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A high-fashion Johannesburg retail space is trying to woo South Africans by setting up in a mall

John Wessels
A shop manager writes notes in a book at Butter Pudding in the new retail space Work Shop New Town.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, is a complex city to unpack. Nowhere is that illustrated more clearly than in its pockets of gentrification, where poverty and wealth exist in close proximity. A recently opened high fashion retail space called “Work Shop New Town,” is trying to avoid that trap, despite being a quintessential symbol of gentrification. Situated within a mall, in a city where a clash of the classes plays out on most street corners—its greatest achievement may be its ability to blend in.

Opened last year, the “Work Shop” is home to 40 stores and over 100 local fashion, lifestyle and design brands like Kisua, MaXhosa by Laduma, Black Coffee and Unknown Union. It’s located inside the sprawling, 41,000 square foot Newtown Junction shopping mall, which together with an office space, parking and a gym, is one of the biggest multi-use developments built in the Johannesburg central business district since the 1970s. It’s also built on the site of the Potato Sheds, the city’s first produce market, which dates back to 1911.

At first glance, the $82.5 million mall, stocked with low-price retail and food chains like Pick n Pay, Shoprite and Mr Price, seems like an unlikely home for a hipster development striving to be an attractive alternative to the ubiquitous malls of Johannesburg. But the Work Shop is banking on its location providing a steady stream of foot traffic in order to draw attention to its local, niche designers.

John Wessels
A customer looks through the many beaded bangles at Pichulik.

The growth of Jo’burg, South Africa’s “quintessential apartheid city,” has been fraught with questions of inclusion and fairness. Its pockets of upmarket development—Newtown, Maboneng and Braamfontein—have drawn almost equal amounts of upbeat acclaim and stinging criticism.

Home to 4.4 million people, the city was once a glittering symbol of the apartheid government’s achievements. The 50-story Carlton Centre, nicknamed the “Top of Africa” and once the tallest building in the southern hemisphere when it was built in 1967, stood as a bold pronouncement of what a city geared towards a rich minority could achieve. In the twenty years since apartheid officially ended, the city’s population has grown seven times in size, and it has struggled to deal with a legacy of segregation, a 25% unemployment rate and deeply entrenched poverty.

John Wessels
Tom Bacote, owner of Amerikana sits inside his shop at the Work Shop on Feb. 17.

In 2014, Washington D.C.-native Tom Bacote and his son opened Amerikana, a streetwear store, first in Braamfontein, a popular student locale close to the sprawling University of the Witwatersrand, before moving into a much larger space in Work Shop New Town last year. Stocking American streetwear brands such as LA-founded Dope and Tyler, The Creator’s Golf Wang, along with local brands such as Butan, Amerikana is reflective of the typically South African consumer: outward-looking, while embracing local trends.

Bacote, 42 years old, doesn’t think there’s a singular gentrification story. He witnessed gentrification growing up, watching how “certain people began to realize that these are great views of the Capitol; they just happen to be the hood,” he recalls. But, “it doesn’t have to be a social evil,” he says.

John Wessels
A customer pays for goods at Unknown Union in Work Shop New Town.

Twenty years ago, Newtown was part of the City of Johannesburg’s first efforts to rebrand in a post-apartheid, post-white-flight era and is home to cultural hotspots Museum Africa, Mary Fitzgerald Square, the historic Kippies jazz club and The Market Theatre. In the early 2000s, Newtown was flush with cash as big names like AngloGold Ashanti and South African Breweries moved in to steer the precinct to a new age of prosperity. Then the global recession happened and Newtown’s development stalled while other neighborhoods slowly picked up scene.

One of those neighborhoods is Maboneng, meaning the “place of light”,  a ten-minute drive from Newtown on the east side of Jo’burg, and one of the city’s most intriguing and divisive neighborhoods. This intentionally graffitied oasis of trendy restaurants, bars and boutiques stands in contrast to its gritty surrounds, where two-thirds of people are classified as poor and even basic sanitation is not guaranteed.  Since its creation in 2008, Maboneng has proven wildly popular amongst the city’s wealthier residents and tourists, and is often touted as evidence that the Johannesburg of the past—portrayed as an unapproachable, dangerous no-go zone—is on its way out.

John Wessels
Work Shop Newtown is situated inside Newtown Junction mall, one of the biggest multi-use developments to be built in Johannesburg in recent years.

Malls are ubiquitous in South Africa, and tenants of the Work Shop talk of avoiding the limited “weekend-only” success of Maboneng or Braamfontein because of the space’s location inside Newtown Junction. South Africa has more malls larger than 22,000 square foot than Australia, Germany and Mexico, and shows no sign of slowing down, with the country’s largest single-phase shopping mega mall, the 141,000 square foot Mall of Africa set to open in April this year. Following years of attempting to create a functional urban culture, Newtown might have leapfrogged both areas by simply accepting that Joburg’s residents love a mall.

John Wessels
Mandisi Lean mixes music for his upcoming exhibition as part of his one month residency at the Bubblegum Club in Work Shop New Town.

Yianni Crease, founder and CEO of the South African clothing brand Gold Street LA, says he first considered locating his flagship store elsewhere but was swayed by the affordability of Work Shop New Town and the hype surrounding the space. “It’s a new development and our brand is also new, so it’s just a strategic position to be in,” says Crease, whose family also operates the nearby “steampunk” Potato Shed restaurant.

The development’s discreet entrance to the rest of what Newtown offers means that no one has been pushed out to accommodate it, a criticism often levelled at Maboneng. “The project has not displaced or changed the type of person that visits Newtown Junction, all that has happened is that a more middle-class consumer has also started to visit the space as well,” says Jamal Nxedlana, co-founder of the Bubblegum Club, a multi-disciplinary creative practice based in Work Shop New Town which offers residencies to local artists.

John Wessels
A customer tries on a hat at the Crystal Birch shop.

“Neighborhoods like this can only thrive through co-operation,” Nxedlana said recently, following the launch of a collaboration with local songwriter, artist and rapper Agord Lean.

For his part, Bacote stocks up-and-coming designers who can’t afford their own retail space, some of whom have sold him on their goods simply by walking in and showing him. he says.

“I see where Newtown is clearly going, it’s important to be on the cusp of it,” Bacote says. “If we are real students of history and sociology, we have a chance to do it right.”

John Wessels
Customers walk out of Work Shop Newtown.

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