Anne Mertens / Fashion Designer
"Designing a beautiful
collection simply doesn't cut it."
While working as an intern at Chloé in Paris, designer Anne Mertens not only experienced the harsh realities of the fashion industry but also saw that there was still a lot to be done in terms of sustainability. She spent a few years working at other clothing brands to learn about retail, marketing and concept development, and used what she’d learned to set up her own brand, DETALE: a long-lasting wardrobe, as she calls it.
Interview by Daphne van Langen / Translation by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
What did you decide to wear for this interview? Should‘ve been something of my own design, right? But I’m afraid I picked a dark blue cashmere sweater and flared jeans by Filippa K.
What was your childhood like? I grew up in Eindhoven, and had a very carefree childhood. Home felt safe and warm, and the atmosphere was convivial and welcoming. You’re not really aware of your parent’s deliberate choices until you’re older. For instance, I went to a regular state school with kids from a variety of nationalities, and at which it was normal to celebrate Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Surinamese religious or cultural occasions. My mum was a kindergarten teacher at an mostly-white Catholic school but my parents wanted to expose me and my brother to a broader palette; I’m really glad they did.
My dad was an entrepreneur who always had a business running, usually in catering. Things were apparently quite tight from time to time, but I was never aware of this, never lacked for anything, and never sensed any stress at home.
What were you like as a child? The kind who always knew what she wanted. I was very hands-on, and got on with everyone — the cool kids as well as the unpopular ones; my interest in people was genuine. I was a dreamer and still am; I could happily drown in my own imagination. This can make you a bit naïve on occasion, but it’s also my driving force, the thing that prompts me to try things. I typically think: “What's the worst thing that can happen?”
Does fashion/design run in the family? Not overtly, but there are discernible traces of creativity. My granddad was an engineer, and designed machines for factories. I have an aunt who was an arts and crafts teacher, and who’s now a sculptor. My grandmum was a fashionable lady who would have her seamstress run up “Dior” dresses. I was the apple of her eye and we often went clothes shopping together. She had an eye for quality and a good feel for fabrics.
Were you interested in fashion as a child? I used to make dresses for my Barbie dolls, and knew even then that I wanted to do something in fashion. I began experimenting with my personal style once I hit puberty; I was a complete chameleon: skater girl one minute, goth the next, then working-class-girl-in-brightly-coloured-tracksuit. I went through lots of looks and phases in search of a personal aesthetic.
Isn’t that what all teenagers do? They do, but I really threw myself into it. And this ability to create an identity with what you wear remains for me the most interesting aspect of fashion. What you wear can actually create something of a persona; it affects your mental state, your soul even. I dress differently when I feel good in comparison to when I don’t.
Do you recall your first fashion-related idea/creation? We used to have a sort of annual open mic day in high school in which I always participated, usually staging three or four acts in different disciplines: drama, spoken word, modern ballet. I once organized a fashion show and used my mum’s sewing machine to turn second-hand clothes into new outfits for my classmates. They looked like crap, but I just found the whole thing so cool.
You went to the ArtEZ Fashion Academy in Arnhem. What was your goal at this point? I first spent a year at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, but realized quite quickly that I was in the wrong place; it was too conceptual. We experimented with form and structure and had lots of art history, but I preferred to be more practically engaged. I am interested in material and shape, but wearable shape as opposed to major experiments in form or weird creations. The Royal Academy course just seemed a bit blah blah. Arnhem equipped you to work at one of the top fashion houses, which was what I wanted.
You did an internship in Paris, at the high-end fashion label Chloé. Why Paris, and why Chloé? Chloé appealed to me as a label, and Paris, of course, is iconic in the fashion world. I was 23 at the time and thought it was amazing. I stayed with a girl, Dewi Pfeiffer, whom I’d met at ArtEZ, and who also worked at Chloé, until I found a place of my own. We shared a twenty-square-metre studio, worked together and remain good friends to this day. I was in Paris for about six months.
What was the most important thing you learned during this period? To develop an eye for detail — they placed great emphasis on finishing. But I also discovered why I’d never want to return to Paris. The dream of becoming a “designer at Chloé” was shattered by what I witnessed. I thought: “Is this what really goes on? Terrible!”
Most of the work was done by interns. You worked your ass off for … I don’t know what. A token of acknowledgement, if you were lucky, and this certainly wouldn’t be monetary. It was non-stop ass kissing, and whatever you were assigned had to be done perfectly. Designers often came to the interns in tears because of the pressure and workload. Giving so much of yourself, your time, energy and creativity to a company puts you in a position of extreme vulnerability. So it hurts when your efforts aren’t even acknowledged.
Did you experience this yourself? Did you find yourself in tears, too? I did at ArtEZ, but not in Paris, because I knew I was only there for a short while. But also because I was too down-to-earth to be consumed by the culture, or perhaps a bit too recalcitrant. The experience knocked the fashion world off its pedestal a bit. Made me realise I needed to find somewhere or something that would make me happy.
Which you found by returning to Amsterdam to set up a sustainable clothing label with a friend, Fira Rietveld. How did you get the idea, and why sustainable? We’d already immersed ourselves in the idea of sustainable fashion at ArtEZ, and felt that designers have a social responsibility, too, which at the time was neither mainstream thinking nor mentioned at school — people thought it was a lot of fuss about nothing back then. So, fresh from the academy, we naively decided to take matters into our own hands by setting up Iconico. We rented a tiny studio on the Spuistraat in Amsterdam and played at being a company — at least that’s how it feels now, despite our seriousness and the fact that we designed a beautiful collection.
You were 24 at the time, which is fairly young. How did you set it up? We started by writing a business plan in which we set out things like our label’s identity, the expected costs, and how large a collection we would create, none of which were covered at the academy. But taking part in the Green Fashion Competition — a design contest organized by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation and the Amsterdam Fashion Week — gave us the chance to learn about this. We didn’t win, but we learned a lot.
Sounds like you set it up sensibly. So why didn’t you carry on with it? We talked to an investor, but felt afterwards that we needed more experience before taking the step. I'm really pleased that we both shared this feeling equally. The plan was to get back together after a few years and try again, but things turned out differently.
How and where did you get the experience you needed? I took a string of jobs in design, styling, marketing, retail and concept development at a few fashion brands, which gave me lots of essential knowledge that I still use today: how to determine what to charge for an item, how to decide what to stock, what sort of things tend to do well and what less so. I learned the most from Filippa K. At least 90 per cent of their business is sustainable. They showed me what’s possible, what was already being done, how to make informed choices, and that you did have a choice. For instance, regarding production methods, they always monitored both the working conditions in the factories and the materials used in production, and they actually visited the factories. That sounds self-evident, but it’s not common practice within the industry.
You had another go in 2017 with the creation of DETALE: an international online fashion brand for men and women. When did you know the time was right? I didn’t feel there was a lot else to learn from Dutch companies, which sounds arrogant, but that’s how it felt. I was working for a company that was anything but sustainable, and was being asked to submit proposals to make the brand look good, rather than as extensions of their ideals. It was incredibly frustrating and I knew then that it was time to start my own collection.
Furthermore, I didn’t think there was enough choice in the middle segment of the sustainable market. It’s practically impossible to be sustainable in the bottom segment; that’s just a fact. And there’s still a lot to be done in the luxury segment; the only label doing a good job of this is Stella McCartney, and I can’t believe she’s still pretty alone up there. Between Stella at the top and a handful in the middle segment, there’s not a lot to choose from. So, that was my gap.
What’s different this time, and how did you go about setting this one up? Knowledge, which you really need. I quit my job and wrote a business plan. I used some of my savings to finance a part of it, carried on working as a freelancer, and later found an investor so I could put the collection together. I ran a crowdfunding campaign to cover production costs. This isn’t at all common in fashion, but I think it's the smartest way to fund a business. You’ve got confirmed orders before you start production and you’ve built a customer base.
How did you make sure you’d hit your target? I used social media, conducted two pop-up sessions, and I’ve got a showroom here at the office. I worked out that I needed 32,000 euros, and it worked. It was both terrifying and exciting. On the one hand I’d recommend it to anyone running a business; on the other hand I wouldn’t, because it’s pretty intense and draining. I’m good at selling, especially when it’s someone else’s stuff. But you feel more vulnerable when it’s your own product. It sometimes almost felt like begging.
You took a year to put your collection together. Why so long? I had to start from scratch; I had no suppliers and had to research fabrics before deciding what to use, all of which took time. I also gave myself time for the design process, and more for the many tests I needed to run. For instance, I wanted to know how long my knitwear would last before it began pilling. Quality is my most important criterion. I want to operate at a professional level within the industry, so if I say something is durable it needs to be durable. I also asked people from different age brackets and with different style preferences what appealed to them in terms of shape and colour.
How did you pick your target group? My initial thought was socially and environmentally aware 35-year-olds and above. But judging by the pre-orders, it seems my audience might be the forty and above group, people that can afford to spend a bit more and for whom quality is important. Thirtysomethings often need to spend their money on their kids, and twentysomethings often can’t afford to start building a beautiful, sustainable wardrobe of durable items.
What makes material sustainable? A sustainable material is one whose production process is less harmful to the environment, one that’s made in factories that provide decent working conditions for employees, and made to the high standards that ensure durability. Baby alpaca wool, for instance. Most wools need to be washed with chemicals to get rid of the sheep fat. Cotton is another major source of environmental pollution. Its cultivation involves a widespread use of lots of pesticides.
How did you find the right suppliers? For my alpaca wool knitwear, I had to find factories in Peru. It’s not easy to do this as a start-up, but a Google search led me to an Argentinean agent with whom I clicked instantly. I have a lot to thank her for. She was my guide and interpreter at a major fashion and yarn fair in Lima, and introduced me to people from the factory that now makes my knitwear. They liked my sustainable business emphasis, and I represented the ideal of a risk-free client because I work with colours and yarns that they always have in stock.
I asked suppliers in my network to help with sourcing my woven fabrics. A lot of my material is sourced in Europe, and I get hemp fabric from California; I also keep production nearby by having it done in Portugal. It’s particularly important when starting out as an entrepreneur to be able to oversee things directly.
You said you like to manage your business intuitively, and base decisions on instinct. Can you elaborate a bit on this, and explain how it works in practice? I have complete trust in my intuition. The decisions I’ve made intuitively have been the best ones, including the one to start this label. I also go by instinct in deciding whom to work with. I always search for like-minded people, even if it means searching for longer.
Does this intuitive approach also have a downside? I’m steadfastly loyal, as a human being, friend, wife, and as an entrepreneur, and this has occasionally been a pitfall. I protect myself from this a bit more now by acknowledging this when it happens and by recognising when I’m giving too much without getting equivalent ally energy in return. Fortunately, I don’t dwell on things for ages. Things get to me, but I can also let go quite easily and carry on.
There are countless sustainable labels out there. What makes DETALE unique? The desire to work sustainably from A to Z with respect to every aspect of my business. I examine everything I do, all the time, to see if there’s a way to make it better for the people involved or the environment. My biggest obstacle is transportation; there’s still so much to be done here, especially by the transportation business itself. Fortunately, the growth in electric transportation in Europe is creating more choice. But I’m afraid I’m still dependent on the big players that I’d rather avoid to transport my products from Peru.
Your collection is timeless, which is great from a sustainable perspective. But aren’t you shooting yourself in the foot commercially? No, because it's an evolving collection with enough room for additional items. But the basic collection consists of timeless essentials, and originated in the idea that you don’t need to buy more trousers once you’ve found the ideal pair. Many successful brands started with essentials; I’m thinking here of Filippa K's white t-shirt and Acne’s jeans.
What qualities must you have to make it as an emerging fashion designer? Enthusiasm, passion, resilience and insatiable curiosity. You need to want to be able to do everything yourself, or be able to surround yourself with the right people. It’s not enough to simply design a beautiful collection. I'm quite a control freak; I don’t outsource or relinquish control easily. But I need to get someone else on board soon, because I won’t be able to take this much further on my own.
A label’s look reflects something of its designer. What does DETALE say about you? My designs are quite understated, and distinguish themselves in the details and in a certain inherent sexiness. My sleeves often have slits, and an element of refinement and elegance. It’s irritating when an item lacks even a hint of sexiness.
It says on your website that you’d like to translate your customer’s stories into classic items. That sounds nice in theory, but how would that work in practice? I’m hoping to use the “DETALE Stories” section of my website to relate new stories about the label — a sort of ongoing fashion editorial in images. Then there’s “DETALE People”, which will be a series of interviews with my customers in which they offer their own interpretations of the clothes. I’d like them to tell me Find out whatabout their favourites are, what they wear at home, what feels comfi, what makes them feel sexy, etc. I want to create a community based on my interest in people.
Besides running a sustainable label, what else do you do to minimise your environmental footprint? My husband and I have lived frugally for the past year because of DETALE. Having little to no money forces you to live sustainably. We don’t own a car, our home appliances are of high quality, thus durable and energy efficient, and we only turn the heating on when it’s freezing. We separate our waste, ourand food shopping is primarily organic and we don't eat meat too often — the simple life. I believe you can find contentment and happiness living like this. We sometimes joke that someday we’ll build ourselves a hut in the woods. To live freely amid nature would be to clear your mind. The woods are my favourite place to straightenfor clearing my thoughtsmind.
A lot’s happened since you graduated. In what ways have you surprised yourself the most? I’m surprised that I stayed in the Netherlands for my friends, husband and family. I'd love to pack my bags and take off for America — I feel free in America. I'm a dreamer and I like dreaming big, which is allowed over there. You’re called naïve when you do that here, but there you’re applauded and encouraged. We still plan to spend some time there, on going there for a while. Wwhen our time is right.
What would surprise anyone who knew you as a teenager if they saw you today? The fact that I’ve found some kind of peace. That I'm married, have a house and a cat, and that I’d rather relax on the sofa with a friend and a bottle of wine than jump up and down at a nightclub.
What advice would you give anyone hoping to start a sustainable business? Appraise everything critically, always — including yourself.
And what advice would you give your younger self? Focus more. I flitted about a bit too much, and stayed too long in certain places because I liked the people I was working with, whereas afterwards I found myself asking, “Why?”
You’ve finally launched your collection, after a year of hard work. Can you relax a bit now and give yourself a little pat on the back? No, because I'm not yet where I want to be. My ambitions are global. This possibility is one of the things I love about the times in which we live. The Netherlands is a great place to start from and still has aoffers lots of opportunities, but I’d like to go global as quickly as possible.
Finally, given as much freedom as you desire, for whom would you most like to design a sustainable item of clothing, and why? For Barack and Michele Obama, because they’re icons of our time with regard to social and sustainable progress progress, particularly in a part of the world that creates a lot of's very pollutionng. And, since we’re fantasising here, my childhood hero Leonardo DiCaprio, because I’m certain he’d understand better than anyone why I’m so focused on sustainability, and he would be the ideal ambassador for my brand. And, finally, Martha Stewart, because she’s one of my great idols. Just seeing her makes me happy. The American dream! Yet hugely self-deprecating.