#HoutBayBusinessFocus No3. The Craft Designer

Mijou Beller landed in South Africa in the early 1970s, when, aged just 20, she went travelling from her home country of France and met, in her words, the “love of her life”. Ralf, another itinerant European (German), was

Much of …&Banana’s products recycles discarded materials – the elastic yarn used in these necklaces is an offcut of a factory process that would otherwise be discarded

already working in the hospitality industry and they decided to open a French restaurant together in Sea Point. Several ventures later they had their fill of the restaurant business and, having settled in Hout Bay, started making and selling things (their first shop was where Rock Chic is today, next door to their current site on Main Road). For her it was a natural progression – she had always made her own clothes, and “in our restaurants we always made everything – the decor, the uniforms, the curtains and cushions, so it was always something very creative”.

Her husband Ralf concentrated on wood and metalwork (marketed under the EthnoBongo tag and now with another workspace and shop in the Harvest Centre) and Mijou began making clothes at first, and then jewellery.
She created the name “Dolce&Banana” for her jewellery range because “it needed a bit more glamour and fun” and the subsequent legal dispute with Dolce&Gabana, though acutely stressful at the time, turned out to be the most incredible marketing boost! The commercial “David & Goliath” story gained traction not just locally but worldwide, and is still a talking point with customers today, with the shop being rebranded simply “…&Banana”.
“I like to call it craft as it’s not just jewellery, it’s bags and other things too, and anyway we don’t do real jewellery, we do all kinds of different techniques, depending on the things we find”, referring to the upcycling which is carried out with passion at …&Banana. For example, African masks began as discarded 5litre plastic containers, and some of the necklaces use a stretchy elastic string found in Mijou’s regular factory foraging visits to find off-cuts and by-products.

The distinctive look mixes the vibrancy of African chic with European sensibilities and style – much like Mijou herself

Mijou creates all the designs and has two permanent, full time craftworkers, Tembisa and Bongekawho, have been with her for many years. “They know exactly what I like and sometimes they make their own improvisations which work really well”. This core team is augmented by an additional two full time staff during high season, and several other part-time pieceworkers who work from home.

Training her craft workers, who are all IY residents, is one thing that drives her. “I adore teaching – teaching people who don’t have any skills, and then I see a couple of months later the things they can do! That’s really really something that I like and I would like to do more of it – train more homeworkers, people who can work from their home, looking after their children and maybe crocheting or sewing at the same time.”

The designs speak to the natural beauty of their Hout Bay coastal location, with shells and ethically-sourced coral featuring strongly

As well as the shop &Banana also does some wholesale production, selling to small shops and galleries elsewhere in South Africa and also in European cities such as Paris and Vienna. Mijou would like to expand the wholesale business, but there’s always a pull between spending time in the shop or on the wholesale business.

Regarding marketing, …&Banana has embraced social media, and are active on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, and have earned a core of loyal customers gathered over many years. There are also tour guides, taking small groups around, who have found the shop a popular stop.
Mijou views Hout Bay as a very challenging place to run a business. “If you make it in Hout Bay you can make it anywhere!”, she says, only half-joking, and asked what the main difficulties are she says she’s still trying to figure it out! Seasonality is definitely one – “The summer season is fantastic, when, not only passing tourists, but the Swallows [people from Europe who every year escape their winter for the South African summer], with their great spending power…but then the rest of the year, we have rents and electricity to pay during the winter, and it’s hectic”.
She also thinks that that demographic of permanent residents in Hout Bay – often young families with many demands on their budgets – makes it harder to sell higher-end gifts (necklaces starts at r350) than, say, in Constantia.

The …&Banana boutique recently celebrated its 20th birthday

And there’s the issue of Hout Bay being so spread out, which may also have contributed to it not yet having achieved its tourism potential. “I mean when you think about it Hout Bay has everything,” Mijou points out. “It’s got the beach, the harbour, World of Birds, this shopping area..and yet it’s not as popular as, let’s say, Franschoek. Why?!”
Not that she’s complaining about any of this – she says sales have remained quite stable for many years now, and having done it for 20 years already, “I just want to do this for the rest of my life – I love it!”
Find …&Banana and Ethno Bongo at 35 Main Road Hout Bay, info@andbanana.com, +27 21 790 08 02 www.andbanana.com https://www.facebook.com/ethnobongo…
#HoutBayBusinessFocus is a series of posts by the Hout Bay Partnership, celebrating local business in Hout Bay. Interview by Tanya Carus Blacher & Portia Msamo, Photography by Ashley Newell