Meeting Saleh Abrahams, 36, his confidence and direct eye contact mesmerise, almost overshadowing the difficulties he encountered as a boy.
From a trestle table at Constantia Village to a thriving business, he says his customers still remember when he would approach them. An eccentric boy with a stutter, wearing a tie asking them to buy fabric from him; funny and endearing, they’ll never forget him and still support him.
That was back in 2008, when he employed Vasco Mawire to help – who still works for him – while he handed out cards in the shopping mall. At that point he had no goal except survival.
But backtrack a few years when he started his primary schooling in Grassy Park where he struggled, was ridiculed and teased for stuttering. Mr Abrahams’ parents sought help from the Waldorf School.
When his parents’ business went into liquidation it was a turning point in his life and he made the decision that his stuttering would not hold him back.
Although he tried his hand at other things, his father had encouraged him into a career in information systems so that his speaking would not hold him back, but he discovered his passion for fabrics and fabric designs.
“As a child, my mum imported fabric from Italy so I grew up around it and took it to a different level,” said Mr Abrahams.
In 2009, having driven past the corner shop on Constantia Main Road many times, he noticed it was for sale. But there was no way he could buy it – at that time he was driving a borrowed car. Next thing he saw it had been sold but he was not deterred. He knocked on the door and asked to rent it until the sale went through. He still recalls the woman’s colourful language as she told him to go away. But he persisted until she gave in and he rented the property for the remainder of the transfer period.
The transfer fell through and somehow he managed to scrape together the money to buy the place.
He now employs 11 people and has about 50 contract staff in the CMT (cut, make and trim) section and plans to turn the business into a global one, exporting local designs and locally printed fabrics. And what’s more, the time is right with the exchange rate as it is. He is already exporting all over this country and into Africa, Europe and Australia.
When the Bulletin spoke to him, he had been to his second Toastmasters meeting in Westlake where his speech won. He has recently returned from the Maison and Objet international trade fair dedicated to lifestyle fashions and trends, held in Paris.
Showing pictures on his cellphone, he said black and white is all the rage, from furniture to ceilings and walls. “But you can’t take Parisian style to South Africa,” he said.
“We spend most of our time living outdoors and we have different lighting and a different palette of colours, muted, natural, earthy, whereas in Europe jewel colours work well in that light.”
Mr Abrahams has a versatile and diverse sense of colour and design using nature as his inspiration, from proteas and disas to weaverbirds and Indian block designs, each manufactured locally.
He is positive about this country, believing it is all about attitude, becoming skilled and being of service to people. “On so many levels this country has so much to offer. If we can foster what it took to create this business in the same way that it takes to run a country, the world, imagine what we would have.
“People in South Africa can rise above anything. When we take responsibility, the whole world opens up and becomes a beautiful place,” he smiled.