Precious woman of substance

MAY 2014 – Authenticity is the heart of luxury, says Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe. And, when it comes to the genuine article, this doctor, businesswoman, philanthropist and executive chairperson of African Fashion International is as real as it gets.

Defining Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe is a bit like describing your favourite designer outfit. Sometimes you get close, you might even think you’ve succeeded. But then a glance from a different angle reveals some new complexity you’d not seen before. You know it’s still outstanding – the merits of the ensemble haven’t changed – you simply had not anticipated this different perspective. The more you learn, in other words, the less certain you are that you’re getting any closer to the so-called ‘essence’ of the thing.

At first glance, then, Precious Moloi-Motsepe is a medical doctor turned businesswoman. She studied at Wits University in Johannesburg, and has practised in both the public and private health sector as a general practitioner. She moved to the United States of America with her family where she worked in the teenage and women’s health areas at the Medical College of Virginia. Upon her return to South Africa she opened one of the first women’s health clinics in Johannesburg. But then the bright young doctor’s finelytuned eye caught sight of the fashion industry and she, effectively, changed course completely, choosing to immerse herself in the momentous challenge of bringing African fashion to the world. Along the way she became the wife of mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, and loving mother to three sons.

The good doctor
Of course, that is only the most clinical of sketches on blank draftsman’s paper. Discovering the ‘essence’ of Moloi-Motsepe really should begin with the endearing simplicity this complex woman somehow succeeds in maintaining. ‘I usually get up and go to the gym,’ she says of the typical start to a day in her life. ‘Then, I spend the morning with my husband, eating breakfast and reading the papers. On alternate days, I take my boys to school and then it’s on to whatever meetings I have scheduled. I spend most of my time on our fashion business, but I also have work with the World Economic Forum and our Foundation.’

The last, the Motsepe Foundation, was founded by the dynamic couple in an effort to support a variety of initiatives that enhance education and provide opportunities for the benefit of the current and emerging generation of South African leaders. As head of the Foundation, Moloi-Motsepe also continues her focus on advocacy work around girls’ and women’s health education. She even marries her passion for women’s health with her involvement in the fashion business through projects such as the Design for Life Breast Cancer Campaign, which supports education and diagnosis of breast cancer in women in rural communities and townships. She hopes, she says, to use the fashion industry, which receives a lot of media attention, to bring focus to health issues in poor communities in South Africa.

In pursuit of style
The fashion business we speak of is African Fashion International (AFI) – as executive chairperson, Moloi-Motsepe is the driving force behind this ambitious venture. ‘Patrice and I started AFI when we bought a company that handled fashion events,’ she explains. ‘In one way or another, we’re all fascinated by creativity, be it fashion or fine art.’ Often referred to as the Queen of South African Fashion, Moloi-Motsepe has impeccable personal style, and is often in the front row of fashion shows across the continent as director of AFI, which focuses on supporting and providing a platform for local fashion designers. ‘I wanted to see if we could take local fashion into the global market by developing and nurturing local designers and using the networks we already had in place,’ she explains of the company’s ambitious agenda.

Moloi-Motsepe oversees AFI’s mission to promote and develop South African and African fashion, which it does via its annual Fashion Weeks in South Africa. The goal of bringing local and African fashion into the mainstream is also achieved through strategic partnerships with various companies and government, which bring together fashion designers, media, retailers and consumers. This gives fashion designers media publicity and orders from retail buyers and the public. It soon becomes clear, however, that even within this singular sphere of her life, Moloi- Motsepe’s thinking is multifarious. For her, she asserts, the fashion industry is sustained by three pillars: cultural, social and economic. ‘When we talk about African fashion, we’re really talking about our culture, our heritage. It’s the fruit of our history and diversity and it’s part of what defines us as a continent,’ she explains. ‘Then, within the continent you have individual nations, each with their own distinctive dress style. The key is to retain these roots while being internationally relevant. Look at a designer like Laduma Ngxokolo: his work is all Xhosa-inspired but very global. Gavin Rajah’s work portrays his Indian heritage. That authenticity is part of what makes each garment luxurious.’ Then, there’s the social side. ‘We get involved with a lot of corporate social investment projects,’ she continues, citing a Cape Townbased clothing bank as an example. ‘This is a hub that looks after women who have come out of terrible situations. We help to teach them marketing, finance, you name it, so they can run their own businesses. We then collect clothing the big retailers can’t sell, and the ladies fill the gap, selling them in the townships for their own profit.’ When it comes to her third essential pillar – economics – Moloi-Motsepe believes in bestowing opportunity where it’s due. ‘We push our designers to be entrepreneurs. You’ve got to think of yourself not as someone who will be an employee, but as someone who will create employment. From leather to mohair, there are countless other industries that benefit from a strong fashion sector.’

The success of AFI’s mission to ensure the fashion and clothing industry plays a role in supporting and developing small businesses has been in getting several designers known locally and creating domestic demand for their products. It also exposes them to global markets through its local Fashion Week platforms – Joburg Fashion Week, Cape Town Fashion Week and Africa Fashion Week have had much exposure in the global fashion and clothing industry – and facilitates their showcase during New York and Paris Fashion Weeks.

Its annual fashion designer development programme, AFI Fastrack also helps to launch careers. Young designers are invited to submit work, with 10 finalists invited to present designs based on their graduate collection at Joburg Fashion Week. Three winners are selected for an intensive internship with leading design houses and receive both a cash prize and an opportunity to launch a capsule collection at Fashion Week Africa.

Power couplings
Paradoxically, it is business that often clears space for quality time for the devoted couple. ‘Patrice and I have our own time together when we’re away doing business,’ explains Moloi-Motsepe. ‘At the start of every year there’s the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. It’s so beautiful there in the snow. It’s one of the most intellectually stimulating trips we do, but we always find time just for us, to reconnect. Around May we visit the States for pledge meetings,’ she continues. ‘Later in the year we go to the Cannes Film Festival, which I especially love. Patrice loves his motor racing, so at the same time we do the Monaco Grand Prix. Yes, we’re doing business, but we also always steal time to share some private moments.’

Moloi-Motsepe’s natural aptitude for connecting with others simultaneously plugs back into her growing commercial operations. She speaks fondly of the many companies, brands and people AFI engages with to produce that rare alchemy where both parties, as well as a wider spectrum, are benefitted. ‘The partnership with Mercedes-Benz has been especially important,’ she explains. ‘Mercedes- Benz is known globally as the fashion and lifestyle brand. It’s closely associated with fashion in New York, Berlin and London. On the African continent, it chose to partner with us. I think that was because our values are similar: values of excellence and the pursuit of elegant design and lifestyles. Mercedes has helped us elevate our Fashion Week standards to global levels. It also sponsors the African Fashion Awards and sends off the winner to showcase at one of the international fashion weeks. It’s a terrific alliance.’

Her belief in the benefits of interconnectedness doesn’t stop there. Along with Patrice (frequently listed as one of the top 10 richest men in Africa), Moloi-Motsepe, as head of the Motsepe Foundation, is now in a position to employ her family’s resources for the greater good. ‘Initially we gave back to our country in a very unstructured way. We’d offer a bursary here, support a school library there. We only formalised it all in 2002 when we established the foundation, and it’s been incredible. You get to meet like-minded people and learn from them. It’s an education for us, but exhilarating.

‘Our basic approach was to form development forums in the nine provinces, and then we asked local communities to decide what their priorities were. That means they come to us and we’ll support the projects that they’ve identified. We feel that the people on the ground understand their problems better than we do. We can’t sit in Bryanston and decide, ‘hmmm, you need this or that…’ We work in partnerships, too. Nobody can do it on their own, and it makes sense to avoid unnecessary repetition. Government, for instance, has all sorts of infrastructure. We’d hate to put energy into building a new school or library when there’s one in place that just needs improvement by way of the addition of computers or training for teachers. We’ve got about 400 university students on bursaries. They won’t make a difference today – it will takes years – but, as the saying goes, if you want to go fast, walk alone; if you want to go far, walk with others. It’s a process.’

It takes a village
Heeding her own advice, that worthwhile things are a process, reveals yet another angle on the woman. Before medical school, marriage and motherhood, there were connections and partnerships that shaped her. So, what form did the fabled village take that raised this child? ‘My parents were hugely influential. We were a middle-income family, two parents who worked very hard, and I’m passionate about education because of what they preached to us. It doesn’t matter where you end up, your education is so important. Like Madiba would say, it’s one key that opens many doors. It certainly was for me… ‘Then there were my teachers at school. I still go back to my primary school with the foundation and see my old principal. She’s an amazing woman. Without knowing it, she always made me feel special – like I had potential. That’s often all it takes – to say to a child, “You can do this”. My university professors also deserve a mention. I was lucky enough to be taught by the renowned Professor Tobias. He was an amazing mentor, and a great character.’

Naturally, there’s a tangent here too. Tilt your perspective just a tad, and this retrospective loses prominence. It’s the future that takes centrestage. ‘I’ve got three wonderful sons. I’m fortunate enough to be able to send the two younger ones to good schools, and my eldest has just finished university. They live in such a different world to the one Patrice and I grew up in. My eldest son went to the university where I had to apply specially through the minister, because of racial segregation.’

Unsurprisingly, Moloi-Motsepe is not prone to self-pity: ‘How can anyone dwell on the past when we had a man like Nelson Mandela who gave up so much? Every time I want to complain, I consider what he went through, and I think, “Wow, I’ve got nothing to complain about.” We need to enjoy the fruits of those labours to make South Africa work. And it will work. I say, “Enjoy the now and be forward-looking.” That’s my mindset.’ It’s a mindset that underlies all her philanthropic pursuits and, of these, there is no shortage. She’s Patron of both Child Welfare South Africa and BirdLife South Africa. She’s former President of the Cancer Association of South Africa and is now its lifetime member. She serves on the boards of Synergos Institute, an organisation dedicated to addressing global poverty and social injustice through collaboration with governments, business and civil society; Endeavor, a global non-profit organisation dedicated to transforming emerging countries by supporting high-impact entrepreneurs; the Women’s Leadership Board (Harvard Kennedy School) that supports research, teaching and training; and the Women and Public Policy Programme in Gender Equality. She was appointed Champion for Africa by Gift from Africa, a Global Fund Initiative that seeks to mobilise private-sector support in Africa in the fight against HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. She is a humanitarian, in other words, and a benefactor, a spokesperson and an activist, an eco-warrior and an advocate for change.

In the same way, then, that we don’t have one jacket for all occasions or all the many temperaments of weather, Precious Moloi- Motsepe isn’t always and everywhere defined by just one feature. There is no one-size-fitsall garment for this formidable fashion force. Perhaps that is, after all, how best to describe her: none of her distinct facets yet all of them… with more, no doubt, to come.

Precious at a glance
My advice to young people is to do what they’re passionate about. If that’s fashion, then go for it. As long as you gather new skills all the time… because a career can take some interesting turns.
My favourite city is Cape Town. I love it with a passion. Travelling so much, I get exposure to lots of cities, and it makes me appreciate all the more how beautiful our country is.
The artist I currently admire most is a architect named David Adjaye. He was born in Dar es Salaam, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, but moved to Britain early in life. He has built homes for designer Alexander McQueen, artist Jake Chapman, photographer Juergen Teller, actor Ewan McGregor, and artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, among other amazing international commissions.
My special treat is to head to the bush with my children. We all love it. It’s always a special time together.
My favourite books are the ones I’ve read to my children. The stories are very simple, but memorable and leave an impression. I mean, take Dr Seuss’s The Lorax. It discusses greed and the importance of protecting the environment for generations to come. I also read lots of business biographies, of course, to learn from the great thinkers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. After all, Microsoft was once a start-up, just like we were.
In 10 years time I know I’ll still be taking on new challenges. That’s who I am. And AFI will be globally renowned as a purveyor of refined African fashion.
To me, luxury is time. It’s an absolute luxury for me to read a book, because I don’t often have that time. Or to see a wild animal looking after it’s child. It’s so rare. Those are my precious moments.

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