DESIGNING A COLOURFUL CAREER
Carmen Robbertse, the vivacious founder and owner of Fabrique Interiors, is a warm and colourful character, an energetic and chatty entrepreneur who is a perfect match with the trendy space that she shares with the Lineage coffee bar and Resilient Flooring in Westville.
Her desk and chairs were her Ouma’s dining suite. The rustic long blue table was where her Oupa dressed chickens on his poultry farm. She leans back in one of two brightly upholstered wing back chairs that once belonged to a great aunt.
Carmen has an innate love for a good story.
One would imagine that, in years to come, she will tell of the “whirlwind” that saw her realise a dream of opening her own interior design business in May 2019, only to shut everything down for the March 2020 lockdown – and then bounce back with the highest turnover to date in July.
Her business not only offers a decorating consulting service that advises clients on colour schemes, floor layouts, styling and purchasing furniture, but also supplies window treatments and re-upholsters older furniture with stories as entertaining as her own. She also works closely with interior architects and interior designers on new builds, supplying curtains, blinds, wall paper and upholstery.
Along the way, this speech-therapist-turned-interior designer also tends to transform clients into friends. She’s a proud second generation entrepreneur and creating her own business has given her a sense of purpose, she says.
“Over the past couple of years, I’ve been through some coaching. The first question they ask is what is your why. A lot of people’s why’s were that they did not want their families to go hungry or they wanted to provide more for their children than their parents did. I’ve realized that your why shouldn’t always come from a position of financial lack.
“I came from a different place – a lack of purpose and fulfillment… When I was part of the schooling system, I realized that this was where most of our problems lay. I got to understand the failures and wanted to fix and change them. But I soon realised that I couldn’t. I also realised that I couldn’t stay there. I can’t be part of an organization and not have an impact. For some, that’s okay. Not everyone is born to be an entrepreneur. You have to have that impatience, stubbornness and frustration because that’s what drives you. In your own business, you can fix and change things. That’s your freedom.”
Carmen admits that, when leaving school, she had no idea what she wanted to do. She was accepted to do a BA in ballroom dancing and the liberal arts in Virginia in the USA but changed her mind and headed to Cape Town instead where she studied speech therapy.
Although she quickly realised that this did not cater to her love for language but was instead extremely “medical”, she persevered and not only completed her degree and a year’s community service in the Mother City but returned to do a Master’s degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, specializing in dyslexia.
She went on to run her own speech therapy practice for 15 years – a period that she now refers to as her first career.
Looking back, she admits something was missing. “I realized that if I didn’t have a family of my own, then my job had to be my passion – but it wasn’t.”
Instead, she turned to another love – interior design. “From high school, I did courses in paint techniques, wall paper, quilting and making furniture. My grandfather was a carpenter and did all the carpentry on the blue train and I upholstered furniture with him. But, I also had personal issues when it came to beautiful things and feeling guilty about being lavish. I had to overcome that as well,” she recalls.
The about-turn was a quick one. She handed over her practice to a colleague and headed to the Tembe Elephant Park Lodge which her family own together with the local Tembe tribe.
Her family had built the lodge in 1996 with upmarket tented accommodation on wooden decks. Because of the high salt content in the soil, the wooden platforms were aging and she took charge of a complete rebuild of the 20 rooms.
Not only were they put on cement slabs this time around but the tents were completely reconfigured and refurnished.
She admits it was a baptism of fire. “You learn what parts you like and what parts you don’t like – such as project managing construction!” she smiles.
She also learnt to innovate. Ilala palms harvested at Tembe were transported to Durban where crafts people fashioned furniture and headboards for the first batch of upgrades. Second time around, local crafters took over, copying the designs and learning along the way.
“During that year, I also did an online diploma in interior design, so I combined the theory and the practical at the same time. But a year in the bush was enough for me, so I returned to the city in 2017.”
The next challenge was what to do next. Because she had no established network in the industry and felt a little overwhelmed at the prospect of setting up her own business, Carmen did something completely out of the ordinary – she got a job for the first time!
As the in-store decorator at Biggie Best, Hillcrest, she says she learnt a lot, established invaluable connections, met as many people as possible and got her name out there. But, within just six months, she realized that she’d reached her ceiling.
“I had learnt as much as I could as quickly as I could. But I was more store based than what I had imagined,” she remembers.
She joined Hem-It, the company that made all of Biggie Best’s curtains.
“Biggie Best was limiting as I could only offer Biggie Best fabrics. I could advise in terms of decorating but could only sell Biggie Best fabric and décor items. Hem-It exposed me to all fabric houses and a lot more people in the industry. I was working one on one with clients even though I was still limited to curtains and blinds,” she explains.
During her interview, she recalls telling the business owners: “I’m not very well employed. I never have been or will be. They appreciated that because it was the truth.”
She had actually joined the business believing that she would ultimately buy a share of it and become a partner.
“I worked in the business as if I owned it. At the beginning of 2019, I realised that we weren’t on the same page any more. So, I sat down and wrote out my personal five-year vision. I explained that this was where I wanted to be in five years’ time. If I couldn’t do it there, I would have to do it somewhere else. So, we parted ways and I took the plunge.”
In May 2019, she opened Fabrique Interiors. Still unsure of whether she wanted to put down roots in Kloof where she had a good potential client base or elsewhere, she did some locum work in Westville.
“When you put in the hard work, things tend to fall in place. I found that I loved it here and a place in this building fell in my lap which was perfect.”
Although she wanted a shop frontage, nothing was available and she eventually settled for a large space on the first floor of Prische House in Church Street. It was ideal as she had two people sewing there and shared space with another interior decorator.
Then came lockdown and Carmen not only waved goodbye to her fellow interior decorator who had relocated to Howick but spent a month sick in bed with a bad bout of seasonal rhinitis. Her sewers were working from home.
“I shut everything down and didn’t know when I’d open up again, so April was very rough,” she recalls.
By the end of the month, she was itching to get going again. “I decided to make and sell some masks because that’s all we could do. We had fabric and sewing machines. We needed to keep busy and keep our minds right – and I needed to get out of the house. So, I got all the protocols and procedures in place and secured a permit.
“We made and sold 1 000 masks in May. But I kept saying to myself that it was not about the masks. It got us going again, working again. It got a little bit of money flowing. My Facebook and Instagram followings tripled just through selling masks during lockdown. When I was delivering masks, people would tell me that they needed someone to make cushions or a blind. That’s when orders started trickling in. I started taking on small projects in Dawncliffe. It was good to get to know my neighbours”
Although she accepted projects that she wouldn’t ordinarily have taken on, they served as useful introductions to bigger projects and Fabrique Interiors began building up a Westville client base.
Lockdown also brought an opportunity for her to move downstairs as the plumber who had occupied her now prime spot had left.
“I’m very happy here. I have got my library, my blind display and we have a great flow of business. People come in for a coffee at Lineage or to choose their flooring. They chat to me and end up looking at fabric and wallpaper,” she says.
By July, she’d not only settled in but work was picking up.
Larger projects that had been put on hold in February and March were given the go ahead again and people who realized that both work and leisure time at home were now the order of the day began investing in their homes.
Going forward, Carmen is determined to keep up the momentum. A stickler for detail, she reviews her business every month, pruning the projects that aren’t in line with her future vision and putting even more energy into growing areas of her business that are.
Life’s too short to do what you don’t enjoy, she smiles, adding that this second career still has 11 years to go before she has to consider a third one that will see her through to retirement!