Joburg ramps up for Fashion Kapitol

5 May 2008

Johannesburg is to have the world’s first public outdoor fashion ramp, to be opened as the Fashion Kapitol in July this year. So says fashion writer and consultant Adam Levin.

And, adds Rees Mann, the person driving the revamp of Johannesburg’s fashion district, what is happening in the district is not displacing anyone, as happened in Newtown, but is rather bringing people to live in the area.

Things are moving fast on the eastern edge of Johannesburg’s CBD; initially they were held up by buying properties and then getting permission from the provincial heritage authority to demolish buildings. Now that permission has been obtained and two buildings have been demolished, the fashion ramp is rapidly taking shape in the Fashion Kapitol.

The kapitol will take up most of a block in the heart of the fashion district. It will consist of 30 shops, offices, studios, a restaurant, a small square, a ramp, an amphitheatre, and an arcade linking Pritchard and Market streets.

“The feel of the kapitol is that of a sexy new metropolitan centre,” says Mann.

“In time, the streets surrounding the kapitol will bustle with beads and buttons, models lugging their portfolios to casting sessions, and the city’s fashion pioneers strutting their uniquely personal styles.” It will become Africa’s fashion capital.

Joburg’s Fashion Kapitol will take its place alongside international capitals. New York’s Fashion Avenue is home to 5 000 fashion merchants; Antwerp’s ModeNatie or Fashion Nation boasts a fashion museum; while Los Angeles has a fashion district of 94 blocks with an annual turnover of $6-billion.

Mann says the kapitol has three target markets: fashion-conscious suburban shoppers, downtown shoppers who work in the CBD, and tourists. Its African flavour will be a draw card for tourists.

He is the third generation of garment entrepreneurs in the fashion district – his family having set up shop there in 1948. Mann has planted three trees in the square, in memory of the three generations.

26 city blocks

The district incorporates an area of some 26 city blocks on the eastern edge of the CBD, with its core bordered by Polly, President, Troye and Pritchard streets. It houses over 100 fashion-related businesses, including cut, make and trim operators, a budget clothing retail industry and studios of several emerging and established designers like Clive Rundle and Bongiwe Walaza.

Rundle has booked his place in the kapitol, taking one of the old buildings as his upstairs studio, with plans to open a coffee shop on the ground floor. Walaza has taken one of the shops fronting the square.

Mann emphasises that the kapitol is not just for the fashion industry, but he hopes it will be seen as a space for product launches, for artists and their exhibition space, poetry readings, training and meetings. “This is not just garments, it is about lifestyle and anything related to the arts industry.”

It will also house the offices of the Fashion District Institute, a section 21 company of which he is the acting executive director. Mann says the kapitol has been a dream of 10 years, which is finally coming to fruition. “Ten years ago I went to the City of Johannesburg with a proposal to renew this area.

“It’s amazing to see a part of Johannesburg that is so close to my heart come full circle – but while the bustling rag trade of my childhood had a distinctly Eurocentric feel, its rebirth will be pan-African and cosmopolitan.”

He is using bold colours in the kapitol, like lime green, orange and pink, to emphasise that it is a vibrant place. He also hopes to hold lunch-time fashion shows, run by student and emerging designers. The square could also double as a market place.

The row of shops along President Street has being identified for international designers, so that it will become an “international walkway”, with flags denoting the countries represented. “It has been 10 years from getting the ball rolling,” he says with a broad smile. “The kapitol has exceeded my expectations.”

Three heritage buildings

The three heritage buildings are two houses dating back to 1892 and 1895, and a two-storey cabinet maker’s workshop and furniture store, built in 1928. The houses consisted of verandas, bedrooms, sitting rooms, dining rooms, kitchens and outside toilets. In 1992 all three buildings become a restaurant and tavern, with a fast food section, offices and storerooms, with the two-storey structure becoming the dining area.

Heritage consultant Herbert Prins says in a report that the buildings were “typical of urban living”, with the verandas allowing social interaction between the owners of the houses and passers-by.

The original building materials are still visible: burnt brick, interlaced with clay or dagha as mortar, tar and sand for the damp coursing, rubble stone masonry for the foundations and galvanised iron for the roofing.

Prins says the buildings are significant because they are some of the city’s earliest inner city dwellings, showing what materials were used for construction, how the houses were positioned on the street, and finer details like outside toilets.

“Although the internal structure has been largely destroyed, the extant plans point to the social relations of public and private spaces, family and individual spaces, entertainment and service spaces, work and living spaces, and the ways these were arranged and linked to each other in the early days of the mining town of Johannesburg.”

JDA sponsorship

The development is sponsored by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), which is pumping R9-million into the kapitol and a further R26-million into the revamp of the greater fashion district precinct.

This involves paving 20 blocks over the next several years, replacing the mosaic stitching pavements, adding street furniture like benches, bins and trees, and giving the district a distinctive feel with new lighting. The plan includes artworks to be placed in the square by June, says Claudia Mahlaule, a development manager at the JDA.

The plan is to link the recently revamped high court precinct with the fashion district by means of new paving and lighting. The JDA has also recently revamped jewel city, just south of the fashion district, and work continues on the Ellis Park precinct.

The fashion district is also in the early stages of applying for city improvement district status.

Property boom

Property in the fashion district is experiencing a boom as a result of the developments. Two major property development companies, City Properties and Afhco, have bought derelict blocks of flats and offices, and are converting them into B-grade offices and residential units.

Max Katz of City Properties says the company started buying in the district two years ago. It bought Fashion Art Court and Fashion Art Place on the corner of Pritchard and Troye streets, and are in the throes of renovating the two buildings.

The small businesses that occupied the buildings will be re-instated, together with offices and bachelor, one-bedroom and two-bedroom flats. With smart finishings, the flats will have prepaid electricity meters, an intercom system and 24-hour security. There will be an entertainment gallery, a braai area and a drying port, so washing is not hung on balconies, he emphasises.

Neighbouring Registry House has also been bought and the first few storeys have already been converted. The Malalaituka Grill is doing brisk business, while retail space is ready for occupation. An internet cafe, a training centre and a college have already taken office space.

City Properties has also bought the 23-storey Splendid Place in Pritchard Street, at present an eyesore with washing on balconies, rubbish accumulated above the retail-level roof, and broken windows. The company paid R22-million for the building, and will spend R45-million on revamping it.

Tayob Towers, slightly further east but still within the district, was also recently purchased, and will be converted into 360 residential units. Katz says his company has bought some 70 buildings in the city centre and converted most of them into 1 200 residential units, while upgrading office spaces.

“The company is tapping into the emerging middle-class market.”

Lebo Mashego of Afhco says the company owns 11 buildings in the district, and it is busying buying another five. Three of them have already been converted into residential units, while work on the others continues. Most units are bachelor or one-bedroomed, confirms Mashego, in line with the demand in the precinct.

Afhco has bought and converted some 45 buildings in the inner city. He says that the eastern edge of the CBD is still thought of as a dangerous area but things are changing, with the help of the JDA and the private sector.

“The unique pan-African ambience reflects the character of the new Johannesburg and will make the kapitol an accessible and lively destination for tourists, suburbanites and the fashion community we intend to establish in the area,” confirms Mann.

Source: City of Johannesburg