by Mark Tungate (@MarkTungate) It’s hard to have a good idea. It’s even harder to have an idea that has a positive impact on the world. For copywriter Kayli Vee Levitan of M&C Saatchi Abel in Cape Town, that idea came in the form of The Street Store. She founded the store with her art director colleague, Max Pazak (right), who now works in Berlin.

In her words, it’s the world’s first “rent-free, premises-free, free pop-up clothing store for the homeless”.

What the homeless want

The template is simple: thanks to posters with a distinctive hangar-shaped logo, a length of street is transformed into an open-air store. Alerted in advance by social media, people bring their unwanted clothing. Homeless “customers” come along and choose clothes they actually want to wear.

Realising that they were on to something, Levitan (@KayliVee) and Pazak turned the idea into a franchise. To say it caught on is an understatement: since the original Street Store in Cape Town on 14 January 2014, no less than 333 of them have been held around the world — the furthest afield in Islamabad.

So what brought Levitan here? Born in Durban, she studied linguistics, media, writing and film at the University of Cape Town. Applying for a marketing course at the local Red & Yellow advertising school, she was told that she probably had more of an aptitude for copywriting. “So I took a two-year course. I literally fell into my career — it was the best ‘mistake’ I ever made.”

In the November before she graduated, Levitan already had a portfolio and was ready to go knocking on agency doors. When she walked into M&C Saatchi Abel, she says, “I knew I had to work here.” Fortunately, the agency was equally enthusiastic.

Close to iconic

Among other clients, she works for the insurance company, Hollard. “Insurance is typically quite boring — but they want to be the opposite. Hollard is the insurance company that has fun.” One TV spot, about a woman who goes to a medium to make contact with her recently deceased husband — who left her with nothing — is close to achieving iconic status in South Africa.

Another spot features a couple lying awake in bed, apparently worrying about work mishaps. But in fact their insomnia has another source.

While Levitan clearly loves her job, The Street Store was born from a need “to make a difference”. Projects included an app for Dementia South Africa, which essentially sucked up your Facebook content and created a video in which your life disappears before your very eyes. The tag? “You can’t cure dementia, but you can understand it.”

But The Street Store has dwarfed all her previous efforts. It started as a desire to help The Haven Night Shelter in Cape Town, “which is literally across the road from us”. The ideas on the table ranged from redesigning the shelter’s website to “trying to shock people into helping the homeless — which nobody likes”.

The solution was literally right in front of them, visible from the balcony of the agency in Green Point. “It’s a very hip and trendy area, with great restaurants and hotels, but also a huge homeless problem. These two opposite worlds cross each other every day on the pavement, but they never meet.”

Bringing two communities together

How to bring these two communities together in a way that’s humane, rather than humiliating? “Instead of just asking people to donate clothes in a cold clothing drive, we wanted to use the donation process to change misconceptions and stereotypes. We realised that the perfect place to do it was right there on the street,” she explains.

The first street store was held on the road the agency shares with the homeless shelter. The rule was simple: people who wanted to donate clothes had to bring them in person, so they actually met the people who would receive them.

“One of the posters has a hangar design on it with a hole in the middle. You put them up on a fence, and people actually hang their clothes through the posters.”

The Street Store was an immediate success. Having laid the groundwork by tweeting about a mysterious new clothing store — irresistible to fashion-conscious Cape Towners — Levitan and Pazak generated a sense of anticipation.

Idea goes global

“At first, people thought it was something for themselves, but when we finally revealed that it was something positive they could do for the homeless, they were ready to take up the challenge.”

Not only did Street Store give away 1 000 bags of clothes on that first day, it also had a truckload left over for the shelter. Another event at the end of January was equally successful. Shortly afterwards, a group of students from Brussels contacted the agency to ask if they could host a Street Store. The idea was about to go global.

“We had a feeling it was a good idea, but we didn’t think it would this big. We didn’t expect what’s turned out to be the entire world to be so open to it. And it just keeps going.”

An estimated 600 000 people have so far been clothed by The Street Store. Having accidentally become a copywriter, Levitan has now accidentally become one of the guardians of a global charity brand. “It’s definitely part of my life now.”



Mark TungateMark Tungate (@MarkTungate) is the editorial director of the Epica Awards (@EpicaAwards), the only global creative prize judged by the specialist press. A British journalist based in Paris, Tungate is also the author of six books about branding and advertising, including Luxury World and Adland: A Global History of Advertising. He has a weekly column in the French magazine, Stratégies, and has written for leading newspapers and magazines in the UK and the US.

This “Global Headline Makers” column is syndicated monthly, with permission from Epica.

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