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Hanneli Rupert on her 10-year journey building Okapi and Merchants on Long

I meet Hanneli Rupert and her publicist in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel the day before she is due to speak at the Conde Nast International Luxury Conference (“CNIL”) in Cape Town, South Africa. She is impeccably dressed. Her accessories, a Springbok horn pendant and an ostrich skin bag bearing a feather embellishment, are instantly recognisable as Okapi (the luxury handbags and accessories label she started 10 years ago). 

I share that this publication will be celebrating its 10th issue in June and she reminds me that Okapi is in its 10th year of existence. I make a mental note that she will be speaking at CNIL on 10th April 2019 which she Hanneli says will be “about the 10 guiding principles that I have come up with the past 10 years”. So it is that the number 10 is front of mind as we discuss all things Okapi and Merchants on Long, the retail store she started in 2010.

What was the inspiration behind starting Okapi and Merchants on Long?

There wasn’t one Eureka moment. I studied fine art and I was painting. After university I was painting full time, so I spent a lot of time alone in studio and I realised I wanted to do something to move back to South Africa. I wanted to take time off from the isolation of painting and do something that was in job creation and sustainable development but working from a design angle. I also wanted to create products. I knew that we had the skills locally and the raw materials, but it seemed a lot of the designs that were being churned out were bad replicas of European designs. I wanted to create something authentically African but that would appeal to an audience like myself.

I started designing things that I would want to wear from materials that I identified were positive to work with. It was during that period of investigating what materials I wanted to work with that I found out there were  lot of people with a similar ethos making different end designs working in and around Cape Town and all over South Africa and none of them at the time had any retail presence. So, I decided to open Merchants on Long as a kind of co-op where I was buying in these designers. There was such a strong demand for it that it did well very quickly. Funnily enough it is also our 10-year anniversary. I was saying to [Vogue International editor] Suzy (Menkes) that I feel a lot of things are happening in terms of African design and African consciousness. In South Africa too there are quite a lot of businesses that were formed 10 years ago.

Okapi is a brand that has been synonymous with sustainability long before sustainability became the buzzword it is today in fashion. What was the motivation for knowing exactly where the materials you utilise come from?

My primary motivation when I started was really in job creation because that is where I believe the biggest push for sustainable development lies. As much as you do your sourcing if you are in an area where there are very poor people (e.g. if you are talking about conservation) they are going to poach the animals because people need to eat and people want to be able to fend for themselves, feed themselves and educate their children. I started by looking at that first and managed to build Okapi up to a point where I feel that it is fully encompassed but using what I deem to be sustainable products. I work entirely with by-products now but at the time I started out I did use other skins that maybe the first source was not for feeding. ‘Sustainable’, for me, means putting in more than you are taking out. I will use wood, for example, if for every tree that we are using they are planting two (Okapi does not use wood). I think sustainability is such a broad umbrella term now that people think that we should move away from skins completely and use plastics. I prefer the zero-waste approach. Using up an animal entirely and leaving no trace. Plastic in my experience normally goes into landfills and does not fit in with my view of sustainability. 

How do you decide on which brands to stock at Merchants on Long?

  1. The brands must be manufactured on the [African] continent. I was asked the other day how I know that they are manufacturing in fair conditions. My experience in all the factories I have visited and on the continent is that normally the people who are motivated to start these fashion brands have a similar ethos to mine. They are doing it to benefit the whole service. I sometimes questioned it along the way because I saw that there were a lot of great designs coming out of the African diaspora with a very African aesthetic, but they were making them elsewhere. One has to decide what they stand for and so for me that was the first definitive thing- it has to be made in Africa.
  2. Quality control. I do not want the hassle of sending back stock that is half finished. The products have to be finished to an international standard.
  3. Authenticity. I really like designers who are authentic in their story. You find that strongly in designers like Laduma (of MaXhosa by Laduma) and [international supermodel] Liya Kebede’s LemLem. When we started stocking LemLem it was around the time that the label had just started, and it is a fantastic label because it does not try to be anything other than what it is and you know exactly what you are getting. It is such a brilliant line. Similarly, working with designers like that who know who they are and what they are putting out there is fantastic. 

How did Okapi’s collaboration with musician Riky Rick and MaXhosa by Laduma come about?

It came about organically because Riky is a big customer at Merchants, he has got great style and is a big supporter of local brands. He was giving critical feedback on what he wanted in a bag and so I suggested to him that we do a collaboration. I looped Laduma into the conversation and it became a three-way conversation. Riky was releasing a new music video at the time which we worked on together and it was pretty organic. 

What are your hopes for both Okapi and Merchants on Long in the next 3-5 years?

One hopes they grow. I would like to expand into more homeware and invest more into research on what materials we can use which will have a positive, sustainable and social impact and expand those into the different categories [on offer].

Why was it important for you to speak at CNIL?

Suzy asked me, when she was at International Herald Tribune, to speak at a conference in Rome which was “The Promise of Africa”. It is great, almost like a reunion, that I can speak at this conference 10 years later. It is fantastic.

What do you think it means for South Africa for the first CNIL to be held here?

It is hugely exciting. I think not just for Cape Town but for South Africa and Africa as a whole. It will also showcase to the rest of the world that we are really like a first world and our own economy and they will see how things operate here which is exciting. Also, I think it will be an opportunity for people abroad to have a glimpse into seeing the creative talent on the ground.

Who is the ideal Okapi man or woman?

I do not have an identikit of what I would say the person is, but we tend to have and really like our independent, intellectual and I think very sophisticated customers. We do not have obvious branding on the product, and it is not fast fashion. It is really investment pieces. Our customers buy it because of a bigger world picture and that is great.

How did the springbok horn become a feature on Okapi handbags and pendants?

I think it was really through that process of looking at by-product. I wanted to work with natural materials, but I wanted to do something with natural materials that would not create a demand for something that could possibly have a negative impact. Also, they are kind of like good luck charms and talisman. I remember it was quite like a fortuitous moment. I was walking into the factory where I manufacture, and I saw a sangoma (traditional healer) wearing one around their neck. It had different herbs inside to ward off evil. Initially I designed it as a pendant and on the bags. I have used it as a symbol ever since then. 

When I was first designing, I looked at images from old YSL collections and their old Mombasa bags had a cow horn. I really loved that. It is very different from the stuff they are producing now but it was really the quite tribal and handcrafted pieces that left an impression with me. I always wondered why there wasn’t something like that coming out of Africa. If you look at the first Lamias (Okapi handbags), with the two horns up the side, it was with that thinking cap on. 

You studied painting in London. How much of that influences your designs?

I think that you cannot silo different fields. Design, fine arts and a lot of creative fields they all seep in to each other. When I was studying painting there was a push for much more conceptual and I think that it was a little bit more heavily weighted in that corner because I think before you can put across your concepts you need to master the craftsmanship. The same is true with doing fashion or design but everything visual feeds in to what you do. It is not a coincidence that I work with the environment and that I am working with sustainability and then design. These were influences I had as a kid. I would encourage younger designers or people across the board to try and have different interests or learn about as many different fields because you never know when one is going to affect the other. In universities they tend to focus so singularly on one end goal but it is better to draw from a wider field.

How does London influence what you do, if at all?

I think London, being the mega-power that it is, sets things on a certain standard and so you constantly have a top reference point because London is that to the world. You see the standard that you have got to achieve when you are in London. 

What 3 things would you like the readers to take away about each of Okapi and Merchants on Long?

Okapi is artisanal crafted South African luxury. 

Merchants is what most people would describe as a concept store where we stock what I consider to be the leading brands from around the continent. Merchants is, because its my own brand, a reflection of my own aesthetic and is sort of understated, timeless pieces. A lot of the Merchants designers in that stable are far more Afrofuturism and a lot of amazing, bright textiles and prints.

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