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- 4 Sep 2012
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Luxury Brands & The Promise of Africa: Suzy Menkes

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Suzy Menkes in conversation with Diane von Furstenberg at the International Herald Tribune’s Luxury Business Conference 2011 in Sao Paulo, Brazil


The International Herald Tribune’s fashion editor tells Luxury Society why 2012 is the perfect time to bring Africa into the luxury conversation

For the fourth year running, Luxury Society has partnered with the International Herald Tribune’s prestigious luxury summit, to bring our membership together and discuss the most pressing issues in our industry. This year’s event will explore the potential of Africa as a luxury consumer and producer, as well as the impact of Chinese investment on the region and how geopolitical and economic shifts are affecting our industry.

Discussions will be led by some of the most influential figures in luxury, including Diego Della Valle (Tod’s), Dr. Precious Moloi-Motsepe (African Fashion International), Jochen Zeitz (PPR), Guillaume de Seynes (Hermès), Simone Cipriani (International Trade Centre), Francesco Trapani (LVMH Watch & Jewelery), Frida Giannini (Gucci), Giambattista Valli, Uché Okonwo (Luxe Corp) and Omoyemi Akerele (Style House).

As the official business network of the conference, we are delighted to announce a specially discounted rate exclusively for Luxury Society members to attend the upcoming IHT event in Rome, Italy, on November 15-16. To further pique your interest, we spoke to Suzy Menkes, the renowned fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, to learn more about the upcoming conference and what we can expect in 2012.


 This year’s event will explore the potential of Africa as a luxury consumer and producer 


This year’s summit will explore the potential of Africa as a luxury consumer and producer. Why is it particularly timely to bring Africa into the luxury conversation?

There are two reasons why ‘’Africa’’ and ‘’luxury’’ should appear in the same sentence. The first is a new vision of what luxury means in the 21st century. Consumers, particularly in the Western hemisphere, are beginning to prize objects touched by human hands – and the hand work in Africa is exceptional.

From the work that the Tuaregs have done for Hermes to the bags that are created in Kenya for Ilaria Fendi and for Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, African hands make artistic pieces, often with the added bonus of being sustainable and also ethical.

But Africa is not all about local handwork. Nor is it, thankfully, only about warring states across the vast continent. The countries where the political situation is stable have a prosperous and growing middle class.

I have been surprised to find from Morocco to Nigeria, shopping malls designed to serve an increasingly eager number of serious shoppers. Although the brands currently available tend to be mid-level, at this pace of growth, the top luxury brands will be established in many parts of Africa in the next seven – 10 years.


 When I was in Nairobi, I was intrigued to find that the shopping malls tend to be run by Indians 


Outside of South Africa, what are some of the most exciting emerging locations for luxury in Africa? And why?

I think it is important to count South Africa in this luxury equation. After all, the diamond mines of that area are major suppliers to the world’s high jewellers. And indigenous creatures – such as the ostrich – also provide fine skins for accessories. (And this is not to mention the shopping malls that have opened in Johannesburg and Cape Town.)

When I was in Nairobi, I was intrigued to find that the shopping malls tend to be run by Indians. Just as it is known that across the country, the Chinese are major investors. Perhaps all this criss-crossing of different cultures shows up most in Lagos, where there is such a vibrant and enthusiastic explosion of fashion. I have not yet visited Ghana, but I am told that is also a hub of activity.

I do not want to exaggerate the current potential of luxury across the whole of Africa. It is just that, while the industry has focused on Greater China, I believe it has ignored the area South of the Mediterranean. In spite of the political turmoil, Egypt and Turkey also offer potential, as do the Magreb countries of Morocco and Tunisia.


 In spite of the political turmoil, Egypt and Turkey also offer potential, as Morocco and Tunisia 


What are some barriers to entry, specific to Africa, that luxury brands should be aware of when entering the market?

I have the good fortune to be a journalist – not a retailer. I am told that the corruption that seems endemic to all emerging markets is a major problem – although I have not had any specific details related to me. Two retailers spoke to me off the record about safety, saying that 24 hour protection is needed in some cities because of the violence.

However, I visited a number of independent retailers in Cape Town who were selling from stores in the city centre and were apparently able to build up a local clientele. As I understand it, taxes vary between countries, as do the problems of corruption. It must be essential to have a business partner who really knows the district, its opportunities and pitfalls.


Which sectors of our industry do you believe hold the most growth potential in the coming years?

There is clearly a high level of interest among males in Africa, making timepieces and masculine accessories an attractive proposition. We know that Zegna is planning pan-African openings, for that reason.

I assume that accessories will lead the way for women, as in all new markets. As far as cars are concerned, considering the higher platform of sales of automobiles to males, it would seem likely that this could be fertile ground. But I am absolutely not an expert in this field – nor in hotels. The growth of the boutique hotel is an international phenomenon and I would imagine this will apply to Africa over the next decade.


 It is a tall order to expect African design to leap to the level of France and Italy 


South Africa in particular is increasingly recognised for its local design and artisan crafstmanship. Do you feel that ‘Made in Africa’ could one day rival ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Made in France’?

It is a tall order to expect African design to leap to the level of France and Italy – countries with at least 100 years of luxury production behind them. Artisan work alone is not enough. However wondrous necklaces of Masai beads might be, they do not have an international flavour.

But it is interesting to see what can be done: for example, when Hanneli Rupert brought elements of her South African store content to the Bluebird store in London, it seemed highly sophisticated and relevant. It certainly needs sharp retail eyes and dedicated design teachers to turn skills into saleable products.


The summit will also address the impact of Chinese investment in Africa. What role does this investment currently play in shaping the local luxury market?

Chinese investment, as I understand it, has been focused on Africa as a source of raw materials, even including water. I have not seen evidence of China investing in luxury in Africa. But I too will be at the IHT conference to learn!





The Luxury Society team look forward to attending this year’s conference in Rome and connecting with our members


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IHT Luxury 2012
Rome, 15-16 November

As the Official Business Network of the event, a special rate has been offered to Luxury Society members (£2,045 as opposed to £2,495), when booking online.

View the Event Page