Slobodanka Graham


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[Style File] Early influencers - the architect

[Style File] Early influencers - the architect

For some time now, I've been thinking about style: what is it? Is it learnt or innate? Where does it come from? What about our fashion style? How does that influence the way we prepare and pack for light travel?

Style influencer

Reflecting on my life, how did I develop my personal style? Who were my style influencers?

I wrote previously about fashion lessons from my mother - she taught me the value of well-made clothes. There's nothing better than custom-tailoring - whether a dress, a jacket, a suit or even shoes. Sadly, we can't all afford to have our clothes custom made, but we can choose and buy judiciously, which I think is one of the cornerstones of style: buy clothes, shoes and accessories in quality fabrics - and they will give you pleasure for many years.

Thinking about my teenage years, a major style influencer was Richard Hepner, a student architect whom I met in 1974. For the following six years, we had a tempestuous relationship: he was an inspiring, infuriating artist, and I was his adoring acolyte. 

Richard loved quality and style - although he had champagne tastes on a beer budget, living as a poor student, supported by his parents through his architectural studies. When I met him, he was mid-way through his degree, working from his sparsely furnished 17th floor flat in the Gardens Centre, Cape Town.

I was in my first year at university and ready for new experiences. Richard, six years older than me, had had an exotic upbringing, schooled at Waterford in Swaziland. His parents were intellectuals; Richard was well read, curious about the world, and certainly saw it with different eyes from me. He was just the man from whom I could learn new experiences. 


Richard taught me architecture. He encouraged me to look at buildings - really look at them: see the lines, the patterns, the forms - and get a sense of where these designs came from. 'See those round windows between the arches?' he would ask. 'They are inspired by Palladio: look at the symmetry. Copied all over the world.'

He opened my ears to music, preferring Jacques Brel and Nina Simone to contemporary popular sounds. And when it came to literature, Richard literally threw books at me that he considered I would enjoy and should read - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Borges, Lawrence Durrell were some of the authors that he recommended.

As an artist/architect, Richard surrounded himself with inspirational books, magazines and artworks. From Lorenço Marques he brought home unvarnished crockery, eschewing shop bought items for these delicate and beautiful plates. He subscribed to Domus magazine, which I paged through, admiring Italian and European architectural drawings and graphics. He had books about Hundertwasser, filled with gold foil and peacock-coloured prints, the hardbacks in black linen - a tactile rarity even these days.

Seventies culture

Richard's friends were equally sophisticated: stylish, opinionated and possessing beautiful objects. I loved dinner parties with Graham and Colleen Goosen: George Jensen tableware; Le Corbusier furniture; home made pistachio nut ice-cream. We laughed and argued across the trestle table, sharing meals with writers, architects, publishers and artists.

In the seventies and eighties, we all smoked. Richard sought out his beloved Lautrec cigarettes - buying the last few boxes from out-of-the-way cafes - wherever he could find them. He introduced me to Sobranie - pink and gold cigarettes that were straight out of Breakfast at Tiffanys. I thought I was so sophisticated.

Of course Richard loved good coffee: we spent hours sitting at Zerbans Coffee Shop, discussing books, films, architecture - and soaking up the eclectic mix of patrons; everyone in Cape Town went to Zerbans. Funny thing is, we had no mobiles, no internet, no apps and no social media - but we had great conversations and experiences.

Forty years ago, Richard Hepner, Danny Shaffer and I made this brief film in the garden of Danny's St James house. The film lay in my photo drawer all this time until I had it digitised - now available for all of us to enjoy scenes from so long ago.

What did these experiences teach me? Richard inculcated in me a love for fine art and objects, a sense of quality and a certain style. At the time, I found him old fashioned: it was the seventies and I wanted rebellion and bell bottoms; Richard taught me something more valuable - eternal style never goes out of fashion. Good design, fabrics, materials, quality and authenticity far outweigh new and shiny imitations. Is that snobbish or elitist? I don't think so. Take those earthenware Mozambican plates - they are as authentic as can be possible - and are never out of style.


Both Richard and I liked quality clothes - he enjoyed his German-bought velvet suit and classic shirts. Being tall and slim, I could wear anything in those days, but not having much money, I bought carefully, always calculating how I could wear and re-style my clothes, pairing up shirts and tees with skirts and trousers; always matching colours and textiles to best effect. With Richard as my fashion guide, the two of us always looked terrific. We might have been poor, but we had style!

Thinking back to those days, I can see how Richard influenced my ability to pack and travel light: be selective and choose just a few perfect objects is what he would have said. One perfect silk blouse with a matching string of pearls - and you can go anywhere in style.

Richard's style guide

These are some of Richard's favourite things - ranging from art and architecture to cigarettes and beloved books - which have all withstood the style test of time.


Richard supported and encouraged me to draw. At the time, I didn't pay much attention to him, but in hindsight I think he must have seen in me some talent.  I thank him for inspiring me to start drawing - so many years later. I wonder what he'd think of my images these days? All the blog post thumbnails are my drawings, albeit these days mostly drawn on my iPad - I hope Richard approves.

[Podcast: Episode 5] Cosmetics and toiletries: what to pack?

[Podcast: Episode 5] Cosmetics and toiletries: what to pack?

These shoes are made for walking

These shoes are made for walking