LONDON — Accessories label Okapi has had South Africa’s warm, creative spirit at its core since inception, and now the brand’s founder Hanneli Rupert is digging deeper into her country’s heritage with a collaboration in partnership with knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo and musician Riky Rick.
The three creatives, all of whom are longtime friends, got together to rework some of Okapi’s signature bags for a collection that addresses men and women alike.
“We haven’t really been pushing men’s wear out at all as a brand. It’s funny because a lot of African designers are quite unisex; a lot of the men’s wear labels have heavy prints and an androgynous aesthetic that resonates well with women. In the case of Okapi, we are now doing more women’s pieces which men buy,” said Rupert.
She added that she drew a lot of inspiration from how Rick was adjusting the brand’s women’s bags to suit himself and from Ngxokolo’s flair for bold color.
“We all have quite different audiences, but we started working at the same time in South Africa and that kind of zeitgeist of African art is authentic to all three of us,” added Rupert, who also runs the concept store Merchants of Long, which sells ready-to-wear, accessories and homeware by South African designers including Ngxokolo’s knitwear label, dubbed Maxhosa by Laduma.
“Hanneli gave me my first shot as a designer. She literally was the first one to place an order for her store, which is the most beautiful boutique in South Africa,” said Ngxokolo.
The result of the tie-in is a series of crossbody bags that double as belt bags featuring the brand’s signature springbok horns as clasps, an array of exotic skins and in a bright palette of turquoise, burgundy and mustard.
The collection will be sold exclusively at Bluebird in London and has also made an appearance in Rick’s newly released music video, “I Can’t Believe It,” which is currently the number-one music video in South Africa.
Prices for the bags start at 1,200 pounds.
Rupert brought everyone together in London on Wednesday night, kicking off the Frieze social circuit in London with a small dinner at Chucs in Mayfair with guests including Ozwald Boateng, DJ Black Coffee, friends and members of the industry.
“I studied fine art, I used to paint and I understand the art world and artists a lot better than I understand fashion,” said Rupert. “I know more artists and African designers participating in Frieze although I don’t know anyone who is part of the fashion weeks. I also don’t design seasonal items because our idea is that the piece is meant to last forever. So it just made a lot more sense for us to do the launch now.”
Hearty dishes such as burrata, pasta and eggplant parmigiana — and tequila shots — were passed around the table. There was loud conversation and emotional toasts in the manner of a big, family dinner rather than an industry event. At the end of the dinner, all the guests walked down the street to watch Rick perform at the Arts Club’s Frieze opening party.
Rupert also teased Okapi’s potential expansion into homeware with a set of beautiful egg and horn pieces decorating the tables: “I have always seen Okapi as a lifestyle brand, I never envisioned it as a fashion brand, so I am hoping to expand on that more and more in the near future,” she said.
Strengthening the brand’s position in the U.S. is also in Rupert’s plans.
“I don’t have fixed plans for a store, but there are definitely plans to make our products more readily available in the U.S.,” she said. ” We do very small runs and everything is handmade, so we can’t expand rapidly and wouldn’t want to. The pieces are one-of-a-kind, but I do plan to spend more time personally doing trunk shows and sales there. It’s important for our clients that when they buy a piece, they have the direct line to us so they can customize in any way they wish.”