From a small headquarters in Rotterdam, Dutch designer, Denise Ruigrok van der Werven creates what can only be described as luxurious pieces of art; little gems of pleasure, crafted from the finest vegetable tanned Italian leather. The inspiring young designer launched her own line of handbags three years ago and landed her first major order from a department store in Japan just three months later. Inevitable, the rest of Europe and the US followed shortly. In addition, her latest creations are being admired by the world’s most elite editors and buyers during fashion week in Paris. In this exclusive interview, Denise takes us back to the very beginning of her journey, sharing her thoughts on what you need to establish a successful brand, and… her most memorable moments so far.
“Follow your own path and don’t allow yourself to be influenced too much by what everyone else is thinking.”
Your designs are getting featured in the biggest fashion magazines every single month. You have created a hugely successful brand out of nowhere and build it from the ground up.
I launched my first collection three years ago. A year earlier I had already started sketching, but then of course the right manufacturer still has to be found. It takes quite some time. While my collection went into production, I started organizing an event to launch the brand. That was on October 11, 2016 at The Hoxton in Amsterdam, which is a beautiful location of course. Here I had enough space to exhibit my collection. I had made a small exhibition with my campaign images, there was a cocktail bar, a coffee corner and there was the possibility to have yourself captured by a fashion illustrator. The reactions were amazing. For many people I was still a stranger in the fashion world as a designer, so I wanted it to be grand.
For the invitations I had designed leather folders, made from the same leather and in the colours of the collection. It’s so nice to hear that people who are still using those. For example, I recently received a picture from someone who was using the folder as a passport case.
I’m most grateful for the fact that the launch enabled me to reach a very valuable group of people, which started my network straight away. There are stylists that I met at that launch event, who still show massive support for the brand today.
Fashion is of course enormously sensitive to trends. Nevertheless, we also attach great value to timeless pieces, especially when it comes to a handbag. You seem to have found the ideal mix with your designs. What do you think is the power behind your brand?
I think it is important that a bag is timeless, especially because for a lot of people, a purchase like this is quite an investment. The ideal mix … well… I design by my own taste. I love a simple bag in a special colour that can give your outfit a boost. And although it’s the designs with a special print or a bold colour that receive a lot of attention from the press, in the Netherlands we prefer to go for a more safer colour that is easier to combine. The black purses are without a doubt the bestselling models here.
Fashion is all about creating an identity and telling a story. Where do you get your inspiration from?
Usually I just start sketching different shapes and forms, and the design will start to appear. That’s actually how it starts. I’m working more intuitively. I’m not thinking analytically during my design process. I always trust my own gut feeling.
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What does the process look like after the sketch is finished? How involved are you in the making process?
I have a lot of contact with my manufacturer in Italy, we discuss everything down to the smallest details. Usually everything goes very smoothly. If something goes wrong, which rarely happens, it’s always just small things that are easy to solve.
“I think that women have a way stronger intuition than men. If something doesn’t feel right for a woman, she probably wouldn’t do it. Men are known for being more focused on the facts.”
As a woman you often get stereotypical questions, such as: how can you combine family life with full-time entrepreneurship. How do you divide your time between work and leisure?
It actually goes very naturally with me. Because of my pregnancy I now have to take a bit more rest. Moreover, I try to make optimum use of moments that I do feel fit.
We live in a time where women worldwide make their voices heard. It seems as if women are more aware of the bigger picture. Do you agree?
I think that women have a way stronger intuition than men. If something doesn’t feel right for a woman, she probably wouldn’t do it. Men are known for being more focused on the facts and to think from an analytical point of view.
What do you think is the most important success factor for young female entrepreneurs in the fashion industry?
To follow your intuition and to not listen to what other people have to say too much. I often work alone and I notice that when I am in the middle of a design process, sometimes people have a different opinion or idea about how it should look. Whether I like it or not, unconsciously that does influence my perspective. It shouldn’t though, because the great thing about having your own business is that it is all yours. Therefore, my advice is to really follow your own path and not let yourself be influenced too much by what everyone else is thinking.
“Every item that has been ordered is going through an X-ray scan to make sure everything is okay. “
During fashion week you always have a showroom in Paris. What are your experiences with Paris Fashion Week?
Paris is my favourite city and it has always been a dream to be able to present my collection there. The first time I went there (I was up and running for just 3 months at that time) I had just received a phone call from a large department store in Japan, who asked when my collection would be on display in Paris. I told them I would be presenting during fashion week and luckily, I was able to rent a beautiful space at the very last minute.
It is so nice to work with Japanese people. They are very punctual and reliable, and they always keep their word. The biggest difference compared to the European market is that they are very fond of the details. And not just in the designs. An example of this is that every item that has been ordered is going through an X-ray scan to make sure everything is okay. Once, they found a small piece of needle that was broken off while stitching into the lining of one of the bags. I immediately received a phone call from them, asking me if they could trade that bag for another one. In Japan, those things are really a no-go.
In Germany, however, it’s something completely different. There, they really trust you and everything goes in good faith. And not just buyers; private customers are also very loyal. In addition, there is a magazine in Germany who publishes one of my bags basically every month. I think it’s kind of funny that its always that exact bags that is being hugely ordered in Germany right after that publication. Completely different from our Dutch ways, where we prefer to get the design in black, rather than the excessive print that was published. It’s those things, the contrast between different countries that makes my job so much more fun.
Credits: Photography by Louiza Mei King exclusively for AV-mag