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Cape Town marks its year as World Design Capital with pan-African showcase, as exhibitors gear up to face the challenge of going global

Eclipsed by innovations from the West and the East, Africa is finally ready to move to the forefront of global design, at least according to exhibitors at the 19th Design Indaba, South Africa's annual celebration of all things creative.

Photo: The 2014 Indaba: can African innovation woo Asian consumers?
The 2014 Indaba: can African innovation woo Asian consumers?

'African solutions for African problems' is a call increasingly being heard from leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While South Africa may still be looking for answers to its broader economic woes, it is evident that the continent has, at least, found unique solutions to many global design challenges.

Cape Town's annual Design Indaba Expo is both an international and local exhibition. The Design Expo (the exhibition component of a raft of multidisciplinary events, all held under the 'Design Indaba' banner) provides a South African/continental design platform for international markets, while the flavour of the exhibits remains very much African.

Addressing the scope of the event Kim Seeliger, the show manager, said: "There is a sizeable contingent of international buyers attending this year's Expo. While a large portion of buyers are local, about 30% of our visitors are from overseas.

"This year, we have preregistered visitors from the US, Europe, the Middle East, Australasia and Singapore. From that perspective, there is definitely an opportunity for more Asian buyers to source from this show."

The Design Expo, now in its 11th iteration, is the biggest exhibition of contemporary African design in the world. It has grown from a show that had just two buyers when it launched in 2004 to one that attracted 500 last year. This year, Seeliger predicted the presence of at least 700 trade buyers, of whom more than 600 were preregistered – double the figure achieved last year.

The overall Design Indaba is now in its 19th year and has played a key role in establishing Cape Town – South Africa's second-largest city – as the country's design and creative capital. Indeed, some now see it as playing that role for the entire continent.

It is a multi-sector show, aimed at a broad buyers' market with a diverse range of mass-market products, rather than an exclusive club for gallery-type buyers. Overall, it majors on the latest designs in African fashion, homeware, jewellery and gifts.

The 2014 event also included a small sample of architectural and industrial-design offerings. Explaining the changing focus of the event, Seeliger said: "This year there is a significant representation from the clothing design sector. In total we have 70 fashion exhibitors, ranging from small traders to major labels. This year's Expo is also home to the biggest collection of fashion designers under one roof in South Africa."

One of the elements that sets the Design Expo apart from similar events is its status as combined trade and retail show. In order to woo the professionals, the event has a preview day reserved for trade buyers, allowing them to close deals before the doors are opened to the general public.

Margie Murgatroyd is the director of Africa Nova, a South African store selling handmade African art and craft, design, textiles, ceramics and jewellery. Acknowledging the event's role as a global shop window for African companies, she said: "As the Design Expo functions partly as a trade show, it's great for international buyers to source from – especially those looking for fresh ideas. The emphasis is very much on handmade and sophisticated products."

Christian Wessling, the owner of The CapeHouse, a German retailer specialising in African interior-design products, including ceramics and fabrics has been visiting the Design Expo for eight years. He comes every year looking to source products and firmly believes the show is now a major global design event.

He said: "For me, the buyers' day is crucial. It allows me to meet my suppliers and place orders in a private business environment."

While many of the exhibitors at the Design Expo are small businesses selling handmade products to the domestic market, a number have the production capacity to expand internationally. Among these, several perceive a genuine synergy between their products and the Asian market, seeing a real opportunity to do business there. The current weakened state of the Rand [the South African currency], of course, works in their favour – at least for now.

Kathrin Kidger, a South African ladieswear fashion designer with a signature label, is currently focussing on the local market. At present, she believes there is something of a renaissance in local manufacturing in the fashion industry.

She said: "Manufacturing and sourcing are returning to South Africa, largely because of its weakening economy. This is exciting. It means that the production expertise that was almost lost in the clothing sector will be regained. It's also empowering for the local economy."

Kidger believes that Asian women will embrace the type of quality-driven fashion produced in South Africa. This is evident in the subtle Western branding they favour. She said:  "In the Asian markets, I can see a cross-pollination between ethnic, indigenous design and Western design. I take a very similar approach in my own work."

Kidger believes that the price points achievable with South African-produced fashion would also make the products very competitive in Asia. Her Celeste dress, she feels, would be one particularly appropriate line to launch into the high-end Asian ladieswear market, with its easy-care viscose-Spandex blend making it perfect for business travel.

New for 2014

With an increasing number of African designers emerging in the global market, 2014 Expo looked to capitalise on this with the introduction of a new multinational pavilion – Africa is Now. Designed to create international exposure for exhibitors across the continent, the pavilion featured the latest developments in architecture, furniture, fashion, craft, and industrial and digital design from 25 countries.

Another new addition for 2014 was the Design for Social Impact exhibition zone. This showcased African products designed to tackle particular social problems, as well as technology aimed at dealing with Africa-specific issues.

A final item on this year's roster of new additions was series of fashion parades. These were designed to stimulate the attention of buyers and allowed them to purchase items directly from the catwalk.

Transformation, conservation and natural inspiration

In terms of trends on show this year, Seeliger said:  "Increasingly, international buyers want locally-made, locally-sourced African design. As are result, we are vigorous in our support of home-grown South African and pan-African design." In light of this, wherever possible, the organisers encourage exhibitors to use local materials and manufacturing facilities.

Despite much of the emphasis at the event being on the new potential of African designers and the vibrancy of the current local market, there was also a considerable focus on the heritage of the region. The Africa is Now pavilion, for instance, emphasised that Africa is home to the world's oldest tradition of making and innovating.

Photos: Out of Africa: local styles, global appeal.
Out of Africa: local styles, global appeal.

The message here was that contemporary African designers are interpreting the ancient vocabularies of form, material and craft in a new visual language. Design at this year's Expo, then, was very much about this juxtaposition of the age-old and the modern.

African designers, sometimes by necessity, have a make-do approach to materiality, transforming what is at hand into unexpected objects and designs. Found objects are frequently repurposed in ingenious ways, while mass-produced materials are reimagined in a novel manner, reflecting vestiges of their previous incarnation.

The goal of Issa Diabaté, for example, an architect and designer from Ivory Coast, a 22-million strong West  African nation, is to create visually interesting objects out of everyday, affordable materials. His plywood chair is part of a distinctive line of furniture that is sensuous, but pared down. His hope is to bring an informed, international, urban design approach to bear on everyday life in Africa. Through his work, he seeks to show that you can create simple – but memorable – furniture at a low cost.

Another local designer embracing the principle of transformation was Audrey Botha. Unusually, she creates jewellery made from real butterfly wings. Summing up her approach, she said: "I see myself as immortalising the transient beauty of butterflies and creating heirloom-quality treasures, such as pendants and earrings".

Her sustainably-farmed butterflies are sourced from an organisation that manages conservation programmes, helping preserve the natural habitat of any threatened species. Botha currently has a distributor in Australia and believes her jewellery also has potential appeal for Asian consumers.

Taking an on overview of this year's event, Temi Stallings, owner of Design Decisions, a Cape Town-based  interior-design consultancy, said: "This year, there is more of a focus on environmental design issues, design, such as energy-conserving lighting and the use of recycled materials. There is also a greater prominence for organic shapes and those objects taking their inspiration from nature, notably shells and plants."

Despite the natural tones noted by Stalling, much of the event also had a distinct urban feel, dispelling any lingering notion of Africa as a solely rural environment. With the continent now home to seven rapidly growing mega-cities, their influence as a source of vibrant design inspiration was unmissable.

While acknowledging that they principally only target local markets at present, many exhibitors were only too keen to consider the possibilities opening up in the Asian markets. Teli Proto, an exhibitor and the owner of Tic Tac Toe, a designer babywear manufacturer, said: "We are looking to expand and Hong Kong is, no doubt, a market we should be eyeing. Consumers there appreciate good-quality products, such as our registered designs."

Dax Martin is fashion swimwear and lingerie designer based in Durban, one of South Africa's most important manufacturing hubs. His African imagery-emblazoned items are individually printed and aimed squarely at the middle market of 18- to 45-year-olds.

His swimwear lines were modelled at the 2013 Miss South Africa beauty pageant and enjoyed subsequent international media coverage. As well as selling to the South African retail market, Martin also has a rapidly growing export business in Europe and, again, believes that his designs could do well in Asia.

Amanda du Plessis is the owner of Evolution & Coral Stephens, manufacturers of printed soft furnishings, and is currently looking to establish herself in Asia. She said: "My products are a midway line between art and function. I create items that tell a story and are meaningful. People must buy less, but buy better."

At present, Du Plessis also exhibits at the annual Parisian deco trade show, Maison et Objet. Now, though, she is increasingly focussing on the Asian markets, as demand in Europe remains sluggish. She plans to showcase her products in Hong Kong over the next 12 months.

Similarly keen to make inroads into the more eastern markets is Meyer von Wielligh, a manufacturer of high-end bespoke furniture.  Clearly taking its inspiration wholly from its home territory, the company's solid-oak and steel cabinet – veneered with Nelson Mandela's portrait – is styled after a dried-up African riverbed.

At present the business, which has traditionally targetted hotels, lodges, companies and upmarket residential customers, is beginning to export and is in talks with Taiwanese agent. As part of a trade initiative launched by Wesgro, the Western Cape's trade-promotion agency, Meyer von Wielligh will be exhibiting in Dubai later this year. It also hopes to find an Asian distributor for its high-end bespoke solid-wood furniture products.

There was a sense among exhibitors and buyers at the Expo that, although many of the offerings are home-grown, there is a huge global opportunity opening up for African design. Commenting on the potential, Amanda du Preez, a buyer from Namibia, said: "This year the Expo has a distinctly youthful orientation. The products are amazing. They are high quality and innovative. It's definitely an event for international buyers, although it clearly has African perspective. It's achieved just what it set out to do."

With Cape Town this year celebrating its role as the World Design Capital – the first time an African city has won the title – there is a clearly degree of momentum building behind the region's creativity. Unsurprisingly, the organisers of the Indaba are very keen to capitalise  on the city's time in the international spotlight.

Looking to the future, Seeliger said: "If international buyers are looking to source products from the African continent, Design Expo will increasingly become a one-stop shop for them. It will also continue to provide a platform for designers outside South Africa, as there is huge interest worldwide in what is happening here right now."

At present, China is the largest trading partner of South Africa, the continent's biggest economy and a co-member of BRICS. In 2012, trade between the two countries was worth US$21.7 billion.

Photo: Cape Town: the first African World Design Capital.
Cape Town: the first African World Design Capital.

Design Indaba Expo 2014 took place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from 27 February-2 March. The event featured 495 exhibitors, with 230 exhibiting for the first time this year.

This year the event attracted 809 trade buyers, an increase of 298 when compared to2013. Registered international buyers attended from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Ivory Coast, Mauritius, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, the UAE, the UK and the US.

Mark Ronan, Special Correspondent, Cape Town

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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