Bringing South African Design Talent To The Usa
By Amanda Perkins
Our introduction to SARZA came in the form of an email from its founder, Sarah Briginshaw, asking if she could stock the Perfect Hideaways coffee table books in her store. We checked out her website to discover that SARZA, as well as having a shop in Rye, New York, offers an online store chock-full of pretty much all the contemporary furniture and décor we adore, all of it sourced in South Africa or the continent, and being promoted in the US by this warm and spirited expat. YES, absolutely she could stock our books!
At the heart of everything they do is a commitment to give back to Africa, and support small businesses
When Sarah next returned home, she arranged to meet for coffee with our co-founder, Helen Untiedt. The two clicked instantly. Little wonder; both are fierily determined business women with an absolute passion for the incredible talent found within the South African design world, and both on a mission to bring it to the attention of a wider audience.
Having an as yet unsatisfied hankering to live in New York one day, I was both fascinated and a little in awe of what Sarah had achieved there, and curious to discover more about the journey that led to SARZA’s creation. I asked if I could interview her for this piece, and she immediately said yes. Running on South African time I thought to myself ‘Great, we’ll do that just now’ and did nothing further. Clearly the city that never sleeps has had an effect; Sarah suggested we do it the very next day. So, as I sat in Cape Town on a Friday afternoon, contemplating the weekend and looking forward to that six-o-clock gin & tonic, Sarah was just starting her day. Sipping on a cup of coffee she told me her story…
It began with a crush on the best friend of her best friend’s brother. John was older, uber cool and out of her league, but she was smitten. After finishing school, he went travelling, and happily on his return to Durban, while Sarah was studying for her degree, they got together. John moved to Cape Town to open a restaurant on Long Street, and Sarah followed, but later decided she needed to spread her wings, so went travelling. After a good run at the restaurant gig John closed up shop and joined her. The two ended up working in Antibes, France, John in service & Sarah as crew chef on the Super Yachts. After four years on the yachts Sarah crossed paths with a Scottish woman who designed galleys for the Super Yachts, and had a store in Antibes, Nautichef, selling high-end Arts de la table and professional cooking equipment.
Sarah worked there for the next two years, gaining valuable experience in stock control and marketing, and discovered how much she enjoyed interaction with clients instore. However, the yachting community are, by their very nature, a transient bunch; making great friends, then waving them goodbye within a year or two, was taking its toll. Sarah missed home, missed her family and those friends who had known her since school days, so after getting married in France and falling pregnant with their first child the couple decided it was time to return.
Back in Durban John took a post at a company that sourced apparel for a leading SA clothing store. Sarah’s next big influencing role was landing a job with Singita Trading Stores, sourcing products for the boutique shops within their lodges. This was something of a dream job for Sarah; influenced by the creatives within her own circle, architects, interior designers and other artists, A wonderful perk of the job was trips to the lodge to visit the boutique stores.
The couple built their dream home, and it was in this process that Sarah first became aware just how much incredible, bespoke design was happening in her own country. They sourced many exquisite pieces of contemporary furniture, and Sarah took immense pleasure in putting together her very own, uniquely South African, look. Their home was shot by Frank Features, and appeared in House & Leisure, pulling Sarah further into the world of décor and design.
After eleven happy years settled in Durban, and with their kids now aged 8 and 11, the owner of John’s company decided he wanted to move to New York, and asked him to come with. Both Sarah and John felt ready for a new adventure. They based themselves in Rye, a town in Westchester County, around 40 minutes from the city. With John commuting to the city each day, and the kids at school, initially Sarah felt quite lonely. She knew she needed to rebuild the tapestry of her life in New York, but asked herself ‘What can I do that will allow me to take frequent trips home?’ And so, drawing on her experience at Nautichef and Singita, and her passion for South African design, the idea of creating the SARZA store was formed. Things quickly fell into place; Sarah spent long, happy hours sourcing stock, found the perfect store space for rent, and with huge anticipation waited for that first container to arrive. The shop was a hit. People walked through the door and fell instantly in love with this curated collection of beautiful objects, the likes of which they had never seen anywhere else. Customers were fascinated to hear the stories behind the products; and Sarah loved telling them. Through the shop Sarah felt more connected to her new community.
Around two years after the initial store opened, things were going incredibly well with SARZA, but John’s job was not working out. They faced a dilemma; should they close up the store and return home, or should John join the business? If he was to do so they would need to expand in order to create sufficient income for the whole family. The kids were settled in school, and both could see the potential in SARZA; it just didn’t feel right to shut up shop. So, they took the plunge. They soon moved to bigger premises and broadened their range, but despite this the next couple of years were tough. And then in 2019 they took the step that would change their fortunes; they went online.
One of the frustrations Sarah had always felt with the store was the space limitation. Now with the SARZA website they could extend their range to include an incredible array of contemporary furniture, all created by African designers, much of it totally customisable. With trepidation they invested a small fortune in digital marketing to put themselves in front of a much larger audience. It paid off. SARZA developed a huge following, particularly in California, Florida and Texas, and while the store continues to do well, today around 80% of their revenue comes from online sales and trade clients.
Asked what are her favourite lines Sarah hesitates. ‘With over fifty suppliers and counting, all with amazing and inspiriting back stories it honestly is so hard to choose!’ she tells me.
When pushed Sarah admits to having a particular passion for Lalala Scarves and The Handmade Story. ‘I LOVE the Lalala scarves, as they feature inspiring designs from young artists in the Lalela after school programs. Proceeds from each scarf sale go towards helping young innovators find their voice and overcome the narrative of poverty through the transformative power of arts education.’ Sarah explains. ‘The Handmade Story is also a company close to our hearts – they make beautiful, handmade, clay bead chandeliers, homewares and lighting. All the products are proudly made in South Africa by a collective of women. We love how this company aims to empower the woman in the Midlands’ community.’
The couple deeply value the fact that their business allows them to keep such close ties to home, and at the heart of everything they do is a commitment to give back to Africa, and support small businesses and creative communities across the continent. Many of the products they sell are created by small businesses that support crafters and artisans by employing their skills and creative energies – always with an emphasis on quality, sustainability, fair working practices and respect. SARZA assist financially with two social upliftment projects; an early-years education project and Starfish, an NGO bringing hope and opportunity to orphans and vulnerable children.
Sarah and John were certainly lucky to be part of an industry that boomed during the pandemic. They saw a huge growth in online sales, as spend on travel and entertainment was curtailed, and the lockdown kept people at home contemplating their four walls, and imagining how beautiful they could look dressed in some bespoke wallpaper and new furniture items. Their relationships with many of their struggling suppliers were strengthened, as SARZA kept the orders coming, helping them to survive through this difficult period.
When asked how it is to work day-in, day-out with her husband, Sarah tells me she never dreamt they would work together, but that actually it’s been great. ‘Obviously the business has always been a joint project, even though John was not involved with the day-to-day running for that initial period. And he’s as passionate as me about design’. The key to harmony, she says, is that they each have their own departments within the business. John oversees logistics, finance, the website and digital marketing from his office at the back of the store. Sarah stays front-of-store. She sources products and handles customer liaison, social media marketing and the hands-on stuff.
They do have a small, dedicated team of five supporting them, but Sarah says working in the store is her happy place. ‘It’s the heart and soul of the business. When you really know your product, know how it’s made and by whom, and can share the authentic back story with your customers, it not only gives them the confidence to buy, it draws them in to a place of real human connection. Plus, each day is different, because you never know who will walk through the door.’ She also loves having her Chihuahua / miniature Pinscher cross, Petunia, with her in the store. ‘Customers adore her, she gets a lot of love. But she has got a bit of a reputation for sleeping on the job!’
And what of the future? Sarah thinks she and John will want to return home at some point, but the jury is out for their kids. ‘My son takes quite an interest in the business and helps out on occasion; he talks about one day owning SARZA.’
For now though, this warm, engaging South African couple are delighting in bringing a stylish slice of their heritage to the homes and lives of America.