This interview took place one week before Hans Ubbink announced the end of his fashion label. In this interview, he touches on a few points that may have influenced his decision. Professionals who have been active in their field for some length of time may recognise themselves in some of the comments that he makes, for example that running a business has become much less fun since the crisis.
About Hans Ubbink
Hans Ubbink is a well-known Dutch fashion designer who runs the fashion label of the same name together with his wife. He was also involved in Van Gils and JC Rags.
What is your background?
“At the academy (Artez, Arnhem) they help you develop your own style and direction, but I wanted to learn more than style and design language. I wanted to work for three kinds of companies: commercial, fashionable and media. I was the only student in 1986 making male fashion; that made me unique.”
“I was putting together a book for a publisher when Soap Studio (Dutch fashion label) called and asked if I wanted to come and work for them. I had been there for one year when I was asked to join Van Gils. I worked at Van Gils for seven years and did the collection, the presentations, the PR and the shows. In other words, I was responsible for the creative side of the company. The bankruptcy of Van Gils in 1992 was, for me personally, one of the best days of my life. I was pretty much stuck there; they paid too well for me to leave and at the same time too little for me to be financially independent and therefore have complete freedom. The bankruptcy forced me to leave and this was therefore the perfect moment for me to start my own label.”
How did you start?
“I first did some research into the name, by going into stores that I thought my clients would buy their clothes from. I tested various names but I did not really think much of the ones that people chose. So, I thought up the name myself: my initials (JC) plus the rags that I was always drawing on became JC Rags. I then went to a designer for advice, who suggested I talk to someone working in women’s fashion. So I did, and he became my partner. The idea was that if I would do it for free I would get shares once I achieved a certain turnover. When I more than achieved it, he said ‘you need to do it for another six months for free, then….’. Well, at that point I had had enough and I stopped. I then joined Secom, organising sales, the collection and production. I had options on shares, but when I wanted to cash them in after seven years it turned out that they had been assigned to other people and were no longer there. So I stopped working there too.”
“I then sat down to talk to my friends: what was I going to do? Open a store, or set up my own label? We chose the second, and I sold the house and invested the surplus in the company. I made a cash flow forecast, got the bank onboard, and that is Hans Ubbink as we now know it.
I have always been involved in the financial side of the company and looking for ways to make a profit.”
Where did that come from – that you were also involved in the financial side of the company?
“I actually come from a marketing nest. I realised even when I was at the academy that if people do not see the product, or cannot afford it, then it’s pointless. You then remain an autonomous artist, and that is not what I wanted. Commerce was not my best subject at school, but if you have your own company you need to know more about it.”
What was unique about you?
“What matters is whether it is the product you are interested in, or becoming famous. For many students, it was about the status. However, for me it was all about the product so I made things and then looked at whether there was a demand for them. That’s how I started in 1992. The men’s collections that were around then were very different – there was nothing like what I was making. People wondered whether my collections were for men or for women because I mixed jackets with shirts and so on. Lots of people did not understand it. It did cross my mind: maybe I see it all wrong, but I kept my faith and carried on.”
“Even though my name is on it, the success is mainly down to the product. When you are starting up, it is important that you are seen in the media because you have got something new. That is more difficult these days – there are so many stories and media and less space for depth. It is important to know why something is made – if you know the context you understand the design better. This is difficult for people starting now in the creative business: how can you make it clear to people that what you do is different from the rest and that it is an honest and sincere process, instead of making something that gets media coverage?”
“When I was a student I remember saving up for a very long time to buy a jacket that cost 1 200 guilders. Once I had bought it I wore it for three years and then never again. I thought: I will do this differently. I want to make designs that are different and special, but that are also affordable and achievable, although I discovered that this is not at all easy.”
“My father always said: never say ‘new’, say ‘renew’. People want something recognisable; if you make it unrecognisable then it is too far removed from their experience and they will not buy it. My clothes are the most worn in films, because they are different from other clothes that are around, yet still recognisable.”
Who are your clients?
“I have never really had a clear idea of my target group, and that is my biggest pitfall. I like to surprise people, so I don’t like to think too much in terms of target groups. There is also a difference between clients and target group; my clients are the stores, whereas my target group is the people who buy the clothes, the consumers.
I only sell in the Netherlands; I concentrate more on product development, not on sales. We are a Dutch brand with international appeal, although it is important to make sure that you have a product that can compete with foreign labels. We have always concentrated on the product. People think that my label is expensive, but it is not. People around me even advise me to put up prices, but I don’t want to – I want it to stay within reach.”
You sell through a webshop directly to the client. Is it not important then to have a better idea of who the client is?
“I’m not so sure; I run the webshop myself and it is going well. However, I cannot live from just the webshop.”
Looking back, what would you have done differently?
“I would find someone who has the same philosophy as me and who could take on the sales and overseas. I’m not sure if there are business partners in the Netherlands who could do that. Maybe you would need to bring someone over from the US or the UK. In the Netherlands people expect you to conform. For a long time I said, ‘networking is not working’. These days, however, it is. I have got the same problem with that as with the marketing spin. Many successful entrepreneurs have a strong partner who is part of the machine in which you can do your thing as a designer. I have not focused enough on that; I have always focused on the product, not the machine.”
Is it difficult to find good employees?
“It is not difficult to find nice people, but I do think it is difficult to find good employees because I ask a lot of them. I require insight and independence, and people who are good and motivated to start with can perform less well after a few years. Intrinsically-driven people are difficult to find because they often work for themselves. They are also difficult to hold on to, because eventually they will go their own way.”
What made you start in the fashion industry?
“Fashion is actually just a vehicle for what I really want to do, which is to quite literally make the world a better place. I love women, and I have given men the opportunity to look good too, just like women. This makes you more equal; it brings you closer together and means you have more in common.”
“Life is more enjoyable if you meet like-minded people, which means it is important to show people who you are, and you do that by presenting yourself. This is where my real drive lies.”
Why not at the global level then?
“I find belief more important than the sermon; I do not need to have a global presence for people to hear my message.”
What do you find most difficult about running a business?
“The most difficult is people management. I find it easier to deal with processes relating to me, and more difficult to deal with those relating to other people.”
“We produce everything in the EU because we know that things are done properly that way, and because we want a small footprint. We are too small to be able to visit every factory. We have the strictest regulations here in the EU and the best working conditions. In a market in which prices are constantly being squeezed and margins are therefore under pressure, the question is whether you can last like this. How far are you prepared to go – what is important to you?”
“In my time, business really was ‘not done’. This is still a problem, because I have got a whole fashion label with clients, suppliers, and so on, which means that the commercial side of things really is important.”
“The sector that I work in has had an extremely difficult year, and as a label you have absolutely no influence on that. If the baker does not sell his bread, you will not sell your flour either.”
Is running a business less fun since the crisis?
“Definitely. These are hard times, and you realise that you have created a huge obligation to carry on. Last summer I took part in the reality TV show Expeditie Robinson. I did things that I hadn’t done since I was a boy, being close to nature and the essence of life. When I came back I realised that we have completely forgotten what it is like to be part of nature, and I discovered that I yearn for that.”
Where will you be in five years’ time?
“On a beach somewhere, leading my own life. I really have worked very hard over the last 25 years. Maybe I will be coaching creative professionals, or working for a company that is organised as a machine around the designer and in which I can realise my dreams.”
What would you like to say to people starting in the creative business, do you have any tips?
“First go watch and learn from other people. After the academy, you will see that the real world is very different from what you had imagined. Find good partners, people to work with.”