however, offered the convenience of walking into a store and buying it off the shelf.

Nakuw describes Urban Zulu as a retail fashion brand, saying that while it’s fuelled by a passion for creating outstanding garments, it’s a business first and foremost.

“For us, retail is a very big part of our definition as a business,” he says. “We’re not in the business of designing clothes only for specific events and people; we’re more about everyday, contemporary African wear. Whether corporate or casual, formal or extravagant, he says, his company caters for every style.

READ MORE: Incorporating African prints into everyday wear

He now has stores in Johannesburg CBD and in Rosebank. The business also supplies garments to The Space store, and following their show at New York Fashion Week, Urban Zulu has started supplying a store in America. The business has also branched out into the hair industry and has a salon in Johannesburg.

Urban Zulu employs about 60 to 70 permanent staff, excluding salon staff, and plans to expand further into the country.

“This year, we’re definitely going to Durban and Cape Town. Then we going international, looking specifically at the UK, America, Italy and Milan.”

Here’s a look at some of the men’s pieces: 

Urban Zulu 1 Urban Zulu 2 Urban Zulu 3 Urban Zulu 4 Urban Zulu 5 Urban Zulu 6 Urban Zulu 7 Urban Zulu 8 Urban Zulu 9 Urban Zulu 10 Urban Zulu 11 Urban Zulu 12 Urban Zulu 13 Urban Zulu 14 Urban Zulu 15 Urban Zulu 16 Urban Zulu 17