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."I never try to manipulate things," she 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.Belgian designers have long invested their profits and energies in aspects of the business invisible to the media: supporting their retail clients.
That means everything from ensuring good finishing and complete deliveries to feeding buyers well in the showroom. Van Noten's chef, for example, travels with the collection to Milan and New York to whip up healthy meals for those writing orders.
But several smaller designer firms have downsized recently, finding it too risky to carry a huge design staff. They're also recognizing they can't be rigidly conceptual but need to put the focus back on product to better service retail clients and compete in a crowded market.
Raf Simons, for example, had at one point employed 15 people at his eponymous men's wear label. Recently, he switched to an arrangement in which he operates a small "creative office" that controls his name and design, with all other functions handled by various distribution and production partners.
"I do zero investment in my own brand, so I don't carry the risk but I do control my image," Simons said in an interview, noting, however, that he recently expanded his creative staff in Antwerp now that he also does double duty as creative director of Jil Sander in Milan.
"Keeping your own independence has to be linked with more commerciality," Simons stressed. "At a certain point, you have to deal with fashion and its economic laws. I'm working in a more product-oriented way now. In the first years, I was very conceptual."
Simons and Branquinho both recently added a second label, but neither characterized it as a marketing ploy or equated it with the brand segmentation employed by American and Italian designers. Simons said Raf by Raf Simons allows him to continue addressing the young customers he's always attracted, while exploring more grown-up looks in his main collection, which doubled its sales for fall-winter 2006.
Branquinho said her new Complice line was a way to maintain timeless and essential items like trenchcoats and blazers as part of her universe. But she shows and sells Complice along with her men's collection, allowing her to deliver some women's styles earlier.
AF Vandevorst also readies its collection in tandem with the men's calendar, in January and July, which has boosted business. Last season, the company had 35 percent of orders in hand at the moment of its fashion show in Paris. "This season we tripled our business in America," said Filip Arickx, who now runs the business, leaving his wife, An Vandevorst, to concentrate fully on design. "France is doing very well again, too."AF Vandevorst also streamlined its staffing and production, for example, concentrating the manufacture of all woven designs in one factory instead of 15, as it had previously.
Loppa acknowledged that tough times in fashion have prompted many young Belgian designers to go work behind the scenes at large brands in France and Italy. But she pointed to promising independents like Kris Van Assche, Peter Pilotto, Bernhard Willhelm and Bruno Pieters as a reason to be optimistic.
"That's the strength of Belgian designers. They want to be in charge," Loppa said. To wit: Her school will turn out 18 fashion graduates this year, with one in five likely to launch a label.
"They're great designers. They're very professional and a few are extremely good," said Loppa. "I don't have to worry for the future."
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