Fashion is a funny beast, as are people’s relationship with it. On the one hand there’s nothing like an impractical, in some cases unwearable concoction that springs from the mind of its créateur and sashays down the catwalk sending spectators into Instagram overload and buyers into intense states of internal conflict as to whether they should stock a garment that, although exquisite, would pose a health rise to its wearer. Ok, that’s perhaps a slight exaggeration but you know what I’m talking about; the spectacle of the spectacular show piece. On the other hand is the fact that people – even those that work in fash-un – do need to actually wear clothes to go about their daily business, preferably clothes that are chic, sleek and look great without stopping you eating, breathing or taking public transport. It is the latter type that Baukjen de Swaan Arons delivers. The Dutch designer’s eponymous brand started out as a maternity e-tailer called Isabelle Oliver in 2003. After scooping up a bunch of awards and proving to be a big hit among expecting mother’s who didn’t fancy wearing moo moos, Isabella Oliver added womenswear to its repertoire five years later. Not long after, it became clear that de Swaan Arons had tapped into a niche in the market, a desire for staple pieces that were excellent quality and elegant without being expensive or extravagant enough to stop them being office/child/reality friendly. And so in 2012, she decided to really home in on that niche, rebranding Isabelle Oliver’s womenswear line as simply “Baukjen”. I caught up with the designer to talk business, branding and social media…
LPA: Tell me a little about your background; where did you grow up, study and work before launching your company?
BDSA: I was born in Amsterdam and I still have family living there – it’s a wonderful city. I moved to London when I was four where I lived in Hampstead Village. I returned to Holland for a few years to do my MBA and then came back to London. Before we started our own businesses I worked in various companies on the brand side, doing lots of travelling across the world. I didn’t work in the fashion industry immediately but always loved it as I grew up surrounded by a family full of creative talent – many working in the industry – and knew this was a direction I wanted to take. I can’t underestimate how important my business knowledge was though. I feel very lucky to have such an eclectic career.
LPA: Your company began as the maternity e-tailer Isabella Oliver. In 2009 you added ready-to-wear under the name Isabella Oliver 365 and then in 2012 you decided to re-brand the label under the name “Baukjen”. What prompted this bold move? And how has the brand evolved, in terms of aesthetics, image and marketing strategy since?
BDSA: For Geoff and I, it made perfect sense to establish the Baukjen brand in its own right. We could see the potential of Isabella Oliver 365 as there had been a real appetite for the collection, but the name automatically associated it with maternity clothing and we recognised this as a stumbling block in the future. Today, both brands are looked after by one team. I suppose in some ways we take quite a holistic approach to how we look at them always remembering that the Baukjen customer and the Isabella Oliver customer is essentially the same woman, she’s just at different stages of her life. We do however utilise different treatments – it would be crazy not to. Marketing strategies are tailored to each brand especially within areas like partnerships, and editorially, we use a different language and address different styling concerns.
LPA: Baukjen’s re-launch and the development of your ready-to-wear collection came in the midst of a global recession. Did you find this had a significant impact on how your customers were buying and the kinds of pieces or price points they gravitated towards?
BDSA: I think regardless of whether there’s a recession, women especially love to shop and will try to find a way to buy that special piece she wants so desperately. Of course price point is important and good quality essentials that are competitively priced do consistently well, but each season we test the water with more surprising and fashion forward pieces that are often more price sensitive and we’ve found that our customers don’t hesitate to take the plunge. We never stray far from our belief in ‘effortlessly chic for everyday dressing’ but we do push the boundary and if the product is right, we’ve learnt that it will sell.
LPA: You were very much ahead of the game when it came to e-commerce, launching an e-tail based clothing company when the genre was in its infancy. What made you so confident in the future of online shopping while many other brands remained very hesitant? And do you feel this early adoption has given you a distinct advantage in the e-tail market following its rapid growth over the past seven or so years?
BDSA: I never hesitated in my belief that e-tailing was a good idea, and if the idea is good enough I think there’s always a way to make it work. We didn’t have a crystal ball but I was an early adopter of online shopping myself and had faith in its potential to grow. Women are so busy these days that developments that make life more manageable feel like they have to succeed. I think with the internet there’s a real feeling that everyone can achieve their goals. It’s very democratic in that way. Then you just need to be prepared to work hard. We now have almost 12 years’ experience behind us we can draw from, and of course this helps but we’re still always learning. That’s part of what makes this so exciting.
LPA: Launching and establishing a fashion label is no mean feat and many have failed where you’ve succeeded. What were the greatest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
BDSA: The greatest challenge is brand awareness. We find that once women discover the brand and collections and try it out, they are very positive and they remain loyal. Brand awareness can be achieved via a multitude of routes, advertising, press, etc. All of this is expensive and that can be challenging. Fast forward to now, more and women are telling their friends about us which really helps spread the word.
LPA: You established Baukjen with the principal aim of creating wearable, everyday clothes that would make women feel great. What’s your opinion of catwalk designers who produce more conceptual and perhaps challenging, from a wearers’ perspective, collections?
BDSA: I think there’s a place for every type of fashion – wouldn’t the world be dull if we all did the same thing. For me and the woman I design for, the key focus is on creating chic but effortless essentials that make dressing stress-free, but I do recognise that that this isn’t everyone’s style. Fashion is also an art form and the more conceptual designers are simply more literal about this than I am. That’s ok though, it’s what makes the world so creatively rich.
LPA: On the subject of everyday elegance, what would your top tips be for nailing effortless chic? I think that’s something we all strive for but remains pretty tricky at times!
BDSA: It remains tricky because everyone has different demands and commitments in their everyday lives. The concept of effortless chic will be different for a stay-at-home mum than for a city banker, for example, but I think there are a few things that apply universally.
1) Try to create a capsule wardrobe of pieces that work well together. A great jacket can be worn with a dress for more formal occasions and with jeans at the weekend.
2) Never buy anything you feel uncomfortable wearing. You’ll feel compelled to wear it because you’ve paid for it, but will hate doing so. I always think your wardrobe should make you happy. It’s also like your armour so make sure it gives you the protection you need.
3) Don’t ever be afraid to try something new – that’s the joy of fashion – but as a rule, work out what suits you and you’ll save yourself a lot of stressful shopping trips and endless refunds.
LPA: You founded and continue to run Baukjen with your husband, Geoff van Sonsbeeck. What have you found to be the advantages and disadvantages (if any) of running a company with your partner?
BDSA: I couldn’t imagine running it without him now, we’d never see each other, and that daily interaction is definitely the biggest advantage. We have very different roles within the business and don’t often actually work together in the strictest sense of the word (I’m the creative and Geoff is the operations, technology and numbers man), but we still see each other every day. Sharing a business alongside being parents means we are totally in sync and I love that. Disadvantages? We don’t always agree, in fact we often disagree which in itself is fine, but let’s just say a little bickering can sometimes creep into meetings which the team will inevitably bear witness to. We’re only human though!
LPA: Has the rise of social media and fashion blogging affected the way you market your brand and interact with consumers? If so, how?
BDSA: Yes, absolutely. We live in a very interactive world and everything from customer reviews and Facebook posts that start a conversation, to inspiring Pinterest boards and cool Instagrams are all really important currency. Our customers like to be heard, and honestly, we like to hear from them.
LPA: What advice would you give to someone hoping or planning to launch their own fashion brand today?
BDSA: I’ll give you 5 points…
1. Go with your gut instinct – it’s your brand and you have to believe in it.
2. Never ignore the numbers or the customer
3. Be as creative as possible but never forget you have to sell things
4. Have a strong marketing plan in place and don’t underestimate the power of social media
5. Be open to new ideas
Oh, and there’s one more…
6. This is not a 9 to 5 job so be prepared to go above and beyond if you’re to succeed
Love Ella. X