The Rupert clan of South Africa owns a few businesses that make a lot of money: Cartier, Dunhill, Montblanc and Piaget, etcetera. Their fortunes began with Anthony Edward Rupert, who could not finish medical school “due to lack of funds,” but thanks to apartheid magic (and business smarts) he began manufacturing cigarettes in his garage. He eventually built this into the tobacco industrial conglomerate The Rembrandt Group, which made him a billionaire. In the late ’60s (think the time of the Rivonia Trials), a scion of the family purchased the L’Ormarins wine estate in Franschhoek in the then Cape province. The family’s fortunes continued, with the addition of another wine estate, La Motte. One could say that Franschhoek’s current stature is probably owed in large part to the efforts of the Ruperts to promote the district as a little corner of France, replete with cheeses, fruits, herbs, mushrooms, nuts, olives, coupled with the exotic appeal of the bush: ostrich and crocodile steaks. Of course, there’s also the poorly paid coloured labour, but that’s not in brochures intended to lure visitors.
Recently, one of the clan, Hanneli Rupert, opened a leather-goods outlet in South Africa, naming it “Okapi”. And the PR is charming, though not aimed at anyone who has read any postcolonial critique in the last forty or so years. It begins harmlessly enough, with some inane nonsense about the Okapi being “the African Unicorn”; that “the elusive forest dwelling creature…has been hiding for millenia waiting to be discovered”; and that “she can shift shapes and as you navigate through the Okapi adventure try and figure out where she is hiding.” The sales pitch includes some predictable lines about providing “job opportunities” and “growth,” with “locally-sourced” materials, etc.
And then it got annoying. Apparently, the okapi “lives amongst the God’s and Goddesses of Africa and over the years has taken on many of their powers.”
Surely, the PR team that can be hired by the likes of the Ruperts knows about the proper use of plurals and possessives (not to mention using commas to separate coordinating conjunctions).
As I wandered to the “Campaign” pages, I began to wonder what exactly Hanneli meant when she “draws inspiration for her designs from the mystical traditions of Africa and its primordial beauty”: is the primordial-quality of mystical Africa encapsulated within the exposed breasts of the black models, positioned (rather primordially, I must admit) amongst lianas, dugout canoes, a lily pond, and some strategic kudu horns? The promo video, where an all white crew photographs a (very beautiful) set of half-naked black women is the most troubling.
I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised, since this is, after all, South Africa. And judging by the inspiration for the logo’s typeface (“designed by hand for the brand. It’s aesthetic was inspired by the art nouveau era often associated with an unchartered Africa. It was also during this time period that the Okapi was first discovered in the Belgian Congo”), I can see that some people haven’t listened to Mbembe lately (or learned about the difference between its/it’s: one is a possessive – its; the other, a contraction – it’s).
In any case, even if the workmanship is stellar, the designs don’t stand up to offerings by Longchamp, Dooney and Bourke, Cole Haan, or the ethereal Bottega Veneta’s leather goods. If I’m gonna strap a thousand-dollar piece of cow to my shoulder, it’d better look more cutting edge than the offerings by Okapi.