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Artclub and Friends: “Every purchase is a vote”

Robyn Keyser is the designer behind Artclub and Friends, a brand that aims to encourage local production and sourcing of material. Artclub and Friends garments are made in Woodstock using material produced in Cape Town, down the road from the retailer’s studio.

The brand specialises in overalls and monochrome two-pieces that can be dressed up or down; its look and feel is workwear meets normcore. When Keyser established Artclub and Friends, the goal was to make comfortable clothes that were free of size and gender norms. With its clean look, and price tags that are out of reach for many, the past two years have seen the brand become a staple among Johannesburg and Cape Town’s haves and a sartorial goal for the have-nots.

Keyser spoke to the Mail & Guardian about staying ethical while financially surviving a global pandemic. 

How is Artclub and Friends doing? 

Uhm, we’re doing okay. We’re quite lucky because we mostly outsource what we do. I have only one full-time staff member. In that way, we’re quite resilient through what’s happening now. 

I feel if my business were five years older, this would have been a much more stressful situation. As much as bigger and more established businesses have reserves for a rainy day, they also have far more obligations and commitments. To shrink and adapt is much easier when you don’t have five stores or 100 employees. But it’s still hard because, being a 26-year-old with a two-year-old business, I didn’t have a contingency plan in place in case a pandemic hit.

Eish, facts. With that in mind, how are you holding up? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about ethical business practices. A huge part of being ethical is being sensitive to your customers. That’s been a mental Olympics for me. 

When the government put the lockdown in place there were a lot of brands throwing around wild sales and discounts with the message that you need what they’re selling and you’re lucky that they’re giving it to you at a fraction of the price. 

What I feel most of my customers need to be doing right now is saving their cash. As much as I want to push sales to get people to save my business — as much as I love my products and stand by them — I do sometimes feel like maybe dungarees aren’t the most important thing right now. That’s been quite weird. 

When was the last time an Artclub and Friends garment was made? 

That was in early March. We have a whole bunch of stock that’s almost ready, but our manufacturers had to close their doors when the lockdown began. Some of the garments can be finished now because they fall into the category of winter wear. But the rest are just chilling indefinitely until the manufacturers are allowed to work on them. For example, we can’t touch T-shirts because they’re not winter wear.

We do, however, have a lot of stock ready because we were supposed to open our Johannesburg store a few weeks ago. Without that we would have run out of items to sell. 

All dressed up in Artclub and Friends (Phindulo Rigby)

And sales? How have those fared since the lockdown? 

We’ve lost 75% of our sales revenue but because everyone is at home, they’re shopping more online. Some of those sales have come from the people who would normally shop at our studio or at one of the stockists we supply. 

Our online sales have increased immensely. I’m so glad we have a platform and that we took our time making sure it works well. It’s been a great avenue for income, before and during the lockdown.  

But then the sales are nowhere near enough to make up for what we would normally make in a month. In Cape Town a huge part of local brands’ income is from tourists. Tourists love buying local because the quality is good and the price range is accessible for them. 

We don’t have that now. We can grow the numbers, for sure. But I also just wonder how long people are going to be able to afford shopping online. That extra bit of money left over after obligations is what small businesses like Artclub survive on. I don’t want to encourage our supporters to go beyond their means. 

So you’re saying you haven’t advertised since the lockdown began? 

Yes. We haven’t run a single ad. We might start this week. I feel less weird about it now that retailers are open for winter essentials. What we’re not doing is pushing sales through discounting. I don’t want to encourage people to buy things that they don’t necessarily need but they’re buying [anyway] because it’s so cheap. If it was previously discounted then that’s fine. 

What about the autumn/winter 2020 collection that you had planned to show at South African Fashion Week? 

I had all these ideas and fabrics ready before we went into lockdown. But my perspective changed while being under lockdown. The designs that I had seemed irrelevant. I’ve gone through an interesting change being at home. I’ve become hyperaware and begun questioning my material possessions. That’s filtered into what I make. I’m more concerned with making things that deserve to be in people’s cupboards. Before I was designing more faster and more chaotically. Now I would like for everything to be more considered. It’s different to what I’ve ever done. It’s a little more uniform and utility orientated. That’s how I’m feeling, dressing and existing. Utility is the word. 

Are there any other projects that are on hold? 

Yes. The biggest is setting up shop at 44 Stanley Avenue in Jo’burg, ha! We have a whole shop sitting in my studio, ready to be installed in Jo’burg. The whole store exists; we just haven’t moved in. We’re not sure when we’ll be able to open but we’re looking into having a pop-up in Cape Town of what our Jo’burg store would look like when regulations allow people to occupy public spaces. 

We have also been working on a new project: we have our basic shapes and patterns available and our customers come and get exactly what they want made in-store. People have so much in their closets, but it’s different versions of the wrong things. You can have four denim jackets and not fully love any of them. For the sake of sustainability, if people get exactly what they want, they’ll keep it for a lot longer and care for it properly. It’s a whole new way of doing this, but it’s going to be fulfilling to be that hands-on with customers. 

If your Jo’burg lease began this month, but you’re not occupying the space, how does rent work?

The people who run 44 Stanley have been incredibly supportive and understanding. They’ve been checking in and letting me know that they want to know how we can make this work to suit my needs and means. I think it helps that I haven’t moved in yet. Leases are scary things. They’re fine until you hit a pandemic. Then you very quickly see what landlords are really about. 

Has operating a business during a pandemic taught you any lessons? How are you adapting? 

This lockdown has forced me to take stock of what we put our energy into. Yes, it’s a hard time, but it’s been a telling one. Like I said earlier, throughout the lockdown we haven’t done any advertising or offered any sales. We left our online store open and let people know that we can deliver when regulations let us. And yet we have made some sales. It means people remembered us. 

When I started Artclub it was an opportunity to create a world that I want. I decide how to deal with customers beyond the product. It’s how I communicate with them when things go wrong; how I talk to them about their bodies. I think that’s why we’re still here. It’s like they say: every purchase is a vote. 

The Artclub community is very real and very powerful. Our supporters need to be taken care of and deeply considered. They’re the reason why we’re here

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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