If you’ve graced the pews of South African fashion week in recent years, chances are you’re familiar with the work of Lesley Whitter, the fresh, young mind behind the timeless Joburg brand, Heart & Heritage.
‘Fashion Week is always fun. I think my favourite part is meeting other designers and interesting people,’ says Lesley with a smile. ‘My least favourite is definitely walking out on the runway after a show … cringe!’
This positive, down-to-earth outlook has no doubt played a part in her growing success as a designer, and it’s also an attitude that seems to seamlessly translate itself into her clothing. Season after season, Heart & Heritage continues to put out collections that are stylish and fun, yet are also accessible and practical for the modern South African woman.
‘If I had to describes the brand’s style, we really treasure the detail in our work and find beauty in unusual silhouettes and shapes. We favour working in a subtle colour palette with soft and natural fabrics as our canvas, using hand detailing to add depth to our work. Overall, our collection embodies comfortable, wearable, effortless daily dressing with a design edge. Many of our customers are still wearing garments they bought from us years ago, so we aim for our garments to age well and remain timeless.’
Though she’s Heart & Heritage’s sole designer, this ‘we’ refers to the dedicated team Lesley has working with her to beautifully construct every garment, all of which happens right here in South Africa. This core decision to keep production close to home also speaks to a larger belief in building a brand that is both ethical and which uplifts those around it. ‘That’s part of why I’m not a fan of trends in general,’ she explains. ‘But I’m loving the fact that there’s a growing appreciation and trend for informed buying of well-made, timeless designs. Fast fads and trends that come today and are gone tomorrow tend to encourage unfair labour practices and waste.’
Determined to create a space that cultivated her beliefs, along with a deep love of local design, Lesley is also the self-labelled ‘Mother Hen’ of Convoy in Melville – a collaborative space showcasing South Africa’s best ready-to-wear fashion and accessory designers. ‘In the early stages of my business, I was on the hunt to find a storefront space for Heart & Heritage. I had a small budget with the goal of bringing in consistent sales, as at the time I was relying on sporadic wholesale orders and unreliable sales from weekend markets. I drove past one of my favourite coffee shops, Service Station at the Bamboo Centre, on my way back from looking at a space in Melville that didn’t quite cut it. That’s when I saw the ‘to let’ sign in the window of Convoy’s future home. I’d been a regular at the Bamboo Centre for many years and I just knew I had to make this special place the new home for my business. The rent was way out of my budget though, so that’s when I decided to team up with other like-minded designers to build a collaborative retail space. We share costs, which makes it affordable for us all to have a lovely retail home, but we also share ideas, contacts and tips to ensure our brands and hard work are being represented the way we want them to be. Designers have a say in the space as if it were their own, so they come in and train the sales team on merchandising, how best to sell their product and we make joint decisions on the look and feel of the store.
We haven’t looked back since opening.’
As well as successfully running Convoy, Lesley has also recently found a more permanent home to grow Heart & Heritage at the REEA Centre in Craighall Park. It’s a space she feels also speaks beautifully to both the heart and the heritage sides of her creations. ‘It was wonderful to see how, over the years, the REEA Centre has made improvements and transformed itself into a beautiful public space. It’s a really special place because even though you’re in the very middle of Johannesburg, you feel you could be out in the country somewhere. I was really impressed with the transformation of the little cottage overlooking Delta Cafe and imagined how nice it would be to work from there. Curiosity got the better of me one day, and I made the effort to introduce myself to Sandra Dewes, who was running her pottery studio, C02, from the cottage space. I discovered she’s also an architect and was largely behind the transformation of the centre out of her passion for the area. As fate would have it, she was moving her pottery lab to a newly built studio on the REEA grounds and the old space was available. There weren’t any ‘to let’ signs this time, just pure luck on my part to have introduced myself to Sandra at the right time.’ The result is a drop-in studio open to the public, which is as full of light, excitement and joy as Lesley herself.
Looking forward, this inspirational young artist plans to continue building on the success of Heart & Heritage and Convoy through her retail spaces, new studio, and online store, while still focusing on creating beautiful well-made clothes for the conscious (and stylish!) South African woman. ‘I’m fortunate that I travel often, so I get inspired by the different places I visit. Of course, heritage plays a big role in what I make, so I also look to bygone eras for inspiration. Ultimately, the heart is the innermost part of something, while heritage denotes a traditional brand emblematic of fine craftsmanship, so Heart & Heritage isn’t just a name – it also embodies everything I hope to achieve in my work.’