Style | Van der Postings

An antidote to South Africa’s soulless spreading malls

It’s half shop, half salon – and all African

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An antidote to South Africa’s soulless spreading malls

October 17 2010
Lucia van der Post

When the daughter of one of the world’s most internationally known luxury-goods businessmen opens a shop, however small, wherever it is in the world, it seems worth taking time to see what she’s up to. Hanneli Rupert, daughter of Johann Rupert, CEO of Richemont (which, among many other big names, owns Cartier, Dunhill, Montblanc, Chloé and Jaeger-LeCoultre), is about to open her own enterprise in one of Cape Town’s most vibrantly busy shopping streets.

She hasn’t followed the slick, sharp, über-contemporary international route, so this is not the sort of boutique that could be in any city, on any high street; it’s deeply rooted in a story and in a place. What she has opened is the first African concept store-cum-salon. To showcase her ideas, she found an enchanting old double-storey merchant’s house, what a local historian called “Undoubtedly the best example of art nouveau architecture still left in Cape Town”; Hanneli Rupert called the shop Merchants on Long.

She says she hopes to give the shop (first picture) the feel of an “archaeological society”, for she thinks that while concept stores are “moving forward at breakneck speed, at Merchants I’m looking to the past for inspiration, aiming to provide a contemporary oasis from the clutter of modern technology.”

She wants it to be filled with products that are utterly of Africa, that draw on its vast craft and cultural traditions and yet are sophisticated enough to appeal to an international audience and that can hold their own in any retailing environment. It’s going to be a mix of some very established brands – British readers may well be familiar with Patrick Mavros’s silver (bracelet, fourth picture) and the rich work of Ardmore ceramics – but there will be bowls and containers made in highly sophisticated shapes and colours by Zenzulu (second picture), whose weavers work with telephone wire.

There will also be sisal baskets from Swaziland’s Tintsaba, and clothing from brands such as Suno (based in New York but made in Africa) and Ethiopia’s Bantu, as well as from LaLesso Couture, which is doing a line specially for Merchants.

And finally, her own Okapi handbags (third picture), which is where the whole project began. She uses fine African skins, whether calf leather or ostrich skin, all – of course – sourced from sustainable farms, each bag identified by her trademark, a pair of small female springbok horns. They’ll range in price from £1,000-£2,000. As for the name, Okapi: old Africa hands will know that it is a mysterious central African animal, closely related to the giraffe, which has an almost mythic status.

Like any shop that hopes to hold its head up in today’s retailing environment, it doesn’t just sell “things” – there will be craftsmen making artefacts (Zenzulu weavers on Mondays, beaders on Tuesdays, and so on) and giving customers a chance to get items personalised, a bar to sit at, discussions, debates, “secret” parties.

So it’s a half-shop, half-salon, a million miles from the bland malls that are spreading like a weed through South Africa’s prosperous suburbs. It is small, precious, particular, idiosyncratic. It could be said to be to Cape Town what 10 Corso Como is to Milan, what Merci is to Paris. If you like the sound of it, there’s nothing for it but a journey to see it.