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- 21 Jan 2014
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Sustainable South African Luxury: Hanneli Rupert, Founder, Okapi

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Hanneli Rupert


Hanneli Rupert, founder of Okapi, talks us through the launch of her own luxury brand and her bid to spark sustainable development & job creation in South Africa

There has been much discussion as to the promise of Africa when it comes to luxury consumption. Speaking at the 2012 INYT Luxury Conference, Alexandre Ricard, CEO of Pernod Ricard confirmed that “of the ten fastest world economies, African countries account for seven.”

Indeed, 70% of Africa’s population is under 40 years old, and is estimated to wield $1.4 trillion in spending power by 2020, according to Uché Okonkwo.

The North and South African hospitality market is experiencing somewhat of a boom, as more and more luxury properties launch on the continent and crowds flock to more ‘experiential’ forms of luxury travel. Lagos, Nigeria, is increasingly considered an important hub for local fashion and design, as well as a potential shopping hub for luxury retail.

“Africa has immaculate craftsmanship, which lends itself to luxury” confirms Kim Jones, director of menswear at Louis Vuitton. “When it comes to craftsmanship, there isn’t much Africans feel they can learn from the West” echoes Uché Okonkwo.


 Africa has immaculate craftsmanship, which lends itself to luxury 


As with many emerging luxury markets, lack of infrastructure and complicated import restrictions currently hinder rapid market entry for foreign brands. But as wealthy Africans travel more and more, the desire for luxury is increasing, and with culturally specific attitudes towards design aesthetics, colour and craftsmanship, the timing seems right for the emergence of local luxury brands.

This is an opportunity that has not been lost on South African Hanneli Rupert, founder of Okapi. With a view to being one of Africa’s first true luxury brands, the entrepreneur wanted to create a locally sourced and produced range of products that would combine exceptional quality and craftsmanship, with an international yet uniquely African look and feel.

“The South African luxury industry is unique,” she explains. “The core pillars are slightly different to those of the more traditional luxury nations in that we don’t have a history in the industry to speak of so possibly as a result we place a higher emphasis on quality. We also care a lot about working together in the future I would predict a trend of combining more local crafts with traditional luxury items and this is what I will be focussing on.”


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Let’s start with the range, which has expanded this season. In terms of pricing and positioning, can you walk us through the portfolio?

My entry-level price point is GBP 495 for a Blesbok tote (the Oya) the top price point is GBP 2,900 for a large Ostrich Shin Shopper (Mawu). I also have a range of small leather goods such as wallets, pouches and cardholders and accessories such as the signature Springbok horns which are available to buy separately at GBP 150 and Springbok horn pendants, as well as Springbok horn pendants with inlaid diamonds.


In so facto, do you have a specific customer or demographic in mind when you are developing products for Okapi?

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


 We don’t have heritage in the industry so as a result we place a higher emphasis on quality 


What have been some of the key barriers to entry in launching a new brand in a traditionally crowded luxury accessories market?

Some of key barrier for me has been product awareness. It is very important for us to have our customers be able to actually see and touch the product in order to understand the level of quality. It is also difficult to demonstrate to our customers how well they age and how this is an integral part of Okapi. The best way to educate our customers to the whole ideology of Okapi is to have them attend trunk shows that we host personally.


Can you tell us some more about your exotic skins? Particularly those unique to Okapi?

I started Okapi with a view in mind to help with sustainable development and job creation in South Africa and I am confident in saying I have achieved, even if on a small scale at the moment, both of these things. I grew up spending a lot of time in nature and my family are big conservationists so I approached the idea of using ‘exotic’ skins with this in mind.

The majority of my collection is made up from Blesbok skin, which we did all of the research and development for in house, and are the first brand to use. It is a bi-product of the food industry as are our Springbok horns and Ostrich Skins.


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And perhaps some of the challenges you have faced in sourcing and tanning these skins?

As nobody had used Blesbok skins before and very little high quality tanning had been done in South Africa to date it has been a slow and challenging process achieving exactly the right colours and finishes on our skins.
But now that we have it right it is more consistent and we are getting completely unique, exciting product.


And the development of your own chain facilities after being dissatisfied with externally sourced chains?

As I mentioned before I started the project with the end goal being to create sustainable jobs in Africa and with this is mind I also wanted the product to be made entirely in Africa from locally sourced materials so it was no doubt disappointing for me to learnt that there was no source for hardware (which is a huge component of my products) locally.

Initially I was importing the chains from Italy and then Germany but not only was I unhappy about the origin I found the quality of the work not up to scratch. I then faced the choice of either importing my own machinery to South Africa or making the hardware by hand and went with the latter option, which has been very tricky to manage but so fulfilling because the quality of the chains is just so exceptional and this way we can create a lot of jobs and teach new skills to people locally.


 I started the project with the end goal being to create sustainable jobs in Africa 


In terms of distribution, you launched eCommerce in 2013 and currently retail physically only in Africa?

At the moment we wholesale to several shops around South Africa in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. We are also going to be available in Lagos early next year. Our on-line shop www.Okapi.com ships worldwide. In the future I would really like to develop my direct to consumer model by taking concessions in department stores and having Okapi shops.





To further investigate independent luxury brands on Luxury Society, we invite your to explore the related materials as follows:

- Hand Crafted in America: Luxury Leathergoods by Fischer Voyage
- Luxury Without Limitation or Compromise: Steven Grotell
- Middle East Meets West: Lama el Moatassem, Toujouri


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The vision behind Okapi is to produce luxurious, artisanal handbags and accessories entirely handmade in South Africa from locally sourced materials.

okapi.com