We meet in a studio in Berlin Mitte, in the quietest part of the city centre that you can ever imagine. It was surprising to get that address as most people expect designers to be located in far more hip parts of the city or, in case of super legends such as Acronym, to be somewhat underground. I turn around the corner from a local supermarket and the doorbell says ‘Acronym’ and here we are – sitting with Errolson Hugh (head-to-toe in black, of course) in a quiet studio on the second floor.
I was surprised to see that you are based in this part of the city!
Really? Berlin has changed a lot and we started a long time ago. Ten years back, this part of the city was completely different but we still like it!
How many people are working for the brand right now?
In our design studio in Berlin there are probably around seven people. Sometimes it’s a few more depending on what’s going on with the brand at the moment, but normally it’s six to eight.
But you have a reason for keeping the company so small, don’t you?
Acronym is small but very organic. Because we are completely independent there is no financing other than profit we generate by selling ourselves, and we really invest it back into the company. So when we grow, it’s very organic and very real, I guess. And we like to keep it small because in this case we are able to work very directly with every aspect of the process.
“We brought our first product to life in 2002. It’s hard to imagine now but that was way before Facebook (laughs) – even before anyone had a proper cellphone.”
Does keeping things small give you any advantages?
I didn’t think so in the past, but in the last few years we’ve been working with quite a few larger companies and we did notice that a smaller business does actually have a lot of advantages, because the amount of time you spend actually doing the work and designing, versus managing and politics and any other aspect that distracts from your work, is much higher. It’s just more fun actually.
You are known as a company that has no marketing at all. Did you plan this?
That also came very organically because all of our time goes into the product so we just have no time and no extra resources to put into communication. At some point we started to use videos to explain stuff, just because there were some things you could not show in a regular still picture. Over the years, that kind of became a trade mark, but even the way it’s done is extremely hands-on. Our video director sits right there (pointing to a tiny room behind him). He is also in-house, and because of that he is able to follow the development of our design team every day as they go. So when it comes to shooting a video he already knows what we’ve been doing and working on, which means that instead of briefing any external person, he already knows it.
So your video director is your full time employee then?
Nope, actually no one here is, in a technical sense, a full-timer. Almost everybody does external projects as well, so we are a super-flexible system. It’s like that because that’s the way I learnt design. I always worked as a freelance designer. While working on my own project, I did things for several other people, so I encourage everyone here to do the same. I feel that it enriches the whole environment – information coming through the studio. So far, so good.
Taking a step back to marketing issues, do you find that it was more possible to have this “no PR” strategy at the time you started a company? Today, there’s a feeling that marketing is more important than product and, without investments, it wouldn’t be possible for new companies to last.
I almost think the opposite: that it would be easier now because of social media. When we started there was none and you really had to rely on word of mouth. Now you can use your Instagram account etc. It’s still word of mouth but it’s digitally augmented and that’s a huge thing! It’s a much more direct way of doing things, and then there’s also traditional media becoming much less traditional, so to me there is much more of a dialogue going on, in general, compared to the time in which we started out, which was a lot longer ago than most people think. We brought our first product to life in 2002. It’s hard to imagine now but that was way before Facebook (laughs) – even before anyone had a proper cellphone.
“We tend to make things with a bare minimum of funds. We’d rather try to use whatever resources we already have than go after something and try to bring in an investment. We are very practical in this case; maybe even pragmatic.”
I saw you have a Facebook page that was last updated in… Hmm…2009.
(Errolson laughs) Oops! I use it mostly to talk to my little cousins back in Canada. So yeah, I tend to forget I have it – people message me and I never answer.
When we started we, A: Didn’t know what we were doing, and B: We didn’t have a lot of money. The first thing we realised was that we couldn’t actually make a collection as we didn’t have proper resources. We came up with the idea to make a box-set, so that there are really two products inside that box that came together. All the ideas you normally put into a whole collection we put into those two things and by packaging it together, it made it sort of special. We designed them so that they worked together and it did something that two separate things just can’t do by themselves. It made a bigger impact than a whole collection could make. And then because there was nothing else we could actually do, we just showed them to our friends. It was incredibly organic because at that time we were working with Burton Snowboards and they had various contacts in New York. One of them was Stash. He introduced some other guys from Japan and then a shop in London ordered our clothes.
It’s incredible, but at that time you had to actually call people and speak to them (laughs). Seriously, I had to travel around and physically go and show what we did. For the first couple of seasons, I would just pack it all in suitcases and show them. The first sales meeting I had was with Sarah Lerfel and it actually happened in the middle of Colette on the second floor on a Saturday afternoon, with me going up with the suitcases and showing the samples on the floor.
I bet you were scared!
I was more shocked and surprised, I guess. Come directly to the store? Why not! It was Saturday afternoon and the store was packed and super busy. There I was, sitting on the floor with opened suitcases, but it was OK as she made an order!
“One of the leading reasons why small companies go bankrupt is that they grow too fast. The demand for them grows too quickly and the production capacity doesn’t go at the same speed.”
Following your experience, do you think that people with no money are more creative? You didn’t have much, which made you think about different ways of starting your label.
Well, it definitely keeps you focused. I’d say we still don’t have a lot of money. We tend to make things with a bare minimum of funds. We’d rather try to use whatever resources we already have than go after something and try to bring in an investment. We are very practical in this case; maybe even pragmatic.
So you agree that it’s better to have a lack of money as opposed to having unlimited resources?
Well, I tell that to myself all the time (laughs). That’s our path, but it’s definitely not a fast way to do it, and not an easy way. I used to be deeply frustrated about it in the first five years. But as I see it now, there were many new people in the industry who started with much bigger resources and had a faster start, but they are already gone. Their companies were sold, or they went bankrupt. There is a thing I read a while ago, that one of the leading reasons why small companies go bankrupt is that they grow too fast. The demand for them grows too quickly and the production capacity doesn’t go at the same speed. With us, because it was so slow, it was real. The growth we make is actually quite consolidated. I never had to worry that this season we peaked and the next season it’s all gone. It’s slow but steady and we can manage the risks because making apparel is still one of the riskiest things you can do business-wise.
“We kind of operate as a parallel to the fashion industry; what we are making is actually not fashion.”
So, then what is the measure of success for your company? For most people in the business it’s measured in sales, or press coverage, or growth and profit they make. What is it for you?
For us, it’s definitely none of those things. If it was, we would have disappeared a long time ago. (Pauses for a while) For us, the measure of success is actually the product. Did we achieve what we set out to? Have we contributed something new to our form? Did we manifest new ideas? Did we improve something we couldn’t do in the past? It’s always about one of those things.
Not the most conventional way of having a fashion business these days…
Yes, maybe. We don’t have a sales director – still! There is nobody in charge of it. We don’t have a PR and when magazines ask for samples we sometimes don’t have them! I think for any other person in the industry, it looks like a ridiculous thing. We don’t have anything that other people define as a successful company, but if you take our product and everyone else’s product and put them on a table next to each other… You know, we can always stand out for our quality and that’s what counts.
Another thing: you stand independent from trends and invest in quality. So when the customer buys any of your products, he or she doesn’t need another one for a long time.
At the end of the day, we kind of operate as a parallel to the fashion industry; what we are making is actually not fashion. It’s designed to last as long as we can possibly make it last and it’s much more evolutionary – we do the same things over and over for years until we make it completely right. We only need minor adjustments or none at all once we think it’s good. So the idea of fashion and to be “of the moment” isn’t really part of our process.
What’s interesting is that in the last couple of years, the industry has sort of come around to what we are doing. At the beginning –the first five or six years– nobody paid attention and nobody cared. It’s never been easy to explain the definition that we have of quality, and of technology being part of quality, as well as why we are using particular materials to make something. All of those things are definitely much easier to explain people now than it was when we began.
“People are educated now to expect things to be at a certain price and at a certain speed with a certain amount of marketing intensity. It would take quite a long time or quite a big crash until this situation really changes.”
You re-tweeted Lou Stoppard’s quote recently: that there is too much fashion around us today and what the world really needs is a stop button.
When I think about fast fashion and the amount of stuff that gets generated every single day, it just doesn’t seem realistic or sustainable in any kind of way. Producing that amount of stuff that turns over instantly is basically the opposite of our concept, which is about things that should last and things that should be made well. People are educated now to expect things to be at a certain price and at a certain speed with a certain amount of marketing intensity. It would take quite a long time or quite a big crash until this situation really changes. People are just not educated at all about the ways in which fast fashion is made, especially now when you have a lot of bigger houses and high fashion’s respected names that are collaborating with fast fashion companies. The distinctions are quite blurry for the typical consumer.
Were you ever approached by business people who said that you should do your business in a different way?
Many times, by people who wanted to invest, or by people who thought they wanted to invest and then when we tried to explain to them what we actually do, they didn’t understand it and just went away (laughs). The way we do business is so unusual that they simply don’t know how to analyse the risks etc. Most of the interest for our brand comes from the tech sector, not from the apparel sector. People in the apparel sector don’t understand what we do as we don´t follow the same system. We sell seasonally and that’s probably the only similarity we have with the rest of the industry.
You have been based in Berlin for such a long time and it stands apart from the main fashion capitals. What do you think is the best city for a designer now?
Any city that you can survive in (laughs). It’s such a tricky question and one that we struggle with a lot of the time: Where should we be based? Should we stay here in Berlin or move to Brooklyn? The question comes all the time but we are still here and Berlin is definitely not the same as any of the bigger capitals. We have more economical flexibility, but there are also negatives, such as the lack of dialogue and interaction.
Finally, it’s time for a personal question, how do you survive winter here – it’s so cold…
You definitely need a good jacket! I grew up in Canada, so my interest in functional clothes arrived very early. The weather is different there but equally brutal. Honestly, only one thing helps: go to California!
Interview by Natalia Lipchanskaya
Photography by Hendrik Schneider for 1 Granary