Khanyi Dhlomo's A-list designer skills plan

Khanyi Dhlomo. (Supplied)

Khanyi Dhlomo. (Supplied)

Apart from curious passers-by, social climbers, impeccably groomed ­fashionistas and the odd ­journalist, another posse walked into the well-guarded doors of Khanyi ­Dhlomo's now-famous Luminance boutique department store in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, this week. It was accompanied by Parisian perfumer extraordinaire Frédéric Malle.

"Product training," said a shop assistant when asked why Malle's team had been flown into the country at Luminance's expense. "Many of us have never had the opportunity to go overseas.
It's one thing to learn about the product. It's another thing to see it, feel it and touch it."

The place is almost a shrine to international fashion and design: scented candles burn, a collector's book poses the question: "What does art mean to you?" There is exotic, earthy tea, chunky Oscar de la Renta homeware, delicate bottles of Marc Jacobs perfume, and sleek Pierre Cronje furniture.

And then there are the rows of impossibly priced and exquisitely crafted jackets, dresses and tunics. The designers featured are hallmarks of fashion: Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Matthew Williamson and Philip Treacy.

And several of these icons will soon, like Malle, be making their way through the doors of Luminance.

Their visits will help to meet the skills-development requirement stipulated by the National Empowerment Fund, whose R34-million loan to the venture has subjected it to intense public scrutiny, despite the fact that the NEF said it was fully secured and was being paid back at a 14.5% interest rate.  

"What we've committed to is a skills-transfer process which will be focused, quantifiable and measurable," Dhlomo said in a phone interview with the Mail & Guardian.  

"Each year, we want to ensure the international brands we carry have direct interaction with us." Malle, for example, is to provide the store's staff with training in high-end ­fragrances and the creation of a "luxury" customer experience.

The A-list brands Luminance anticipates hosting include fashion greats Herrera and De la Renta, The Row (a fashion label created by the Olsen twins), Paris-based scent company Diptyque, Treacy, who designs many of the hats worn by the British royals, and celebrated shoe designer, Manolo Blahnik.

Some designers have not yet confirmed a date, but "it's on their schedule", said Dhlomo. "This year alone, we'll have three key brands visiting."

It's envisaged that the doyennes will share the tricks of the trade with staff and student designers who have not yet been identified but who would represent a diverse  group "from a race and gender perspective".

But just how much will this high-brow "skills transfer" cost? It is difficult to say. When asked, the NEF said it was an operational detail that was at the discretion of Dhlomo and her partners. It goes without saying that massive names like De le Renta don't come cheap, but according to Dhlomo, Luminance is "not paying much" for appearance fees.

"We cover the travel [and accommodation] expenses, but we don't have the budget to pay high appearance fees," she said. Instead, the fact that Luminance was carrying their brands was enough to bring these big-ticket names out to South Africa to conduct training free of charge.

But their travel expenses alone won't be cheap - an average business-class air ticket from New York to Johannesburg in September costs about R45 000.

Add five-star ­accommodation to that and Luminance is likely to foot a bill close to R175000 per visit for a designer and two assistants.

For business environment specialist company SBP, the issue is really "whether this is a suitable use of public resources".

"The NEF was supposedly set up to promote 'local productive activity', yet this is an investment in an operation selling high-end imports," the company told the M&G. "There is nothing wrong with a businessperson doing that, but when it is done on the public coin, it needs to be able to stand up to an elevated level of scrutiny," it said.

The funds, said SBP, "could have been better applied."

"There are more than a few talented young designers who might have been sent abroad to showcase their talents, or even to study under some big names. Surely it would mean more to the NEF to see ranges by local designers on catwalks in New York and Paris, than to see the ranges of overseas designers in stores in Johannesburg?"

But according to Janine Jellars, the editor of Seventeen magazine in Cape Town, Luminance would provide a valuable service to the fashion ­industry. "For a local designer to meet a big name like that would normally be impossible," she said. "To think of her bringing in legends like Oscar de la Renta or Carolina Herrera is amazing. But they would need to provide practical training, rather than [just] show Powerpoint ­presentations of their work."

Thalia Holmes

Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.      Read more from Thalia Holmes

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