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...fashion is not so much about glamour. It’s much more about all the nice things that give you goose bumps.
Can you explain the Jeans School?
The Jeans School is part of a bigger concept, which is called House of Denim. The density of denim companies is the biggest in and around Amsterdam. These brands are being innovative, they’re hiring designers and doing collaborations. Denim is a product that everyone has. The funny thing is that Holland has the most pairs of jeans in the world: more than five pairs per person, which is much more than the average. This way of dressing fits a certain Dutch mentality—down to earth and casual. We are a casual country. We just say whatever we want to say.
House of Denim is like a union. How do we get all these denim brands working in the business together? Not by physically letting them work together, but by trying to add something to the world. They need young people who want to work in their business.
We start with the makers, the denim developers, because if you can’t develop, you can’t design. Every brand needs a younger generation of developers. The reality is that most of this younger generation is going to work for other brands, but they lack the knowledge of denim and casual. They are all educated in a couture way. And the world is not like that. Couture is not down to earth.
Has denim changed much since Levi Strauss?
It became part of fashion, as did sportswear. They all merged into fashion. It has changed a lot.
Once it became less utilitarian and more fashionable, obviously designs and trends have changed, but have the techniques changed in manufacturing?
The makers and the weavers are all thinking about the manufacturing methods, which spoil a lot of water when making denim. Then the denim is transported all over the world. Made in china, fabricated in Italy by putting ‘Made in Italy’ in it, then it is shipped back to wherever. One pair of jeans travels 10,000 kilometres, by air, by boat, whatever. Why? It’s not necessary.
We are thinking about a way to change this, but not as a ‘sustainable alternative’ because that's not an alternative anymore.
Are designers still scared of having a sustainable label? It is really important but should not be a selling point.
They think they have to be 100% sustainable, which no one can be. I read about a guy this morning, a perfume specialist who said, ‘I always need synthetic things to add to a scent because otherwise, I only have 150 choices, but now I have more than 2,000’. A car can never be totally made out of wood. But please don’t lose style and fashionabililty, otherwise no one will buy it anyway.
Should sustainability be a marketing tool?
No, it shouldn’t be a marketing tool. It should be part of the DNA of the company. And now it has become part of the Corporate Social Responsibility model. I don’t mind, as long sustainability is adopted. It has to be.
Slow Fashion is so important, especially for young designers. Do you think we need to encourage consumers to make smarter decisions about what they buy? You have to find what is right for you, what suits your style and what you are going to wear for a long time. It’s then the designer’s responsibility to match the price with the quality so that the garments will last for as long they are calculated to last.
It depends whether or not a designer can still contribute something to fashion. You can do this if you were part of the system. If you understand what is going on, you can then decide if you want to do it in a different way.
Take the designer Monique van Heist for example. She is part of the slow fashion movement, and decided that consumers don’t need a new wardrobe every season, but should add something new to their personal collection every now and then and skip the seasons.
I think everyone will develop a more personal style and add some fashionable things along the way. All the retail chains made fashion accessible for a larger group of people. Now you see young people without much money dressing really well. So now, designers have to look at that and re-examine whom their target group is. Who can buy their things? Will their only customer be a fifty-year-old woman who can afford to buy a dress or can this dress be made with equal quality, but affordably for my target group?
This is the ideal system for fashion, do you think it has longevity or will people become impatient again?
People are always impatient. I’m also impatient. It still feels strange that I’m ‘pioneering’ something that to me is so obvious. But because everyone is in his or her own bubble, on an individual level, doesn’t acknowledge that it is important to share knowledge, to connect. We can choose different lives. I can sit here and polish my nails, but I don’t have the time. I prefer to do these things, to push and to think.
Are there things that need to be done?
Yes. I think all of us do this because we have a passion for it, because we really, really think it’s important, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. It’s a long-term commitment. Really long-term. But I like that.
I started HTNK because I didn’t like the head-hunters who were chasing me because I was a woman who did design, who travelled all over the world, who had experience in management. They wanted me for this job or that job. They never asked me what I wanted. That’s what I think is really important.
I’m not saying that you should only do the things you want to do. If you are a designer with your own label, 90% of the time you’re not going to be doing the stuff you are really good at. So you might take the chance to design for a company. Then 90% of the time, you will be designing. The downside is then that you’re not designing for yourself; you’re designing for someone else’s target group.
As long as you’re personally sustainable…
This is not about making easy choices. This is about destiny. Designers who do not want to do anything else just have to create. They are artists as well. But it’s not a very nice environment. I saw a photo at an exhibition which said, ‘Everyone got paid but the artist.’
With fashion design, I think the glamour is lost pretty quickly. You’re either with it or you are not.
And a reality check is imperative. You might make nice things, but you also have to make a living. You cannot depend on anyone else and if you lack the business acumen, you should be able to hire someone to do that.
There is a whole world around the designer as well. Styling, photography, models, make-up artists, hair. Designers are already connected to many people and the next step is to present their work to the world in a beautiful way.
For some designers, it's hard to contextualise where they fit in because they might be designing for a world that they might not be part of, and can lose sight of a realistic price point. Do you think that there is a disconnect there? Does that hinder the way designers think about their product?
It’s also because most of them work in an intrinsic way. If you know your customer, it changes your worth. You have to connect to someone who’s going to wear your things. Who is this customer in an Arabic country who will buy your things? Why do they buy it or what do they really like? It will change your way of designing as well.
Everyone complains that they don’t have a business partner. But they should also connect to the world where the business partners are. If designers stay in their own bubble, they don’t connect. And I understand it is difficult to connect with business people because they are of a different blood type. It is simply the connection between the right part and the left part of the brain.
As a designer, you are not your label. You might be the heart and soul of the label, but you need people who are better than you in all the other aspects of running a business. It’s about turning talent into business. I don’t mind if you sell one dress for 50k. If you can live, fine. But that’s also commercial. And commercial, for a lot of designers, is a dirty word. But the thing is, you have to sell.
At the same time, I want to be surprised every day. Fashion is not so much about glamour. It’s much more about all the nice things that give you goose bumps. We already have enough stuff, enough clothes, enough everything. So why do we need something else? Because it adds something, that’s why. I still think that for designers who really have their own characteristics, their own signature, there is enough space for them.
So many designers come to London because they think that’s the place to be as an emerging designer. How do you feel about that?
For Dutch designers, they get a scholarship for doing a masters degree abroad. So they want to do the masters at Central Saint Martins. They don’t get a scholarship for a Dutch masters degree. What a talent drain!
You can get such an amazing education in design, and then you graduate. These students they have no idea what’s next.
They are not prepared. In Holland, you only have 4 years to find out who you are, what your signature is, etc. And then you need post-graduation courses because you’re not ready.
In these four years, it’s not a reality yet. We invite them to come to the office when they are ready, and only then will they listen to what you want to say.
Do you think that having a year or so experience working for an established label is important?
Yeah, it helps. You don’t have a network. Find the right mentors who are working in the industry, who might not even share your taste, but they can explain a lot more to you. Also, you learn to work in a team, which is different because you graduate on your own. The world afterwards is never just yours.
As part of the learning experience, is it equally as important to find out what you don’t like and what doesn’t work for you?
I worked in the industry a long enough time to know exactly what I didn’t want to do anymore and that’s why I started HTNK. I started this out of frustration because things were not working. I also think it's important to learn from all of these things.
There are so many ways of doing this business and it will change in the coming years. We will have new business models. There are private investments, donations, crowd-funding; it’s different. And designers should be ready to conquer social media, but most of them are not.
Do you think that affects the success of their businesses?
How nice would it be if people who know all the business elements would help them? It would be really nice, because some designers should never have to talk if they don’t want to, just do what they’re really good at. That’s what we are trying to do with designers, to help them with the PR side. It’s the same thing as what you do at NJAL.
And if you can communicate with people, you can communicate your brand to your audience?
There are different ways of communicating. Everyone is part of a bigger system, but the system is also changing because we are buying less, and what we are buying should be really good quality and should be really unique, otherwise, why bother?
Do you think young graduates lack technical knowledge? Students can attend design school and hire a tailor to make an entire collection. They only see it on paper and the final product.
This is not OK. And the reality is the designers should be in the laundry, should be in the factory, and they should understand what the people who work for them are doing. One can never be a good designer if he doesn’t know how to develop a product. There’s no 3D thinking. If someone is not a good pattern maker, of course he will need people who are better than him, but he should also be able to explain what he needs to those around him. Most of these young designers cannot.
Do you think this is a problem we see too often?
Much too often. I graduated as a designer, but I also did production. In this way, I saw what mistakes could be made, but if I could explain it to the producers, the product got a lot better. If you understand what you lack, you can at least try and understand what is necessary. Fashion is a business in which your knowledge has to be so up-to-date, and it’s not.
What is Red Light Fashion?
Red Light Fashion was a project in which designers literally got the space to grow. There was this opportunity for 18 designers to be in the Red Light District for a year, to have a workspace and possible living space. They each had a shop window; they were not allowed to sell, just allowed to showcase. There was only a prostitution permit on the windows, not a retail permit—You are allowed to sell your body, but you’re not allowed to sell your clothes.
Because all of the designers were there together in this incubator, they shared knowledge. They’re all doing well now. Turning talent into business was the goal and it really went well. It showcased Amsterdam in a different way and the project really helped these designers.
I read that you worked with the municipality to get the space. What was that like?
It would have otherwise been impossible. There was a housing corporation buying the houses. I told them, ‘I have a great idea, why don’t you give them to the designers?’ And they said, ‘OK, fine’. It was crazy. For three years, everyone thought we were going to shut down the Red Light District. That was not our intention at all. My office is there!
Everyone in the area is turning a ‘talent’ into a business. We don’t mind and we don’t judge. We don’t give a shit what you are doing, do whatever you want. Free spirits belong in Amsterdam anyway because we can do a lot more in Amsterdam than in any other city.
But this is not unity. If it were, Amsterdam’s fashion would be a lot stronger. That’s why NJAL is so important. If you showcase this to the world, you create strength and unity in each country. Each country has great designers. But it’s not about showcasing a country; it’s about showcasing designers who can represent a country.
But we're not like Americans, we’re not ‘proud to be Dutch’. It’s not that we don’t have pride; it’s just that we’ll never show it. You have the American dream. We have the Dutch dream. The funny thing is, almost all of these Dutch brands have followed the American dream. We have guys who sell pants and end up being multimillionaires. It’s an American dream.
What’s the Dutch dream?
The Dutch dream is that we actually do it. We make it happen, because we are passionate about our products and about quality. That’s what we are known for.