Three years ago Alexander Brenninkmeijer found himself faced with the same problem that stumps many entrepreneurs – a lack of cash. He wanted to open a shop in Paris or London for his new mens- and womenswear brand, Clemens en August, but knew it would cost €10m. So he came up with an alternative strategy: to tour the collection across Europe and sell the clothes from a host of appropriate venues.
Monocle caught up with Brenninkmeijer in Copenhagen on this year’s spring/summer collection tour. It’s opening day and his team is busy finalising last-minute details before the first customers arrive. The venue is a vacant retail space located in the heart of the city’s shopping district. “It’s our first time in Copenhagen,” he says. “We have loyal customers, but it’s nice when you come to a new city. People are really curious and we always get a good reception.”
Brenninkmeijer does not invest in any advertising so he relies on word-of-mouth to generate interest in the label. Each year up to 5,000 new people sign up to the Clemens en August website to find out more about the upcoming tours.
These days Brenninkmeijer operates a tight schedule. There are two tours each year: one in October for the autumn/winter collection and a tour in April for the spring/summer collection. Speed is vital. The collection stays in a city for only three days at a time. By keeping overheads down, Brenninkmeijer says he is able to retail the clothes at a more competitive price – suits for men cost between €450 and €600. It is an ingenious business model for a notoriously cutthroat industry.
“Shops can be dead space,” he says. “They are extremely expensive and can be empty a lot of the time, which makes it hard for a business to tap into the real power of turnover. This is a more efficient way.” Brenninkmeijer knows the industry well. He co-founded the successful fashion label Kostas Murkudis with Birgit Rehm and Kostas Murkudis, before setting up Clemens en August.
Clemens en August is headquartered in Munich. When Monocle drops by on a hot July day, Brenninkmeijer is putting the forthcoming autumn/winter collection into production. Inside the studio, a former metal workshop, it is cool and airy. Sewing machines and stacks of multi-coloured fabrics fill the expansive open-plan space. Flicking through the latest samples, Brenninkmeijer offers us an exclusive preview of the soon-to-launch collection.
The Clemens en August style is distinctive: simple, classic cuts with sporty details that recall the golden years of Helmut Lang. Each season typically comprises around 40 different styles. Brenninkmeijer picks out the Bob Dylan shirt, which was inspired by the black shirts the singer-songwriter used to wear, as one of this season’s signature menswear offerings.
“In the menswear collection we always try to do something with the detailing, focusing on the technical aspects of the clothes,” he says. The early 1960s style is a major theme. Key colour highlights are pink and red.
Clemens en August manufactures the clothes in Germany, Austria and Hungary. The production office is in Pinggau, a small town in Austria. The company is small with a permanent staff of seven, plus a handful of freelance designers and pattern-makers.
Brenninkmeijer has big ambitions for the business. In one of the glass-fronted meeting rooms he shows us a document outlining the label’s first brand proposition. Sipping on rhubarb juice, he talks throughout the presentation which is peppered with buzz words such as “craftsmanship”, “independent” and “approachable exclusivity”.
“I want to start looking forward at how to develop and present the brand in different cities,” he says. “This is also a sales tool – it can be used by our staff in the different locations, to help them understand what we are about.”
With more focused initiatives, Brenninkmeijer expects to double turnover within the next three tours and plans to debut the collection in the States this year. He is still finalising the details but aims to start the upcoming autumn/ winter tour in New York and the spring/summer tour in Los Angeles. “We think the US market is right for us,” he says. Japan is also in the pipeline.
Brenninkmeijer is, after all, a well-connected man. He is directly related to the Brenninkmeijer brothers, who founded the Dutch textile empire, C&A. He even took their first names – Clemens en August – to brand the label.
“In the 19th century the brothers took their textiles around Holland and sold directly to farmers,” he says. “It seemed a nice fit with what I was doing. I didn’t want to hide from my background and knew C&A would be associated with me, so why not make a story out of it,” he says. With its elegant clothes and pioneering business model, the brothers would surely approve.