This is an article that I wrote which was published in Eish! Magazine in August 2008. The pictures are not the same ones that were used when this article was published.
What it takes to be a Top Designer....
Exclusive interview with MAX Institute of Fashion Art’s Suzi Mockridge.
– By Nabihah Desai
Although the term “dynamite comes in small packages” seems rather cliché, there is a reason as to why many people tend to cringe when they hear that quote. It is quite simply because it is true. No one wants to believe that a petite-sized person, let alone a woman, can ‘rule the world’ but take a look around and see us try. With no exception to the rule, Suzi Mockridge in true ‘yogi’ style lets us in on her secret to being a successful designer.
After many years of designing for major stores in the country, Suzi Mockridge turned a previous cafe in Florida road to what is now known as MAX. But eight years ago, the concept of stocking high-end fashion in a little store seemed like risky business considering the fact that it was a new idea for a South African client base. Nevertheless her notion worked and almost a year later, the Gateway team approached. Initially, Suzi was not keen in having her store in a shopping centre because she was entering grounds that she did not understand. Since it was a new centre, there were bound to be a few minor problems but overall, MAX was one of the stores that maintained throughout. Suzi’s active role in organising fashion shows for her large client base, by renting out nightclubs and installing her own modelling ramp and lighting, took an exorbitant amount of money. It came to a point where she realised that MAX is doing so well she could be complacent enough in saying “let’s keep it that way,” or she could take a risk and try and do better. The concept of taking on a larger premise would be ideal since it would cater for her extremely large client base.
This did not come without its fair share of problems...
The idea of MAX Institute of Fashion Art was a very unique concept. “So unique that, nowhere in the country could you find another business like this as a role model,” says Suzi, “so initially, it was difficult to explain and Gateway seemed quite cautious to the point where they might have turned down the idea entirely.” She did not give up but instead, opted for a very visual 45 minute presentation of what she’d like MAX to be. The compilation of the presentation took a lot of money and she even had to employ a design graduate to build initial models to what the store would look like on the computer. However, after gracefully giving their time to witness the very well put together visual presentation, the Gateway management concluded that this was a great concept and obliged to Suzi hiring the bigger premises outside Gateway where the MAX Institute of Fashion Art now stands.
Suzi admits that the best part of Gateway is that they present itself with a lot of opportunities if you are willing to learn. The Gateway management also advises store owners on how to write a business plan and Suzi is grateful that from the beginning she had taken this advice and also embraced great mentors such as Barry Nesbit. “If you can write a good business plan, doors will always be open for you.”
“You’ve got to leave your mind open and take criticism constructively.”
So how does she maintain that balance between commercial viability and being a fashion designer?
This is a very competitive industry; hence Suzi runs two different lines, sometimes more than two. Her creative side comes out when she designs for fashion shows and these particular items are ‘once-off’. This would be her artistic side emerging. On the other hand, her extremely large client base allows her to keep in touch with her customers’ needs so when she designs for extensive purposes, their needs are kept in mind. Over and above that, Suzi manufactures her own line overseas as a commercial line which still has her client’s flavour to it but it is more affordable and directional in its own way. “I don’t think we are followers in a big way,” comments Suzi, “and that is how we maintain a balance.”
What about her other interests that result in her being ‘multi-layered’ ?
Suzi’s complete faith in the amount of talent emerging from Durban and her willingness to harness this talent allows her to have her hand in promoting them. For one of her fashion shows, she had taken four staff members whom had no designing experience, yet under her guidance for just a month, they were able to produce their own range. Along with that, her alliance with Linea Academy meant that any top student at Linea Academy would be able to put together their own range at their place of learning and have the opportunity to present their work on the ramp at the MAX Institute of Fashion Art. For one night, these fortunate students will be given full access to Suzi’s guidance, her client base, as well as the best models, Terry Scott to do the model’s hair and Lindsay Nixon to do their makeup. Her belief in passing knowledge forward is what pushes her to help emerging talent in this way. “I have been in this business for many years and made quite a few important contacts along the way, it is only right to pass it on in this industry. Because there is nothing more that I’d like to see, than Durban designers excel and become world famous, and I know that the only way that will happen, is if people with experience make their knowledge readily available to those who are new to the game. That is really the aim of the Institute of Fashion Art.” Along with designing, Suzi plays a part in finding local musicians that she believes will be a great success such as “The Fuzz”. She also spends a lot of time in the kitchen at MAX conjuring up delectable and appetising cakes and pastries and her enthusiasm to pass on her knowledge even allowed her to employ her housekeeper to the MAX kitchen so that she may display her talents in the restaurant and catering business that MAX is also entitled to.
Suzi’s passion for imparting her knowledge in every aspect is infectious and plays an important role in keeping her successful. After all, the more you give, the more you receive.
Suzi Mockridge on....
What makes a good business woman?
In this particular industry, you have got to use both sides of your brain effectively. You need to be creative as well as have a good understanding of the intricacies and the mechanics of running a business. Most of all, you need to understand that there is never anything personal about business. Quite often people in this industry are very creative but you find that they don’t blossom to their full success because they never really understand running a business, which is more a science rather than an art. People have got to learn that there is more to managing a business than passion, because “passion alone is not going to pay the rent ... good business sense will!”
Her definition of success:
Success is when you are content with your achievements... and I’m not there yet.
Her motto in life and in business:
Never lie. I try very hard not to do this. As human beings, we are generally flawed. We should try to eradicate at least one of these flaws before we die. If I could just get rid of one of these flaws, I believe I could achieve something great in my life. So I try to always be honest. Honest in business and in life. People will respect you for it, even though they won’t necessarily like you..!
Opening up a business?
“When you open up a business, you need to capture the actual essence of the place. Every place has a way it should look; you should take into consideration what surrounds it. For instance, there was no question about it that Malibu Bar had to have a relaxed and ‘surfer’ vibe to it.”
A typical day in the life of Suzi Mockridge?
A typical day for Suzi, lasts 14 hours on average and with travelling extensively overseas, it would be more like a 16 – 18 hour day. However, there is never a dull moment because of the diversity of her interests. When she is not designing, she has a handle of everything from the actual running of the sales floor, the music, the decor, the restaurant and catering, spending time in the kitchen as well as playing a part in promoting young talent. With her Friday evenings dedicated to inviting her clients to spend some time and enjoy cocktails at the bar, Suzi admits to not having much leisure time.
So what does she do to relax?
“I used to do yoga to relax. Every morning I would be dressed in full white and practise yoga on the ramp... but I ran out of time to do that!”
Nowadays, Suzi’s relaxation technique includes renting videos of period dramas because of the theatrics involved. She also enjoys the good cinematography as well as being inspired by the costumes of that particular era.
Where her inspiration is derived from?
Suzi Mockridge believes in doing an ample amount of research to get her inspiration. “You’ve got to understand that there is a strong continuation from one season to the next. A formula that applies.” So although she may be capable of starting a trend all by herself, Suzi would rather take inspiration from the top global designers and incorporate it in such a way that it will work for her client base. She is therefore extremely lucky to be able to communicate and spend a lot of time with her clients so as to understand their needs along with taking inspiration from top European designers.
“Experience does not necessarily mean that one has to learn from making your own mistakes. I am a firm believer that you can learn from other people’s experiences and mistakes as well.
Her advice for “Suzi-wanabees”?
“Don’t do this if you’re not willing to eat, sleep, and drink it for a minimum of 14 hours a day!”
If not this then...?
“I will be content just by being a yogi! Just being able to zone out and be at peace.”