Innovation in the decor space has proven lucrative for this sister act

By Sacha van Niekerk Time of article publishedAug 24, 2020

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Sisters Mo and Michelle Mokone are making a name for themselves in the decor space with their range of stylishly upcycled planters and baskets.

The Mokone sisters’ venture into design began just four years ago when they attended the Kamers Makers market in Pretoria. “After looking around at the stalls we were drawn to one selling origami and became inspired. This was something I had done before but only for the sake of gifting to friends and family,” said Mo.

Describing her sister, Michelle said she was a “born artist” who had a talent for creating things with her hands from a young age. “She used to make rugs and place mats using old plastic by stripping it into threads and crocheting it. She also made pottery and loved to knit and sew too.”

The sisters and their mother banded together to get their new business off the ground. Mo was the creative brain behind the project while her mother helped with folding the paper sculptures and Michelle worked out all the administrative kinks. Their first venture into retail took place in 2016 in the form of a stall nestled among the vibrant inventiveness of crafters from across the country. And so, Mo’s Crib was born.

“Doing the market really moulded our business structure. It was a way to better understand our audience and what they were looking for in their decor products. So, we worked according to what people responded to the most, took their suggestions to heart and returned the following year more ready than before,” they said.

At present, Mo’s Crib sells a variety of exquisitely woven baskets in different materials. From pastel plant holders to earthy and natural laundry baskets, they tie together two ancient art forms, one with roots in Japan and the other more familiar to South African culture.

With Japanese art being new to the South African market, they decided to build on the attention it was receiving. “We continued cultivating our initial concept while finding ways of taking it to the next level. As for the baskets, people are so used to seeing them in straw-coloured shades and although they are beautiful, there’s nothing new about them. This is why we’re constantly experimenting with different materials and dyes to liven things up.”

Textiles made from plastic are very big on the decor scene right now with big brands finding new and innovative ways to upcycle it. Michelle said, “It’s a great solution to all the plastic flooding our oceans.”

Thus, the duo decided to go the sustainable route. Mo explained that PVC is a resilient, versatile and flexible material when heated, which suited their designs perfectly. “We source it from recycling centres, landfills and construction sites, making sure to only use what is still in good condition. The grass we get locally, from the coastal areas of KZN. However, certain varieties like rattan and seagrass need to be imported from Indonesia and Vietnam.”

Although some of their raw materials have to be brought into the country, all the manufacturing, from dyeing to weaving, is done by local artisans. The process depends entirely on what they are making and what their client has asked for. However, when it comes to PVC, it’s an exciting gamble. “Since we don’t order our PVC we can’t pick the colours they come in. We leave the plastic in its natural state and how it comes together is a total surprise, meaning no two baskets are ever the same – which we love,” the sisters shared.

As people are starting to become more environmentally conscious, they’re seeking out eco-friendly brands to fulfil their consumer needs and businesses are starting to realise the role they can play in this. “We need more sustainable, functional and practical designs. It should also be made by someone who has a sustainable job, rather than being churned out by machinery somewhere across the ocean. These are the people who we hope to reach with our designs.”

Both sisters have corporate backgrounds; Michelle worked as an agricultural economist while Mo was in human resources. But as their business became more and more successful, they had to turn their side-hustle into their main focus as it began to bloom into a lucrative business that was catching the attention of big brands.

For their most recent collaboration with Woolworths SA, their products have a very clean, minimalistic look. They wanted the naturalness of the materials used to be highlighted, in line with the brand’s vision. Woolies isn’t the only big collaboration they’ve had. Before the nationwide lockdown, they worked with other big-name brands as well as a variety of international boutiques in New York and France. “We anticipate much more in the future as the business progresses. Our goal is to create an international footprint.”

Working in an industry that is so fast-paced and always evolving, Mo and Michelle shared their insight on how to achieve a timeless decor look that won’t have to compete with the latest trends. “The issue is that people buy into fads that you eventually outgrow. You need to focus on what speaks to you. Durability and functionality is important. At the end of the day, what you pick out needs to speak to your style and work well with your space when it comes to colour and design.”

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