Kat van Duinen instantly connected with South Africa when she first visited the country in 2000. So, she moved here and started a luxury accessories brand in 2010 to celebrate her adopted country and prove foreign isn’t always better.
Glamour: You’re originally from Europe. Why did you decide to move to South Africa?
I instantly fell in love with Cape Town and the African continent when I first visited in 2000. Strangely, it felt like home. It’s by far the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to – and now I live here – the nature, the people, the weather, the light.
G: You started Kat van Duinen as a luxury leather goods brand, but now it’s a fashion brand. Was that intentional?
An accessories-only designer depends on other designers to tell their story, showcase on runways and shoot campaigns. I don’t like doing that as I work at a different pace and am not always that flexible. I love helping clients find their style and confidence through dressing them.
G: Why did you launch your brand in South Africa?
This country and its people adopted and embraced me, so it was only natural I wanted to give back. There’s beauty in all the resources available here and South Africa’s heritage is magical, which have been my constant source of inspiration. I’d like to believe I’m making a difference, and helping South Africans understand foreign isn’t necessarily better.
South Africa has the world’s largest platinum mine, is the biggest exporter of Mohair, producer of ostrich skins and feathers, and fourth-largest of diamonds. It’s a pity that’s seldom recognised.
G: How has your European heritage influenced your designs?
My perspective combined with that of South African designers’ gives local materials a contemporary edge.
G: Sustainability is one of the biggest issues affecting the fashion industry. How have you maintained sustainable practices in your business?
The concept of sustainability is often entirely misinterpreted. Sustainable doesn’t mean an extreme approach of completely eliminating but improving the practices applied. It’s a long term commitment and must contribute to the future of our planet and reject mindless consumerism. It’s about purchasing ‘modern heirlooms’ and passing them from generation to generation, or re-selling them, manufacturing locally, looking after vulnerable communities in rural areas dependent on farming, ethical farming, chain transparency, accountability and increased employment.
Farming exotics is vital to sustaining our conservation programs. Then there’s developing artisanal skills, building a better industry and educating clients on what to look for.
G: What are your other passions?
Art, design – especially African design – textiles, photography, storytelling, conservation, travel and fitness.
G: Prioritising wellness has become an essential part of our lives. In which wellness practices do you engage?
I’m a firm believer in a healthy routine. I get up at 4am, and exercise at 5am or 6am, depending on my program. I’m very aware of what I eat and where it comes from and mainly follow a vegetarian diet, but I like to think of myself as a flexitarian, at least in that department. I don’t own a TV, and I do what I love. I don’t think there’s a better wellness practice than doing just that, wouldn’t you agree?
G: Who helps you be successful?
My family, team, associates, suppliers, manufacturers, landlords, business advisers and, of course, my clients, as every purchase they make casts a vote. With each of their purchases, they cast a vote that can make the world a better place.
G: Being a woman entrepreneur must come with its fair share of challenges. How do you navigate yours?
It’s challenging regardless of your gender. You’re perpetually fighting and learning. There isn’t an institution in existence that could sufficiently prepare you for being a business owner – especially if you’re an immigrant. Perhaps that dose of ignorance makes you feel competent enough to embark on a journey someone well-informed might not. I’ve been in business for more than a decade, and there were many times I was close to giving up, yet, somehow, I’d manage to pick up the sword because I ardently believe I can make a difference. It isn’t just about fashion, retail and designers’ egos, but building a state-of-the-art, sustainable, transparent and ethical supply chain and investing in employment, artisanal skills, slow fashion and ethical farming. And fearlessly and relentlessly promoting and pioneering African luxury, challenging misconceptions of what the country is and has to offer.
G: This pandemic saw the loss of many small businesses. Has it affected the way you operate?
It’s been one of the most intense crises I’ve ever endured as a business owner and has made me question my motives and vision, and I think that, perhaps, I’ve been unrealistic, a reckless risk taker. But it’s also helped me return to my purpose, brought me closer to my clients and their needs, and helped me pinpoint weaknesses in our organisational structure. I’ve realised my obsession with the face-to-face retail experience is holding me back. I finally understand the size of our audience, can access it using digital platforms correctly, stepping to the forefront of my organisation, representing rather than always hiding on the manufacturing side of things. I’ve also learnt asking for help isn’t something to be ashamed of. And I’ve received incredible support and advice. It’s reminded me our time here is short, and it’s vital we dare to chase our goals without having to apologise for making a noise.
G: Any advice for budding entrepreneurs and designers?
I think the hardest thing is not to lose enthusiasm, even if you keep failing. Keep on keeping on, no matter what. Ask for help, never stop learning, innovate – and wake up early!
G: Who are your favourite designers?
I love the Olsen twin’s aesthetic and brand, Jil Sander, minimalist Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta, Celine, Joseph, Miuccia Prada (for her storytelling ability), Rich Mnisi, Kirsten Goss, Ida Elsje, Philippa Green, Maxhosa, Crystal Birch, Thebe Magugu, Pichulik – we could be here all day!
G: What’s next for Kat van Duinen, the woman and the brand?
It’s time to build international distribution channels and take our stories abroad. It’s time to get louder and, what I think is especially important, is that we show our faces places.