Sure, when you go to a craft market or a fair, you get to pick up some beautiful, unique items. At the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair (SHmC), you get to pair your shopping experience with some lovely food and wine, in an atmosphere and style on another planet from your average craft market.

SHmC has, over the nine years of its existence, played a significant role in showcasing the territory where craft meets luxury in SA.

"It’s one thing to have artisans who are selling from their store or selling online, but when you create this environment that brings all of them together, and then brings them the right audience, it really does create magic," says Cassandra Twala, now in her second year as SHmC curator.

"It gives and it gives back."

A look at the numbers suggests that this magic has also become a significant part of the craft economy, shaping its possibilities as much as creating a platform for exhibitors to sell their wares. Artlogic, the company that runs SHmC as well as events such as the Joburg Art Fair, makes a conservative estimate that since 2010, R40m has changed hands as a result of the platform the fair creates. It says the average visitor spends R500 at the show, and with 14,500 people expected to visit, that works out to more than R7m in circulation at the fair, over the course of the weekend.

That’s quite a significant shot in the arm for these predominantly small entrepreneurial operations. A survey of last year’s exhibitors reveals that "37% employ two to five people full-time and 37% employ five or more staff members". Beyond that, a poll found "over 50% of returning exhibitors reporting increased sales from 2015 to 2016, and most naming the fair a pivotal part of this growth".

Twala says: "Being able to watch the trajectory of some of the businesses that have been with us from the beginning is incredible. People like [Cape Town jeweller] Pichulik, people like [milliners] Simon & Mary … they’ve made it sustainable. They’re global brands now."

While this budding economy grows and develops, Twala is aware of the role the fair plays in shaping its future. Not only is there commercial value to be unlocked, there’s cultural value too. The market niche that the SHmC has carved out is the end where craft and luxury converge — it’s held on the roof of Hyde Park Corner, after all, the stomping ground of a particular kind of luxury shopper.

Twala points out that she has taken a special interest in the rise of African craft in the context of luxury goods. " [It’s a] big part of my involvement — and this is only my second year, but I am a black female, and diversity, seeing more black makers in the fair, is actually something that’s really important to me."

She says African craft and design is "what everyone is looking at at the moment"; it is at a pivotal point. "That speaks to luxury and where Africa is now," she says. Elevating the heritage and traditions of African craft in a luxury market is crucial to the way it is valued.

This gives the SHmC a different tone from similar events in, say, Europe. A look at luxury goods supremo Johann Rupert’s recently launched Homo Faber, which describes itself as the "first major cultural exhibition dedicated to the very best in European craftsmanship", reveals an emphasis on preserving crafts — a worry about traditional artisanal skills becoming extinct in Europe, and leveraging the luxury goods market to revitalise them.

Back to the future

The approach to African craft at the SHmC is much more forward-looking. There’s a strong sense that African craft and aesthetics represent the future of the continent. Traditional craft is being reinterpreted and recast not as mere nostalgia but as a basis of a modern, prosperous future. It’s about growing new economies and forging a path to prosperity through entrepreneurial endeavour.

One key project at the fair is Well Made in Africa, which sponsors five craftspeople from the rest of Africa to showcase their goods at the fair. Twala says that through this initiative, the SHmC aims to shift the focus of the craft economy away from the idea that you’ve made it when you crack the European market. "We’re trying to open up channels for Africans to trade with each other," she says.

It has already had some success. Twala highlights the example of Adele Dejak, a fashion designer from Nigeria, who returns to the fair this year under her own steam after initially attending under the banner of Well Made in Africa.

If the difference between luxury crafted goods and ordinary expensive stuff is that craft comes with a story, with techniques, designs and materials laden with meaning, then there is a definite air that the meaning of what’s happening at SHmC this year is particularly exciting. "We’re setting the standard for what it means to have African design and African craft and African food and wine," says Twala.

First-time finds

Here are six new exhibitors at SHmC this year.

Lukhanyo Mdingi

Fashion designer known for his quality crafting, refined elegance and locally sourced, sustainable materials.

Nthabiseng Ramaboa

Better known as Chef Nti, this Soweto-born chef has just opened her first restaurant, Taste Kitchen, in Maboneng, known for its modern take on local cuisine — and her fabulous apron designs.

Babylonstoren

The historic Cape Dutch fruit and wine farm known for its fantastic food garden, wine and restaurants, comes to Joburg this year.

Tina Ngxokolo

The sister of Laduma Ngxokolo, one of Africa’s foremost knitwear designers, Tina is a talented fashion designer in her own right and is set to unveil something special at SHmC.

Houtlander

Makers of beautiful oak furniture from Cape Town, combining respect for traditional joinery and modern methods — and winners of the Best Furniture Design at 100% Design SA earlier this year — make their debut at SHmC.

Khokho

This Swaziland group of leathersmiths combine training by Italian master-craftsman Carlo Bisceglia, formerly of Burberry and Marc Jacobs, with woven lutindzi grass to create beautiful handbags.

The Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair happens on the rooftop at Hyde Park Corner, Johannesburg, from Friday October 12 to Sunday October 14. For more info visit sanlamhmc.co.za

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