Creativity. Community. Ubuntu. Three things that define South African streetwear brand-on-a-mission, CHEFOBEAR. Started in 2018 by Vickus Nel and Nii-Odartey Mills and based in Shenzhen and Harbin, the brand has been making strides in China and beyond in the fashion and lifestyle industries – and now the ambitious pair are ready to take their brand to the next level.
On humble beginnings
At its foundation, CHEFOBEAR began as the fruit of a decade long friendship between the two founders, who met whilst studying at High School in Pretoria. After graduating the pair tell us that their lives took different turns:
‘After high school, we went our separate ways. I had been playing semi-professional football in America and Ghana, and I felt like I wanted to get uncomfortable and learn something new. I chose China because I thought I couldn’t make it here. And four years later here I am haha’, says Ghanaian-South African co-founder Nii.
Meanwhile, it just so happened that his old school friend Vickus was also making plans to head to the Middle Kingdom: ‘I also fancied a bit of a challenge. I didn’t want to fall into apathy, and if you’re back home, it’s easy to get comfortable. There was a big toss-up between China and Japan, but China felt like a bigger challenge, so naturally, we both chose it.’
Excited at the prospect of being united again, CHEFOBEAR was born out of a desire for the pair to bring their friendship closer and combine their shared passion into something positive for the community.
‘We were both quite motivated to do something while here and not just sit around. Something that would help inspire other people.’
When coming to China, the pair found that the country and continent they called home was viewed differently, as Nii explains, ‘I’ve been here for four years and it didn’t take me long to realise that some Chinese people don’t really know how to relate to Africans – whether it’s them posting something slightly offensive that doesn’t reflect what Africa is really about or them being confused about what Africa looks like and who we as African people are.’
Similarly, their travels prior to moving to China, subsequent reflections on Africanness and a desire to share this with others also contributed to the creation of CHEFOBEAR, as Vickus explains ‘Both of our journeys were so different and we got to do a lot of travel outside of South Africa since High school, so we sort of got to experience how the rest of the world experiences Africa and how the rest of the world experiences us.’ He adds, ‘the level of education about Africa elsewhere in the world is super limited too’, a nod to the pair’s plan to expand past Chinese borders in the not-so-distant future.
On the brand
So how has this background brought CHEFOBEAR to life?
The CHEFOBEAR team’s journey as a brand began with streetwear.
‘The hoodies are our flagship item – they’re something that everyone can wear and relates to everyone. But we also have snapbacks and t-shirts too, and those have been quite popular.’
The pair state that clothing was always just the beginning – they plan on expanding above and beyond streetwear – yet it also represents an essential vessel of understanding as Vickus mentions ‘it was important for us to get started with something and clothing is a non-verbal way to communicate with people. In a place where verbal communication can be difficult, clothing is a great way to bridge gaps. Plus, you can hit so many of the creative spheres through clothing and fashion.’
On who and what CHEFOBEAR desires to be, Nii first defines what they’re not: ‘We’re not a party brand, we want to be innovative and focused, encouraging others to do more for themselves. For example, there’s an African lady on Andinet Directory who’s involved in Mental Health and stress relief – these are the kinds of things and events we’d like to see more of and would indeed promote. We feel there are enough businesses organising beach parties and the like.‘
Yet the pair’s ultimate aim is to expand outwards into the Africa-China space, and they’ve begun to make strides in doing so by hosting events in Seoul and Harbin, China over the past few months.
‘Whether it’s through poetry, clothing, music, our events – this is something we as CHEFOBEAR hope to use to encourage dialogue between ourselves as Africans, but also everyone across the world’.
Community is at the core of the CHEFOBEAR ethos too, and the pair hope to create a community in which people from all backgrounds can come and connect. ‘The more you come into contact with other people, and the more you realise the similarities we all share, you start to build ties, and that’s part of our vision.’
Their slogan ‘it’s a necessity‘ is a play on the Jungle Book classic ‘Bare necessities’ – yet that’s not the only reference to Jungle book CHEFOBEAR have made, as Vickus explains ‘The way that Baloo interacts with the world is the way we’d like the world to interact with each other. I don’t know if anyone has read the book, but Baloo in the book is a much stronger character than in the movie. He’s more of a leader and sort of “puller of the community” – that’s precisely the role we hope to play.’ The pair believe their unique backgrounds make them the perfect duo to play such a role, as Nii explains ‘He [Vickus] is a white South African and he’s from New Zealand as well, meanwhile I’m a black Ghanaian South African – so we’re always challenging each other and notions that people hold. We’re in a prime position to represent the continent but also take our message elsewhere.’
Vickus agrees, ‘when we’re out in the community and engaging with people…For people to be able to see two people who look vastly different and live completely different experiences yet work together and have a solid friendship – that says a lot in and of itself. And that’s at the heart of who we want to be and what we want to spread.’
On the future of CHEFOBEAR
The future looks ever bright for CHEFOBEAR, with two events under their belt and new products on their way. Nii explains that incorporating other cultures into their work is high on their agenda for the future: ‘We have a snapback coming out that has Kente material on it, and I was speaking to some Mozambican friends about their traditional materials and how little the rest of the continent and world knows of them…so what we want to do is have prints and patterns from across African countries and introduce that to other markets. This represents a greater problem of awareness amongst ourselves as Africans. We want to communicate Africa to Africans, as well as to the Chinese and anybody else, so when we share a new pattern with people, questions arise about its origins, and we get the chance to educate about said group. It’s a tool for awareness.’
On succeeding in China
And for those hoping to follow in CHEFOBEAR’s footsteps and start their own projects in China, Vickus believes the key is making an effort to get into the local Chinese community.
‘One thing a lot of foreigners struggle with here is integration and fitting into the local community…there’s a huge separation between the two. Shenzhen is perhaps a little different to Harbin in that regard because it’s a little more metropolitan, and with its proximity to Guangzhou it’s well known for its African community…get them [the local community] onboard because without doing that you’ll make life way harder for yourself. They’re obviously the main part of the market.’
When working with friends, Nii believes that keeping the friendship at the foundation is of utmost importance. ‘The friendship that we share is more important than anything else. Friendship is something that you really have to put time into, just as you would a business. Its ultimately the intangible growth I’ve had with someone – that’s formed a huge part of CHEFOBEAR. For us, having spent a year separately meant we had even more growth to do. The things that ten years can do is really different, so you have to speak to each other and have regular dialogue to understand what’s happened in each other’s lives since then and use that growth to build your business.’
We’re super thankful for the work Andinet Directory™ has done. Just to be part of it has spurred us on to the fact that we need to wake up as people and push our continent forward. Nii reflects, ‘I don’t know if you’ve been to South Korea, but a lot of African countries got their independence before South Korea but look at the progress they’ve made. And the reason for said progress is because they got together and collectively said ‘let’s do this’ — that unified mindset. So seeing a platform like Andinet Directory it just rings “it’s possible, it’s possible, it’s possible” in my head, and that’s the same advice or word I’d leave with anyone else trying to make it in China – its possible.’
To keep up with CHEFOBEAR and support their brand, follow them online and check out their listing on Andinet Directory:
CHEFOBEAR were one of three winners of Andinet Directory™ (China’s Directory for all things black)’s first-ever Brand Starter competition designed to give Black brands listed on Andinet a boost by way of resources.