JOHANNESBURG — Belinda Seper, the woman behind the Belinda boutique, is the Australian equivalent of Joyce Ma, Ikram Goldman and Joan Burstein.
She does not advertise, yet in the last 15 years, Seper has built a fashion business that trades on the careful selection of merchandise from the hottest labels, the creation of a unique retail environment in a specifically defined location and her instinctive understanding of her market.
Today, Belinda has 10 stores in Australia with sales last year of $10 million and 70 employees. And in May, the Belinda multibrand boutique concept made its debut here, its first foreign outpost.
Like her boutiques in Australia, Belinda in South Africa is housed in a converted home on the main avenue of a leafy suburb, Parkhurst, fast becoming Johannesburg';s answer to Manhattan';s Chelsea. Inside, the 2,000-square-foot space has four separate retail areas: the Corner Shop for jeans and T-shirts by Sass & Bide, Lover and Citizens of Humanity; a shoes and bags boutique; a high-fashion salon featuring labels such as Lanvin and Missoni; and an "international chic" shop that carries Miu Miu, Marni, Stella McCartney, Chloé and Vanessa Bruno.
Seper decided quickly and instinctively that a Belinda boutique in South Africa would work. "I';d been to visit my brother and his partner, who';d been living here for a few years now," she recounted. "This was back in July 2006. I instantly fell in love with the country." The economy was booming and consumer luxury spending was at an all-time high. But it surprised her that some of her favorite labels weren';t available.
Seper investigated Johannesburg and Cape Town. "I felt that the market was ready for it. It was time to go in and do something different."
She returned last September to scout locations for a Johannesburg store; by November, the deal on the Parkhurst house was final. Construction began in earnest in January. Realizing that she was going against conventional wisdom in setting her store in a house, she said, "I know that in Johannesburg, a mall mentality exists. I also know it results from security issues; malls were considered safe places in the context of so much crime. However, my sense is that people here are a lot more relaxed now, and ready for the regeneration of a more independent-minded retail environment."Belinda will offer the same standard of service the Australian boutiques are known for. The staff is trained to welcome clients "as they would a guest in their own home." And the idea of "home," for Seper, translates into an experience that engages all the senses. She is meticulous about detail, from the music to the room fragrance to the size of the changing rooms and the plushness of the sofa in the shoe salon.
As owner and buyer for Belinda — she averages at least six international buying trips a year — Seper sees her role as essentially that of a curator. "Fashion to me is nothing more than a range of possibilities," she said. "I';m the one that edits and assembles these possibilities — the international fashion trends and brands — in a unique environment."
In fact, Seper considers this to be her best talent. Her years in the business have served her well. "Most people," she said, "have rear-vision technique. I';m the opposite. I';m forward-looking. I can see the way ahead, and I can judge whether to go with a brand or collection this season and not the next. It might be too early for my market."
It was this foresight that spurred her into starting her business in 1992. Long a champion of Australian designers, she opened her store with brands such as Colette Dinnigan at a time when the words "Australian fashion" didn';t quite exist. Sensing a gap in the market, she sought to bring European labels to Australia. She still seeks out Australian talent; Sass & Bide, Willow and Josh Groot are among the local labels she carries. She also is on the board of Australian Fashion Week. She intends to include Australian designers in her merchandise mix for South Africa.
While excited by this new South African venture, Seper is aware of the challenges she faces in this market. Despite the encouraging comments from friends, she stressed she was "under no illusion that Belinda means anything in this market. I am an unknown quantity here, which can be a positive, in the sense that there won';t be any preconceived pressure. But retail at this level is all about relationships. We have to win that trust from the clients." What she is banking on is the appeal of the brands she is bringing into the market, like Marni, Miu Miu and Chloé. "These are the ones that I know will appeal across the board," she said.There are a handful of small multibrand boutiques catering to that market in South Africa. A limited selection of labels such as Etro, Bottega Veneta, Issa, Diane von Furstenberg, Dries Van Noten, Dosa and Day Birger & Mikkelsen are available and are often found in exclusive upmarket malls. Gucci and Louis Vuitton also have freestanding boutiques in the massive Sandton City/Nelson Mandela Square shopping complex.
In setting up Belinda in South Africa, Seper was careful not to tread on anyone';s toes and "steal" brands already being carried by other stores. She wondered, initially, why some of her favorite brands were not represented in the country. She asked the suppliers in Europe and the U.S. why.
"They said they would love to, but the high level of crime was a deterrent. And when I asked if they would sell to me for South Africa, they said yes immediately." She added that "as in Australia, we will be stocking current seasons as in Europe and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere."
Price could be an issue, because of the high import duties on clothing in South Africa (40 percent plus 14 percent value-added tax). "We are obliged to work with lower margins," she admitted, although the prices will be pretty much on a par with Australian prices, "only very slightly higher." Import duties in Australia are 22 percent. However, she said that at this level, the clientele is more concerned with quality and value.
And if all goes well in Johannesburg, Belinda will open a Cape Town store in the next 12 months. Already, her decision to set up shop in Parkhurst — known for interior decorating showrooms, antiquaries and quirky home décor — is proving prescient. In October, Paul Smith is opening down the road, and Burberry is reportedly considering a location nearby.
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