I have lived in the UK for over 30 years but I have never missed a Christmas at home in the sunshine in South Africa. Wherever I am in the world, I, of course, always look at stores and brands and keep an eye on my South African clients of which I have a few that I absolutely treasure.
Cape Town is one of South Africa’s thriving hubs where the dynamism of the culture is palpable. September saw the opening of Zeitz Moca – the biggest African contemporary art museum on the continent in the most extraordinary building in an old grain silo repurposed by Thomas Heatherwick.
Cape Town took an unused wasteland next to the sea where there were fisheries and warehouses and turned it into a vibrant area of apartments, shops and restaurants. Standing outside the building and watching all the tourists queue to get in was like being in any other major metropolis in the world.
But I’d like to talk to you about something far more under the radar.
Nestled in the historic Cape Town neighbourhood of Woodstock lies corner store CPT, an unsung gem at the heart of not only the city but of a forward thinking and utterly original menswear culture.
I would never have found the corner store myself because you just have to be ‘in the know’ but was led there by a good friend of Kim Jones, outgoing Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton, Menswear. According to the coolest guys who own it, Kim is like a mentor to them and always open to giving advice and support.
The shop, a tiny store on the corner of a busy, dusty road, reimagines traditional retail as a community hub – a multipurpose space for music, fashion and culture. It’s home to three brands created by three designers, each with their own distinctive style, who founded the store after its previous tenant, a cult location for local streetwear enthusiasts, shut down.
Two Bop (which is slang for a 20 cent piece – the generic price to play a video game at the local corner shop) is a street wear brand established by Anthony Smith. Its retro stylings evoke his childhood experiences going to arcades and corner stores to play games, and the label initially began as a video-game inspired graphic t-shirt brand.
The second label, Sol-Sol exists at the intersection of culture and fashion and has strong Eastern influences. The designer Matthew is obsessed with South Korean street style and writes a blog based on Seoul street fashion. He was recently discovered by Levis and did a collaboration with them.
The third, Young & Lazy, is by all accounts the most influential fashion brand in the country. In my conversations with the designer Anees Petersen he said the store is where ‘the community and culture merge’ and he likens it to ‘energy with a DIY’ mentality.
This is one of the things that make corner store special – it taps into the movement toward retail as experience – a shop as a location as much as a space to sell – and combines it with an embeddedness into the community and the culture that feels fresh and essential.
What I have always respected in South Africa from a retail perspective is their ability to serve the mass market with up to the minute fashion. The Foschini Group, Woolworths and Truworths have been masters at it for as long as I can remember and like Australia, one of the huge advantages has been that because they are in the Southern hemisphere, and are a season behind, they therefore have a good sense of what worked the season before in the UK and the USA.
Corner store CPT however is something new – a type of South African fashion retail that is not only up-to-date but forward thinking, driving the zeitgeist rather than following it.
The focus on brand not just as an idea of a particular material lifestyle but also as an expression of deeply held cultural values and aspirations is at once old and completely refreshing.
In its emphasis on the local, the sustainable, on diversity of influence but specificity of appeal, the corner store is the South African arm of a much broader menswear trend. It occupies the space in South Africa that Supreme does in the UK and US.
It’s an expression of the synthesis of skateboarding and fashion that has found new ways to combine the high and low end in menswear, to make apparel that is at the same time accessible and boundary-pushing.
It is an interesting movement, one which is sweeping across menswear retail in much of the world but at the same time is original and unique to every place it pops up; a product of the movement’s emphasis on local influences combined with international trends.
I wonder who will be the clever retailer here in the UK that will stock corner store first – for what it’s worth my money is on The Basement at Dover Street Market. You heard it here first.