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Exporting South African design to the White House -- and the world

From Robyn Curnow, CNN
  • Trevyn McGowan is the owner of Source, the main exporter of South African design globally
  • She sources and delivers South African designer products to international stores
  • McGowan says South African designers are original and don't follow trends

CNN's Marketplace Africa offers viewers a unique window into African business on and off the continent. This week the show presents design consultant Trevyn McGowan, whose company is the main international exporter of South African design.

(CNN) -- Whether it is chandeliers made from recycled bottles hanging inside the White House, or life-size elephants made of beads in the windows of international decor stores, Trevyn McGowan is bringing South African design to the rest of the world.

From her remote beach-side house in South Africa's Wilderness area, the design consultant runs Source, a growing business she says is the country's main global exporter of design.

McGowan, a mother of five, sources and delivers hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of uniquely South African products to international stores such as Anthropologie and the Conran Shop.

She says it is the individuality of the products that makes South African design stand out in a mass-produced world.

The best of South African culture

"What they get from South African design that is very different from products from the East or from Europe -- which are probably the other two main suppliers -- is a sense of fun, a sense of whimsy, an organic essence," McGowan said.

"South African designers work very much from a soulful, personal experience," she said. "They're not mass producing, they're not doing what's the latest trends.

"So when you put a South African product on the floor of one of those international stores there is a pulsating energy to it that feels very different. There's a kind of lightness of spirit, a soulfulness that really changes the atmosphere there."

Born in Johannesburg, McGowan moved to London at an early age to pursue a career as an actress. But she soon changed direction, setting up an interiors company that saw her importing South African design privately for several actors, musicians and artists.

After more than two decades in the United Kingdom she moved back to South Africa where she used her knowledge of the country's design market to launch her new business with her husband, British designer Julian McGowan.

"I had the experience of knowing what the stores had, what the gaps were, what was actually needed and what was missing and so I was quite well placed to start to really filter and project and promote what needed to be seen," she said.

South African designers work very much from a soulful personal experience.
--Trevyn McGowan

Last year, McGowan supplied the Conran Shop with 30 life-size elephants created by street beaders for a circus-theme window display in its London, Paris and Tokyo outlets.

She was also involved in bringing South African design inside one of the world's most famous residences.

"We had a chandelier with Anthropologie sold to the White House and to the Obama residence that was made from recycled bottles in Barrydale," McGowan said.

Today, McGowan's business has grown to include some 500 different design companies in its database.

Her international retail networks help small South African companies boost their earnings by selling their artworks to a larger audience.

"People have had to buy four new kilns and increase their workforce by 200%. Really we've grown a lot of businesses," she said.

"It is very satisfying and exciting for me. I see my role as promoting an awareness of South African design internationally and locally beyond just the commercial aspect."

Constantly looking for talented designers, McGowan says she has to have a personal connection with the items she includes in her database.

"The thing I think first is, 'do I like it, do I understand it, does it speak to me?' Or 'can I see it sitting on that shelf?' It's just about my personal take on something," she said.

Despite the growing popularity of South African design, McGowan remains concerned by the lack of organizational support for the industry.

She says the products' route to market is hampered by factors such as limited production facilities and limited support from the government.

"What I'm getting is massive orders and then the suppliers can't fulfil it because they can't get extra electricity, they can't get three-phase electricity for another kiln.

"There are those kind of things where if there were some sort of organizational board that could just understand and help where needed (it) would be very beneficial."

But McGowan has no such concerns about the industry's money-making potential.

She said: "Is there money in design and money in the export of South African design? Unequivocally -- it's just that we need to get it out there."

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.