We have had a Creative Practice at The MBS Group since the consultancy was founded 30 years ago. The practice has expanded and changed over the years to now include much more than just designers in apparel or home. Today, businesses are looking for creatives focused on content, tone of voice, and most importantly (and harder to pinpoint) ‘look and feel’. We have always worked for some of the most creative and innovative companies in the world and it remains a conundrum to find creatives who are also commercial: the perfect blend of left and right brain.
It was about 25 years ago that I made one of my first annual trips ‘home’ to South Africa, and deviated from Cape Town to go to a sleepy Indian Ocean seaside village on the Garden Route, Plettenberg Bay. I never travel anywhere without mapping out the best retailers and Plettenberg Bay was no different. For such a small town, it had some marvellous retail stores: The Old House Shop, selling clothes and homewares; Thyme and Again for the best fruit, veg, and deli food with a lunchtime restaurant; and a delightful clothing store, called Homework.
The Founder and Creative of Homework was none other than Gail Behr who used to ‘hold court’ in the courtyard outside the store. People would come from far and wide to shop at her store, which was always busy… as was the queue of people waiting to sit and chat with Gail over a coffee.
Gail is one of those rare people who can turn her hand to anything – and make a success of it. She is commercial and creative, a genuine people person and above all, she is completely authentic. In 2004, Gail opened a 12–room hotel and restaurant on the sea called The Grand Café & Rooms in Plettenberg Bay. It was cool and up to the minute – like a little mini Chateau Marmont overlooking the sea. She then designed an on-trend and happening restaurant in Cape Town called The Grand Café. On a beach outside of the docks of Cape Town in a disused warehouse where fishermen used to bring in their boats, The Grand Café was like a more edgy version of the legendary Club 55 in St Tropez.
However, it is the project that she has just completed which has really tested her skills as an all-rounder and will put her on the international map: architect/interior designer; gardener; shop keeper; hotelier and restauranteur. When I asked Gail why she decided to move on from apparel and into hotels she said to me: “I became frightened of the clothing business because of the likes of H&M and Zara arriving on the high street. I knew that I would become a casualty. In 2016, I was at a rock concert with a friend who is a successful entrepreneur with social purpose and sustainability at his core. I told him that I wanted to design, create and run a hotel. What I described, he liked and he said yes. Dorp was born.”
Dorp is perched on the top of Signal Hill with the most spectacular views looking straight over Cape Town. Every day at twelve o’clock, the building shakes and there is an almighty boom when the two noon guns are fired just behind the hotel – a tradition in the Cape which dates back to 1806.
Dorp, which translates to village in Afrikaans, looks as though it has been there for years. Construction began in 2017 to build the hotel, which comprises of a number of buildings all quite different in style, but all sympathetic to the environment – a historical area with buildings dating back to pre-1850. Dorp’s is the oldest surviving residential neighbourhood in Cape Town and is the area where the former slaves used to live. Over 50% of the residents are Muslim and as a sign of respect to the local community, Gail will never sell alcohol at the hotel.
Gail knew exactly what she wanted to do with the property and designed the site from scratch. She planted the most magical gardens, terraces and arbours which are as pretty as any English country garden at the Cape. When I asked Gail what style she had designed the hotel in, she said: “The buildings are just bricks and mortar which are built around beautiful old doors and windows, sourced from all over the world. It has no particular style, it is Cape simplicity at its best and in keeping with surroundings of the Bo-Kaap of Cape Town.”
Each suite of 29 rooms are different – some have kitchens or sitting rooms, terraces and little private gardens and one has a tiny private swimming pool and a roof terrace overlooking the City.
The whole thing is very personal. Just as Gail likes to live – among found things, some old, some new, piles of her own books, mementos, good art – everything adds up to making this hotel a non-hotel. As Gail says: “Every room and space has its own narrative.”
“Every room and space has its own narrative.”
There is a large, communal salon, with wooden floors and ceiling fans. The room is filled with antiques and big plants with warm and fabulous old, worn Persian rugs on the floor. It has large, arched windows with a generous ‘stoep’ (verandah) on the one side overlooking the harbour and the room looks as though it comes straight out of a colonial club in India – except for Table Mountain looming in the distance. Gail uses one of the dining tables as her desk for the day where she holds her meetings in the communal space, keeping one eye on the kitchen and constantly talking to the guests as though she has known them her whole life. Friends from the outside seem to pop in all day long to see her. There is a small and simple lunch menu and guests are asked whether they are eating in for dinner. If yes, then you are told what you’re having for dinner that evening. It feels exactly like being a guest in someone’s home. Guests can invite friends for dinner but outsiders cannot eat in the restaurant – what a relief!
“A successful retailer has to have fanatical attention to detail, and if you have more than one pair of eyes on something, it will inevitably go wrong.”
I asked Gail to describe herself to me. She says of herself that: “At heart, I am a shopkeeper. I started playing shopkeeping when I was very young and I never stopped.” She goes on to say: “a successful retailer has to have fanatical attention to detail, and if you have more than one pair of eyes on something, it will inevitably go wrong.” Of course there is a small shop at Dorp – Gail calls it ‘The Shop That Never Opens’. I wanted to check it out and was given the key to explore. There were marvellous things to buy and my pile of purchases was very high. It was most pleasurable to browse a shop on my own and then to call someone who came, totted up everything and wrapped the goods ready for travel, beautifully. I am sure as time goes on, the Shop will open at regular hours but for the moment, it feels like a best kept secret.
It was a great privilege to have stayed at Dorp. I came away feeling that for just five days, I was somebody very special and much more than I could ever possibly be.
Born: Melrose, Johannesburg. I moved school 11 times as I did not enjoy formal education. My whole life, I dreamt of getting married and then I changed my mind to become a shopkeeper.
Who inspires you and do you have any mentors? Elsie de Wolfe (1859-1950). She wrote a book called The House in Good Taste. Elsie, who is recognised as being the first interior decorator, declared as she got older: ‘I am going to make everything around me beautiful, that will be my life’. I also have a collection of interesting and lovely friends who inspire me everyday. I seem to gain a new mentor most days of the week…
Your legacy? None! We take ourselves far too seriously and I have always said: cremate me and throw my ashes in the bin! Every phase is lovely and then it’s over. I want to be remembered for genuine kindness.