Nanna Schaaper / Leather Designer: "Craftsmanship is slowly dying."
The model Nanna Schaaper was scouted at the age of 13, studied Child Development and only later discovered the hidden talent that would kick-start a parallel career. Taking on fashion multinationals is no small feat, but Nanna has an ethical trick up her sleeve with her leather goods brand NAN-GOODS. Nonetheless, she confesses, "I'm faced with obstacles every day."
Interview by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Tell us about your childhood? Where did you grow up? I grew up in Den Helder, a city in North Holland. My parents got divorced when I was two, so the family consisted of me, my sister – who was five years older than me – and my mum. My dad lived in Callantsoog, a quiet little coastal town less than 10 miles away, and we visited him at weekends. Lovely places both. The house in Den Helder was right next to the water, and we had a forest and beach within walking distance. We moved to a village called Bergen when I was eleven. It was wonderful to grow up surrounded by nature. You couldn’t wish for much more as a kid.
What did you dream of becoming as a kid? I longed to work in the children’s ward of the local hospital. One of our neighbours worked there and I loved dropping by to see her going about her duties. I couldn’t imagine a nicer job than one that involved cuddling and caring for babies all day. Of course, I didn’t understand then that if you’re a baby in hospital, something must be wrong.
Was that why you studied Child Development? I’ve always been fascinated by child development, although I never really had a clear plan about what to do for a living. But I chose the course because it sounded fun and interesting. How we develop as children seems to me to be the most important thing we could ever hope to understand, and it’s knowledge that will never go to waste.
But life took a different course once you’d graduated. I graduated at the start of the economic crisis and jobs were scarce, so I haven’t had a chance to practice. It remains a keen interest, though, and I still read a lot on the subject, both about the science-based theories and about the more alternative ideas. Child Development is a fairly new discipline, and too much of the current thinking is compartmentalised. That’s why kids end up getting “diagnosed” and labelled, whereas an approach that relied as much on science as it did on alternative ideas would probably be a lot more useful. So many kids are on Ritalin when they’re probably just allergic to something in their diet.
Let’s talk a bit more about your childhood. You were quite young when you were scouted as a model. Yes, I was thirteen at the time. I’d been strolling along the beach with my dad on one of those stormy days and we stumbled on a shoot in a cabana. One of the crew handed me a list of agencies and suggested I get myself signed up.
What did your parents think? They thought thirteen was a bit too young, of course, so nothing happened for a while. But my mum had worked as a model, so she didn’t find it outrageous or anything like that. On a visit to Amsterdam about a year later, my mum and I dropped by her old agency (and my current one, Euromodels); they wanted me on their books immediately, but I found it a bit intimidating. We went ahead anyway, with the proviso that my mum would accompany me to my shoots, which she did till I was 15 or 16.
"I was pretty shy as a kid and quite reluctant to try new things, but meeting new people on shoots week in week out forced me out of my shell."
What effect did becoming a model have on you and your life as a teenager? It was quite beneficial, actually. I was pretty shy as a kid and quite reluctant to try new things, but meeting new people on shoots week in week out forced me out of my shell. I liked regularity and predictability, but these are the polar opposite of what modelling involves. I can handle unpredictability a bit better now.
The industry can be quite competitive and harsh. I didn’t really experience much of that. Of course, I was flattered when I got chosen for a shoot, but I also understood when the work went to other models. It felt more like a professional education than some sort of boot camp. Shoots and shows cost a lot of money, so it’s understandable that they demand discipline from the models.
Besides modelling, you also created NAN Goods (a leather bags and accessories brand), which you launched in 2015. How did this come about? After graduating, I worked for my dad for a bit, helping out on the sales and product development side of the family’s key ring and gadgets wholesale business. It fit in nicely with modelling. But after a couple of years of this, I yearned to do something that better reflected me as a person and kindled my creativity. I often sketched in the evenings, and one day while experimenting with form and proportion, I stumbled on the design for what became my TW - Key Holder, which is still my favourite in terms of form. I carried on experimenting and soon had enough for a collection of the sort of things I’d been looking for myself: simple designs in beautiful leather, minus prominent logos. I didn’t know then that there was a latent demand for what I was developing. At the same time, I’d been getting a clearer picture of the business world, and was starting to realise that consumers (who often complained the most about the crisis) were also one of its causes.
How so? For instance, local, independent businesses were losing out to conglomerates that outsourced their production to low-wage countries because people were shopping on price without considering the consequences of their actions. I found this so frustrating that I vowed to do things differently.
Is that why you make your products in the Netherlands? Yes. Dutch craftsmanship is something we’ve mostly lost. Of course, it costs more than paying a manufacturer in India, but investing in it actually benefits everyone here by strengthening the economy. I’m keeping my margins low, both for reasons of affordability and in consideration of the larger good. It’s an idealistic and demanding model, but it’s incredibly fulfilling.
This presumably influences the way you work with the people who stitch the bags. It does. I have a great relationship with everyone in the studio; it’s a family business and feels like a second home. The history of the Dutch leather industry goes as far back as the early 1900s, but things started going downhill in the eighties when it became cheaper to shift production abroad. I didn’t even know all this until about four years ago, which is why I’m so proud of our role in resurrecting Dutch craftsmanship. The people I work with are true specialists, with skills that have been passed down from one generation to the next. It’d be such a shame if we allowed these to wither and die.
How and when did you learn to draw, design and make leather products? By trial and error, really; I work entirely on intuition.
Your dad played a significant role in the origin of NAN Goods. Yes, NAN Goods actually began life as an idea for his company, a potential new line for his customers. But I took a look at the first finished products and realised they were more likely to appeal to a different target group, and so the brand was born. My dad’s 68 years old and has worked since he was 12, so he has a wealth of experience for me to draw on. Of course, the online part of business is slightly outside his area of expertise, so we have different opinions about that. But his most important lesson has been about running a business ethically, so that even when the business needs to undergo radical change, its foundations remain solid. In that sense, we’re learning from each other.
"The anxiety over my bags actually selling is a fear I can’t say I’ve conquered, and I doubt I ever will."
What challenges or fears did you have to overcome to start a brand from scratch? The anxiety over my bags actually selling. It’s all well and good to make things you consider beautiful, but that doesn’t mean people will buy what you’ve made. I can’t say I’ve conquered this fear, and I doubt I ever will. On a more practical level, I have the day-to-day challenges, from problems with the web shop to dealing with broken zippers. But by and large, being an entrepreneur is hugely challenging. It's insecure and you don’t leave it behind when you clock off. It involves making one decision after the next, and each decision entails a risk; so you’re continuously having to ask yourself: “how do I deal with this?”
How did you get your products on the shelves? To have anything at all to sell, you first need to invest, and modelling provided the necessary funds and allowed me to be independent of banks and investors. Of course, that could change if I need to grow the business. Meanwhile, anything I make from NAN goes straight back into the company.
The bags sold themselves, so that part wasn’t particularly difficult. I just walked into my favourite shops, which stocked brands that I liked.
Do you have ambitions to grow the business? Good question. It would certainly force me to delegate, which isn’t easy for me, so that might be a nice challenge. To be honest, I live very much in the here and now, so I don’t have any concrete plans for growing the business at the moment, though I am ambitious enough for it. Growth would be nice, provided it happens organically so I can keep my overview of things, and so long as it doesn’t involve any quality- or production-related compromises.
How has being your own boss changed you as a person and as a designer? It’s made me more serious as a person, and more mature. Doing everything myself has taught me so much. It’s because of this that I now understand how a business actually works, and how important it is to cover your costs. You’re completely oblivious to this when you’re employed by a company. And I wanted to do as much as I could myself, including build the web shop (with help from my brother, who’s very smart), take care of the shoots (with help from my talented mum), and run the business (with my dad’s help). This means I go out less than I used to. All of which explains why it’s made me more serious.
Does your brand reflect your personality in any way? I haven’t really given this much thought. My bags tell a simple and timeless story that derives its interest from the colours and material in which they’re made. If I interpret this personally, the colours represent my ongoing development: the variety of colours represents the web of processes involved in my development, yet I remain the person I’ve always been. I'm still the same introvert who doesn’t like a lot of fuss. So yes, I guess my designs reflect who I am: no ostentation.
You said in one interview that NAN products become more beautiful with age. Age is also often a factor in a modelling career. Do you ever worry about this? Yes, I do feel more vulnerable the older I get. The invincible feeling I had as a teenager has faded somewhat. So I certainly put more effort into taking care of my appearance. I’ve always taken care of my skin, anyway – and while I don’t find wrinkles ugly, I’d prefer to keep them at bay for a little longer – but I now use sunscreen without fail, which I never did before. I also put more effort into taking care of my inner being. A small wrinkle might add a bit of character to your appearance, but nothing is more beautiful than eyes that radiate a rich and healthy inner life. With respect to modelling, I’m grateful for every job I get, because I know it won’t go on forever.
You still work as a model. In what ways is the experience different now that you’re older? It’s even better now, and it’s wonderful to work with the commercial teams, which are often made of close groups of highly experienced people who’ve worked together for ages. Everyone knows the drill, so we can get on with things while keeping the shoot relaxed. I also feel less insecure than I used to, and I find I’m better suited to the more commercial assignments.
"I think brands should avoid using stick-thin models but fashion instagrammers and vloggers also exacerbate the problem."
What’s your view on the “size zero” discussion? It’s clear that people want to see models with a more feminine shape, so I do think brands should avoid using stick-thin models, which some of them still do; the problem would vanish overnight if the more influential ones stopped doing that. Fashion instagrammers and vloggers also exacerbate the problem. They’re supposedly giving impressionable young girls a glimpse of their “real” lives, yet they’re posting unrealistically perfect images of themselves.
That being said, the images being used today aren’t as shocking as they used to be. Look at someone like Doutzen, for instance, who’s hugely popular and has modelled for countless campaigns. She’s a beautiful, healthy woman who owes her figure to lots of exercise and a healthy diet.
You recently became a mother. What, aside from your son Lewis, do you consider your greatest achievement so far, in life and as a designer? As a human being, it’s living as I do now. I enjoy my family, friends and all the wonderful opportunities that come my way. As a designer and entrepreneur, it’s seeing my products in stores, and seeing them in people’s hands. I’m filled with pride when people mention the brand without knowing it’s mine.
What would surprise someone who knew you as a 10-year-old if they saw you today? I think they’d be surprised to see me relaxed and sociable in unfamiliar company, and a lot less hesitant about introducing myself to strangers. I wasn’t entirely unsociable as a kid; it’s just that I only really felt comfortable with people I already knew.
What advice would you give aspiring designers today? Follow your heart. Listen to people’s opinions and advice, but choose what feels right for you.
And what advice would you give your younger self? Relax and enjoy yourself a bit more; don’t be so serious. I was pretty hard on myself until the age of 25, after which I made a conscious decision to relax and let the chips fall where they may. Until then, I’d been a serious and slightly naïve young woman who saw potential pitfalls everywhere, which made it difficult to be spontaneous.
Finally: NAN Goods is a fairly young brand; what are you hopes for its future? I’d like to carry on as I’m doing right now, keep producing the bags locally and keep designing them myself. I hope via NAN Goods to show more people that the Netherlands is home to exceptional craftsmanship, and to show that we don’t have to keep demanding that everything be faster and cheaper, which only encourages a self-defeating migration of production. I hope we can be part of a future in which people are proud of Dutch craftsmanship and recognise our contribution to the phenomenon.