#Unmasked: Dirty Leather

Published: 1 February 2023

Strap in for a story about Dirty Leather

‘‘Never underestimate the power of a small spark to ignite a great business idea.’’ Tony Rickelton, co-founder of Dirty Leather.

You won’t find a blueprint for starting a new business during a global shutdown in many textbooks. But Tony Rickelton and Johan du Toit, owners of Dirty Leather bag manufacturers, not only found a way to keep their fledgling business operational, they managed to grow it into a company that’s steadily empowering local artisans and creating new business opportunities.

Igniting a love for leather

The Dirty Leather story began when Tony and Johan started a conversation with a leather bag merchandiser called Ester. Ester was selling her products at the Gordon’s Bay Winter Wonderland market in 2019 but was having difficulty expanding her business and getting space at other markets. After some careful consideration, and with a few ideas up their sleeves, Tony and Johan decided to partner with Ester and see if they could help. At first, the team worked on weekends and holidays driving the new business while keeping their 9 to 5s, but burning the candle at both ends was about to change, and quickly.

In getting to know the leather business that little bit better, Tony and Johan realised there was a lucrative opportunity out there if they worked with multiple smaller partners just like Ester, bought their bags directly and sold them to the public from a central point.

Just as this new model was gaining traction and the business was getting off the ground, Covid hit. Like so many other businesses across the country, Dirty Leather had to shut down the physical sales, leaving them with a warehouse full of merchandise and little to no sales in the pipeline.

Digital marketing propels the business forward – despite the pandemic 

Like many retailers, Dirty Leather had no choice but to pivot and launch online, with Tony and Johan learning about eCommerce on the fly. Facebook and other social media channels became Dirty Leather’s primary form of engagement with customers, and Tony took on the daunting task of understanding how to build an eCommerce website.

Within a month of launching online, the team were seeing sales of around R7 000 per month. Given that the online store was never meant to be more than a side hustle, they were off to a pretty successful start.

As South African consumer spend migrated online due to the Covid-19 restrictions, new opportunities and plans presented themselves, making this part-time endeavour far bigger than they ever imagined. Over the next few weeks and months, the new Facebook page and website were receiving hundreds of hits and sales were trending upwards.

In gaining more experience and becoming more aware of how to engage with customers through different touchpoints, the Dirty Leather team added EFT, Yoco and PayFast payment options to their site so that customers had a range of ways to pay for their goods. As the digital world they had created grew, so did their sales.

Selling on social increases revenue nationally 

With their business growing thanks to their online activity, the Dirty Leather team chose to broaden their marketing strategy and use their social channels to not only promote but sell their products. Using a combination of Instagram, Facebook and Google, the new brand was able to engage their consumers using targeted, cost-effective awareness campaigns across the platforms.

Getting their hands dirty in a new digital world and learning the intricacies of the eCommerce marketplace was an exciting career change neither Tony nor Johan could have anticipated just a few short months earlier. So, while the team enjoyed looking back at their successes, they continued to look for new opportunities. Tony and Johan were determined to expand their footprint across the country and find more customers in the market for quality, hand-made leather bags.

Tony and Johan have used their experience, their skills and their sense of adventure to create what Dirty Leather is today.

Forming partnerships with others in the industry 

Dirty Leather is by no means the only online leather bag seller, but Tony and Johan both say they are enjoying success because of the broad range of products available to browse and buy online. As part of their business model, they have brought on a wide range of suppliers so they can cater for the widest variety of tastes possible.

One such supplier, Donald Gono, plays a key role. Now supplying around 15 products, Donald was previously a driver.

Like Tony and Johan, Donald’s introduction to the leather industry was far from typical. When his father-in-law lost his job as a leather bag designer, Donald saw the chance to use his father-in-law’s designs to create beautifully crafted, African-inspired products. Donald quit his job as a driver and brought on seamstresses and some other key artisans to help create a fashionable line of leather bags that are now available on the Dirty Leather website.

Investment in eCommerce pays off

While Dirty Leather is predominantly a digital sales success story, they have also negotiated with a handful of retail outlets to stock their products. They also have a small showroom of their own in Somerset West, Cape Town, where customers can come and feel the quality for themselves.

“Our primary channel is ecommerce. It has worked extremely well for us, and we’re able to engage a national consumer base who are looking for products just like ours. We constantly refine our targeting and are experiencing significant growth in our website traffic, all of which leads to an increase in sales,” says Tony.

To put this in perspective, from the initial R7 000 per month they were earning, Dirty Leather is seeing annual turnover of R2 million.

Of course, this growth brings with it new challenges and costs, and despite having to raise their prices to cover the cost of doing business, they work hard every day to keep their products reasonably priced – another key to the ongoing success of Dirty Leather. To grow and keep the wheels turning, Tony and Johan have been fortunate enough to bring in two more staff members.

Of course, like every business, Dirty Leather has been affected by ongoing issues facing every South African. From electricity issues to supply constraints, the way forward is far from simple. But with innovative thinking and forward planning, they aim to keep the bags flowing.

Slowly, slowly

Things are going well for the Dirty Leather team, but the owners are mindful of not growing too quickly, which can bring its own challenges. Their aim is to increase turnover and customer numbers at a steady pace, banking on high levels of quality, consistency and service to ensure they retain existing clients and grow their market share.

Tony and Johan’s story is one of the opportunities taken, turning a chance encounter with a leather artisan into a successful business. Thanks to their diligence and persistence, Dirty Leather looks set to go from strength to strength, one handbag at a time.