Between LUXURY AND INEQUALITY
Affluent Africans have traditionally had to travel to Europe and latterly Dubai (where it is easier to get visas for the multiple accompanying nannies) to buy luxury goods, but recent commercial vibrancy has seen continental wealth grow to such an extent that the purveyors of the fine and the fabulous are now coming to us.
Whether your heart desires classy concept stores (such as Joburg’s Luminance and Cape Town’s Merchants on Long) or high-end retail locations (such as the Morocco Mall in Casablanca and the Achimota Retail Centre in Accra), we’ve got it all.
Our continent’s share of millionaires is still a fraction of the rest of the world, but the numbers have quadrupled in the past decade. The Knight Frank 2015 Wealth Report states that Africans in the category of ultra high-net-worth individuals – who require a net wealth of $30 million (R475 million) – are projected to grow 60% by 2020. Is it any wonder that the nice people at Porsche and Rolls-Royce released their latest marques in Johannesburg and Luanda, in step with Frankfurt and London?
The African economic miracle may have slowed somewhat since the 2014 collapse of commodity prices, but you would hardly know it to look at the luxury brand-laden shopping trolleys and dustbins of the continent’s elite. Wealthy Nigerians bemoaned the 50% drop in the price of crude oil, but it didn’t stop 2015 being the year that they drank their way into the top 20 Champagne-consuming countries – it is the secondfastest-growing Champagne market in the world – and became the 10th-largest international importer of Hennessy cognac.
The Angolan upper crust grumbles about the kwanza’s 50% depreciation against the dollar and about banks restricting foreign currency withdrawals, but finds considerable consolation in the opening of Prada and Gucci shops in Luanda’s brand-new $50 million Sky Gallery shopping mall. It was the least the company could do, seeing as Forbes Africa recently quoted Gucci marketing director Filipo Pinto-Coelho as saying that visiting Angolan shoppers had made up 58% of the 2014 luxury label’s market share in Portugal alone.
The presence of international premium-product stores on African soil undoubtedly stimulates the local economies of leading cities through jobs, taxes and property development, but it would be a mistake to imagine that everyone is swigging on single malts while spraying on bespoke scents. As a region, sub-Saharan African income inequality is second only to that of Latin America. In the past decade, real per capita incomes have grown steadily, but the gains are unevenly distributed. In essence, the rich have become a lot richer, while the poor have only moved up a little.
Wealth gaps are bad news. Wealth gaps within sight of the Apple iStore and the Rolex outlet are even worse news. According to pioneering psychological research conducted by Richard Easterlin in the 1970s, increased awareness of inequality, reinforced by goods that are visible but unattainable, results in demoralisation, a lowering of overall happiness and productivity at an individual and national level.
Unhappily, the UN World Happiness Report 2016 flags rising levels of inequality. For 2012 to 2015, out of 10 world regions, sub-Saharan Africa ranked last.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) October 2015 regional economic outlook for sub-Saharan Africa refers to evidence at a global level that inequality of income and gender hamper growth because it reduces access to education and health, which lowers people’s productivity and mobility. The IMF argues it can lead to sociopolitical instability and poor governance, which discourages investment, employment and growth.
Most of the rich aren’t stupid. Self-interest is pushing a significant portion of them away from old school hedonism. Bill Gates’ The Giving Pledge began an exploration of philanthropic luxury, and meetings such as the Geneva 2013 Sustainable Luxury Forum indicate that sustainability is a reputational imperative for premium brands.
The African elite fit into a broader global context, and increasing numbers of creative, entrepreneurial individuals are defining a luxury language that breaks down inequality and rebrands Africa by pushing the barriers of excellence for Africanmade products. One such individual is Reni Folawiyo, founder of the Lagos Alara concept store. Designed by world-acclaimed Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, Folawiyo’s shop is an achingly stylish, utterly idiosyncratic selection of the best in fashion and interior design from Africa and the world. A chaise longue discovered at Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile is given equivalent status to a chair with a Gothic arched back designed by Artlantique, a company that recycles the brightly painted wood of Senegalese fishing boats. African fashion brands such as Maki Oh, Tiffany Amber, Lanre da Silva Ajayi, Lisa Folawiyo, Ré Bahia and Tsemaye Binitie take pride of place next to international work by Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Valentino and Dries Van Noten. Folawiyo’s ambitions for Alara go beyond filling a gap in Lagos’ luxury landscape. She wants to “address a deeper issue – the fact that so little of what’s made in Africa is considered luxurious in the first place. Alara was conceived to show the world who we are today ... That we create and enjoy objects of exceptional quality and beauty ... To support and encourage those who wish to exchange, educate, elevate and beautify.” She observes that “luxury and elegant experiences are not shallow when we respect and reward the principle that a product of beauty is created by a person of beauty”.
How to respect and reward the producers of beauty is central to CEO of Yswara fine African tea brand Swaady Martin-Leke’s notion of “luxe ubuntu”. The recent winner of the Brand Africa award is preparing to open a flagship store at the Cosmopolitan Building in Maboneng, Joburg, at the end of this month and has recently concluded a deal with Selfridges in the UK.
She explains: “Luxe ubuntu describes the concept of an inclusive luxury business model, in which all the members of the supply chain who contribute to the production of a luxury product are beneficiaries of the economic value generated ... We are committed to reversing the commodity trap by keeping the value-add in Africa.
“We continuously strive to uplift African farmers and artisans, especially women, by giving them routes to new markets and by expanding their production capability and meaningful income.”
She believes that such meaningful income will come from developing a taste for high-quality African-made products globally.
Luxury is lovely. What is needed, for all our sakes, is a more even distribution of loveliness. We all win if Africa’s economic momentum can reinforce a sense that beauty and the widespread appreciation of beautiful things are key components of a functional (and happier) society.
Sustainable success requires us to redefine and revel in African luxury.
The number of African millionaires continues to grow and the continent’s luxury market is booming – as sharply as its wealth gap.
looks at the rise and rise of the new African luxury brands, networks and clubs
Luxury is lovely. What is needed, for all our sakes, is a more even distribution of lovelines
YSWARA TEA Luxury hot drinks (left) crafted with a philosophy of ‘luxe ubuntu’. Owner Swaady MartinLeke
LAGOS ALARA CONCEPT STORE The top-end store in Lagos is designed by starchitect David Adjaye. Reni Folawiyo (below) is the CEO and founder