Marije Braber / Lovely Lane
"Allow others to see the real you."
Having found success in her late twenties as a TV producer, Marije Braber discovered that the constant pressure under which people work in the industry was at odds with her high level of sensitivity. So she pulled the plug, and following a time-out, reinvented herself as a fashion designer by launching Lovely Lane, a clothing brand for women and children that embraced the spirit of the Seventies, which promptly took off. That each item is handmade in Amsterdam and reflects something from her childhood makes her story even more heartwarming. Building the brand, though, involved coming to terms with her insecurities: “My vulnerability has become my greatest strength,” says Marije.
Interview Daphne van Langen Translation Siji Jabbar
Photography Jerome de Lint
What’s your fondest childhood memory? Our camper van, which my dad had converted from an old, French delivery truck. It was lime-green, had brown burlap-like upholstery and white curtains. We held all our children’s parties in that van, and went to France in it on school holidays, travelling the B-roads with Simon and Garfunkel on the car stereo and a little bowl on board in case anyone had to throw up. The atmosphere of those holidays remains vivid, as do a handful of specific memories: my dad teaching me to play badminton, my mum and my sister braiding my hair, my dad with the hair dryer to get the barbeque going. I even recall the van’s smell.
What was family life like? I grew up in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel as the youngest of three kids. My mum stayed at home to look after us, and my dad was working as an economist at the University of Amsterdam. Lovely people, both; wouldn’t hurt a fly. They gave us all the attention we needed and never missed our bedtime ritual: dad the tickle monster, mum with a lullaby.
They both went to work for non-profit organisations later on: my dad for the Leprosy Foundation, until his retirement, and my mum for the Postcode Lottery, which has been a blessing for non-profit organisations. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that not everyone’s family life was like ours and I’m grateful for my upbringing, because it instilled certain values in us, such as honesty and a regard for other people’s needs and feelings.
Do you recall any defining moments from your childhood? Yes, the two years we spent in Indonesia. We moved there when I was six so that my dad could take up a new post at the university in Yogyakarta, and I loved it: the smells, the colours, the atmosphere! My mum kept up our Dutch lessons at home and we spent a lot of time together as a family. It was such a wonderful period that we were quite sorry to return to the Netherlands. I was brown as a berry by then, and bilingual, and had learnt Balinese dance. I’d also acquired a certain something that my new Dutch classmates apparently couldn’t relate to, and they gave me the cold shoulder in response. I was a sensitive kid, so this left quite a mark. I remember that I had a scarf whose smell reminded me of my mum. So I took this with me to school each day, and I’d step out into the corridor as many as sixteen times a day just to hold it to my nose and breathe in her smell.
Highly sensitive, by the sound of it. Yes, I was, and remain so, especially in response to my physical environment, which can easily end in sensory overload. That level of sensitivity affects your sense of self, too. You’re very conscious of the way other people see you and you’ll often fill in the blanks in your assumptions. In addition, a lot of tasks feel intimidating or impossible. This is what I most recall about childhood: my belief that everyone was better and faster than me at everything and that I didn’t have what it took to do anything. On the other hand, I was the furthest thing from a shrinking violet, and still am. Anyone observing me would assume I was really sociable and outgoing. They wouldn’t pick up on how I actually felt. Nevertheless, I’m fond of this part of my character and embrace it.
Why did you decide to train as a primary school teacher when you left secondary school? I’d always loved being around kids and was attuned to their innocent and wondrous view of the world, so becoming a teacher seemed like an obvious idea. I soon realised what a bad idea it was when I had to stand in front of a class. I found it excruciating, talking to a group of twelve-year-olds, and I remember occasionally turning up at my internship in tears. I had an affinity with the toddlers, but you couldn’t specialize until the fourth year. So I completed the first year, got my propaedeutic certificate and called it a day. Teaching is a calling, and I was better suited to working on behalf of children rather than with them.
Since I liked writing, I thought I might be able to get something at the Dutch edition of Donald Duck comics or at VPRO, but I couldn’t get in. Luckily, I eventually found something at John de Mol Producties, courtesy of a friend.
How do you break into the media industry without relevant qualifications? By taking an entry-level position, accepting your incompetence and assisting wherever and whenever. You have to agree to being a sort of runner for next to nothing.
I eventually ended up at Kindernet [one of Nickelodeon’s Dutch channels]. This time though, because I’d been at the much larger John de Mol, I was hired as an experienced hand and given editorial and production responsibilities immediately. Kindernet’s relative size meant I suddenly had decision-making autonomy, which really boosted my confidence and represented a huge turning point in my life.
Only in your work life? Work and private life. I met the love of my life [Chris Zegers] in 1999 shortly after leaving the teachers training course. I was very insecure at the time and not quite ready for him. I loved his joy and energy but was also in awe of him, and needed to feel more comfortable in my skin for our relationship to be in balance. So we didn’t last long as a couple, but he remained the love of my life and we eventually got back together again — 10 years later, mind — and now have two children. Did you see the film The Notebook? That is our story.
You moved into the advertising industry in 2004, when you took the job of radio and television producer at PPGH/JWT and laterTBWA/Neboko. Why the move? It’s a logical step, once you’ve been a TV producer. You have a lot more leeway in advertising because agencies tend to have bigger budgets, and you also have the opportunity to work with very talented film directors because many of them moonlight in the business.
Sounds ideal, but were there any downsides? Of course. It was highly demanding and you had to deal with lots of bad behaviour and outright lies, such as clients contradicting themselves. And the pressure was constant; I sometimes found myself answering emails at four in the morning. I worked myself into the ground for a salary that didn’t reflect the effort. I don’t even recall cooking myself a proper meal during the six years that I worked there. I had no private life and no partner. I was 32 by the time it ended and was starting to worry that I’d never have kids. It basically ended in a burn-out.
When did you realise you needed to pull the plug? I remember that it was springtime and I was lying in bed staring at the budding leaves on the trees outside my window, but despite all the glorious green before me, all I could see were shades of grey. I was dog-tired, panic-stricken and couldn’t stop crying. I was also scared stiff to take a shower, drive myself to work and take the elevator up to what now seemed like an intimidating advertising agency full of people with expectations. I’d always paid attention to my appearance: nothing but the most beautiful clothes, the loveliest coat, the coolest boots, and I suddenly realised how much of this was about keeping busy and looking the part and how much effort it all took. And also how much I had been stretching myself to fulfil duties that were just too demanding. So who was I now, shorn of all that and with only my misery and sense of ridicule for company? What identity did that leave me? This may sound shallow, but the realisation that I could no longer bring myself to parade through that building and keep up the strong woman façade was the final straw. It was then that I knew I was burnt out.
And just like that, you’re out of action. My manager, Rikje Thie, was truly amazing. She said: “It's like being dumped in a swimming pool when you don’t know how to swim. Your first instinct is to try to make it to the nearest side, but what you need to do instead is let yourself sink to the bottom so you have something solid from which to launch yourself back up again.” She put me on sick leave to keep my situation confidential and advised me to do three things: take St. John's Wort, go on daily walks, and love myself.
So that’s what I did: I’d grab my sneakers each morning, stick a bottle of water in my backpack and head out. And I’d walk and walk and walk — I must have covered every block in Amsterdam. I did this for months. I also went into therapy, which was how I learnt that my relationship with my mum had been too symbiotic. I was going to have to cut the apron strings and become an independent adult if I was to get a clearer sense of my own needs and find out where my borders lay.
Did you manage this? Yes, and I discovered just how incredibly empowering it is to express your true emotions. I bumped into Chris again at a party towards the end of my recovery. A friend had dragged me along at the last minute, so I was totally unprepared and had on a pair of horrible flats and a baggy coat, and my hair was a mess. When Chris asked how I was doing, I told him I’d been sleeping badly and felt insecure and sad. Then I asked him how he was doing by placing my palm flat on his cheek. And in an instant we truly felt each other and connected. That was the night he fell in love with me again.
I’d allowed him to see the real me as opposed to a façade, and I began to understand how empowering this could be in my interactions with others. It’s how I’ve operated ever since — my vulnerability has become my greatest strength. When I returned to work about three or four months later, I was able to stand my ground during salary negotiations. This was an entirely new experience for me.
So why did you decide to go freelance? I wanted more freedom to travel with Chris, whose job as a travel show presenter took him away a lot. Branching out on my own was a significant step for me. I made the necessary arrangements with the Chamber of Commerce, designed a logo, had business cards printed up, took assignments and sent out invoices. I freelanced for four months and could easily have carried on for six years, but I got pregnant and wanted to bring my baby up myself. I don’t really understand women who crave professional recognition in addition to their identity as mothers. It’s so cool when mothers fully embrace their identity as mothers. It’s intense and demanding, being a mother.
Is it? Yes. It’s magical having children with the love of your life, but it was also much more demanding than I imagined. For a start, you never have a moment’s peace and are always on duty. And you’re forever getting out of bed because your baby’s crying or because he’s got a runny nose or needs his mouth wiped or diaper changed. My firstborn, Eden, was particularly demanding. He cried a lot in his first year and I found it hard to connect with him. I felt quite insecure about my role as a mother as a result, and I was in a permanent state of exhaustion – I lost a lot of weight during that period. But once he was old enough to go to daycare, I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands and found that I needed to reconnect with myself and do something that I really enjoyed. So I joined a Friday-morning sewing class for mums.
As a teenager, I used to buy secondhand clothes from the flea market at Waterlooplein and customise them. I could always find something to alter: narrower, wider, different profile.
At sewing class you were allowed to work on your own projects, so I began making trousers out of terry cloth for Eden, decorating them with rainbow and geese patches. Pretty soon my neighbour and the other mothers at Eden’s crèche were requesting something similar for their kids. So I began browsing on Etsy for 70s pattern books — kids look so cute in seventies-style clothes. Then my friend Zoë and I bought a serger, and once we’d deposited our kids at the daycare, we’d go back to my place and turn my kitchen table into a workshop, making children’s clothes and baby wraps that we sold via our Facebook business accounts. I branded my page the Cheerful Seventies, but later launched the business properly under the name Lovely Lane, a name inspired by a bag that I owned, a Texan vintage saddlebag that came embossed with the name “Julie Lane”.
Was it nerve-wracking to launch your own company? Not a bit. I was under no pressure, no one was expecting anything from me and there was no one above me to impress — I was my own boss. So whatever came out of Lovely Lane was a bonus and the fulfilment of a dream. I launched the webshop in 2014, and used the very same budgeting and planning templates that I’d used when freelancing. In fact, I doubt I’d have been able to set up Lovely Lane without my experience as a producer: designing is only a small part of what I do; getting the stuff out there takes up a lot more time.
What’s been your worst rookie mistake? Making too much. Rather than follow my instincts, I decided to offer as much variety as possible because I thought I might not be taken seriously if my webshop had just four things in it. So I had eight items made in three different colours, the production of which consumed so much of my budget that I had little left for anything else. Luckily, the baby wraps sold well, and the margin on those was quite high, so I was okay. But from an entrepreneurial perspective, it was a stupid thing to do.
How do you produce your clothes? My sister-in-law tipped me off about a social enterprise that was run and subsidized by the city on behalf of people who’d fallen through the cracks. It was meant to facilitate their reintegration into society. There was nothing else like it, a workplace accommodating a motley crew of people making a variety of things: everything from men's bracelets and Zimmer-frame seats to yoga eye-pillows. I worked with them partly for idealistic reasons and partly to keep my costs low.
The project was discontinued in 2016, unfortunately, but I kept in touch with Rita, the talented seamstress who ran the sewing workshop. And as luck would have it, Rita called one day to tell me that she was going into business for herself, and the news arrived just when my second son, Riven, old enough to start going to daycare. I really believe in fate: you meet the right people when the time is right. Our partnership is evolving into a friendship. Rita and I need each other to achieve what we both wish for ourselves.
You recently branched into womenswear. Why was that? It came about because Vogue Living wanted to do a feature on me at home. And when they called to ask which brands I’d like to wear for the shoot, I thought, why not Lovely Lane? So I called Rita up and she said: "Find some images of what you have in mind, buy the material and we’ll make it”. What I had in mind was a flared, corduroy trouser suit, which I’d wanted for years but could never find in the right fit, since women were apparently much skinnier back when such things were fashionable.
My Instagram following exploded upon publication. The idea of a woman in her early 40s making the sorts of clothes she’d always wanted resonated with Vogue Living’s readership. It almost sounds like a marketing concept, but it was a completely organic thing. I now get requests from photographers who want to use my clothes in their shoots, which is amazing!
You’ve become an influencer. Partly. Pfff! [Laughs]. I follow a few vintage-lovers on Instagram myself, and I find that when you offer people glimpses of your life, it creates a bond from which you can actually grow a business. This is how I’ve found some of my international clients. Instagram is the platform for small businesses.
Seventies-style womenswear is quite niche. Why do you think it’s been such a hit? Because it’s on-trend. Velvet is hip, it’s now cool to wear lots of gold and prominent jewellery, and flares are back. Fashion operates in cycles, and today’s fashion incorporates influences from the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. So I know I can always rely on what’s gone before as a source of inspiration. I’m changing all the time too, of course, which will also continue to influence what I make. For instance, now that the children are older, I’m focussing more on womenswear. As my waistline expands with age, my designs will no doubt evolve accordingly. Hahaha.
It helps to have the right people around us, so who fills this role for you? Chris. He’s a trained economist and comes from a family of entrepreneurs. He’s got a much better head for business than I do and can always be relied on for advice. I even take him along to see my accountant. He’s practically the embodiment of Pipi Longstocking’s philosophy: “I've never done it before, so I think I can do it”. That doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s an exciting idea.
What advice would you give anyone who’s considering giving up their day job for a life of self-employment? First offer what you already do on a freelance basis, so you can learn to work directly with clients and quote for business. Then have a think about what else you might like to do, which might be something completely different — as was the case with me. Turns out we can be almost anything we want.
And what advice do you wish you’d been given before you began? Don’t be afraid to fall flat on your face; you’ll be back on your feet to try again, and even if you have to make do with less, you’ll have learnt something.
Your childhood memories provided the inspiration for your business. What values and memories would you like your kids to grow up with? I hope their memories are of a safe and cosy home where there was always music playing and yummy food on the table. And parents who were always there. I think it’s also important for them to remember how their father treated their mother, and how we demonstrated our love for one another. Whenever I come downstairs in a dress, Chris always exclaims: “There’s our winner!” It sounds like something out of a fairy tale, but it isn’t.
What lies ahead for Lovely Lane? I recently got an email from a client who told me that she’d had a rough day because her kid had been up half the night, and that she was having her period and felt ugly. But that she’d brightened up on putting on one of my dresses, and thought: Fuck it; I’m off to sashay through Haarlem! I almost cried when I read that, because it is exactly how I feel when I wear that same dress. And that’s really what entrepreneurship is about today: meaningful and direct contact with clients, and treating them like VIPs. For the first time since I set up the label, I’m living in the here and now, rather than worrying about what’ll happen in the long term or chasing after 100,000 euros in revenue. I know the brand could easily be a lot bigger, but I don’t think I’d still enjoy it if it were; it wouldn’t suit me. There’s room for sustainable brands that choose to remain modest in size.