In search of African luxury

After launching her exclusive Okapi collection of handbags, Hanneli Rupert is becoming something of a rising local and international design star – all whilst helping to put others on the map.

Why has Africa been so slow to develop luxury brands of its own?

Considering the creative talent and skills, as well as the wealth of raw materials we have on our continent, we should have many more. But the buyer base has always been relatively small. However there is new international interest in designs of African provenance that meet luxury standards. Africa has so much to offer in terms of nature and scenery, so the focus on material goods has always been left of centre. It is exciting that there are now brands emerging that have managed to combine the two: the finesse of luxury and the rare beauty of our land. Our time is now and I believe shoppers are ready to support Africa by purchasing locally created luxury items.

Are there any African brands that you believe are getting it right?

Absolutely. Frazer Parfum and jeweller Patrick Mavros are two of my favourites.

How did Okapi come about?

I came up with the idea to start Okapi in 2008. The plan was to combine the best African raw materials into classic, exceptionally made pieces. I would like to seamlessly merge exotic tribalism and classical refinement.

What are the design features of the Okapi bags and what will set the brand apart from other South African designs?

The signature feature of an Okapi bag is the springbok-horn pendant. The bags are timeless in design, yet I aim for them to remain contemporary. There are very few handbag lines in South Africa that meet the quality of an Okapi bag in terms of manufacturing. As far as I am aware, Okapi is the only one not importing designs from abroad but rather looking to export an entirely new African aesthetic.

I believe the horns are from the Karoo. Tell us more about that.

The okapi was first discovered by an English explorer at the turn of the 20th century in what was then the Belgian Congo. When he took its pelt back to the United Kingdom they immediately dismissed it as nothing more than a fairytale creature, hence its nickname, “The African Unicorn”. But because okapis don’t have horns, we decided to adopt the springbok’s horn as one of our trademarks.

I like to incorporate organic elements into the bags but am aware of conservation and animal rights, which is one of the reasons why the springbok horn as a sustainable item is so perfectly matched to Okapi.

I source the springbok horns from Graaff-Reinet where unemployment is high, as a lot of handwork goes into cleaning and preparing them.

What will the retail price be of an entry-level Okapi bag?

Okapi bags will start at around R6 500.

How can African luxury brands get the rest of the world to sit up and take note?

Africa is very much the focus of the world at the moment and African luxury brands must meet world-class standards in order for them to be noticed. The main problems I have experienced as a buyer have been with quality control and production capabilities.

You are doing a pop-up store in London at the moment. Tell us more about it.

My Cape Town shop, Merchants on Long, will host “Merchants in London” at the Shop at the Bluebird on King’s Road from 4 May to 16 June. We are selling a range of African brands including Lalesso, SAWA, Patrick Mavros, Nic Bladen Botanicals, the Letterpress Company stationery, MaXhosa, Stevenson Gallery books, Frazer Parfum, Madwa, Madécasse chocolate and music by Gazelle.

You are also looking at investing in the manufacturing arena when it comes to bag manufacturing. Why?

I would like to have all the elements of Okapi products produced 100% on the African continent. There are one or two components that I have not been able to find locally, for example a top-quality chain. Therefore I am going to import the machinery needed to make the chains here.

What are your plans for Merchants on London this year?

Merchants on Long aims to showcase the top African designers, especially in a fashion and lifestyle context. We are constantly evolving, hosting pop-up events and secret parties. There is a bar at the shop that serves as a meeting space for like-minded Capetonians and tourists. An online shopping portal “Merchants On-Line” is coming soon.

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