superchat cape town: kelly withey

© maison mara - well-dressed owner kelly mara in her new store

with things looking up for a growing number of countries, africa is touted as the new fronteer in high-end retail. south africa's longtime state of affluence has given it a headstart  albeit a rather modest one  in terms of luxury retail infrastructure. as of late, this particular segment has seen a new influx of coveted foreign brands, and while all quite predictably set up shop in johannesburg, it's in the country's buzzing creative capital of cape town where shopping matters have taken a more interesting turn. enter maison mara, a sophisticated concept store with a meticulously curated range of brands and items that has raised the bar in the local retail landscape with a quirky approach that oozes personality and style. we talked about this interesting store in a previous post, and decided to pick founder kelly mara's brain to get to know a little more about her retail vision.

you studied fashion in paris and initially had a career in fashion design. what inspired you to switch to retail? during my first internship in a small design studio, they asked me if i wouldn’t mind working at their showroom during fashion week, as I was bilingual. that was my first taste of retail. after that I still worked in design but kept ending up in retail situations probably due to the language skills and the fact that i was simply fascinated with buyers and the way they knew exactly what was right for their market. for a long time, i felt I had to pursue a design career because that was what I had studied. then i realized that i could make up my own rules as i went along. at the moment, putting together a selection for a south african market and seeing people react to it is exactly what i want to be doing. 
maison mara fits the trend of high-end concept stores with distinctive character that have popped up in global fashion capitals. what made you think a sophisticated retail concept like this would work in cape town? how would you describe the fashion atmosphere in the city from a retailer’s point of view? cape town is a complex city as it lives on the cusp between a fully functioning city and a holiday resort. that’s what makes it so fun buying collections for over here. i have to include work wear, casual everyday, evening wear, and of course, our image pieces. you meet such a variety of different people ranging from cape townians, tourists from the rest of south africa to the rest of the world. 
what made you decide to settle in de waterkant? what's appealing about this neighbourhood? i loved the fact that you could walk in this neighbourhood. having moved from paris, what i miss the most is just walking around the city. de waterkant obviously isn’t as big as paris but the cobbled streets remind me of my sunday strolls in the marais district. i also fell head over heels for the building, which just sealed the deal! 
the store’s interior design reflects a very personal approach to retail. could you elaborate on the design process and the aesthetic choices you made to get your message across, and what made you decide to collaborate with robert sherwood? when designing the store, i thought a lot about what i searched for in a retail experience and there were a few key components that were the blue prints to the store design. the first being that i wanted people to spend time with us and feel as if they were in a life size dressing room where they could spend hours looking, trying on or just sitting down and having a coffee and getting deep in conversation with us. i was immensely inspired by eileen gray's folding screens, which led to the main unit in the store made to look like a screen with integrated cupboards that hold our stock. when i met robert, we just clicked, we spoke about ideas and everything came very naturally, the rest is history! i never wear one brand from head to toe so it was important to me that all of the brands were blended in together to give people an idea of ways to pair an outfit. in our merchandising, we try to give a personal stylist approach in the way we display the garments and accessories. 
your offerings signal a very specific kind of client. how would you describe her profile, and are you perhaps already considering to cater to a male equivalent in the near future? as i said earlier, i wanted to cater to women from my age to my mothers. as for style, parisian women are always a solid guideline when making my selection, and although we follow trends and stock images pieces, i sell garments that i believe can be worn a lifetime. fast-consumed fashion was never on the cards for maison mara’s selection. as for a male offer, my partner and i will actually be opening a menswear store in the new year. 
how big is the team behind maison mara, and are you solely responsible for what’s on the shelves? we are still a small team, five extremely talented people work at the store and each one has their strength juggling between logistics, merchandising and fresh ideas for the store. i do all the buying but my mother is a huge inspiration to me on my buying trips. 
maison mara mostly stocks foreign brands. still, we can’t imagine that you don’t keep an eye on what’s going on in the local fashion and design scene? most definitely! we actually already stock the beautiful leather goods from okapi and a beautiful new perfume range called house of gozdawa. next year we'll be collaborating on some new projects with local brands so you’ll have to watch this space. 
we can see you developing your own collection next. any plans to launch one? i would love to! when i come up with an idea worth showing, i will put it out there and you’ll be the first to know! 
do you have any fave places in cape town you could share with us? my favorite lunch place is hemelhuijs, just by the store. and smith studio in town is great place to discover new artists. also, waterford estate is breathtakingly beautiful. 

© maison mara