A GROUNDED and realistic approach to business, coupled with a passion for charity work are what have kept Port Elizabeth fashion designer Jason Kieck afloat in his 17 years of being involved in the fashion industry.
The staunch Christian and father of three started his fashion design business from his parents' garage in 1995, after graduating from Durban's then Natal Technikon the year before.
He started small – making dresses for family and friends – and soon his brand grew and today soon- to-be brides and matriculants seek out his service in their hour of designing need.
Kieck has dressed no fewer than eight Miss South Africa pageant winners, including former Miss SA and current client Cindy Nell.
Shortly after starting his business, word of mouth spurred it on until a one-stop bridal and evening wear shop was opened in Newton Park in 1997.
"We started this family business – the bridal shop – on a grand scale, selling perfumes, imported lingerie, lush fabrics and all sorts of wedding and evening apparel, with some to hire," Kieck explained.
The Port Elizabeth market, however, was not ready for such fashion grandeur, with many even afraid to walk into the shop.
"An impression was created that we were very expensive, scaring customers away," he said.
The business did not do well as the bulk of the clientele made orders and not many bought the ready-made goods, causing a shift in the business's focus to its eventual closure.
"During that time, we had the opportunity to work with many charities.
"We would organise a fundraising event in the form of a black-tie evening with dancing and invite celebrities down," Kieck said.
"For the evening's entertainment, I'd do a fashion show where celebrities such as Nell would wear the show stopper.
"That was a huge boost on the marketing side because you'd have 200 to 300 people getting first-hand visual experience of your work.
"That made a difference in terms of sales."
Kieck organises these functions every two years, with the next instalment being next year with Reach for a Dream's 25th birthday celebrations.
He is also part of a mentoring programme at the Hope Factory, where people from disadvantaged backgrounds are equipped to establish and grow their businesses.
Having invested a lot in marketing, Kieck did not lose any clients with his many venue changes, as his brand was already well established.
He is currently at his busiest time of the year with two weddings to "create for" on the same day, and an array of matric dances to prepare for this month alone - a total of 40 dresses.
Kieck is also dressing Nell for an upcoming magazine photo shoot.
He now runs his business from home, which is an added bonus for him as it means time with family that he would otherwise not be afforded.
A number of challenges have threatened his success, especially in the cut-throat fashion industry that is not so big in the Friendly City.
"People in Port Elizabeth tend not to spend a lot on once-off designs, often opting for a practical garment that can be worn again," he said.
"This is unlike the country's fashion capitals – Cape Town and Johannesburg – where people go all out for an item that they will only ever wear once."
Kieck cites his major challenges as the client's sometimes limited budget and a lack of suitable fabric in the Bay, meaning he has to travel to cities such as Durban for it.
"A lot of inspiration comes from fabric," he said.
He said clients often approached him as a seamstress, rather than a designer, thus adversely affecting creative freedom.
"My aim is always to please the client on the budget they can afford.
"I get highly sympathetic at times, especially for the parents with matric dance dresses," he quipped.
The economic recession was also a major blow to Kieck's business as the luxury of fancy dresses was relegated to the bottom of the budget list.
He deems himself successful, however, despite the financial knocks over the years.
"Success to me right now means being able to keep up with the expenses and cover costs, while employing people," he said.
"Success is about more than money, but about maintaining a good brand. Reputation is key."