A luxury African brand that makes millions and even princesses want

by Thobile Hans, FORBES AFRICA 0

Via La Moda’s designer handbags are carried by European princesses, but did you know they are made in Africa? This is the story of their creator. The article below was first published in Forbes Africa. Subscribe today by emailing Lieria Boshoff: [email protected] or visit www.forbesafrica.com

(Forbes Africa) Johann Georg Winklmayr, an Austrian leather craftsman, was making a leather luggage case for a Bentley car in Moscow. The 82-year-old died in 2008 before he could finish the work. It was left to his youngest son Georg, who inherited the family factory in Vienna, to complete the work but, he was not interested. Georg shipped the incomplete job 8,340 kilometres to his elder brother Hanspeter Winklmayr, in Roodepoort, south of Johannesburg, who was busy with crocodile skins.  

“My brother sent me all the stuff. I finished it and I sent it back to him and then Moscow. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done, but it was fun. I prefer doing small bags, it’s my speciality; you cannot be the jack of all trades. But this was in honour of my father,” says Winklmayr. 

This is a story that stretches back from Africa to three centuries ago in Europe. The first in line was Johann Kammerer, born in 1670, in Vienna. Trailblaser Kammerer made leather saddles from home, and this skill transformed into expensive leather elegant accessories for the rich.

Winklmayr, the fourth generation of the Kammerer clan, spent his childhood in the family factory learning the craft from his grandfather and father.

“Before I could read and write, I knew what the hammer, scissors and knife were,” says Winklmayr.

Wanderlust shone, like leather, in the eyes of the young man.

A 21-year-old Winklmayr landed his first job as a designer and manufacturing manager at Dolphin Leather Crafts in South Africa, in 1981. He had a master’s degree in the manufacturing of leather goods.

“When everyone was going to Paris, London or San Francisco, I said I am going to South Africa. I really had no idea what I was putting myself into. I had a very strong patriarchal father, so I wanted to show him I could manage on my own,” says Winklmayr. 

Winklmayr spent eight years at Dolphin Leather Craft where he trained staff. 

“I couldn’t speak a word of English when I came here, but in two years I was getting better and better,” says Winklmayr.

In 1989, Winklmayr quit Dolphin Leather Craft to partner with a fellow Austrian furniture-maker Walter Hauser, in Roodepoort. 

The grey bearded and ponytailed Winklmayr works in the grimy industrial world of Roodepoort. He co-owns the company Via La Moda, situated in a three-storey red brick building in a factory flanked by used car dealers.

The second floor is where FORBES AFRICA found Winklmayr in a white sleeveless coat with pencils in his chest pocket. He complains about his tennis elbow. The years of cutting and stitching are taking their toll. 

Fresh from the kitchen where he had a tea break with his 48 staff, he retreats to his air-conditioned office, full of sketches, scissors and leather cut-offs. 

It’s been a long day. At 5am, on weekdays, he pedals at the crack of dawn. Then Winklmayr drives five kilometres from home to begin the day on his computer exploring the latest patterns from Italian and French designers looking for inspiration.   

Turning crocodile skins into these designs is how Winklmayr makes his living.

Via La Moda

Via La Moda’s designer handbags (see above) are carried by European princesses, they include Princess Caroline of Hanover and Princess Charlene of Monaco, the former Olympic swimmer from Benoni, Johannesburg, who married a prince. The South African-born Hollywood actress Charlize Theron, also from Benoni, has one with her initials engraved on it.

It is the fruit of collaboration that began in February 2014 with entrepreneur Stuart Brand. The former hotelier turned crocodile farmer, in the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, came to Winklmayr with a bag full of crocodile skins. Before, Brand was shipping all his tanned leather skins to the United States, Italy and France. But he wanted Winklmayr to help him create luxury items under the brand Zambezi Grace.

“We sold most of our processed crocodile skin in the boot market in Texas. But we wanted to go all the way from egg to final product on our own. We wanted to come closer to the consumer. We needed to do everything by ourselves. That’s why we created our luxury brand, Zambezi Grace. A lot of Africans will leave Africa to buy European brands because they think it has to be good if it’s European. That’s why we needed to create a strong African brand, created by Africans, and make sure the conservation is in order. We want a strong presence in Africa,” says Brand.  

It all started when Brand was running The Grace Hotel, a family business in Rosebank, Johannesburg, in 2002. He got a call from an anxious friend who had lost his farm to land invasions in Zimbabwe. He wanted Brand to join him in buying a 20-hectare farm with 5,000 crocodiles near the north Zambezi River. It was not your everyday request. It took little persuasion for the adventurous Brand to head for uncharted territory. 

“To me it didn’t make good business sense to breed crocodiles and make profit out of their skin, but this was a good friend from university. I trusted him. We bought the farm and he managed it well and he is a shareholder… In Africa we have the skills, the skins, the labour and the conditions, but until now we’ve been supplying overseas brands rather than creating our own,” he says.

Risk runs in the family. Chippy Brand, his father, was an entrepreneur. He was the first farmer in South Africa to grow grass for sale in Westonaria, 45 kilometres from Johannesburg. Chippy was also the founder of Grace Hotels – Mount Grace, west of Johannesburg; the Rosebank Grace and the Cape Grace at the Waterfront in Cape Town, which won the title of best small luxury hotel in the world in 1999.

Between 2004 and 2007, Grace Hotels was sold and Brand invested his money in Zambezi Grace.

Thirteen years on, on the farm in Binga District, in the north of Zimbabwe, the crocodile population has grown to 40,000 and has its own tannery factory. Zambezi Grace is worth $25 million. 

“We added more and more capacity to the farm since we bought it. In 2013, we built a tannery to process the animal leather skin. This has created more work for the local people who lost jobs before we came,” says Brand. 

“In today’s world you need to develop your own brand. There are very few recognisable African luxury brands. With the Cape Grace hotel business we managed to do it and I am transferring the experience to Zambezi Grace. It will be difficult because people’s perceptions of Africa are negative. If it is from Africa, it is not luxury,” says Brand.

Brand praises the work of his 400-strong staff. They see 100% of their crocodile eggs hatch compared to less than 70% in the wild.

It’s not easy to separate a ferocious crocodile from its skin but Brand says there has been no fatality yet. Before slaughter, the animals are stunned.   

“I made a pact with the crocodiles that I won’t eat them if they do not eat me. That’s why I don’t eat crocodile meat,” says Brand.

So, crocodiles, an African entrepreneur’s know how; blended with hundreds of years of European leather expertise, has snapped up a multi-million-dollar business.

This article first appeared in Forbes Africa. Subscribe today by emailing Lieria Boshoff: [email protected] or visit www.forbesafrica.com