The African fitness-wear label that wants to give big brands a run for their money.

When Sylvester Ndhlovu was in high school, he used to design his own t-shirts. But not the send-off-to-the-printer kind of design. “It was just a white tee and a sharpie — I’d draw on it or write on it,” the Harare-born entrepreneur tells OkayAfrica. “I used to play soccer, and what I would sometimes do, is wear the t-shirt under my jersey, and so if I were to score, I’d take the jersey off and show off the t-shirt.”

Today, Ndhlovu’s soccer-playing days are sporadic, as a result of the pandemic, but he’s still designing — only now on a much greater scale. As the founder of RuvAfricWear, Ndhlovu has spent the past 6 years building a brand that celebrates African fashion, during every-day activities, from walking to running, swimming and dancing. Ndhlovu recently opened a store in his adopted home of Minnesota, the place he’s been living since he moved to the US to study Business and Economics at Concordia University in St. Paul after high school.

Ndhlovu opened the store on Juneteenth last month, as a space that both elevates his hopes for RuvaAfricWear — Ruva means ‘flower’ in Shona and is also the name of one of his daughters — and the community that buys his clothing. “Part of the drive to open the store was because of what was happening in Minneapolis over the past year, with George Floyd and also Dante Wright. There was so much tension between people. I wanted to see if I could contribute in any way; to create a place where people could come together and celebrate, and do dance workouts and yoga,” he says.

Ndhlovu, who lives in Minnesota with his wife and two daughters, came to the US on a scholarship, thanks to the high school he attended. As a young boy of 12, he moved from Zimbabwe to Ghana when his mother died, and went to SOS Hermann Gmeiner International College, where his passion for uplifting the continent was fostered.

How did you get into design?

Even in high school, I was designing t-shirts for myself and for my friends. for fun. I was really into labels, came to the US, whatever I get I would get. But then I got to a point where it was like, all these labels really don’t mean anything to me. So that’s where the idea came for me to create something that actually means something to me, celebrates who I am. I was on a work visa, so I could start the brand but I could not get paid from it. Once I got my Green Card in 2015 then I started the actual brand, but the idea was always there.

You design everything in RuvAfricWear, except for a few of the accessories that you sell in the store — what inspires you?

I started with blazers — that was one of the first collections. I realized there were these amazing African designers who were doing great work, but they were producing items that would end up on the red carpet or were still not functional; that someone might wear for one event. People always reserve African attire for church, weddings or funerals. My niche was to create something that is everyday functional — where you can wear it to the gym, or wear it to work, or wear it to go swimming. Any day, any time, you can wear something that’s African, that celebrates you. I had the idea for 3-4 years before I could start it, so I just needed the Green Card before I could make it a business.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you started?

Living in Minnesota, the challenge to get discovered as a brand and have people appreciate what I was doing was harder. Even in the early stages, I used to do pop-ups and fashion shows outside of Minnesota. So the brand, even up ’til now, is well known outside of Minnesota because of that. And like with any other smaller business, the challenge is always funding to be able to scale.

Why open a store?

For the past five years, I never actually wanted to open a store. I was focussed on trying to get the brand into retail stores ,and I wanted the brand to be mainstream, where people can go to Macy’s or Target and actually buy the brand there. The main challenge was contacts, knowing the right people, and how to get to that level. Even one of the things I did, I went to the likes of Nike and Under Armour and pitched them. In hindsight, I’m glad it didn’t work out. I prefer having my own store and focusing on the direct relationship with my customers. That way you control the brand story more, and better.

I can imagine rent is not cheap?

Rent is not cheap! But I was at the point where it was a risk to take, but the brand was becoming too big for me to play small. I was doing that for the past 5 years, and not taking any risks. I still had my day job. I was at a point where I felt like I was not living up to the full potential of the brand, because of my unwillingness to take risks. The foot traffic and constant eyes on the brand at the mall are really going to pay off, for sure.

So you don’t have your day job as a financial analyst anymore?

I’ve given my notice, and I’m actually in the process of hiring my replacement.

How do you feel about opening one of the very few African stores in Minnesota, in a place as big and as prominent as the Mall of America?

Even if I wasn’t in the mall, that was the whole focus of the brand — to have this brand go mainstream, to show people that it’s not only about these brands that are European or American; that we can wear our own brands and still look good. We can wear our own brands and still do all these things, whether it’s running, sports, swimming, with a brand that represents who we are and celebrates who we are. My focus has always been on that.
The high school I went to in Ghana really instilled the value of what it means to be African and how can you give back and contribute to Africa, in general. A lot of my classmates have done the same thing — whether they’ve gone back or not — so we’ve really been focused on how can we put Africa on the map or contribute in some positive way.

Some of the items you have sell out quite quickly – how do you create the collections?

The brand promotes fitness, and the idea behind it all is to use fashion and fabric from different African countries. Covid put me a bit behind on that goal. But we’ve done the Zulu beads one, and a lot of kente. It all depends, too, on how quickly things sell out. We try to put out 3-4 collections in one year. With the shop, we’ll be doing a lot more. We have a high return rate of customers so we want to make sure that when you come back you see something new.

When did you know that your brand was working, that it would work?

During the pandemic, I hit my biggest numbers. I thought, if the brand can hit these numbers during this pandemic and it’s online only, then it’s going to work. With all the challenges, the shipment delays and everything, and people sometimes waiting a month for their stuff sometimes, they were still coming back. Then I knew, it’s going to work.

How do you personally stay fit and active? Do you still play soccer?

I still like to play soccer but I haven’t played in a long time, thanks to Covid. I’ve been doing some home workouts to keep away the “Covid 15!” I also enjoy the dance workouts we offer at the store in the evenings.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt through RuvAfricWear?

Being resilient. And that an idea can stay an idea until you act on it, a dream will always be a dream until you act on it. You can have a business plan, and spend years on it, but until you actually put some action to it, it’s going to continue to just live on paper. I learnt I have to put my ideas into actions.