Dancer turned designer follows her dream

Staying true to herself was an important part of up-and-coming Sea Point designer Jennifer Middleton’s career plan.

The young designer, who also had a career as a professional ballet dancer for four years, has just released a new handbag.

She said that resisting approaching investors (which would see them get a share of the business) was a difficult but good choice.

Originally from Johannesburg, Ms Middleton said she decided to pursue different options as professional dancers don’t tend to earn a lot of money. She has always had an inclination towards the creative side of things.

“I wanted to do something that would give me more time to carry on dancing and give me some more income. I’ve always had quite a strong creative side.”

Ms Middleton said her mother was a dressmaker and designer.

“I grew up with that background so I’ve always had a strong love for fashion. That’s where the idea for the business started.”

Ms Middleton said she started the business in 2009 and has grown it slowly since then.

“I didn’t have a lot of funding initially so I had to always put money back into the business. I was trying to grow a brand from scratch so that means you need to learn the craft.”

Part of Ms Middleton’s mentorship came from studying fashion design at the Central Saint Martin’s London College of Fashion in the UK.

“That was an amazing experience and it really helped me to understand the process of design. That’s when I came back to South Africa to pursue the business. It was important to learn how to make a leather bag using an industrial sewing machine. I made the first design myself and practiced the design until I had it perfected.”

At that stage, she decided she wanted to expand and approached a factory, which freed her up to do more designs.

She said she is grateful for the support of her family which was vital.

She said she likes to design handbags which are both comfortable and fashionable.

“I’m not going to buy the bag that is over-designed and not practical. I will make practical bags and add touches of elegance.”

An example of this kind of design can be seen in Ms Middleton’s latest handbag dubbed the Nikiya bag. The Nikiya bag, which is made from genuine bovine nappa leather, was according to Ms Middleton designed to meet a practical need in the lives of today’s women.

“I focus on the leather and the design. I only use local products for the handbags.

“The process (of starting a business) took very long and a lot of determination.”

She said even though she had studied for a B com degree at Stellenbosch University it was a massive career shift at the age of 28 but her advice to people is to always follow their passion.

“At one point while I was dancing I felt I wanted to make a career change. I’m not the kind of person that likes to sit in an office, I am a creative. I like the challenges of entrepreneurship even though it is hectic. It is very important to listen to our hearts and follow dreams. Life is too short and even though it’s hard to make those changes I don’t think age is something that should hold you back.”

She said she is happy with what she does now even though it can be very challenging. “I know that I am on the right path.”

Ms Middleton added that contrary to popular belief, Cape Town was a great place to start a business. She added that there was a lot of support for entrepreneurs, both from government institutions and fellow entrepreneurs, who willingly offer support and advice.

She said she will always remember her time as a professional dancer but is happy with her new path.