South Africans queue outside Louis Vuitton daily, but African luxury prices make them flinch. Why?

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One of the most coveted logos in the world. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
One of the most coveted logos in the world. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
  • Euromonitor findings from 2019 revealed that we are currently in a new wave of African luxury brands, where there is a growing demand for luxury African products.
  • Despite the emerging African luxury market, South Africans remain intimidated by the cost of luxury fashion garments sold by local designers, and show a reluctance to support local.
  • In light of this, Afika Jadezweni explores South Africa's relationship with luxury fashion, expressing that at the intersection of our apartheid and colonial legacies is the notion that black designers should be doing us a favour as abooMzala who understand that "this is not a good month for me" every month. 

When Luxity listed a pre-owned Hermès Birkin 35 bag for R220 000 (estimated retail price is R370 000) it sold within two minutes.

This was in December 2020 - during a pandemic - in South Africa. 

In case you didn't know, this is one of the world’s most sought-after handbags with waiting lists that can even span years. It has been described as the pinnacle of luxury. The craftsmanship that goes into every piece entails taking a single artisan about 48 hours to craft a single bag. 

african luxury

Image supplied by Luxity 

Luxity’s loyal, local customers know that the retailer lists its latest items weekdays at 11am sharp, which sees them flock to the online boutique at the exact minute and second to grab highly coveted items immediately.

READ MORE: SA's appetite for luxury confirmed as one of the world's most expensive handbags sells in 2 minutes  

If you happen to walk past the Louis Vuitton store on your way to Telkom, for example, in Sandton City, you'll notice a persistent queue snaking out of the store on any given day. Granted, the line appears longer because of social distancing measures, but it doesn't negate the fact that the appetite for luxury is somewhat ravenous in a city like Johannesburg.

Add to this observation the fact that in 2019, the pre-owned luxury market took off in Mzansi in an unexpected way thanks to supply from wealthy individuals increasing. As a result - and most importantly for the eager high-end fashion consumer - prices fell (when compared to the retail sector).  

“It’s been a fantastic year for the pre-owned luxury market in South Africa, with an increase in wealthy clientele supplying us with more of their unwanted items,” said Luke Calitz, Director of Luxity

So it's evident that the African continent as a whole has become integral to the ever-changing concept and consumption of luxury in today’s world. But does luxury have a place in Africa, given our economic angst? 

Of course it does. Or at least it should by now.

These were the findings from Euromonitor about our emerging market in Sub-Saharan Africa:

Sub-Saharan Africa has emerged in the last 10 years as the second-fastest growing region in the world and was projected to maintain this position to 2020 (all things being equal in the absence of a pandemic).

Growth indicators were said to be encouraging with many factors driving this, including:

1. A demographic boom

2. A rapidly expanding young population

3. The growth and increased wealth of the middle class and financial independence of women

4. Accelerated penetration of new technologies and smartphone use

5. Urbanisation of the continent - in 2030, of the 41 mega-cities on the planet, six will be African, with four in the sub-Saharan zone

6. Development of the super-rich. The number of high networth individuals with more than one million U.S. dollars in assets has doubled in 15 years and should increase by 45% by 2024.

As such, the findings concluded that we are currently in a new wave of African luxury brands, where there is a growing demand for luxury African products. 

Or is there?   

This week's edition of 'local designer price point outrage' says otherwise. 

Joburg-based designer Matte Nolim (Siyamthemba Duma) - an emerging designer who has previously appeared on British Vogue - has been on the receiving end of backlash on Twitter for "ridiculous pricing".

The price in question? R10 000. 

For what? A winter blanket (ityali). 

Several responses to Matte Nolim's tweet jeered;

"It must be crack!"

"You're smoking pure crack cocaine"

[For context; "crack" is a common social media slur thrown at accounts saying outlandish things, but we'll talk about addiction shaming another day]

Anyway, this is just months after a R60 000 Xibelani by Tsonga award-winning designer Rich Mnisi - who remains loved and celebrated nationally - had thumbs racing in disbelief on smartphone screens. 

If South Africans can muster the buying power to queue in a virtual line for a R220 000 Birkin with no prior knowledge of the process behind the product, why then do they struggle to trust the African process? 

Made, but not bought in Africa 

With luxury German cars, Italian duds and kitchen appliances, and French beverages as markers of earned and deserved prosperity for the emerging black upper middle class, markers of success bought from African designers are not as commonplace as one would expect. 

Is it a colonial hangover that sees us undermining local black talent in fashion? 

Possibly. I'm not here to make any blanket statements, though.

The target market conversation cannot be divorced from any topic involving luxury fashion, but is South Africa's Gini coefficient the burden of our creatives who are, in fact, on the blunt end of those income graphs? 

In the same breath it would be dishonest to deny the fact that our nation is one too poor to have a persistent and conspicuous luxury buying culture. Where a fast fashion outlet like Zara - likened to a Spanish equivalent of our very own fashion democracy, Mr Price - is a luxury for most, the reaction to a R10 000 winter blanket is perhaps less about the designer's offering and more a display of our own fears about what our individual ideas of ultimate financial security look like.   

"I don't care how rich I am, I'll never pay R10 000 for a blanket," was a recurring sentiment echoed throughout the reactions to Matte Nolim's blanket on social media. 

Sure, you wouldn't make a R10 000 splurge on a blanket or R60 000 on a Xibelani, and that's your prerogative, but perhaps you would pay that amount for another material possession of your own personal choosing and area of interest, that the next person who doesn't share the same interest, might deem "unjustifiable on principle". 

Whiskey, golf clubs, photography equipment, a knife set, perfume, and so on. Everyone has their 'thing'.

This is by no means expressed to police what consumers do with their money, but rather to also draw our attention to the talent and craftmanship that goes into a single garment, and as such, highlight why those who can afford to would invest in such pieces.

Local designers have not only created their garments from scratch, but they have studied their craft. We all talk about spending hundreds of thousands of Rands in tuition only to end up being underpaid in our respective industries, right? 

Well... same dress, different girl.

READ MORE: Luxury goods - why elite brands are weathering the pandemic better than high street retailers 

From ityali to the Xibelani, is it sartorial gentrification? 

Okay, but what about the argument that "designers are pricing black people out of their own traditional items"? 

Different to discourse on appropriation - as the designers are black and selling items from their own cultures - it seems that some of the critique on social media alluded to sartorial gentrification. 

As one Twitter user responded; "I bought this blanket at Pep for R220 last week". Although their response was not in favour of the designer's price point, it's also indicative of access that has not been closed off to the country's majority demographic. 

Beyond the practicality of warmth, ityali is an intrinsic part of traditional practices for various cultures in South Africa. It can be symbolic of milestones and events in one's life. And while still objectively cheap and accessible, it's a sacred blanket.   

And for this reason, it's not hard to imagine that there are some consumers who would willingly pay that price for a blanket that marks a significant occasion in their life - for the purpose of pride and esteem alone. 

As a Xhosa woman - given the means - I too would spend R60 000 on umbhaco. Again, given the means.

It's therefore also not unfathomable that a proudly Tsonga individual would have purchased the R60 000 Rich Mnisi Xibelani - made by a designer of the same roots - for a special traditional ceremony.

It sold out. 

READ MORE: This is what a Vogue editor has to say about where South Africa is headed in terms of luxury fashion 

A toxic lack of self-confidence in the country

Let's go back to the the CNI Luxury Conference held in Cape Town in 2019, where we spoke to the then Vogue International Editor, Suzy Menkes, who said; "I think that Africa needs to bang its drum about the sophistication of the work. It is so much more than straw hats decorated with coloured threads - however charming that might be."

But given our economy, is South Africa ready to support its luxury designers or should we be applying a different mindset to luxury that isn’t just based on the monetary aspect?

"Luxury should never be defined by price. Instead, the value should be seen and judged by quality and workmanship," was Suzy Menkes' contribution to the conversation we're having again today.  

To echo these thoughts two years later, in a recent conversation with 2019 LVMH Prize winner Thebe Magugu, for a soon-to-be published W24 exclusive, we touched on South Africa's relationship with luxury fashion. 

Asked about the backlash African designers receive for their price points, the young designer eloquently responds; "I think it points to possibly a toxic lack of self-confidence in the country." 

"So many hands go through making clothes - hands that work through a single garment - and all those people have to get paid. So if you're charging R200-something for a dress, who are you taking food from," Thebe continues. 

"It's luxury. There's [so much] hard work put into those garments." 

The designer then explained that this is why transparency is important in fashion - for people to understand the process behind the prices.  

In an interview with W24 this week, before revealing the estimated values of Zozibini Tunzi's Miss Universe gowns, local designer Biji Gibbs was a bit reluctant to indulge us on this.

As a designer with access to social media, we can assume she has also witnessed the backlash designers receive online for their price points.

READ MORE: EXCLUSIVE | The hands that made light work of Zozibini Tunzi's soon-to-be-exhibited 6.6kg gown

Luxury will always have a market

Outside of the local design sphere, we also know that luxury goods are sometimes not as exclusive as they position themselves to be.

However, they'll always maintain their allure whether it be for emulation, assimilation, or aspiration. As a result, there'll always be a market for it (Louis Vuitton queue).

An insightful 2020 Business of Fashion article by the head of luxury goods research at Bernstein, Luca Solca, muses on the appeal of luxury goods.   

"Luxury goods resolve people’s insecurities about who they are and their place in society," writes Luca before opining that "this is why they [luxury items] are particularly important for nouveaux riches, who have only recently attained higher status and are less confident about their social worth." 

Black designers aren't doing you a favour

The BoF article also states that luxury is a statement that says "I have, therefore I am." 

As a democracy that is still in its twenties, South Africa is a youth who is finally getting their first taste of perceived financial freedom, and as such, has volatile budgeting skills and is cultivating a new self-esteem. It's a nouveaux riche 20-something who is indeed "less confident about their social worth", so as a means of asserting their place one ladder rung closer to one-percenter status, they accumulate luxury trinkets in a bid to say "I have, therefore I am". 

But the reality is that this 27-year-old is still paying off its student loans in the form of Apartheid's fiscal legacy. On the other hand, colonialism did a number on us in terms of the way we perceive ourselves on both a national and continental level. 

At the intersection of these two legacies is the notion that black designers should be doing us a favour as abooMzala who understand that "this is not a good month for me" every month. 

And they most likely have their own black tax to attend to, over and above employing black staff that needs to earn livable wages too. 

READ MORE: SA designers including Laduma, Mmuso Maxwell contribute R1 Billion to GDP, according to new study 

In this W24 article written in 2020, a study is cited which reveals that local designers - on average - employ 1 998 people with an average number of six employees per company.

When extrapolated over the 622 designers included in the South Africa Textile Directory database, this market segment is estimated to employ nearly four thousand people with each employee believed to support at least three others, it supports approximately 11 000 people." 

South African designers are not our mzalas and in the same way we don't bemoan European designers, African luxury shouldn't be approached with a "khawenze kaloku, mzala" mindset.

We will update with comment from Matte Nolim founder, Siyathemba Duma.

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