Lady who lunches
SARAH BUITENDACH: Let them eat Ladurée macarons
The annual Condé Nast luxury conference was held in Cape Town this month. But it might as well have been held in a bubble on the moon
Two weeks ago I was a guest at the International Luxury Conference in Cape Town, organised by media company Condé Nast, which publishes titles like Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and GQ.
The gig got buzz, not least because of its almost R80,000 tickets. The annual two-day event flits from one global hot spot to the next, proffering insights into the world of expensive things and rich people — what they’re buying, where they’re travelling, what the future of the market is. Mostly, it seemed from my nonbillionaire vantage point that it offered a ridiculously pricey networking opportunity.
Veiled under the designer guise of swish speakers, a burly security detail whispering into each other’s ears and excellent conference food (an oxymoron, but not in this case), it gave a glimmer of access to big bling ballers like the top bosses at Gucci and Tiffany.
This year, the talk revolved around Africa being it — the sartorial Eye of Sauron was definitely on us. Predictably, a lot of it seemed like lip service on the part of our European counterparts. You know the patronising drill: hey, Africa, you’re the flavour of the month and we’re here to do you a favour.
Embarrassingly, there were many people speaking of Africa as a "country", and at one stage the organisers even hauled out Nelson Mandela’s "honorary granddaughter", Naomi Campbell.
But what was pleasing was that the real standout speakers were not the big Western brands, but rather their African equivalents. Like SA designer Laduma Ngxokolo who spoke about his high-end Xhosa take on knitwear; Ghanaian Roberta Annan, who is managing the €100m Impact Fund for African Creatives; and Omoyemi Akerele, who is the founder of the rapidly expanding Lagos Fashion Week.
And the glitzy elephant in the room? It was the threat of global populism, growing disenchantment with the world’s elites (such as those who bought the R80,000 tickets) and the social legitimacy of the wealthy.
Just outside the door, the EFF was stringing up street posters declaring "Our Land and Jobs Now". But then again, the "yellow vests" held months of protests in Paris, gathering at such luxe retail hot spots like the Champs-Élysées.
Well, you might argue, why should the fashnoscenti of the world have much to say about this?
After all, it’s not like they’re in charge of global economic policy. And this wasn’t Davos.
But some in the industry understand why it’s important. In an interview with The Business of Fashion in December, Mario Ortelli, managing partner of luxury advisers Ortelli & Co, said: "You don’t want to shop at Louis Vuitton on the Champs-Élysées when cars are burning on the street. You don’t want to walk around with an Hermès bag when there’s a violent protest happening."
As the rise of populist leaders (Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and, of course, Donald Trump) shows, any talk show aiming to explore the zeitgeist fails unless it engages with this.
It’s refreshing that some, like Ortelli, see this cognitive dissonance as worth thinking about, at the very least.
To escape from the land of luxury, I skipped out for lunch to La Tête, on Bree Street. Chef (and owner) Giles Edwards worked in London for years, before returning home to start his own bistro. It’s a simple joint: white walls, industrial lighting, wooden tables.
I ordered both the chicken liver parfait with sourdough and the broccoli vinaigrette — it’s the sort of thing you’ll be dreaming of for weeks afterwards. I also toyed with having the devilled chicken hearts and potato, which sounds vampire-ish but is fantastic.
Mostly what I rate about the place, beyond its attentive staff, is that it serves real food. There are no foams and fancies. The produce used is fresh and seasonal, the menu is small and changes.
This is real luxury; a home-grown spot that offers excellent local fare, made by experts and without the flash of an R80,000 ticket.