#Unmasked: La Mode

Published: 1 February 2023

Kitting out a new business 

“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a girl walk across the square wearing one of my pieces.” – Anna-Marie Schoeman, owner of La Mode at La Rochelle Girls’ Primary School in Paarl

Anna-Marie Schoeman had no intention of starting a school wear and apparel business, but when the opportunity presented itself during lockdown, the chance was hard to pass up. At the time, Anna-Marie was the marketing manager at La Rochelle Girls’ Primary school. When Covid-19 hit, she was forced to take a pay cut, which left her wondering how to make ends meet.

Unlocking the door to a new venture

The single mother of a teenage boy, Anna-Marie had to make a plan, and quickly, to make sure she was able to cover her monthly expenses. Luckily, she struck upon a new idea after talking to her sister who is the Head of Costumes at the Drama department at Stellenbosch University.

At La Rochelle Girls’ Primary, the sports kit and any other apparel had traditionally been sold out of a small storeroom inside the school building, it was tricky for parents to get to and often not stocked with a big range of products. The whole experience needed a rethink, and that’s what it got.

Anna-Marie recognised an opportunity to open a permanent school wear and apparel shop at the school by converting part of an existing building into a shopfront. It just so happened that the premises available also had great access for parents and in three months she opened the doors to eager customers.

Opening a new boutique on campus

Anna-Marie’s fledgling enterprise really started flying when she began buying and mending second-hand uniforms to stock her shelves. As these previously loved clothes sold out, she knew she was onto a winning idea. With some timely guidance on stock, procurement and tactics from Carol Cloete – the manager of the La Rochelle Girls’ High School uniform shop – Anna-Marie was on her way to becoming a full-time shop owner.

In June 2021 she decided to brand her new store. Anna-Marie gave the premises a facelift and named it after a trendsetting Paarl boutique from the early 1900s, the owners of which were La Rochelle Girls’ High School alumni. 

La Mode was officially born.

The insights from Carol proved invaluable, and Anna-Marie soon gained the confidence to approach suppliers and create uniforms directly, and she discovered the tricks of the trade, learnt about fit, wear & tear and the trend cycles.

Fast forward to a few months after launch, and suppliers were knocking on Anna-Marie’s door to ask if they could supply her and the nearly 400 learners she catered for. Anna-Marie’s business was really taking off, and the discussions with different suppliers sparked a new idea and a chance for diversification.

Diversification opportunities

With new suppliers lined up, Anna-Marie began to diversify her stock and added new product lines like stationery, sports apparel, and accessories such as scarfs, blankets and umbrellas. The addition of these new offerings meant Anne-Marie’s side project had turned from boutique to full-blown retail outlet in a matter of months.

With her background in marketing, Anna-Marie used her knowledge of brand and design to get creative with stock and drive the modernisation of La Rochelle’s 164-year-old brand. She introduced supporters’ kits for sports days and brought in hair care items, lunch bags and backpacks.

After only a year, La Mode was booming and Anna-Marie, helped by kids wanting the newest fashion and accessories available, was flourishing in her new role. In the process she became very much a fixture of the local Paarl community.

“Every girl and their Mom or Dad knew me. When I went to town, they would all say hello. I, of course, could not recall the names of every child and their parents, but it was truly special to play such a personal role in their lives,” she says.

“Uniforms are more than clothes; they are a part of a students’ identity. They represent not only their school, but also its values and character. Every item that a schoolgirl wears is a symbol of their school and there is a good deal of pride in wearing a branded item: it sets them apart but also gives them a sense of belonging,” she says.

Scalability is on the cards

The future of La Mode looks bright, and as Anna-Marie begins to flex her new-found business knowledge she’s navigating the world of sales cycles, stock volumes and order lead times with more and more confidence. And there’s a lot of room for growth: the average parent spends between R3 000 and R4 000 a year on each child’s school uniform and other supplies, so as she diversifies her revenue lines, Anna-Marie is adding to this potential, unlocking even more opportunity for La Mode to flourish and grow alongside the children that she dresses.