Meet the Locals: Libby from Johannesburg
In South Africa’s largest city, Libby Robb crafts kimonos, watches birds, and spreads good vibrations.
Photographs by Rudi Geyser
Lifelong Jo’berg resident Libby Robb lived much of her life caught up in the hustle and bustle of running a corporate project management company and raising her daughter. That’s easy to do in her native city, which got its start as a gold mining town and is known as the heart of the South African economy.
When Libby retired earlier this year at the age of 65, she decided that it was time to begin a new chapter of life, one where she could focus on the things in the world that inspired beauty, peace, and calm.
“It’s been a good life, and it’s been very busy,” she said. “I sometimes wake up and think, ‘Where did it go?’ So now I’m really following my passions.” The first of those is making clothes.
Libby began sewing with her mother when she was a little girl, and by age 13 was making her own outfits. She remembered her high school graduation dress with particular fondness. “It was made of blue shantung” silk, she said. “It was probably quite awful looking. But I felt beautiful in it and that’s all that really matters.” When Libby retired, she realized that she still wanted to make clothes, and that she wanted to do it with her daughter in the city where she’d lived all her life. So they started a company that sells kimono-inspired garments and handmade coats. The making process starts in the fabric store, where Libby taps into her senses as she peruses aisles full of various colors and textures.
“The idea is to make something simple but beautiful. I walk around the fabric store and different fabrics ‘talk’ to me. Then I’ll pick one up and think about the feel and touch and what it looks like and how it’s going to fall.” She sticks mostly to smooth silks, lightweight georgettes, and diaphanous chiffons. “They’re light and airy to wear,” she said. For cooler weather, she and her daughter make coats with tapestry-like fabric. When she’s making the garments and helping customers try them on, Libby finds a renewed sense of satisfaction with life and work.
“In the corporate world, I found that there was a lot of criticism thrown around, especially when things went wrong. But now I get to do work where I can see the look on people’s faces when they put on something really beautiful and it’s so satisfying,” she said. “And so far it’s gone very well: The people who wear them really love them.”
Libby’s second passion after retirement is reiki, a form of energy healing that she learned from her yoga teacher of 20 years, and was trained in between 2004 and 2006. Now she works on clients — who sometimes include her house guests. “I never say, ‘I’m going to heal you,’” she said. “That would be arrogant and it wouldn’t work. Reiki is about humility and recognizing that the power doesn’t come from me, it comes from somewhere else.” Libby credits Reiki in part with the sense of tranquility that guests report feeling on her property, the Olive Grove.
“So many people who come here say they have this huge sense of calm when they come in. It’s a walled-off property that’s removed from the street outside, and I’ve done quite a lot of reiki in the cottage I rent out. You can clear the space and energize it, so I think that might promote the feeling of calm that people have when they come inside. A number of guests have said, ‘I come in here and I just stop worrying.’”
Libby’s house is airy, open, and bright, with simple decorative touches that evoke a strong sense of place. Making the house this way took time. Libby purchased the 1970s-built home about 20 years ago and remodeled it as somewhere she wanted to live. “It was ideal for me because I like old suburbs,” she said. But the cottage was “rather old and ugly,” she said. “It was a cramped, dark, single-story building with a flat roof so I decided to gut it and fix it up and make it beautiful.” Then she added a second story, an open living room, and a few choice antiques. Since 2017, Libby has rented the cottage while living in the main house (which doubles as her sewing studio).
“I want for the space to feel clean and uncluttered,” she said. “And I want it to feel like you’re walking into a home.”
Libby’s house is located in a historic suburb called the Gardens, where she originally settled for its charm and proximity to her daughter’s school. “It’s 15 minutes from everywhere,” Libby says, which includes Johannesburg’s local airport, O.R. Tambo International. There are 20 restaurants within close walking distance, including a joint called Thava Indian Restaurant. Libby considers it one of the best Indian joints in the entire city, which is no small claim in a country that’s home to 1.2 million people of Indian descent. There’s also Norwood Mall, which offers travelers and mall rats “everything you could possibly need.”
The commercial center and neighborhood of Rosebank is a 10-minute drive away. There, visitors can visit the Apartheid Museum, the former residence of President Nelson Mandela, and a weekly Sunday craft market offering hand-made goods from across the African continent. It’s where Libby got the animal carvings of a giraffe, a cheetah, and a zebra that sit on the staircase in her home.
In her free time, Libby finds the neighborhood birds captivating. “Birdwatching is a superb pastime,” she said. “Think about it. When most people go into nature they want to see lions and tigers, elephants and leopards, rhino and buffalo. But you don’t always encounter those animals. But with birdwatching, on the other hand, well, you go outside and you almost always see a bird.”
Libby recently planted red hot poker plants (also known as torch lilies) in her yard to attract more avian friends. “I sometimes have 20 different species in my yard in a day,” she said. Once you get interested in them you can just watch them all day, and they’re perfect.”
Libby’s Johannesburg Picks:
The Rosebank Rooftop Market: “This market is about 10 minutes away by car and is open every Sunday. It is a very big market with many crafts from different parts of Africa — Ethiopia, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, etc., and local products from South Africa, including a large vintage section. A number of local artists display their work from carvings to paintings, too. The foodie section has wonderful things to eat, with cheese stalls, coffee bars, ice cream makers, and spice stalls.
“Near to the Rooftop Market and open every day is a market which focuses on crafts, clothing made from local fabrics, and leather goods.”
The James and Ethel Gray Park in Birdhaven: “This park is 10 minutes away by car and worth a visit. It used to be a bird sanctuary but has been opened up as a walking area. It’s very popular with runners, strollers, dog walkers, and picnickers. A couple of times a year there is an event called Secret Sunrise which takes place there. It’s a silent yoga happening and has a loyal following. There are many different species of birds that can be identified in the area, and it’s a peaceful and calm area to spend time in.”
Norwood: “Five minutes away from home is the ‘Norwood strip‘”’ which houses many restaurants and shops. The Factory is a great breakfast venue. Loof is an excellent cafe. My favorite lunch and dinner places include Schwarma & Co, the Ethiopian restaurant Queen Sheba, and Baha Taco, which some international guests tell me is the best Mexican food they’ve ever had.”
Maboneng Precinct: “This neighborhood is in the inner city of Jo’burg and is a space which houses workshops for small projects. On Sundays it becomes a vibrant market, with art galleries, food vendors (one of whom sells wonderful paella), and other little spaces selling all manner of crafts, vintage, jewelry, and leather goods.”
About the author: Breena Kerr is a Maui-based freelance writer and journalist whose work appears in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Washington Post, CNN, and the BBC.
About the photographer: After living in the U.K. and achieving a BA in photography at University College Falmouth, South African-born photographer Rudi Geyser decided to return home to seek inspiration and gain a sense of identity through his work. Currently based in Cape Town, Geyser aims to explore narratives around lesser-told stories, particularly on the African continent.