Explore Patagonia In The V&A Waterfront


Introducing a new home for the adventure community, a crafted shopping experience in Patagonia, Cape Town. The design and build of this community pillar were tasked to AB Design. Due to director Aidan Bennetts’s love for the outdoors and active involvement in this community, the company was a natural choice. This was more than just a design job for him and his team.

The project, spanning over a year-long period, in collaboration with artisans, friends and local subcontractors’, was a dream project enacted as a labour of love. Patagonia, founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, already with over 70 retail stores worldwide, was searching for a base for its African flagship store. South Africa topped the list of critical locations.

The adventure capital, Cape Town, got the vote of the host city as it is well known as a destination for adventure sports such as trail running, rock climbing and big wave surfing, all key to the Patagonia brand portfolio of sports on which the brand bases its industry-leading apparel. The search for retail premises was narrowed down. Finally, in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, it found a standalone building with enticing historical significance and charm that perfectly suited the brand’s needs.

Saving The Planet With Sustainable Design

A visit to Patagonia’s flagship store in Cape Town guides your approach as a conscious customer. The ground-up ethic of conservation is paramount. Every aspect of apparel design and manufacture is considered with the aim to minimise its environmental impact in mind.

Patagonias’ unique and exemplary approach to business inspired this project from start to finish.The brands’ dedication to working almost exclusively with sustainable and repurposed materials laid down the framework that would inform each of the design decisions made for the project.

Furthermore, Patagonia’s business model, focused on developing economic and social value through its products, places conservation and sustainability before business. As a result, this brand’s keystone is emblazoned proudly in laser-cut lettering on the walls. It leaves you no doubt about their intention, ‘We’re in the business to save our home planet.’

To unpack and understand the brand’s ethos, Aidan poured over founder Chouinard’s life work as an environmentalist and philanthropist. Two essential books authored by Chouinard helped him understand the business, namely; Let My People Go Surfing and The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years.

A quote by Chouinard from one of these books Aidan posted above his desk for inspiration was, “Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.”

Finding A Home For Patagonia

A free-standing building, not confined to the sterile shopping mall interior, was eagerly earmarked by the local proprietor of Patagonia, Grant Cleghorn. From the day he first saw it, he felt an immediate connection to the Forum building in the V&A Waterfront.

The building had so much to offer. It is extraordinary.

A rich historical background dates back to 1896. On further investigation, it was brought to light that the building was home to forgotten tradesmen called Stevedoors. These hard-working men used to load goods and provisions onto the shops in the dock. They served the cross-continent shipping company, the Union Castle line, which operated between Great Britain and South Africa. Over the 19th Century, this shipping line brought hundreds of European migrants to South Africa.

Given the rich history, some Heritage Council framework needed to be adhered to and herein lay the challenge!. Creating a shopping experience that embraces adventure and freedom within the constraints outlined by the council is a challenging task.

Designed For Adventure

The 200 square meter space with a mezzanine level, which now houses a coffee bar and library, provides a space for customers to explore and escape, true to the brand’s spirit.Aidan and the team quickly decided that one of the primary materials they would use was repurposed solid Oregon Pine. This wood was initially imported from South America, and Canada found new life in the Patagonia store.

In its first life, this wood was used as a primary building material for roof trusses, ceilings and flooring. The date of the timber is still being determined, but its been at least 30 years since modern methods allowed for the softer South African pine to replace the beautiful hardwood as a construction timber.

“Aesthetically the wood embodies the brand’s look & feel, providing the warmth and connection that only solid wood can. It was used in all vital feature areas, and the craftmanship by Aidan’s long-time friend, master joiner Carlos La is genuinely remarkable.

For the end process, hundreds of additional hours were invested in sourcing the timber, trimming off rotten unusable sections, freeing it of old nails embedded in it, cleaning it up, and grain matching each piece. A truly laborious process! With this, the final product succeeded.

In terms of altering the storefront, giving the tiny cottage pane-style windows a facelift was necessary.

Careful consideration was given. The changes discussed and signed off by the custodians of the building transformed the old pokey windows into a high visibility open format that introduced natural light into the space and allowed the curious a look into the room whilst at the same time maintaining the historical value by sticking to the same design principles and fine craftmanship as the original work created more than 100 years previously.

Other charismatic elements are also introduced, such as repurposed Galvanised roof sheets, traded for new sheets that previously provided shelter for some artisans working on the project in their homes in informal settlements. This uniquely South African element was a win-win as new roof sheets, without holes and rust, were sponsored to the houses, much to the joy of the owners, who could keep the harsh winter rain at bay. All the feature elements have a story. Visitors to the store can read about these on a dedicated “Where we stand” signboard that pays tribute to the components used and the location of the building.

In addition, the retail store staff are fond of retelling the story of how Aidan saved the feature lights, remnants of a recent demolition, hanging in the entrance from the scrap heap on one of his forays searching for repurposed items in the Waterfronts scrap heap.

In addition to the natural and sourced materials in the retail space, local creatives were brought in and tasked with putting their unique stamp on the store. The mural in the changing room was created by Johan De Lange, an artist who draws inspiration from his outdoor based lifestyle and fascination with SA’s indigenous fynbos from this region. The mosaic doormat, crafted by local mosaic artist Kerry Atherstone and designed in collaboration with Patagonia’s Erica Basson, contains a little tribute to Yvon Chouinard’s initial business, manufacturing handmade rock climbing protection equipment, known for its hexagonal shape.

Behind the scenes

  • As an avid outdoorsman, this project meant a lot to Aidan. Even more remarkable is that this connection with the brand was made through his outdoor activities and meeting contacts from the Patagonia team. This is a testament to the organic approach to this exciting brand.
  • The brand’s high standards, the pursuit of excellence, and emphasis on conservation and sustainability made it easy to take on this design job. However, the long lengths one must go to to ensure sustainable practices put into every design decision are a feat that only sometimes appears to the untrained eye.
  • The flagship store’s grand opening played host to pillars of the adventure, sporting and conservation community, boasting representatives from Protect the West Coast, Save The Pangolin foundation, and the Sentinel Ocean Alliance.