Hanneli Rupert Okapi Designer and Entrepreneur

First and foremost, Hanneli Rupert is a hands-on entrepreneur: a designer and developer for whom the machinations of manufacturing hold as much pleasure as the finessed final product. As both founder of her own accessories label, Okapi, and Africa’s first concept store, Merchants on Long, located in the heart of Cape Town (both of which now also boast a successful e-commerce platform), Hanneli is a woman seeking to redefine African-made luxury for the long- term, holistically and from the grass roots up.


‘Believe me, it’s no walk in the park,’ she says. ‘Africa presents a very different kind of process in terms of production and development from other continents. It’s not like China, where you send a sample and they copy it in 24 hours. It’s far more complex and intensive and involves a lot of searching to find or develop the right skills for the products you want to create, but I’d never have wanted to do something and not be involved in the manufacturing process. I need to be there with it all.’

Difficulties aside, she’s making it work. While Merchants on Long trades purely in African-made products, a premise over which she’s personally been extremely vigilant (‘there were times we’d mournfully discover something was actually being produced in New York and we’d have to drop it’), Okapi is rooted in sustainable, ethically sourced and fully traceable designs using local, South- African, materials. While to those beyond Africa a materials menu including blesbok, ostrich and crocodile may appear exotic in the extreme, they are, she says, largely the by-products of wider African industry. They keep fully in line with Hanneli’s personal philosophy of nose-to-tail luxury: beauty in full regard for the wonders of nature. Indeed, on numerous occasions she refers to her preoccupation as the ‘circle of life’ – a belief in the cyclical connections between all forms of natural life – which has consequently equipped her with an overarching ‘respect for nature and an appreciation of luxury that’s about far more than simple materialism’.

The blesbok, a small antelope, holds particular significance for Hanneli. It is, she says, an animal that represents South Africa to the extent it’s almost been elevated to almost mythical status, making it a potent physical totem for the South African spirit. As such, with myth and legend being another of her preoccupations – an endearingly perfect foil to her unfailingly pragmatic business sense – the blesbok horn is now a key feature of the Okapi range, appearing as an emblem on every bag. ‘The blesbok horn, as an object, carries a level of symbolism in South Africa similar to the evil eye in Greece – they’re omnipresent talismans,’ she says. ‘I definitely believe in the potency of inanimate objects, and again in the circle of life idea that energies can be transferred and therefore the work that goes into a product can be felt within it. Ultimately it’s why I believe, design-wise, in the notion that materials speak much more loudly than design gimmicks.’

The names of the Okapi range – Mawu (the goddess of creativity), Oya (the warrior goddess) and Lamia (the African Queen) – further serve to fuel her desire to redress a shortfall of storytelling: ‘In Africa, there’s a wealth of myths and legends that have never really been illustrated,’ Hanneli says. ‘Discussing those legends is a way to create authenticity, to locate the product in a very special place.’

Imperfections and anomalies, too, are becoming increasingly crucial to her designs as a way to establish a connection between the item and its origins, including tracing that vital line of respect for the natural world: ‘Fake skins have now become so sophisticated that with the blesbok I wanted to focus on the anomalies, the scars, to work with nature,’ she tells me. ‘Most designers just find their skins at a trade fair; there’s very little connection to the product or sense of nurturing. The idea with Okapi is really to work with local craftspeople to create a unique patina that develops over time. The tannery we work with also creates a lot of amazing cowboy boots and it was an idea that really resonated with me, the notion of something that blends or yields to you – you earn it.’

Slow, conscious consumption is key to Hanneli’s creative and commercial outlook. She rails against fast fashion in favour of a business model that encourages addition and customisation over time, as opposed to a slavish attachment to seasonal trends fostered by so much of the US and European market. Even her personal creative heroes, she says, largely fall beyond fashion (growing up she was more interested in fine art and literature than fashion and she originally studied as a painter) although she does cite Yves Saint Laurent, circa the Morocco era, and designs such as the organic- looking and, of course, Africa-referencing Mombasa bag.

Every seasonal range for Okapi is consequently a new variation on Hanneli’s own personal aesthetic. ‘I essentially design for myself – beautiful but practical, durable pieces,’ she explains, and invites fans of her brands to bring their bags back to her trunk shows, not only for customisation such as monogramming, but also to foster an appreciation of ‘how glorious the ageing process can be – a sign of true luxury that it’s impossible to achieve with fake products’.

With authenticity so high on her agenda Hanneli is intensely keen to avoid the trap of talking the talk to such an extent that it’s hard to remember how to walk the walk. It can be a slippery tightrope, considering her success in creating a bridge between African design and the outside world inevitably places her in the position of ambassador. The PR circus frequently beckons and while her appearance at the International Herald Tribune luxury conference in Rome in 2012 was a rare (and brilliantly accomplished) public performance, it’s something she’s happy to keep a minimum.

‘Those things can take up such a huge amount of time and I have felt that by developing a brand that’s truly made in Africa I’m being a more authentic, more apt, role model,’ she says. ‘If I were to do something it would be a fashion week in Africa. Right now there are so many fashion weeks and too many egos, making it counter- productive. An autonomous fashion week would excite me a lot more. I would perhaps, in future, consider chairing something local.’

Hanneli isn’t the only role model in the making. Her vision reflects a groundswell of cultural innovators, all of whom are using more conscientious forms of creation, curation or production to push contemporary Africa into a global spotlight. Other figures that rate highly on her list are the entrepreneur Daniel Holland, founder of the community-focused Yourstruly Café; Joost Bosland, the co-director of the Stevenson Gallery, a platform active in connecting African art with the rest of the world; and Alice Heusser, co-founder of the luxury fashion brand Lalesso, including the spin-off, SOKO, an eco- ethical clothing-production unit supporting Kenyan workers.

For now, for her, it’s all eyes (and hands) on Okapi. Will, I ask, Okapi potentially develop into something bigger than accessories? Again, she plays it safe, suggesting she’d be reticent just yet to move into the wider landscape of ready-to-wear before catching at the rich possibilities posed by producing textiles. ‘Maybe something with raw African textiles, but an international finish,’ she suggests. ‘Now that kind of artisanal work would allow for a transition.’


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