belgian fashion

Belgium: no government, but great shirts

 

When Belgian actor Charlie Dupont went to a party together with his friend Nicolas Borenstein, he was struck by the dull parade of sweatshirts worn there.

“Why is it that even here in Belgium, all these guys wear sweatshirts with Harvard University and I love NYC slogans?” Charlie asked Nicolas. “Let’s make inexpensive T-shirts with the names of small Belgian towns written on them, and sell them in tourist shops.”

At the party, Nicolas only chuckled at the idea. But when he woke up the next morning, he recalled the discussion. He liked Charlie’s inspiration, but he had a different vision: to create a brand of superior quality premium T-shirts and sweatshirts that would communicate all things Belgian, not only names of towns. Just 3 years later, BShirt is a successful Belgian premium fashion brand, sold in almost 70 distribution outlets across Belgium and planning to grow internationally.

I met Nicolas Borenstein in his stylish and funky office in downtown Brussels to discuss BShirt and to get to know the creative and entrepreneurial spirit that drives the brand.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Was BShirt your first entrepreneurial project?

Nicolas Borenstein: No, it wasn’t my first idea. When I had this idea, I was already running a graphic design studio in Brussels. One could say that I am a 100% entrepreneur, since I’ve never worked for anyone apart for myself.

SCHMOOZY FOX: After that conversation with your friend Charlie, how long did it take you to have the concept of your brand ready, and then launch it?

Nicolas Borenstein: The concept itself came together very fast. I think that Charlie triggered something in me, with his idea of putting names of Belgian towns on T-shirts. But I definitely wanted to dig deeper, and create a product that was artistic, funky and high quality. I also thought that Belgium has a lot of quirky local concepts that are worth talking about – its own brand if you like – and yet nobody has tried to apply this to a fashion brand. There was definitely something unique in there. I am a graphic designer by training, so it was easy for me to come up with ideas for each T-shirt and turn them into visual forms. That took some time and a lot of brain-storming with myself as Charlie was busy and I ended up doing this project on my own.

I think an important decision that I made was to use old-fashioned loom weaving technology to produce BShirt garments. The reason why I wanted it was because the quality and feel of the T-shirts is much better as a result, although the downside is that production cannot be scaled up in the same way as more modern technology allows. Finding an appropriate factory that could create top-quality cotton garments took a while, and finally I signed a contract with a manufacturer in Portugal.

Then I spent the whole year working on prototypes, and in 2008, I was ready to order the first batch of 1000 BShirts and show them to shops.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Getting your distribution channels right is crucial if one wants to build a good brand. What were your criteria in selecting the desired shops?

Nicolas Borenstein: I wanted to choose the kind of shops that would sell premium trendy and quirky garments. Over the years, I’ve developed a lot of interest in the fashion industry in general, not least because my family had a fashion business. So, by the time that I had to introduce the first BShirts to stores, I had a clear idea where to go, and which stores would be in line with the brand image I wanted to create.

SCHMOOZY FOX: And what was the reaction of the stores?

Nicolas Borenstein: To my surprise, the reaction was very positive. Out of 15 stores that I visited, 10 decided to order BShirt garments! So, my first 1000 shirts were sold out in no time. But there was a little problem -- I needed to deliver another batch fast!

SCHMOOZY FOX: But you had a manufacturing facility in place, so it shouldn’t have been a problem?

Nicolas Borenstein: Indeed, except the factory turned out not to be a very agile entreprise, to say the least. It took them forever to produce the next batch, while the shops were waiting impatiently. On top of that, the buzz around BShirt was already spreading into the press and I could already boast a good number of positive reviews that appeared in fashion magazines.

SCHMOOZY FOX: That’s quite an achievement! All of that just after selling the first batch?

Nicolas Borenstein: Yes, pretty much so. Right before the launch, I asked a friend of mine to recommend me the best fashion PR agency in Belgium, and he said, “Go talk to UPR. They are the best, but they have to like you, they turn many clients down.”

But UPR liked BShirt, and I was happy that they helped me generate the buzz so quickly. (O.S.: This reminds me of another brand that I interviewed, Ice Watch, which also relied on PR early on).

SCHMOOZY FOX: Positive buzz is great, and it can certainly trigger demand for products. But you need to be able to deliver to support this demand. Did your factory score well in this respect?

Nicolas Borenstein: In fact the factory continued to be unreliable. There were further problems with timely delivery, and in the end I had to skip a whole season. This kind of thing can be deadly for a fashion brand -- especially if there’s clear demand for your items, and you just can’t meet it! It was frustrating not to be able to do anything!

SCHMOOZY FOX: How did you solve this? Did you find a better factory?

Nicolas Borenstein: Yes, now I work with another factory. While searching for a better factory, I also realized that I needed a partner who could help me by bringing investment and business know how into the company.

SCHMOOZY FOX: And you found such a person?

 

Nicolas Borenstein: Luckily, yes. I brought him some shirts, and a big stack of press clippings, and I said, do you want to work with me? He agreed.

SCHMOOZY FOX: How big is your company now?

Nicolas Borenstein: We have 10 people working at BShirt. Our products are now sold in almost 70 stores in Belgium, and there is certainly potential to sell it in many more. And it’s just the beginning. In due course, I hope that funky BShirts will also be in New York, Paris and other cosmopolitan places around the world.

SCHMOOZY FOX: How would you describe BShirt?

Nicolas Borenstein: I actually like your term, Funky Brands. BShirt is exactly that -- funky, with a lot of character. It’s certainly different -- as I’ve said, nobody has yet made a fashion brand based on Belgium. BShirt is a mood-booster, it brings a smile to the faces of those who wear it. In some press reviews, it was called a “funny brand”, but I think that this is not right. A “funky brand” is certainly much more correct.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Why do you think people like to wear BShirt?

Nicolas Borenstein: They probably feel that it’s just the right thing. Somehow, I think that everything falls into place when you put on a BShirt -- the texture, smell, color... It’s all about that feeling of old-fashioned, high quality cotton on your skin, in combination with the novel Belgian fashion concept.

SCHMOOZY FOX: What do you do in order to stay creative, and full of energy to run your company? Where do you get your inspiration?

Nicolas Borenstein: I think I owe my creativity to the fact that, deep down, I am still a bit of a kid. I also work very fast, which helps a lot. I can do a day's work in 3 hours. Yesterday, i worked for 11 hours, and I accomplished my tasks for the whole week. So, now I can concentrate on other things, and even go to my Qi Gong course (smiling). And this, in its turn, might trigger a new wave of creativity and inspiration.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Could you tell me about BShirt’s future plans?

Nicolas Borenstein: We’ll soon be opening a flagship store in Brussels. And we also plan to launch four collections per year instead of the current two. In fact, these will be two big and two smaller collections. And of course, we’ll continue creating new collections to sustain and build the funky brand of BShirt!

 

Interview with Belgian fashion designer Tim Van Steenbergen

Tim Van Steenbergen I love Antwerp. It’s a city of great fashion, outstanding design and funky shops. My discovery of funky brands from Antwerp began with an interview with Wim Somers, founder of Theo. It was at the very end of that interview that Wim mentioned Theo’s collaboration with a talented young Antwerp designer, Tim Van Steenbergen, who worked on Theo’s sunglasses collection.

I noted down Tim’s name with the intention of finding out more details about him later. While I was waiting for my train to Brussels at the Antwerp Central Station, I was browsing through magazines at a press kiosk, and the first article I randomly opened was... an interview with Tim Van Steenbergen!

I don’t quite remember which magazine it was, but here’s my very own interview with Tim.

Tim’s professional credentials are outstanding -- the prêt-a-porter collection that bears his name is on the radar screen of many Hollywood celebrities, he’s Creative Director of the successful upmarket fashion label Chine, and he creates costumes for performances at La Scala. Given the wide range of projects Tim Van Steenbergen is involved in, I thought that an interesting topic to talk about would be his personal brand.

Olga from SCHMOOZY FOX and Tim. Image courtesy of Tim Van Steenbergen

SCHMOOZY FOX: Tim, how do you present yourself to someone who has not heard about you and your work?

Tim Van Steenbergen: (smiling) It’s actually a difficult question since I do so many different things! A good way to present myself is to say that I create a universe of style, a way of dressing, based on classic traditions of craftsmanship. Fabrics and their texture play a very important role in this universe. Sometimes I feel that I use fabrics in the same way as a sculptor would use marble, clay or metal to create something from scratch. I remember being fascinated by fabrics when I was only 4 years old!

SCHMOOZY FOX: What makes you passionate about your work?

Tim Van Steenbergen: Emotions! I love the fact that my designs are able to provoke very strong emotions in people who wear them. And it actually doesn’t matter if these emotions are negative or positive -- it’s often the controversy that matters. When my designs shake people up, bring exuberance in their lives, and don’t leave them indifferent, I feel like I’ve achieved something very important.

Rihanna in Tim Van Steenbergen. Image courtesy of Tim Van Steenbergen

I also like to get to know the people who will end up wearing the clothes I make. In this sense, working with the actors at La Scala has been very satisfying as I was making each costume for a particular person. In the theatre environment, I want to understand actors as people, making costumes that fit their personalities, and the roles they play.

Costumes by Tim Van Steenbergen for La Scala

SCHMOOZY FOX: I can see that this can work well in the theater, but in fashion?

Tim Van Steenbergen: In fashion, it is of course rarely possible to create prêt-a-porter collections with every individual customer in mind. I often come across my clothes worn by people on the streets worldwide. It’s rather easy to spot them on celebrities, but what’s more exciting is when “ordinary” people wear them. It makes me want to know more about these people, and their feelings when they wear my designs.

Jennifer Lopez, Misha Barton and Princess Claire of Belgium alike have been spotted wearing Tim Van Steenbergen

SCHMOOZY FOX: I guess that all of the above refers to your label, Tim Van Steenbergen. How does the work at Chine fit into your overall personal brand?

Tim Van Steenbergen: I think it benefits my personal brand. I think it’s important for any designer to demonstrate that he or she can come into another company, with its specific corporate culture and ways of doing things, jump in and deliver good results. This shows that I can successfully collaborate and inspire another brand, and it’s a valuable skill for any designer. The designs I create for Chine are different from the ones I create for my own label. The style of my clothes is architectural, structural, if you will. Chine’s style is fluid, poetic, inspired by the 19th century.

Fluidity of Chine and geometry of Tim Van Steenbergen, created by the same designer

SCHMOOZY FOX: It sounds like you appreciate getting into different roles -- maybe that’s why you like your project at La Scala? Perhaps you have the talent for acting too?

Tim Van Steenbergen: (laughing) I’ve never thought of it this way, but yes, I guess you are right! I like having all these different roles and exploring them.

SCHMOOZY FOX: By the way, how do you manage to stay creative when you do so many different things?

Tim Van Steenbergen: I think I am creative BECAUSE I do so much. I manage to separate all the different projects I am working on. Each of them requires different approaches and results in different “end products” . I am pretty good at organizing myself: whenever I need to tap into my creativity and work for Chine, I can do it, and when I am building a new collection for my own label -- I can jump into it easily as well!

What breeds my creativity is also doing sports and reading novels. The latter is like entering another universe, and exploring it can be a very special journey that inspires my work.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Could you tell our readers about your plans for the near future? What professional universe would you like to explore?

Tim Van Steenbergen: As already mentioned, I would like to find ways of creating clothes with concrete people in mind. All of my collections are sold through high-end boutiques worldwide. I am thinking of offering them very exclusive limited collections in due course. Boutiques know their clients very well, and there’s certainly scope to make limited collections tailored to these customers, their personalities and lifestyles. And this is certainly a very funky and exciting universe to explore!

SCHMOOZY FOX: Thank you Tim, enjoy this funky journey of creativity!