When we want success for ourselves, we must want success for others

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"I’m a sucker for a niche market, so I had to start testing the product,” Izzart relayed. “People laughed at my idea, as they didn’t see the potential."

So, my friends and I, on occasion, enjoy attending the We House Sundays music event, and at this particular event, towards sundown, it nogal (actually) started to rain – during summer! I, being a fool that day, wore white Chuck Taylor All Stars, and it just so happened that the area around the toilet was extremely muddy.

“Why would you wear white Chucks to this event, bra?” questioned a stranger in the queue at the toilet. Despite my being tight-lipped, the answer was obvious: my outfit wouldn’t moer (hit) if I didn’t wear the white Chucks! But my pee was drukking (pushing) big time, and I didn’t still have lus (desire) to still make conversation, so I continued to ignore him.

Later that night, I returned home with my soiled sneakers, and my mind was still tripping on what that stranger had said. Angrily, I then laid my Chucks in a plastic Pick n Pay packet and I tightly wrapped it up, along with the memories of that night.

A few months passed, and after the longest time, I untied the knot of the plastic packet, noticing that the dirt on the sneakers had turned hard. My initial thought was to take them to this one apparel store in Cavendish Square, as I remembered that this store had a sneaker cleaning section, but time was limited, and, to be 100% honest, at this stage of my life, I’m tired of supporting big companies when local businesses continue to suffer within this uncertain and volatile economy. With a quick click on Google, I phoned around to local shoe cleaning services and ended up at TopShelf Sneaker Cleaner on 121 Cecil Road, Salt River.

On arrival, I noticed that the space was not occupied only by TopShelf, but there were three additional businesses: a vape store called Liq-Kamva, a sneaker reseller called Sneaki and a barbershop called The Medallion.

I was met by the owner of TopShelf, Izzart Ismail, 34, with his quirky handlebar moustache and inviting aura. Before me stood a young man with a similar background to mine: a creative, stemming from a family that had been previously disadvantaged; and most importantly, I saw him as my brother in Islam. Instantly, with my writer’s instinct, I knew he had a story to tell.

As I handed over the dirty Chucks, Izzart filled out a receipt and began to tell me his history and his story.

“I used to work in social media marketing, and grew despondent in the corporate world. My first business venture, Jula Vape, started in 2014. With the vape juice product that I created and the knowledge I gained through business, while working a full-time job, I was able not only to sell my product but to empower friends around me. Alhamadulillah (Praise to God), after some time, the experience and knowledge shared helped friends start their own vape brands and businesses. Till today, I see their businesses thriving, and I pray we all make it.”

After I had received my receipt, Izzart inspected the sneakers to check whether they needed any repairs. Thankfully, no repairs were needed, and he then proceeded to dust the sneakers to remove any surface dirt, before continuing.

“Back in 2017, between learning about more vape ingredients and chemicals, I got the idea to create cleaning agents specially for cleaning shoes. Fast-forward to a few years later, during the COVID-19 lockdown, I continued to pick up the samples that I’d created back then, and decided to improve the recipe to launch an eco-friendly sneaker cleaner. With the knowledge I had from creating my Jula Vape juice, I began to perfect the sneaker cleaner recipe. Initially, the product was too harsh, due to the bleach component. I adjusted the ratios. With many doubts and hopes, I took my recipe to an ISO 7 lab, and they were impressed with the idea. After 11 trials, my research on the ingredients became foolproof, and the final product for TopShelf Sneaker Cleaner was created.

“I’m a sucker for a niche market, so I had to start testing the product,” Izzart relayed. “People laughed at my idea, as they didn’t see the potential. Even though the concept was there, I had doubts, as I didn’t know whether everything was going to work, or whether it was going to be a profitable business. One day, I purchased little spray bottles, and I advertised my product on WhatsApp, but the same people who were interested in purchasing the sneaker cleaners asked whether I could clean their shoes, too. By the end of the week, I had sold 20 bottles, then 30, and I then generated income.

“Once the lockdown restrictions decreased, more people could leave their homes and their sneakers became dirtier. I began riding that wave by cleaning 20 pairs of sneakers a week. One day, a friend, Abdul Raaziq (someone I had supplied Jula Vape juice to), asked if I would be interested in taking space in his vape lounge. I was grateful that I had once helped him on his business journey, because then he gave me that same opportunity. By collaborating within retail space and sharing ideas, together we could bring more people into the store, with both businesses thriving – if you kyk (help) with me, I kyk (help) with you. His vape customers become my sneaker cleaning customers, and vice versa – surprisingly, the concept of a vape lounge and sneaker cleaning came together.”

Izzart removed the laces of the sneakers and washed them separately. He tapped lukewarm water into a transparent bowl and generously sprayed TopShelf Sneaker Cleaner product on various targeted areas – everything done with precision.

But things weren’t always easy sailing for Izzart, as many didn’t believe that his new-found business venture would succeed. “You see, I hate the koesister mentality,” he continued to explain. “People would ask me, ‘Why do you want to clean shoes? That’s a poor man’s job.’ To them, I sounded crazy. Instead, I had to learn to surround myself with people who believed in me, and now those very people can’t believe how much the business has grown. There was a lot of doubt – I had a prestigious job at one of the biggest retailers in the southern hemisphere – so they couldn’t believe that I had left my job in social media marketing. I don’t like the false idea of status. I had to keep myself grounded and just believe that I could make this all a success.”

I can’t help but remember what our beloved Prophet Muhammad, Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam (May peace be upon him), once said, “Uhibu Li'akhik Ma Tuhibu Linafsika (Love for your brother what you love for yourself).”

As I stood in the store, watching Izzart restore my white Chucks, I thought about how my father always relayed that when it comes to clothes, one shouldn’t spend a lot of money, but when it comes to sneakers, one should always buy quality. According to statista.com, the South African footwear market is set to generate an estimated revenue of R141 million in the year of 2022. With Izzart’s expertise, I wanted him to explain to me what the whole sneaker craze in South Africa is.

“As the hip hop, rap and pop culture of the ’90s grew more popular here in Cape Town, I believe that the generation before us linked all those styles with their own aesthetics. I love sneakers and I love style, but I’m not a sneaker head – a term that is used very loosely. People think that in order to be a sneaker head, you need to have numerous pairs of sneakers. But what if someone has two pairs of sneakers, for example, Vans and Adidas – does that mean they can’t be a sneaker head? People shouldn’t get confused with the terms sneaker head and sneaker collector.

“The hunt and need for sneakers will always be prevalent. I like how different age groups will think that different sneakers are kwaai (cool), but again, we must educate our children not to have the koesister mentality. What is a good sneaker? That’s subjective. Younger children think that they need to buy whatever is advertised and seen online and in mainstream media, but we should choose and buy what we like. The OG or older generations should encourage the youth to buy what they like, not what is trending. We must dress to show our personal style – that is what makes us Capetonians unique. The world is a big place, way bigger than the southern suburbs.”

Izzart then took out a black wooden brush, with black bristles, and scrubbed the sneakers. He thereafter applied more product onto the sneakers, allowing the water to activate the cleaning. With a clean microfibre cloth, he dabbed and twisted it onto the material of the sneakers to get all the surface water off. He moved back to the bowl of water and tackled the laces, once again spraying his TopShelf Sneaker Cleaner into the water before rubbing the laces clean on the palms of his hands. Thereafter, he rinsed and repeated and let the laces airdry.

I asked Izzart to share some of the key elements he has learned over the years, and he responded by saying, “If you think positively and do good, it will bring baraka (blessings) to any business. My parents were working-class people, and I was brought up with free thinking. My parents never placed me in a bubble. They taught me always to speak politely and to be honest. Everything starts with a thought, which leads to words and then to action. I want everyone reading this story to be inspired to take the leap of faith. We must put ourselves in uncomfortable situations so that we can become comfortable. I hate the word can’t, because we all can, and if we fail, we kap aan (move forward)!”

We continued to talk as the white Chucks were placed on the drying rack, and I asked Izzart to share one final thought with the readers of this essay. He paused, deep in thought while twisting Cedarpine hair wax onto his handlebar moustache, before saying, “It brings happiness to me when people start exploring avenues that no other person will. All success is rated differently. I hope our people continue to break barriers, break stereotypes and make progress. Insha’allah (God-willing), I wish success for everyone wanting to start their own business.”

As I leave TopShelf Sneaker Cleaner, with clean white Chucks and a cleaner heart, I can’t help but remember what our beloved Prophet Muhammad, Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam (May peace be upon him), once said, “Uhibu Li'akhik Ma Tuhibu Linafsika (Love for your brother what you love for yourself).”

To my brother, Izzart, and his team at TopShelf Sneaker Cleaner, I wish you all the success in both your professional and your personal lives, and I hope you can wish the same for me and my writing ventures.

I’m once again reminded that when we want success for ourselves, we must want success for others.


Visit TopShelf Sneaker Cleaner for all sneaker and shoe cleaning, as well as shoe repairs, at:

121 Cecil Road
Salt River
Cape Town

Phone: +27  72 039 9390
WhatsApp: +27 81 461 2770
Facebook: www.facebook.com/Topshelfsneakercleaner/
Instagram: @topshelf_sneaker_cleaner

  • Photography: Zubayr Charles
See also:

It’s not just a barbershop, it’s a community

Where is your happy place?

Ramadaan on Dorp Street

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  • Suhayfa Gabriels

    Inspiring and eye opening. I love and enjoy your articles as they're about real people and real stories. Awesome job, as always.

  • This is such a heart-felt essay. It's amazing to see and read about people's journey to success and how it started as a small thought ending up as something so big!
    Truely inspiring 🙏

  • Absolutely amazing, 🤗 well done on your writing method and the teachings behind the story. I was extremely intrigued by this story, as they say: love your neighbour like you love yourself.

  • Well done, Zubayr! Once again, another brilliantly thought-out piece to your collection; keep up the great work!

  • Worth the read❤️ I absolutely loved reading this, just to be reminded that no matter what life throws at us, we kap aan.

  • Amina Karriem

    Yoh algamdolilaa, Zubair. Stunning duahs an ideas for the youth that sleep, eat and drink with social media, instead of empowering them in the big wide world. May ALLAH always guide and protect you. InshaaALLAH ❤❤❤

  • Jasmiena Isaacs

    Aslm, you are simply just plain stunning. I just love your way of thinking and putting things into action. May you always be under the protection of the Almighty and everything good in life be granted to you. Stay blessed, my dear. ❤

  • Wow, wat 'n amazing produk. Sal beslis dit koop, en die storie is baie goed oorgedrae. Mooi storie.

  • aunty Ashia Allie

    What a wonderful story, so well written. Masha Allah, may Allah S.W.T.guide though-out your career and grant you inspiration. Amen. Ya Rabb 🤲🤲🤲

  • Abieda Charles

    Indeed another well written essay, my son... I applaud your great literary skill and the awesome rhythm your message grasp us, full on.

    Shukran and continue to impress me, my darling!

  • Zodwa Kahla-Mangali

    Wooooow, what a story. It is so informative and I've learned a lot. I wish everyone can read this, especially these young stars, so that they can understand the 'sneaker head'.

    A very good essay indeed. I'm proud of you.

  • Imraan Essack

    Another piece very well written... I love the humour the all time, a reminder that LOCAL IS LEKKER...

  • Wow, this is such a well written piece and I love how you are giving exposure to our locals out there! Thumbs up to you, Mr Charles.

  • Latasha Prinsloo

    Absolutely loved it, sir! Keep up the great work, we all look up to you!🙌🏻🙏🏻❤️

  • Algamdoellilah, Zubayr, you truly are a natural storyteller. I thoroughly enjoy the dialect and the fact the you keep it real. There is no pretence in your writing, this allows the reader to be easily transported into whichever world it is you’re narrating about. Take a bow, my dear, another excellent piece.
    PS: On a side note it’s scary to think that Izzard may have had similar ingredients in the liquid vape product and the shoe cleaning product?
    Perhaps your next piece of writing should be an investigative report on the culture of vaping within our society; looking at the ingredients as well as it’s effects on both individuals and the broader community?
    Anyway just a thought; use it, don’t use it...

  • Ghannaan Soeker

    Assalaamu Alaykum
    What an inspirational story. I wish Izzart all of the very best with his sneaker-cleaning bussiness, and people like him who put their dreams into action. May the Almighty place abundance of blessings and goodness in all of your businesses. Ameen.
    Zubayr your stories are always a pleasure to read and quite informative too. Shukran for letting us know what is happening out there.
    Well done.

  • I like this article very much; it makes me want to believe in my dreams more and support local talents and businesses.

  • Moeshfiqah Ismail

    Well done, Zubayr Charles. I really enjoyed the realness of this article. Aunty Abieda Charles should be proud ❣️

  • What a great talent you have when it comes to writing! Thanks for taking us on yet another journey with you — I got some sneakers that need cleaning, hoeka from We House Sundays. Such a good read. So proud of every piece!

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