Interview Vlieger & Vandam / Designers
"Occupy that creative space in yourself"
Their Guardian Angel Handbag, a series of bags embossed with the outline of a handgun, became a worldwide hit. Yet neither Hein van Dam, nor Carolien Vlieger had any training in designing bags when they started. That is all in the past now, as their collection has been part of the MoMa exhibition in New York and celebrities like Rihanna, Fergie and Rita Ora all wear their bags. Besides business partners, Carolien and Hein are a couple as well. How did their success come about? "We worked hard for it, but we also had a great deal of luck." says Carolien.
Interview Daphne van Langen
Translation Siji Jabbar Photography Jerome de Lint
What did you want to be when you grew up? Hein: A lorry driver — I think I was attracted to the independence. Carolien: I took a career aptitude test in my teens, and the results said orchestra conducting, which is also somewhat independent. Conducting didn’t interest me, although I did already have the urge to do something creative in primary school.
Where did you grow up, and what were your families like? Hein: I grew up in Ugchelen, a small village near Apeldoorn, and was the youngest of four kids. My dad worked at the TNO research institute and my mum stayed home to look after us. Carolien: We lived in Leiderdorp. My dad worked as a physicist at the nearby university and my mum took care of us. I, too, was the youngest; I have one brother and a sister. You sort of plod along behind the others until you suddenly get the urge to stand out.
You felt you had to prove yourself? Carolien: Totally. It’s a deep-seated need. Hein: I don’t have it quite as much. I always preferred hanging back in second place; you’re less in the spotlight that way. Carolien, you studied graphic design at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, but left before graduating. Why was that? I completed the final year but wasn’t awarded my degree, and no way was I about to repeat the year. It was already clear to me during the course that graphic design wasn’t really my thing, but I had no idea what else to do. And by the time I was done I didn’t feel not having a degree would be a hindrance. In fact, it made me all the more determined to show what I can do without one.
“I bluffed my way onto my first serious commission.”
Hein, you studied architectural design at the AKI Academy of Art & Design in Enschede. Why, and what did you do upon graduation? I actually wanted to be a graphic designer, but discovered in the first year that I was better suited to spatial design. If I’d been any bolder, I’d have become a sculptor. Then again, I really love designing functional things; and surviving purely as an artist seems so incredibly difficult. I worked for the landscape architects Sant en Co in The Hague after graduation.
You’re known today as the design duo Vlieger & Vandam. How did you meet? Hein: Karin Langeveld, a friend of Carolien’s, connected us when I moved to The Hague. I’d met Karin during my student exchange year in Helsinki. Carolien: Karin was meeting him at the Binnenhof and asked me along. I took to him immediately. It all went pretty quickly from there.
When did it become apparent that you needed to become a team? Carolien: I’d taken a part-time job at Pathé Cinema after the academy, and was also working as a self-employed designer. I bluffed my way onto my first serious commission — to create some Flash animation clips — via a friend in Zurich. I taught myself what I needed to know from a book and pulled it off. Assignments rolled in after that. Hein: We were already working on and off on some of Carolien’s projects, and then I started getting the urge to create something of my own. So when we moved in together after a year as a couple, I gave up my regular job and we applied for income support as artists. Turned out to be a wise decision.
What was your first project as a team? Hein: A series of hats in the form of hairstyles: “wearable hair”. Carolien: It made sense because it was so personal. Hein: I’ve got Alopecia areata, so I was quite young when I lost my hair. I wasn’t bullied for it, but it did affect me in that it made me less comfortable being in the spotlight. I thought it would be cool to be able to wear a hairstyle every once in a while. We searched for material you could snip without fraying, and arrived at felt.
In 2002, you launched what would become your signature model, the Guardian Angel Handbag: a series of bags embossed with the outline of a handgun, knife or cross. Where did you get the idea? Carolien: We discovered while researching materials for wearable hair that you could emboss all sorts of things in felt, and we experimented with embossing a variety of shapes, including that of a fake gun I’d picked up years ago at a hotel in Switzerland. We’d only recently moved to Rotterdam, which was still gripped by the murder of the politician Pim Fortuin, and the newspapers were filled with nothing but danger and violence. We wanted to do something symbolic of a guardian angel while also conveying a message. We felt the best medium for this was a bag.
Hein: We didn’t actually know how to make a bag, so we bought second-hand ones, cut out the bottom bits and replaced these with our embossed felt designs. Carolien: It was meant to be an artistic statement rather than a commercial project, and we sent photographs to the Fanshop gallery in Amsterdam, who allowed us to exhibit it. Hein: It generated lots of publicity, which led to an invitation to show our work in the new talent section of a design fair in Frankfurt. So we thought: let’s launch a bag label.
“I think even when I’m old and senile I’ll still remember the moment we walked into MoMA and saw the image of our bag beaming back at us from a huge screen.”
And how did you begin? Carolien: The first thing we did was change our name. “StudioStraks” became the more internationally convenient “Vlieger & Vandam”. Having both our names on the label was important, as it's a true partnership. We drew inspiration for our corperate identity from New York labels and boutiques. Hein: We’d exhausted our source of second-hand bags, so we went looking for an outfit that could make the sort of semi-finished products we needed — the upper part of the bag, with latches and hinges — and found what we were after in India. We produced the wet patches of embossed felt in our kitchen, and had a local sailmaker stitch these to the semi-finished bags. Carolien: We’d ordered 500 of these, without a single pre-order.
How did you know how to do business with a manufacturing partner in India? Carolien: We didn’t know; we just trusted our instincts. Hein: Google! Carolien: We thought: Fuck it; let’s take the risk. Worst-case scenario we lose some money.
You’re both self-taught, with respect to bags. So how did you make it your speciality? Hein: I took a leatherwork and bag-making course, and Carolien got herself trained as an artisanal shoemaker. I felt it was important to understand how bags were made, and to know how to communicate knowledgeably with manufacturers; to know the names of parts and processes, how things should be done, and how they could be done.
Carolien: We knew almost nothing: how to set up production and what to expect; how to price your offering. Yet we knew we’d make it work.
Recall any major rookie mistakes? Hein: We priced the bags far too low in the beginning. Which meant that when we began working with leather and turned our attention to a higher segment of the market, we lost some Dutch boutiques. As a creative, you want to be able to experiment and explore without restrictions, but buyers often want more of the same. This is why Hungry Jack — the bag we designed in the shape of a hairy dachshund with its X-ray on one side — didn’t do as well as Guardian Angel.
Guardian Angel was part of a 2005 MoMA exhibition in New York, and was later included in its permanent collection. How did that feel? Hein: The best bit was on the flight to New York for the opening party, and being only half-awake when a short feature about the exhibition appeared on the in-flight screen, with shots of our bag. It felt surreal! Carolien: I think even when I’m old and senile I’ll still remember the moment we walked into MoMA and saw the image of our bag beaming back at us from a huge screen. That and the blanched green beans!
Your bags carry a disclaimer. Is this because of a lesson learned the hard way? Carolien: No, it’s merely a precaution that’s now an integral part of our designs; a playful bit of text. Hein: Something along the lines of: “Warning: this isn’t a real gun, but don’t go to the bank with it, or try taking it on board as hand luggage.” It’s more a sort of tongue-in-cheek message than a read-this-to-absolve-us-of-responsibility disclaimer.
Are there any disadvantages to having a signature model? Carolien: Of course. We do much more than that model, but the other designs often get overlooked. We even considered taking the model out of the collection, but quickly came to the conclusion that it’s an important part of our history and deserves to be treasured — and developed even further, with colour and style variations. It can be tricky having something that successful, but that’s a luxury problem.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the bag; rather, we’re interested in using our techniques to take what exists further.”
In 2006, Hein won a diversity immigrant visa in America’s famous green card lottery, after which you got married, and, in 2010, moved to New York for an indefinite period. Why New York, and what was the plan? Carolien: We’ve always been attracted by the energetic vibe of cities like New York, both personally and as designers. And it seemed a more conducive environment than the one we occupied in our little country. Hein: A friend of ours owned an apartment in New York that we could use whenever we visited, and we typically spent a couple of months there each year and felt very comfortable. So we started to feel like living and working there.
So why did you move back to Amsterdam? Hein: The newcomer’s enthusiasm began to tail off slightly with each year, and we started to have second thoughts as our appreciation of what we had in the Netherlands grew. Carolien: It became increasingly clear that if we moved the entire operation to New York, we’d have to build a lot of things again from scratch, which would require more effort than it was worth. We’d only just moved from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, because that was a more logical place to be in terms of publications, magazines, stylists, photographers and buyers. On top of all that, the financial crisis happened, and we had our first kid.
You’re a couple as well as business partners. How do you split the roles? Carolien: I cover everything related to the website, the online shop and administration. Hein manages our relationship with retailers, manufacturers and the outside world. Design we do together. Hein: I sometimes go a bit overboard with the designs, but Carolien usually gets the idea back on track. We complement each other beautifully. Carolien: And Hein always gets his way in the end!
What are the benefits of running a business as a couple? Hein: That you can pour all your enthusiasm into it together and give it everything you’ve got to make a success of it, which is a great bulwark against giving up at the first sign of a potential setback. Carolien: You’ve also got the huge advantage of being able to manage your family time more easily. We’re usually home with the kids in the afternoon, the four of us eating together.
And the downsides? Hein: The financially difficult periods take their toll on you both. Carolien: You can easily drag each other into depression. Then again, you can just as easily drag each other out of it.
How would you describe your style, and where do you get your inspiration? Carolien: Classic without frills. Cool, refined, and tongue-in-cheek. Hein: When we started out, we found inspiration in what was happening in the world around us. But we now seek it more in the techniques we’ve developed: how far can you take embossing? We’re not trying to reinvent the bag; rather, we’re interested in using our techniques to take what exists further.
You began very conceptually, but this is no longer easily discernible in your collection, which leans more towards a cool and fashionable aesthetic. What happened to the socially critical layer? Carolien: I think we’ve always been fascinated by the “cool” aspect, and found that the conceptual layer sometimes functioned as unwelcome ballast: forcing the conceptual angle for the sake of it doesn’t work. In addition to our backstory, we’ve now got techniques that allow us to go in any direction we want. Hein: You see the world differently when you’re younger. Moreover, the world has changed: everyone has 24/7 access to news via their smartphone, and everyone’s inundated with a flood of opinions via social media. It’s tiring, and I don’t feel the need to add to this by imposing my take on the world on anyone. Which doesn’t mean we unlikely to drop something conceptual again at any moment. We’ll keep doing both.
“We were pretty pissed off when we found out, and have spent a fortune on lawyers.”
There are blogs with instructions for making fake Vlieger & Vandam bags, and your bags are widely counterfeited in China. How do you handle this consequence of success? Hein: On the one hand, it's a form of recognition. And there’s some amusing satisfaction to be had from the fact that “even Vlieger and Vandam” has ended up on the roster of Chinese remakes; the label apparently symbolises value, has a certain cachet. But we were pretty pissed off when we found out, and have spent a fortune on lawyers. Carolien: Such ugly PU leather fakes hurt the brand. It did upset us a few years ago, but fighting it brings you almost nothing but stress, so we’ve had to learn to live with it a bit.
Celebrities like Rihanna, Fergie and Rita Ora have been spotted with your bags, you’re in outlets from Belgium to Japan. What did you have to do to create such success? Carolien: We made the label a household name by showing almost every season at Premiere Classe Tuileries in Paris. Hein: And we’ve kept in touch with the PR people, news agencies and stylists who brought our bags to the attention of celebrities.
Carolien: Celebrities wearing our bags had a snowball effect: all of a sudden we were getting calls from department stores in Asia, which brought us to the attention of a much wider audience, whom we could then show what else we had in our collection, which allowed us to grow rapidly. We worked hard for it, but we also had a great deal of luck.
What do you need to make it in the fashion world? Carolien: Perseverance. Hein: Stubbornness and naivety, in the sense that you simply have to keep going, without losing the conviction that you’ll succeed. If we weren’t as determined as we are, we’d have long given up.
And which qualities do you lack? Hein: The qualities you need to show up to every fashion party. That’s just not our thing. Carolien: They not all that interesting. If attending every party in the relatively small world of Dutch fashion is what it takes, we’d rather remain an obscure label that no one can put a face to. Don’t get us wrong — it’s not that we don’t like parties; we just think it’s more productive to do that sort of thing within the Paris network that organises the trade fairs.
To whom do you turn for advice, help or inspiration, besides each other? Hein: Other entrepreneurs. For instance, Bernard Jongstra, who co-founded Gem Kingdom. Or the Icelandic couple behind Kron by KRONKRON, whom we meet every year at the fashion fair in Paris. Such amazing characters; and similarly down-to-earth. Carolien: And our accountant — young guy, but with incredibly sound judgement.
“What we don’t do is allow ourselves be caught in the trap of using social media to advertise, or fall prey to everyone who calls themself a vlogger, blogger or influencer.”
Any particular reason why you haven’t opened a physical store as yet? And do you plan to? Carolien: We’ve experimented over the past year with a boutique at our studio, and it’s been great: it’s allowed us to have lots of direct contact with our more familiar customers. But it hasn’t drawn in new customers, because we’re not in one of the premier shopping districts. Hein: A Russian customer dropped by yesterday. He was on his way home from Dublin via Amsterdam, took a taxi from Schiphol and left with six bags. Carolien: We’d like to have our own store, and we know there’s sufficient demand to warrant one. But a store is a company in itself, and an investment. And we’re still undecided about the location.
How important is social media to online business at the moment, and how do you use it? Carolien: Very important. We use Facebook and Instagram, and try to do so as wisely as possible. What we don’t do is allow ourselves be caught in the trap of using social media to advertise, or fall prey to everyone who calls themself a vlogger, blogger or influencer. You have to stay true to yourself, stay clearheaded, and don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing. Instagram will be displaced by something else within a few years, and if you build your whole strategy around it, you’ll just find yourself having to repeat the whole process again with the new thing.
Hein: There seem to be five influencers on practically every street these days, and we get requests from them every week. I had one from an Albanian girl recently, and I responded because she sounded cool. I’d hoped for a conversation about how she envisaged collaborating, but she wrote back to say: “You send me bag, I post picture.” Now, is this someone who thinks you make great bags, or someone who sends thousands of similar emails to designers and flogs the bags on eBay?
Carolien: We’ve grown a bit cynical. Our association with a few stars has brought us a great deal of success, of course, but all these “influencers”? Not so sure about them.
A brand or product reflects the people behind it. What would you like your products to say about you? Hein: That we consider humour and levity important. And that you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously.
“Our goal is to keep the company creative, and remain creative ourselves.”
You’ve managed your development as designers, and, in particular, as autodidacts. When you look back over the years, what part of the journey has been your greatest source of pride? Carolien: I think it's absolutely amazing that we’ve managed every step of the way through sheer self-belief and hard work, and without investors. And that, because of this, we can now live wherever we choose. Hein: The fact that we could actually afford a house! And I think it's so cool that there are factory workers in Poland making a living because of us; that we’ve set a sort of small machine in motion.
You had to layoff three of your workers in 2015, and you mentioned giving up the beautiful studio that’s bestowed a certain amount of prestige on the brand in order to work from home? Aren’t you worried about losing face? Carolien: You know what would be a loss of face? Going under. I’m proud of all our decisions, including the difficult ones. I also believe that when you stand behind your decisions without embarrassment, you can take subsequent steps easily.
Having Vlieger and Vandam in 70 outlets around the world is quite an achievement. What’s the next goal? Hein: I always imagined that once you reach a certain level, you just keep building; but that's not how it works at all. Sometimes you’re in 50 outlets, sometimes 90. Boutiques fall away, buyers leave — nothing is guaranteed. Carolien: For a while I thought we needed to keep growing, and keep expanding the collection. But now I think it’d be nicer to simply have the room to do whatever we really feel like doing: create more home interior-type products, like upholstery, or maybe design some really cool jackets. Hein: I think our goal is to keep the company creative, and remain creative ourselves. There are lots of people who started out like us, but then gradually evolved into being managers, I don’t want that to happen to us; I want to occupy that creative space myself. Other than that, I think it’d be awesome to one day pass the baton on to someone else so that our creation lives on.
If Melania Trump’s people were to call tomorrow with a commission to design an exclusive bag for the First Lady, what would it look like? Hein: We’d probably design something really elegant with a secret interior pocket, or with a beautiful tiny but clearly visible exterior one, stitched to accommodate two tailor-made earplugs.