The Okapi, also known as the forest giraffe or zebra giraffe, has always inspired intrigue and curiosity. This antelope’s elusive nature earned it the nickname ‘African Unicorn’ when it was discovered at the turn of the century in the anthropological era of African exploration. At that time, it was thought to be a magical animal. So why did South African painter, Hanneli Rupert, choose Okapi as her brand name? When she founded the brand in 2008, she was on a mission to become one of Africa’s first true luxury brands. This member of the Business of Fashion 500 was going to show the world that African Luxury was not only possible, but available. And she was going to do it by locally producing the entire range of products to exceptional craftmanship and quality standards. It would draw from traditional artisanal skills and uniquely African materials to provide a distinct African aesthetic that would hold its own on the international stage. Here as some snippets on how this brand expresses itself as African luxury:
Materials and Carefully Selected Partners
Hanneli draws inspiration from the environment around her and thus does her best to protect it. Firstly, all the materials used to make Okapi bags are organic and bi-products. In an interview with Wanted Online SA, she elaborated, “I like to leave little or no waste which is one of the reasons Ostrich is such a key source for us. Almost all aspects of the birds are used from the shells and shins to the leathers and feathers.” Consequently, before she begins her production process, she’ll first consider what materials are available. Using this as her guide, she’ll then design the bag in such a way that that accentuates the raw material’s best features. That means that there are some bags that are considerably rare or made in limited number such as the Yemaja embellished with springbok fur. There are only a handful available globally.
Another exclusive element of this African Luxury brand is the fact that it uses Blesbok leather to make its products. The Blesbok is one of South Africa’s most abundant species and is farmed for meat. However, their hides are usually discarded and there lay her opportunity. Working with a co-operatively run tannery in Outeniqua, Okapi has created their own signature Blesbok skin with an oily pull up finish. Due to the complex nature of the manufacturing process, they only produce a limited number of each style annually using the Blesbok skin. Bonus, that’s another exclusive product they offer.
They also work with ostrich leather (famous for its distinct quill pattern) and ostrich shin, crocodile, springbok and zebra print (Blesbok and ostrich skins are embossed with a zebra print using a hot plate). Their signature design feature is the springbok horn which is added to every bag. Locally, it’s believed that it brings good fortune to the one who wears it. Their entire production process is traceable from start to finish in a bid to keep their bags ethical and sustainable. For example, they work with established ostrich farming communities of the Karoo region in South Africa. While they source their crocodile leather from a small sustainable crocodile farm and tannery in the North West province of South Africa and their springbok hide from Klein Karoo. By forming relationships with these suppliers, they’re privy to unique insights of how the skins and leathers are attained.
Social and Environmental Impact
Such sustainable efforts got them the Butterfly Mark from Positive Luxury. Positive Luxury is a platform that connects the community to luxury lifestyle brands that share similar values. When they award a brand the Butterfly Mark, it tells consumers that this is essentially a brand to trust. To earn such an award, the brand must pass stringent annual assessment that ‘examines sustainability from a holistic point of view; encompassing governance, social and environmental frameworks, philanthropy and innovation’. On their website, Okapi has badges indicating that:
- Designs thoughtfully by being mindful of society and the environment
- Aims to reduce greenhouse gas emission
- Supports philanthropic causes
- Has policies in place that requires knowledge of their suppliers’ social and environmental practices
- Environmentally friendly packaging by using recycled, FSC certified or/and PEFC certified material
- Have policy that suppliers must pay their employees and subcontractors the local minimum and/or living wage
- Ensure that the use cruelty-free material by sourcing from cruelty-free suppliers that track animal welfare
Further to cement the idea that African luxury is possible whilst supporting sustainable industry, skills development and job creation in Africa, Okapi strives to work with grassroots craft groups. For example, they collaborated with community projects, ZenZulu and MonkeyBiz, for the 2016 collection.
If you go to the website, you may notice that the latest collection is still the 2016 collection. This is intentional as Okapi is not seasonal. Instead, they work with existing shapes and designs by adding new colour and skin variations for customers to chose from.
Additionally, they’ve incorporated accessories into their lines such as the ostrich charms, to allow the owner the freedom to express their individuality. The reason she adopted this structure is because she wanted the Okapi bag to grow with its owner. Did we mention that the bags are named after African goddesses or mythological heroines? For instance, Yemaja is named after an African Goddess of Wisdom, Oya – The goddess of transformation, and the Aziri (a structure tote) is named after the Goddess of Love. Yet another layer of authenticity added to the refined traditional leather craftsmanship and handmade skills that go into making this African product.
Since Okapi’s inception in 2008, Hanneli has been unyielding on the emphasis of quality, sustainability and ethical practices. The result has been a luxury brand that has successfully merged traditional skills and African material with a fresh design aesthetic. A concept further solidified by how she described African luxury in an interview with Explore Sideways,“ In Africa people are blessed with the great beauty of nature and the knowledge of the transient nature of life so it hasn’t taken us a long time to cut to the core of “real luxury” which burns down to the experiences in life you gather not the things.”