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03-04-2006
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Belgian designers: seizing the moment
www.wwd.com, hosts a brilliant article on the strategies of the Belgian 'school' of design and merchandising, in a ruther huge, detailed article by Miles Socha published today under the title.

Seizing the Moment: Belgian Designers Chart Growth Plans.

(part one)

Quote:
ANTWERP, Belgium — No advertising, no celebrity dressing, no handbag push and no pre-collection.

That might sound like a recipe for disaster for a fashion company today, but it's working wonders for Ann Demeulemeester, whose sales vaulted 60 percent over the past year to 20 million euros, or $36 million, generating healthy operating profits in the range of 20 percent of revenues.

Things are looking rosier for other Belgian designers, too, who acknowledge that fashion, after years of exaggerated femininity, ruffles and ribbons, is swinging back to their strengths: sobriety, tailoring and dark romanticism.

"If fashion comes more in my direction, I'm very happy with that," an upbeat Demeulemeester said in an interview here. "But for me, it's just another step. It's the waves of fashion. I'm here now for 20 years. It comes [in] my direction, and then it goes away from me. I'm used to that."

Belgian designers are proving that persevering with a business strategy that is often the polar opposite of the luxury giants is not the height of folly. Demeulemeester, for example, who has never bought a page of advertising or sent a gown to Lindsay Lohan, is pressing ahead with a retail expansion seven years after opening her first flagship here. A Tokyo boutique is slated to bow this month on Omotesando, and she's in talks with a Hong Kong partner about a development that would see her counterparts Raf Simons and Martin Margiela open new side-by-side boutiques.

To be sure, Belgian designers acknowledge they have weathered some tough times, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And while the Belgians were all the rage in the late Nineties, which won them unprecedented media coverage, that heady moment coincided with the formation of Europe's big luxury groups, whose aftermath had unforeseen and sometimes devastating consequences. Most of the designers maintained their independence only to find themselves being squeezed by the luxury groups, which started demanding high minimums and multiple-label buys from the independent stores that had been the lifeblood of the Belgian pack.

"It's more difficult than it was in the beginning," acknowledged Veronique Branquinho, one of the second-generation stars who made waves with her first collection of billowing skirts and lacy sweaters in 1997, but who has seen her women's wholesale business decline. "We're looking for more clients. We visit stores more often than before. [Retailers] used to be more loyal. Now it's more about figures. They're buying safer. They invest more in established brands."

But now, with sober clothes coming back into fashion and Belgian companies operating more leanly, most designers are optimistic about their business prospects for the first time in years. Some are even contemplating retail stores, or expansion into new categories like men's wear or fragrance.

Not that they're gunning to be billion-dollar companies.

"It's not the idea to grow the business really, really big. I don't want to be a big player," said Dries Van Noten, who is chief designer and executive at his privately held company, a pillar of the Belgian fashion scene. "The business is very healthy. I'm really happy with that. We try to grow in a controlled way. I'm scared of heights. The faster you go up, the further you can fall."

Van Noten was reticent to discuss figures, but indicated 2005 sales increased by 25 percent.

As recently as 2003, many Belgian designers were crying the blues, bemoaning the death of the avant-garde in fashion and the loss of such promising designers as Jurgi Persoons and Angelo Figus, who shuttered their fledgling labels.

But Linda Loppa, head of the MoMu fashion museum and the Royal Academy of Fine Art's fashion school, said the Belgian fashion business is moving into a period of stability. Many companies restructured during the difficult years, emerging stronger and leaner. And some also detect fashion's pendulum swinging back to niche labels after a long, strong run for the big luxury names.

A former retailer, Loppa said glamour remains a distant concern in a city that, while cosmopolitan for its small size, is not the home of glitzy parties or premieres.

"In the shops, Belgian designers have a good sell-through. It's not always in the window, but it's what people buy. You always find good trousers, good sweaters, good jackets," she said. "We're too focused on a good garment, that the fit is good, the sizes are good, the delivery is good, that it's selling. It's a very honest way of working."

"A lot of our decisions are taken with our heart," agreed Demeulemeester, pressing her hand to her chest for emphasis. Dressed in a white silk jacket printed with paint splotches, the designer spoke frankly about the missteps that had her business on the brink of bankruptcy in the early Nineties.
stay tuned for part two..
credited to www.wwd.com

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03-04-2006
  2
Meg
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Thanks for the article Lena Can't wait to hear people's thoughts, I see Tric is reading this...his thoughts would be really interesting

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03-04-2006
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(part two)
Quote:
"I never try to manipulate things," she -Ann D.- said. "What drives me is really trying to give the best of myself, trying to evolve as a creative person, but I've never had a commercial drive."
That's partly what drove Demeulemeester last year to sell a majority stake in her business, EDU NV, to her longtime managing director, Anne Chappelle, who also has controlling stakes in two other Belgian designers: Haider Ackermann and Dirk Shonberger.
Martin Margiela, another of the original "Antwerp Six," also sold a majority stake in his Paris-based house, to Diesel's Renzo Rosso back in 2002. It was a move that allowed him to expand his retail network and his product offering — albeit in his unorthodox way. Boutiques are still unmarked, and his accessories collection has included such oddball propositions as fluffy, stuffed snake boas and rings with gems or pearls pointed toward the finger instead of outward.
But on the whole, Belgians have fiercely guarded their independence and shunned common avenues to growth and notoriety such as advertising, brand segmentation, retail rollouts or celebrity placement.
Take advertising. Belgian designers said they don't do it mostly because it is cost-prohibitive for small enterprises. Still, the resistance goes deeper than only shallow pockets.
Van Noten said he dresses three generations of women and men in his Antwerp shop: from teenagers to grandparents. Were he to shoot a campaign, he would have to choose one age group and one image, which might exclude potential customers and pigeonhole him creatively. He said he prefers to "spend important budgets" on seasonal fashion shows for men and women, through which he tells a complete story, from the invitation through to the decor and the refreshments served beside the runway.
Demeulemeester agreed her show is her main communication tool, and she prefers to invest other available monies in the product itself, or developing businesses like her men's wear collection. "I never, ever put attention on my label, or my name. When I meet someone in the street, I want to meet a person, not a label," she explained.
Celebrity dressing, meanwhile, is avoided mainly for reasons of integrity.
"I far more prefer celebrities to choose the clothes because they want to wear them, not because I'm giving it to them," said Demeulemeester.

What's more, she argued that the person must feel good in the clothes she is wearing in order to appear attractive. "Clothing is very personal. You have your mind, you have your skin and then there is clothing," Demeulemeester said. "It's something really deep."
Belgian designers also have never pursued the leather goods business, the engine of today's luxury boom that at some major brands overshadows sales of ready-to-wear. It's a profitable and high-growth category that has compelled many designers to link up with big conglomerates, Jil Sander's initial hookup with Prada being one famous example.
While some Belgian designers have made considerable inroads into the shoe business, Demeulemeester, for one, characterized that as a consequence of need. "I never found shoes that pleased me," she said. "In handbags, there is more choice."
Asked to account for the Belgian foothold in shoes, Loppa replied simply: "There's a huge audience that needs everyday shoes and boots."
But selectively opening retail stores seems to be one common business path the Belgians are now following.
Branquinho, who set a two-story shop in a former jewelry shop on Nationalestraat in 2003, said she's mulling new boutiques in New York and Paris. "It's a way for our brand to be stronger in the market," she said, noting that her Antwerp flagship was profitable after the first season, and continues to improve its financial performance.
AF Vandevorst is also considering its first freestanding store for 2008, with Paris, Tokyo or New York among the possible locales. The firm wants to showcase a product range recently expanded to include lingerie and men's footwear.
But Van Noten, who will open a 1,100-square-foot corner at Selfridges in London this month, said he's in no hurry to expand. "If I have to choose between opening a store and staying a little longer in my garden, I stay in my garden,"he quipped.
Van Noten said he's built such a substantial business with retail partners like Barneys New York over more than 20 years that he feels his collections are well represented and those multibrand stores are a destination for his brand. "Our policy is always that we stay very faithful," he said.
(and yes, there is more to come...)
always credited to wwd.com

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03-04-2006
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I'm glad that the tide is turning. I have often thought that Belgium designers have been impressing upon the retail landscape quietly but with assurance. It is true, that they don't make flashy fashion headlines but I think their clientale is loyal and building up everyday. I think it's a sensible business strategy.

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03-04-2006
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why the heck make those headlines, i'm conviced more and more everyday that these designers are goldmines, they have to offer what no one else does. their best headline is their modesty anyway...

..thanks for the article Lena! i'm eager to learn more and more about the belgians.

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03-04-2006
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Many thanks for the article Lena. These designers deserve all the praise they get and more, and it's a pity that they are not more represented.

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03-04-2006
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Dear Lena - thank you so much for posting! - you made my day

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03-04-2006
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^Mine too! (though,I would have liked it better if they had added that Jurgi and Angelo were actually returning! )

See,I think this a foot in the mouth for those nay sayers who always say that those remaining independent and more niche,these days head for disaster. It's rearing its head once again and I can't be more pleased. But I think the reason behind the shift and the attention on the Belgians,specifically,is that they are just smart-and as said have their integrity which focuses on the people who buy their clothes. They have a balance(design-wise and business) in their work unlike most in this industry.

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03-04-2006
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Couldn't agree more Scott. Integrity is key, in life generally, so why not in fashion............I really admire this approach where the fundamental aim is not necessarily to make the most money. This is the real benefit of independence. Self-ownership means no shareholders' greedy needy mouths to feed..........you provide for your staff, youself and design clothes that you believe in.

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03-04-2006
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Meg
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I so love hearing people's perspectives on this. But why do you think that this is generally restricted or at least generally only talked about in relation to the Belgians?

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03-04-2006
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Interesting article...

This month its stocksales in Belgium, most, if not all Belgian designers offer their previous collections for severe discounts.. I could've never imagined being Belgian could be so much fun.

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03-04-2006
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^^Meg....you've stumbled upon a good point! I think Belgiums are the best example of the shift described in the article because Belgium labels like Dries Van Noten and Ann D. have been established since the nineties and been slowly building up profile and in sales. Obviously the same can't be said for for independent, smaller labels in London for example - the collections still lack maturity and weight (Not criticising as ppl know I'm a champion for many many London based labels!) but this shift could offer hope and present a good example to many independent labels.

On a side note.... Kuran...I am coming to Antwerp for the Mode Show in June....do you think stocksales will be on during that period? Or am I hoping too much........

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03-04-2006
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Meg
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But there have been some english labels that have been around since the 90's....I always get the feeling with english labels that they burn out too quickly if this makes sense to anyone else....but hopefully they can begin to add more weight and maturity as you said and maybe take a page out of the belgians book and build slowly and solidly....

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03-04-2006
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^That's what I mean...they have been around AS long as the Belgiums but have failed to build up a loyal following like the Belgiums either through the way boutiques and department stores buy labels or as I said, the collections are very on and off. I too agree that a lot of labels burn out too easily. It would be great there were those few standout labels that are consistent like Ann D. and Dries....

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03-04-2006
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Meg
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ah okay, we're on the same page

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