Hanneli Rupert talks luxury retail and design in the African context

Hanneli Rupert was one of the speakers at the fifth annual Condé Nast International Luxury Conference. Bringing together, in Cape Town, over 500 senior business and creative leaders from the global luxury industry, the focus this year was specifically on the promise and value of the African market and the power of the continent as a creative, manufacturing and retail hub. As a South African designer and retailer and the creative force behind Okapi and Merchants on Long, Hanneli’s discussion at the Conference covered authenticity, sustainability and storytelling in luxury retail. She spoke to us about her passions, projects and processes as a design entrepreneur and collaborator.

Amongst your various fashion-related projects, your African concept store Merchants on Long offers a bespoke platform for designers from around the continent. How do you select and curate what goes into a shop?

I started with the idea in mind to support African designers and makers from around the continent and to showcase the incredible talent we have available in Africa. I only stock brands making on the continent and it is important that they have world class quality. I am also drawn towards brands that have their own identity and are authentic in their approach. 

Do you have a specific protocol when identifying the right designers for your brand and how do you find these talents and artisans?

I design the Okapi range myself and and work with manufacturers I have selected over the years who have impressed me either because of their exceptional skill or because of their unique approach to working (for example upskilling people and generating much needed jobs in a sustainable and ethical way).

While your merchandise brand positions itself as all being ethically sourced and authentically African made, what percentage of your customers are from the continent and what do you think it says about the current power plays between Africa and the West that most of these luxury goods are beyond the reach of most Africans, while those with a stronger foreign currency will find them far more accessible?

We have a very broad customer base and I feel the brand is appreciated by different people for different reasons. We have a strong African customer base and they are often repeat customers. 

What is your perspective on the evolution and current state of South Africa’s design industry and who are the designers that you feel one should be keeping an eye on?

South Africa’s design scene is evolving at a lightning pace. I am a big fan of Lukhanyo Mdingi and Thebe Magugu as well as MaXhosa of course, which keeps going from strength to strength.

What are some creative collaborations you would like to see and why?

I would like to see collaborations between artists, designers and civic servants. Giving the creatives the ability to beautify and uplift our public spaces whilst thinking creatively and conceptually about how to improve our cities and urban areas.

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