On a warm Jozi morning, Bongeka and Tobeka Lwana are radiant. We meet at the restaurant of a boutique hotel where the staff speaks in hushed tones and soft classical music wafts into the restaurant.
All of this is fitting as the pair recently launched their Sandton store, the Neo Luxury Bar, which specializes in niche international fragrances. To the ordinary Joe, niche simply means something that only appeals to a select section of people. It is also the name used to describe Italian or French hand-crafted fragrances that are especially made in limited quantities.
“Niche specializes in fragrances only,” Bongeka explains. “You won’t find that they have cosmetics or clothing. They make fragrances for humans and for homes. They use more specialized oils than the ones used in designer fragrances. The scents are very concentrated which is why niche fragrances tend to be more expensive. More time is spent producing them.”
Most of the fragrances in the Neo Luxury Bar store are unisex. “You can share it with your man,” Bongeka smiles mischievously. Tobeka says: “these sort of fragrances have distinct tones so if you like the tone, you will like the fragrance whether you are a man or a woman.”
Tobeka adds that while designer brands – which are typically the kinds that one would find at Red Square or Stuttafords – are also good quality, niche fragrances offer the discerning customer an opportunity to have a scent that is not ubiquitous.
As such, to launch their Neo Luxury Bar pop-up – which is the first of many planned around the country – the store houses brands like M. Micallef, Xerjoff, Bois 1920, Casamorati, Meo Fusciuni and Lubin. This is why the pair’s company is named Neo Luxury Bar.
“We named it ‘neo’ because it’s new,” shares Bongeka. “No one else is doing what we are. We’re offering something new and opening people up to new brands. As time goes by, we will be sourcing specific brands so if you come in and tell us there’s a brand you like and no one else in the country stocks it.”
Tobeka says: “we’re trying to make it an indulgent experience where you can take your time when choosing your fragrances.” The sisters took their time getting into business together.
Bongeka says: “I was working at Anglo American for many years and I decided to leave and start a business with Tobeka. In 2016, we started a business called Cultivation Point, which is the holdings company. We have different divisions and Neo Luxury Bar belongs to the retail division. We’ve also got mining, services and media in the company.”
But their love for fragrances and beauty and fashion in general started long before that. As two of five sisters, Bongeka and Tobeka grew up with looking and smelling good being a big deal. “As early as university years, I started to appreciate a sense of self,” Tobeka remembers.
“I fell in love with magazines and would go to the library every day just to read Vogue Magazine because I couldn’t afford to buy it. Some of these things looked so unattainable. But that’s when I knew I loved the journey of fashion, the people behind it, the trends and thought I’d end up working in fashion.”
“But instead I got into communications and marketing and advertising environments where I was exposed to things that linked to fashion and working with companies that are associated with the Fashion Weeks in the country,” Tobeka continues. “After that, my eyes were opened to other things like the beauty space. I think that opened me to fall in love with fragrances.”
Bongeka adds: “We were privileged to have traveled a bit so we could see what fashion trends were around. I was looking for something that was different but could connect to fashion. We wanted to create something like Sephora that would sell fragrances, cosmetics and more. At first, that seemed impossible for us. Then we delved into the fragrance space and realised that in South Africa know more about designer fragrances as opposed to niche fragrances. We realised as a market, it was untouched.”
In addition to perfume, Neo Luxury Bar will sell fragrances for the home. The Lwana sisters plan to have their own ranges as well as sell South African brands. “We have our own private collection of candles that we will be developing. In three months, we will have a full range that is produced in South Africa. There are a lot of luxury candle-and-diffuser-makers in South Africa and the plan is to keep those to sell in the store as well,” says Bongeka.
Neo Luxury Bar may be the new kid on the fragrance block but it has big plans for the future. “We won’t stay as a pop-up for long,” declares Bongeka. “We will have a store – that’s the idea. And then we’ll have a pop-up store at various high-end spaces around the country. We want to be known as fragrance connoisseurs and to establish ourselves as the go-to people to invite to conferences to talk about fragrances. The growth of the business is our primary goal.”
And Tobeka concludes: “we don’t just want to make money from people. We want to give back by bringing other small businesses – like our suppliers of candles – along with us on this journey. This is our commitment.”