SANDTON... the high temple of shopping, the Mecca of merchandise
and the holy cathedral of consumerism. Its glossy, hallowed halls
attract well-heeled big spenders from near and far who
religiously flock to genuflect before its till points: Gucci. The
Body Shop. Crabtree & Evelyn. Tumi. Godiva. Versace. Diesel...
the list is as long as New York's Fifth Avenue.
The latest to join this fashionable congregation is Conran
Africa, which launches this month. But it's not part of the
Conran chain that has scatter-cushioned from London and New York
to Paris and Tokyo. Oh, no. It's something better. It's Conran
There is, of course, a connection with the
"real" Conran in the form of Sebastian Conran, British lifestyle
guru Sir Terence's son, who's collaborated with Woolworths to
develop a uniquely South African range for its 20 flagship
stores, including Sandton.
You need only sniff through the pages of Nicholas Coleridge's
Fashion Conspiracy or Naomi Klein's No Logo to know that the
retail game often isn't a fair one. Shopping centres like Sandton
City (and, indeed, entire countries like the US and Australia)
are designed to feed the need of the armies of Tracys and Debbies
who require things to buy.
So, while Sandton's Tracy considers the price of a silk
undergarment set (R499) over a cappuccino, the seamstresses of
the Far East - many of whom are children - struggle through life
on a few rand a day.
It'd be so easy to name big retail names here, but there's no
reason. Sandton City - and the entire Western world - revolves
around this setup. But rest assured, your R999 designer jeans
probably cost just a few bucks to manufacture. The rest of that
high-ticket price goes into import duties, rentals, retail wages
and the dreaded P-word: profit. But at whose expense?
The Fair Trade Movement - which promotes global corporate
accountability in everything from living wages to environmentally
sustainable practices - is well-established in the UK and US and
is famously advocated by The Body Shop's Anita Roddick. It's
bound to gain consumer currency in Southern Africa.
Yet it's no secret that there's been a flurry of textile
manufacturers setting up slash-wage factories in neighbouring
countries like Mauritius, Swaziland and Lesotho to meet American
Tracys' and Debbies' insatiable hunger for shopping-mall labels
like, GAP, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic.
Conran Africa seems to be antithesis of this. Good design? Check.
The crucial X-factor in designer appeal? Ditto. Price
accessibility? Yes. The difference? The products are made for
Debbie and Tracy - and Thoko and Fatima - by real people who are
actually treated like... people.
Less than four hours' drive from the gleaming malls of Sandton is
Swaziland's scenic Ezulwini Valley ("Valley of Heaven"), its
hills dotted with traditional homesteads. Here, and elsewhere
throughout Swaziland, women weave dyed-grass place mats, floor
mats, baskets and coasters for Gone Rural, supplying more than
700 stores in 35 countries, although 75% of their products are
bought by South African retailers.
It's a process based on fair trade, says Gone Rural's Zo�
Dean-Smith. "Our home-based weavers are split into 13
geographically based groups throughout Swaziland. We visit each
group every three weeks, when they sell the raw grass to us and
buy their dyed grass from us.
"The buy-sell process keeps us linked. And it also ensures
quality control, which is imperative for all of our retail
customers, particularly in the US, and for big local companies,
so that the colourways are exact and without variance.
"The women then take the grass back to their homes where it's
woven into the designs. We go out and collect the finished work,
paying them at our pre-arranged collection points.
"To give you an idea of economic impact, the majority of the
women use the money earned to pay for school fees for the
ever-increasing number of dependents that each of them supports."
To hear about the concept is one thing; to experience it is
another. What one sees, after travelling 20km or so along a
mountain dirt road, is a group of 60 or 70 women gathered on a
cow-dunged sports field. An informal market is set up. Children
are running about. The women patiently queue while mats are
measured, stretched and analysed by a no-nonsense Swazi quality
Approved? Payment and smiles all around. Doesn't quite make the
grade? Unravel and start again. "Fortunately this rarely
happens," notes Dean-Smith.
And then one looks again. There's not a man in sight. Many of the
women are older, surrounded by small children. "Our research has
shown that each of our weavers supports an average of eight
dependents, many of them HIV/Aids orphans," says Dean-Smith.
Swaziland's HIV-infection rate is estimated to be 38%.
Indeed, a few of the women in the queue look gaunt - but still,
smiles all around. And it's not just for the camera. There's a
zest for life that the world's suburban princesses spend years in
therapy to achieve.
It's an unnervingly emotional experience, consciously connecting
these women - and their modest existence - to the suburban
glamour zone of Tracy and Debbie. One can almost hear the dinner
party chatter back in Sandton, the Kugel National Park - "don't
you just love these little place mats? Conran Africa! Divine,
doll!" - echoing through the Swazi wind.
But dry your eyes. It's an old tale, and one that's repeated
throughout South Africa and most of international suburbia, from
Buenos Aires and Bombay to San Diego and Sydney.
Gone Rural is one of 16 handpicked suppliers to the Conran Africa
range. Each of the project's design suppliers - ranging from Cape
Town's Carrol Boyes and Durban's Century Clocks to Swaziland's
Ngwenya Glass and Port Elizabeth's Pr�t-a-Pot - have similar
soul-lifting stories to tell.
The suppliers were chosen for a somewhat intangible mix of
design savvy, community upliftment and commercial viability.
The Conran Africa concept was brainstormed at Cape Town's 2003
Design Indaba, the result of a meeting between Sir Terence Conran
and Woolworths representatives. The product range includes
tableware (by Ngwenya Glass, Pr�t-a-Pot, Carrol Boyes, Gone
Rural, Emvee Potters and Glass House), textiles (Twananani
Textiles, funded by the Department of Arts and Culture, along
with Africa Nova and Mungo Design) and accessories (Kapula
Candles, Kurgan Kenani Leather, Mielie, Qualitywood,
Catherine Jacobs, Century Clocks and Red Hot Glass).
"We know it's not just about bringing out a designer homeware
range," says Woolworths' product director Richard Butt. "It's
more about being in touch with our customers' innate sense of
social awareness. The customers know that they are making a
difference to people's lives in directly contributing to a
project that empowers mostly female crafters in Southern Africa."
Says Sebastian Conran, who served as creative director on the
project: "Conran Africa celebrates the success of African design.
How consumers respond will determine the long-term
vision and community benefits of this phenomenal and very brave
Next stop London? An army of Tracys and
*The Conran Africa range is available at selected Woolworths
stores from this month.