The NJAL Decade

Stefan Siegel Looks Back On 10 Years Of NOT JUST A LABEL

Ten years ago fashion was in a different place—for better and for worse. As technology has continued to advance our everyday lives, the ecosystem that fashion functions within and the rules that govern it have radically changed. In celebration of NJAL's tenth year of revolutionizing the fashion industry, we spoke with founder Stefan Siegel to talk past, present, and future of NJAL.

Let's go back to the very beginning: What was your impetus for starting Not Just A Label?

A little over ten years ago I was working in the world of investment banking. It felt like a social experiment for someone who was always drawn to more creative industries. It however gave me the opportunity to see the fashion industry through a different lens, one that studied annual reports and financial analysis of leading luxury groups. At the same time many friends of mine, who were fashion designers, were using MySpace as the main tool to showcase what they were able to do. I remember how their pages would take so long to fully load—it just wasn’t as effective as it could be. I really wondered why they weren’t using a platform where they could all showcase and potentially sell online, network and speak to each other. From my position as an investment banker I thought, why not create a platform that could potentially identify future break-through talent and allow us to nurture and invest in independent fashion brands at an early stage? 

And that was the gap in the market that I saw—realizing, at the same time, that this might not be a business as simple as a sandwich store. I knew there was no way to monetize its business activities for the first few years, not until the platform would have gained a position of authority. But I also knew that if I created a platform that every young designer around the world would chose to showcase their work, I would quite literally empower the design community and be able to steer the future of the industry; to work towards a more sustainable and ethical trade, and ultimately strip the power away from highly political institutions that have been using and abusing emerging designers for the past decades.

NJAL at the Waldorf

How does the NJAL of today look in comparison to what you envisioned it would be?

In terms of its services, it provides exactly what I envisioned it would. But if I look at my first business plan, I would have expected us to have a bigger physical footprint. I had plans for showrooms; I was thinking about interesting store concepts, and so on. I thought we would have been managing a retail chain by now.

Why do you think that changed?

Due to a number of factors: one, because I never raised funds from investors until a few months ago. I never had the big bucks to play with—which in hindsight also stopped me from making the wrong decisions. Perhaps five years ago, brick and mortar stores still seemed like an attractive sales channel; today, they don’t anymore. The retail landscape looks so different than it did when I started NJAL.

So in some ways I think I’ve been lucky, I would not want the current NJAL business being constricted by long-term commercial lease contracts, when we can instead work on much more attractive and temporary retail opportunities. Looking back, I think I have guardian angels in the form of over 30,000 designers, who saved me from making these types of decisions. I once was very close to renting a 50,000 square feet space in East London to create a giant showroom—that would have surely been the end of my business. 

NJAL at d3

What are some of the biggest differences in the industry today? 

I think it’s much easier for emerging designers to do what they do today. Ten years ago you had to showcase at a fashion week, have a PR agency, and you had to go down the wholesale route. Many of our designers now simply use online sales channels that connect them directly with the consumer—without the need of classic fashion PRs or established magazines. So I’d say the ecosystem has improved a lot, and I think that it shows how digital media can be used to grow businesses and do things in a much more efficient and sustainable way.

The decentralization of fashion capitals is another factor: ten years ago, if you were not based in London, Paris, Milan or New York, you would not be considered. I feel this has changed completely—also thanks to a platform like ours. In today’s world, it doesn’t matter where you are: emerging designers inspire globally from wherever they are. They are able to tell a story embedded within a local culture and create something unique that cannot be replicated. 

In terms of sustainability and a more ethical approach to fashion, the industry has taken two different directions: large luxury and fast fashion players are merely reaching for the lowest hanging fruit and are determined to nurture a mindless and addictive consumption of fashion. They have completely abandoned their duties towards creativity, craftsmanship, and a regional identity. 

On the flip-side, the movement for a more ethical and environmentally-friendly creative industry is completely in the hands of emerging and independent fashion brands, big or small. Luxury is now defined by individuality and increased product scrutiny, and I strongly believe this to be a huge opportunity for all of us, who are part of the NJAL project. 

What words of advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?

I would learn how to code. For sure. I would be the best programmer in the world now. I could code websites and apps beachside. Web-development has been our single biggest pain over the past decade, and we suffer from running a very complicated platform with over 200,000 collections and millions of images. I hope that future generations will learn how to code in school so that innovation is not hindered by short supply of coding talent. 

I also would have left London a year earlier. We got sucked into the negative energy that London unfortunately inherited by its latest political choices. 

Perhaps I would have also tried to be a little less hard on myself. But you learn from your mistakes, and I obviously wish I could pass on the knowledge I gained over the past ten years to my younger self—but who wouldn't want that?

NJAL Venice

What are some of the biggest accomplishments you've had over the years?

One of the biggest accomplishment was doing all of this without any investment whatsoever. It shows that with a great idea you can still launch something that will have widespread effect on so many people, and improve their lives and businesses. I hope it sets an example for people who want to start their own businesses. Many aspiring entrepreneurs approach me and it seems like they all seek that first investment before they can even prove that their business model will work. You have to risk everything in order to be successful.

I am also proud of launching our e-commerce business so early on, and letting designers sell to consumers globally directly from their studios—that was groundbreaking back in 2009. Celebrities play a huge part in fashion now, but the fact that we had Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Lara Stone and many more helping to curate our online shop during the first couple of months was huge. 

We also took the plunge into the physical retail world and ended up organizing the globally largest projects involving emerging fashion designers; one of them was the NJAL Origin showcase in Italy. For four years, we flew one hundred designers per edition to Italy—all costs covered—for them to meet, engage, and exhibit with 100 family-owned manufacturing businesses in order to revitalize the Italian manufacturing system. That was massive—especially seeing them all in Italy’s biggest trade-show pavilion, which is a whopping 150,000 square feet. Nobody has ever done that and nobody has ever repeated that.

I think NJAL Origin really set the standards for NJAL and its future events. We then opened an airport hangar sized store in Dubai for 400 designers, with half of them coming from the Arabic region; then we took over Berlin, and finally we opened a store at the iconic Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City—Eddie Murphy’s ‘Coming To America’ arrival at the Waldorf was nothing compared to when the 100 selected NJAL designers took over the lobby of the hotel. They even allowed us to hoist the NJAL flag—something that previously was only arranged for state visits, which somehow we were anyways! 

NJAL Made in NY

These events were a breakthrough in terms of proving that the industry can do better than just organising parties; that we can also be supportive of emerging designers and be profitable—without charging a penny from the talents themselves. 

Looking back, I also would love to find out how much funding we were able to redirect towards supporting emerging creative talent. We’ve worked with the European Union, with national governments in Colombia, Brazil, Costa Rica, to most countries in the EU and many more in Asia. Cities such as Dubai, New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit have realized that creativity is the currency of the future and have set up funding schemes, realizing that we must support our talented communities and provide them with an eco-system where they can experiment, learn, make mistakes and ultimately flourish. 

Finally, when travelling to places in Africa, Asia, or South America I often meet NJAL designers that are so remote from the world we see in Paris or in London, and they tell me that NJAL has opened up doors for them. They've either been contacted by stylists, celebrities, investors or buyers—and something amazing changed in their life just by being on the platform I created. NJAL’s accomplishments truly are the success of our talents! 

NJAL Origin

Think back to 10 years ago—what’s changed in the way you run NJAL, what hasn’t?

Well, the biggest change is that we’ve been consistently growing in terms of the NJAL team—up until 2016. We were about 40 people in total, full-time employees and freelancers. And sadly, by becoming larger and larger, the NJAL business became slower and less innovative. 

I now strongly feel that the business model of the future requires being agile, not static. In today's world a company must be more dynamic, have a lower footprint, people should travel less to just go to meetings and perhaps avoid the overcrowded fashion city centers completely. That's why Brexit was not only an emotional awakening, but it forced me to react as a company CEO and get the company out of the Big Smoke.

I started transitioning the business to Los Angeles, a city that has been so welcoming in opening its doors for innovative businesses across all sectors. Soon after, I engaged with Carmen Busquets, Clive Ng, and Adrian Cheng, and I was impressed by them having the same approach towards a leaner business model. An innovative company does not need large office spaces, it doesn't force its employees into one space and has them spending 8+ hours a day together—it’s just not timely anymore. By shifting our business model to one of the future, we completely reduced our overhead. We‘re not missing out on anything. It is all about having powerful satellites globally, that will collaborate with you—and we have over 30,000 of them! 

NJAL in Berlin

How has the mission changed?

I don’t think it has changed. We ride a very fine line of encouraging the establishment to work with us, and at the same time being radical and rebellious in order to revolutionize the industry. If we look at the most recent fashion events and galas, I couldn’t be farther away from being invited because I feel we simply aren't welcome. There are institutions who have us on their Most Wanted lists of companies to be shut down. We have changed the business model, we have taken middlemen out of the system and I think that we reduced the importance for a number of PR agencies, showrooms, fashion week organizers, and traditional fashion councils. So the mission hasn’t changed, nor has the fact that it requires us to walk a lonely road in order to further disrupt the system that is in place.

Looking 10 years ahead—what do you see?

I want NJAL to be a one-stop shop for the entire creative industry. Not only giving a home to fashion designers, but also to product and industrial designers. I want them to showcase, retail, wholesale, educate themselves and educate others; and be able to monetize their ideas in all different ways. We will soon introduce several disruptive sales channels for designers, from B2C to B2B, and even providing the first marketplace for intellectual property. We will obviously continue organizing new forms of experiential events. Ultimately, I want people to fall in love with fashion again, because the world of fashion we see is what this creative industry is all about!