As a student at FIT, Mokgadi Matlhako spent a good chunk of her time at nearby Madison Square Garden, after a free Knicks ticket from a family friend touched off an unexpected, abiding hoops obsession. There was only one problem: When it came to showing her team colors, the NBA had no merchandise that appealed to her. “All they had for women,” Matlhako remembers, “was men’s gear in smaller sizes.”
Enter Kgadi (hät-é), Matlhako’s line of NBA-themed handbags. Born from a class assignment that grew into her senior project, which then served as a prototype when she pitched the idea to the NBA, the bags mimic official team jerseys, and feature popular players’ names and numbers. Made with the same fabric as the real deal, plus leather accents, they retail for $110-$150. They debuted in February 2007, during All-Star Weekend. Kgadi is now on sale in all stadium stores, online, and at the NBA store on Fifth Avenue. Matlhako has secured approval to sell in non-NBA-controlled stores, and she regularly donates bags to be sold at auction to benefit players’ charities. In January 2008, she visited her native South Africa, site of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, to explore creating soccer-themed bags for the event.
For now, Kgadi is a one-woman show, but she says that may soon change, if business keeps growing at its present rate. Thus far, Phoenix fans have proved to be Matlhako’s best customers; bags bearing the name of Suns point guard Steve Nash are reordered “literally every two days.” Her own loyalties, however, lie elsewhere: “I’m a hardcore [Allen] Iverson fan,” she says. “Huge.”