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Fashion can be ethical without being political

Hanneli Rupert’s concept store in Cape Town, Merchants on Long, houses a curated selection of African luxury, handcrafted products and designs. She’s one of the industry’s most compelling advocates for ethical production and sourcing.
Fashion can be ethical without being political

I started out with the idea 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 that are made on the continent, and it’s important that the quality is world class.

I am drawn towards brands that have their own identity and are authentic in their approach. I design the Okapi range myself and work with manufacturers I have selected over the years that 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. When I design, I usually start by thinking about what I would look for in a product.

I like things that are long-lasting, timeless and understated but, at the same time, are original and have an edge. My customers are sophisticated, educated, well-travelled people who know quality and believe in long-lasting luxury with real meaning behind it.

The African luxury industry is unique. Its core pillars are slightly different to those of more traditional nations producing luxury goods in that we don’t have a history in the industry to speak of, and so possibly place a higher emphasis on quality. What’s important to me is authenticity – the origin of the design needs to have meaning and it needs to be backed in history. This carries through to the sourcing of raw materials and the manufacture of the product.

Fashion can be ethical without being political 1

In Africa, we have different skillsets and crafts, and there should be new voices in the industry but not at the risk of losing the existing voices that are the authority on certain aspects for a reason. European crafts are respected the world over. It’s exciting when you look at African luxury and its completely authentic to Africa.

When I look at the designers I work with at Merchants, I see how they bring their heritage into their brands. Laduma Ngxokolo is a great example because everything he does – from choosing the materials to the design – follows from his own life story.

In South Africa, we’re very afraid of talented people leaving. There’s a feeling that if you leave it’s because you’re a deserter, not because you’re actually incredibly talented and going to showcase your work in New York and London. It’s important for our designers to be able to showcase their work on an international stage, but still, fly their own flag high. African designers are loyal to their countries and practices, no matter where they are. But international exposure is positive. Designers need to have that experience, and there is power in a megacity like London or New York. It’s fantastic to make it on your home ground first, but then to succeed internationally counts for a lot because the market is just so much bigger.

We need to be careful of faceless masses that cry ‘cultural misappropriation’ on social media, when it’s not the case. It only serves to make the world a much more boring place. Younger people may feel a pressure to be aligned to something so they choose their cause, but sometimes they choose it out of a lack of identity rather than knowing the facts. Nothing is black and white – there is so much grey. I’m proud of my Afrikaans heritage and I’m not going to deny it because I’m afraid of criticism. It’s about what you know, and what inspires you.

Hanneli Rupert was one of the speakers at the annual Condé Nast International Luxury Conference 2019, held in April in Cape Town.

Find out more and shop Okapi here

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