A South African Shopping Site Where Artisans and Community Meet
“When I first saw it, it was pretty rough — a bunch of old warehouses, no plants anywhere. It was a dust bowl of grease and oil,” said the artist James Delaney, of what is now Victoria Yards, in the impoverished Johannesburg neighborhood of Lorentzville.
Still, it was a convenient site, much closer to downtown than where he was then working, so Mr. Delaney took a small space in the cluster of raw brick buildings that once largely housed ad hoc garages.
A year later, he was settled enough that he swapped the small workshop for his current one, a 1,000-square-foot space with high ceilings and windows that flood the room with light. The workshop is dotted with his signature steel sculptures, which resemble oversize Day-Glo doodles of animals; other work, including photographs and paintings, is pinned around the walls, too.
“There’s something that lifts the spirits about repurposed buildings, the energy around you,” said Mr. Delaney, 50. “But I like that this has always been an artisanal area. Blue-collar stuff like woodworking and metalwork — that’s really helpful when making stuff like I do.”
Mr. Delaney is just one of the 50 or so tenants of this project, the brainchild of the developer Brian Green, 60. Five years ago, Mr. Green came upon the 200,000-square-foot site, which he called “an absolute disaster and a complete mess.” The urban renewal veteran — who honed his regenerative efforts with projects like the onetime warehouses at 44 Stanley Avenue in Johannesburg, and Cape Town’s 107 Bree, which reimagined a gas station and parking garage — could see the site’s potential, especially if his plan truly engaged the local community and produced palpable uplift for its neighbors.
Indeed, Mr. Green is a believer in the 15-minute city concept, first workshopped at the Sorbonne in Paris; it champions the idea that daily necessities for urban residents should be within a quarter-hour, by foot or bike, of their homes. He proudly noted that 60 percent of those now working at Victoria Yards lived within a 15-minute walk.
It was this emphasis on the community that persuaded Tshepo Mohlala, a denim designer, to establish his base at Victoria Yards instead of in Soweto, as he had originally planned. The 30-year-old founder of Tshepo Jeans said that 90 percent of his staff of 20 lives within a three-quarter-mile radius of Victoria Yards.
“I fell in love with it because you have the people who are part of that area building a better society,” he said.
“The whole vision was to create impact and value within an area, not chase the people who are out there,” he said. “Victoria Yards is full of progressive-minded people who can influence how I think.”
Mr. Mohlala has expanded since arriving three years ago and now has an almost 3,500-square-foot site where he both sells and manufactures; he brought tutors from Amsterdam’s Jean School, a denim specialist training facility, down to teach his seamstresses key skills. Some of his best sellers include dark indigo denim Anansi jeans for 3,500 rand (about $233), and blue-black slim-fit ones, a style known as Takalani, at 1,800 rand; he also produces a variety of graphic T-shirts for 600 rand each.
Although Victoria Yards has attracted artisans for its workshop spaces, it is also an excellent place to shop. Within the site, small chalkboards dot the paths between the brick buildings, each promoting one of the tenants like signage in a mall. Oscar Ncube, 37, is another designer based here; he runs Chiefs of Angels, which is known for its leather jackets and T-shirts. Mr. Ncube upcycles secondhand clothing, much of it imported from Europe, refashioning it as the basis for some of his designs, some of which celebrate bands like Nirvana and Led Zeppelin. Best-selling styles include his Aretha and Core Joplin jackets, both 3,679 rand.
Elsewhere, there is the Coote and Wench Design Company, specializing in lighting made from salvaged industrial parts; its pieces have been deployed in many of the high-end safari camps around southern Africa, like the Donald wall sconce (4,800 rand) and the Duchess (3,850 rand), intended to provide ambient light in libraries. There are printed textiles at Shwe, a sustainable bag-making operation that incorporates plastic waste; styles include a shoulder bag for 280 rand and a tote for 249 rand.
You can also find a sustainable mission at SoBae, an ice cream stand run by a young couple who create sorbets from overripe fruit that the city street’s vendors would otherwise discard at day’s end. Flavors include orange-thyme and cucumber-apple-lime; a 4-ounce serving is 30 rand and a take-home 5-liter bucket is 1,500 rand.
Nearby is DGI, a studio where young artists and printmakers can come to produce their work, much of it starkly political, before showcasing it in a small adjacent gallery. DGI shares a courtyard with a distillery, Primal Spirits, where the stills are on show next to a table piled high with bottles of liquor for sale; a large bottle of its Union Gin goes for 375 rand.
Tony Esslinger, 65, is one of the distillery’s founders. “Once we saw Victoria Yards, it confirmed everything for us — it spoke to us from the start,” he said. “It’s a genuine arts-and-crafts place — things aren’t delivered through the back door and sold out front, they’re made there and sold on-site.”
At Primal Spirits, which opened in October 2019, Mr. Esslinger’s team harvests some of the botanicals for their gins from the fruit and vegetable plots that are jigsawed in between the buildings of Victoria Yards.
Mr. Esslinger says the sense of community there is essential to its success. “It’s not just the light, the location or the space — it’s the fact it’s a nice group of people from all walks of life, such a mixture, but you can sit and chat.”
If Mr. Green, the developer, continues with his plan, that group will be expanding soon: There is an additional 107,000 square feet of space available next door. The pandemic paused the expansion, but Mr. Green said he was now returning to it. He has also been approached to replicate the Victoria Yards project elsewhere, including in Stellenbosch, about 30 miles east of Cape Town, and in Italy. He is also about to fly to Tunis to consult on a similar project. “Every one is different,” he cautioned, “because how you interpret a building depends on how it fits into the community around it.”
Mr. Delaney, the artist, agreed. He has collaborated with several of his neighbors, including a metalworker who helps with fabricating his sculptures. His enormous studio has had an impact on his practice, too, enabling him to experiment with larger-format sculptures.
“I probably wouldn’t be producing the kind of stuff I am now if it wasn’t for that space,” he said. “It’s a rare commodity in urban areas these days as an artist to have the luxury of space.”