Fab Brings New South African Designs To Market

After laying off 101 employees, the e-commerce company launches a new pop-up boutique, signaling an aggressive shift away from flash sales.

Less than a month after laying off nearly a fifth of its staff, Fab has released a new pop-up boutique, signaling the company’s aggressive shift away from flash sales to exclusive retail.


The pop-up collection, available on Fab today, includes more than 150 design items from 25 South African designers, and includes jewelry, housewares, and fashion accessories like purses and baseball caps. The products range from hats and bowties sewn from bold, Afro-geometric textiles, to sleek leather backpacks, geometric bread boxes, and cutting boards. Fab’s idea is to use its sizable customer base–the site had more than 12 million “members” before they opened Fab to non-registered shoppers in September–to create a supply-and-demand chain for designers who’d probably struggle to find business on their own. Fab co-founder Bradford Shellhammer claims that Fab’s order was the single biggest purchase order for 25 percent of the commissioned designers.

Why South Africa? While in Milan for Design Week, last April, Shellhammer was approached by a man named Ben-Carl Havemann. Havemann is something of an attaché for Cape Town, which is selected as the World Design Capital for 2014, and he invited Shellhammer to visit. By chance, Fab’s chief design officer was already heading to South Africa the following day, to shoot a commercial. After touring galleries, meeting with design start ups, and perusing open air marketplaces, Shellhammer “wanted to fill a boat full of stuff to bring back,” he tells Co.Design. “The government will be celebrating being 20 years old…everything felt new and felt optimistic. It was a no brainer.”

This isn’t the first time that Fab, which has headquarters in New York and Berlin, has partnered with designers from far-flung corners of the world. The company created a similar platform for artists in Helsinki, and also hosts recurring designer competitions. These reflect Fab’s larger aspirations of transforming into a mega-retailer. Fab is betting that exclusive products–the sort you might find digging around at the ends of the earth–will help it compete with mass retailers like Amazon and Target. (A reported 90 percent of products found on Fab can’t be found anywhere else.) The catch, of course, is that Fab’s shift from a flash sales site to a marketplace that produces its own goods has put the company in a state of tenuous flux: Fab announced a layoff of 101 employees from its Berlin and New York offices earlier this month.

But it’s full speed ahead for Shellhammer, who says the company will continue to integrate internationally sourced pop-up collections into Fab’s line a quarterly basis. Where to next? Mexico City, he says.


About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.