Let’s start at the beginning. Were you born and raised here in Brussels, or elsewhere?
I was born on the outskirts of Brussels and spent most of my childhood and teenage years near Wavre and Braine l’Alleud. That’s where I also met Missak – with whom I run Atelier Bleu – and most of my friends. When we were around 14, we started going out more and naturally ended up spending more time in the big city closest to us, which was Brussels. Later on, most of us started working here and eventually moved here too. I’ve been living in Brussels for over 4 years now.
Did you study in Brussels too?
I didn’t really do any studies. I tried to study graphic design but only finished the first trimester, after which I started working quite soon. It just didn’t click with me. Even in high school, studying wasn’t really my thing, I put in enough work to get by but that’s it (laughs).
Very relatable. So how did you end up finding your way and eventually opening Atelier Bleu?
I worked for my father’s construction company for a while, but since I was a teenager I’ve always been fascinated by clothing – obviously following some of the trends in those days too – and I knew I wanted to be independent and do my own thing one day.
Once I get into something, I really get into it. So, when I was a little older, let’s say my very early 20s, I developed a love for denim and the niche brands that specialize in it. My gateway into denim was the Japanese brand Momotaro. I came across them very randomly, by seeing a Youtube video that told the story behind the brand, where and how they produce their denim, the craftmanship that goes into it and so on. It was clear that this wasn’t just another dumb pair of jeans, there was much more to it. I knew I needed my own pair right after having seen that video.
So how did you find it?
Funnily enough, that was at the Bellerose store in Antwerp, where they did a great job at selling me a pair (laughs). It’s not like I needed a lot of convincing though. I tried it on, loved it and bought it. I spent years and years in those jeans, they’ve been repaired countless times and are now up on the wall at Atelier Bleu.
After getting into Momotaro and quality jeans in general, how did the idea to open your own store begin to develop?
Since the brands I was getting into weren’t readily available here in Belgium, I started going on several city trips abroad to visit specialized stores. I started reading up on the subject more and more too. Whenever I’d visit a store, I’d always pay attention to how the store was run, what kind of selection they offered, how the product was presented. It’s not like I immediately knew I was going to do a store myself, but I was definitely nourishing myself with a lot of information and impressions.
Step by step though I began to realize this was something I needed to try. I was still young, without kids or other big responsibilities, so the time was right to take a shot at something adventurous. Missak was working for Prive Joke at the time (a well-known premium multi-brand store in Brussels – ed.) so he had a lot of retail experience and know-how. We started getting together and developing our plans. It took us 2-3 years to perfect those and to find the right spot, of course. That was the hardest part.
For sure. It isn’t easy to find a good store location in Brussels. Originally, we wanted to go for the downtown area, near Dansaert, but at the time there were major infrastructure works going on while the city was developing the car-free zone around there. That was going to complicate things, so we changed our minds and thought of the Flagey area, which was really blossoming. We wrote letters and dropped them all over the neighborhood, asking people to give us a call if they knew of any spaces that would become available. We got lucky and were contacted by the lady that owns our store space, because someone else had bailed out.
Perfect timing it seems.
Right now, the area is starting to really take off. More and more businesses are moving here, it’s great to see. Lots of places to eat and drink, but also a couple of quality stores. The Flagey square itself also has a great dynamic now, it’s cool.
At first it was, we were almost exclusively focused on denim and only sold brands that we loved ourselves. With time, we noticed that our selection was a little too niche, so we started to adapt Atelier Bleu’s offer accordingly. We realized a few things; our average customer isn’t necessarily looking for an exclusive – often more expensive – pair of niche jeans. Plus, it’s important to know that these things take time. We have to educate our customers too, so to speak. It’s a balance that we keep striving for, but it’s not easy (laughs).
How do you see the evolution of the store in general?
There are obvious evolutions in terms of style and cuts, for sure – when we started out slim fits were still very dominant for example, while now looser fits are coming up strong. More and more smaller brands try to make the difference with the fabrics they use and the way they use them. It’s also interesting to see the increasing dynamism of several European brands doing very interesting things. In the U.K. specifically, you’ve got a brand like Universal Works whose very specific style and way of presenting themselves really appeals to us.
These changes have caused our focus to shift from Japan and the U.S. to closer to home. In general, our offer changes a little every season but also expands every season, so it’s nice to see that we’re building something.
When you decide to carry a certain brand, what are the factors at play?
The first thing we look at is where the brand is from and where they produce. We want to avoid anything that could be wishy-washy. We always want to really see and feel the garments. It’s very rare for us to order without doing so, the quality of the fabrics and the finishing is simply too important. The vision of the brand and the way they handle their image and their points of sale is also a crucial factor.
Even if most of what we sell may seem basic or minimal at first glance, we do also look for a couple of strong pieces that draw the attention. The human aspect also counts, we have to feel good about the people we work with in order to construct a lasting relationship.
Where do you see Bellerose in the spectrum of brands that you guys offer?
Bellerose is a brand I pretty much grew up with and always felt connected to, even if for a number of years, when my own tastes were changing, I couldn’t really find what I was looking for. When we opened the store, we took the time to rediscover the brand and found new elements and styles that rekindled our love for the brand. Especially in Belgium, Bellerose is a strong point of reference.
We really like the minimalistic approach of the brand, it’s very easy to mix and match Bellerose with other brands and it can be interpreted in various ways.
You spend a lot of time in the store, engaging with customers. What do you get from doing so?
It’s funny, I’ve already made friends with people I got to know in our store. It’s enriching at times, because I’ve also met people that have a vast knowledge on all things denim for example, so I can actually learn a lot too. Sometimes a complete stranger walks in, sits down and I spend two hours just talking to that person. Things can go a lot of ways and that’s fascinating.
Well, there’s always going to be people that couldn’t care less (laughs) but yes, we do notice that more and more people ask us those types of questions. Some are already looking for organic cotton or more eco-friendly fabrics for example. It’s a shared concern, because we find those factors very important too. That’s why we’re super happy to be selling Patagonia for example, they have a wonderful vision and a long-standing commitment to it.
A growing number of brands that we work with use organic cotton or other natural fabrics like linen and hemp, they’re often conscious of the impact they have on our eco-system. It’s an evolution that won’t stop, it simply is the future. I really believe so. First of all, because there’s no alternative (laughs). Second, a fabric like hemp is of such high quality and its ecological footprint is decidedly smaller, so it’d foolish to not go that way. The only issue is the price, which still is quite elevated. With a growing demand though, I can see those prices go down. The t-shirt I’m wearing right now is a cotton & hemp blend, by the way (laughs).
Very recently, half the planet was losing their minds because of Black Friday, again. Just like us, you guys chose not to take part and give it a different swing. Can you elaborate on that a little?
For starters, we’ve never been big fans of Black Friday or mid-season sales or whatever. We feel like it devaluates the product. We already have two sale-periods that both last a month each, which is enormous. By adding even more timeframes during which discounts are given, people get the impression that the sales are always on, which in the customer’s mind means that we must have the biggest margins ever.
We like to keep things minimal and simple. We don’t want to incite buying for the sake of buying, which is exactly what Black Friday has come to represent. It goes against everything we stand for. So, what we did during that weekend was offering a 10% discount if people really insisted, but more importantly we offered 10% of our revenue to Sea Shepherd, which is a non-profit marine conservation organization.
How did people respond?
Well, we took our time to explain why we did what we did, and people really seemed to be into it. Most of the response was very positive.
Do you find it hard to find the balance between being a business, while on the other hand motivating people to buy less and invest in quality?
We always try to be honest. Most of our customers come twice a year, grosso modo, and I feel like they’re already quite conscious about how they consume. They’re looking for a certain level of quality and often come to us because they do need something specific. Of course, there’s always going to be people that enjoy buying a lot more too, but even then, we don’t want them to buy things they don’t need. There’s no reason why you should own 50 pairs of pants, while - realistically – having 5 in steady rotation is more than enough.
We’re not in this to chase trends or sell t-shirts with big logos. We want to offer quality garments that will stand the test of time.
With the experience you’ve accumulated, what do you think is missing in today’s fashion?
There’s a huge lack of transparency. Especially when it comes down to where and how clothing is produced. What’s also frustrating is the lack of knowledge that is passed on from brands to stores, we often have to do our own research to find the answers we need. I wish brands would be more concerned with explaining why they use a certain fabric, why an item was cut a certain way, which techniques were used to finish the garments etcetera. I feel like that information is crucial and would help us to sell their products better.
You’ve also started doing your own knit sweaters, right? Is that the first step in a new direction for Atelier Bleu?
Exactly. This winter, we launched our own merino and Shetland wool sweaters. The merino sweaters were made in Italy, the Shetland sweaters in Scotland. Thing is, it’s not such a hard thing to do. We made a few calls, got to talk to the right people and decided to give it a go. Right now, we’re working on developing our own hemp t-shirts as well, to be produced here in Europe too. That was a bit harder to pull together, as most t-shirts these days are made in China.
By doing this, we’ve got an even better vision on what we’re selling and how the garments were produced. We’ll take it step by step and we’ll see how it goes.