ICEBREAKERS / The Little History Container
THE LITTLE HISTORY
Stefan Siegel and Alessio de’ Navasques embrace the themes of craftsmanship and time, giving value and importance to the creativity that emerges outside of traditional centres of fashion and business.
conceived and curated by Linda Loppa
produced by NAM – Not a Museum
11 containers tematici e una rassegna di 11 conversazioni tra coppie di personalità provenienti da tutto il mondo e attivi in diversi ambiti di competenza: moda, design, scienza, arte e letteratura. Un gioco di equilibrio tra opposti per ritrovare il piacere di parlare insieme, con la moderazione di Linda Loppa, curatrice del progetto.
“We look back, just for a while…an intense moment… We create a small container in which we show a historic or a contemporary dress; we will study the object, describe the subject, make a project or an exhibition. This small container is the only reference to the past; it’s a homage to craft, eccentricity, pride and conservation.”
In the Little History Container there are Stefan Siegel, founder of Not Just A Label in Los Angeles, NJAL, and Alessio de’ Navasques, co-creator of the Artisanal Intelligence project, and a writer and curator based in Rome.
This Container is the home of two complimentary visions: one of an entrepreneur who gives visibility to emerging designers, using a digital platform to bypass intermediaries and traditional power structures; the other a curator whose work focuses on the rediscovery of local artisan production, enriching it with the story of its cultural heritage, woven throughout cinema, fashion and art. The changing of a system begins with ideas that render it obsolete, in turn supported by business models and visions. For designers, their skills as an entrepreneur are as important as the skills of their craft. However, they still need to be able to take risks and make mistakes, because a society which inhibits initiative through rules, costs and lack of opportunities, runs the risk of becoming impoverished itself. There will be cities that are open to creatives, giving life to new creations. And if these are not London, New York and Paris, we will need to find others.
THE LITTLE HISTORY CONTAINER – CONVERSATION TRANSCRIPT
Hello Stefan, Hello Alessio,
Stefan, could you present yourself and the database ‘Not Just A Label’ that everybody working in fashion is familiar with. What I appreciate about your work is that you are a counterbalance on the fashion weeks who are becoming really too powerful. So please, could you address this topic for starting the discussion.
Sure. Thanks so much, Linda, for having me. ‘Not Just A Label’ was created in 2008 to give visibility to every designer who has a great creative idea, who has a great vision for design. And we wanted to provide a free platform because, as you know, the fashion system, as it was functioning for the last 40/50 years meant that unless you spend money, you will not get the visibility that you need to be able to retail your designs and to be able to reach the customer. So, the system was always built in a way that it contradicts or in some way it hinders the designers from being able to reach the consumer who might be interested in purchasing their designs. I think for the last 10 years we’ve been working on cutting out the middleman and creating a new system in fashion that connects the creators directly with the people they need to speak to and interact with. And I think we’ve achieved that by creating a platform that is free of cost for now close to 49,000 designers around the world. We’ve been working with about 200 universities around the world to just allow everyone, and especially fashion graduates, to use Not Just A Label, a bit like how people who go and study business would use LinkedIn. So, it’s basically a business card in the online world. And it allows you to do anything you want with it. Over the years, we created many great projects to go beyond the digital platforms. We have created physical events in Italy, like the Origin show in Vicenza but also huge retail stores in Dubai, New York, Berlin, London to basically show the consumer that there’s an alternative to established brands, but also an alternative to fast fashion.
And I think this year has been one for a significant change, but also a significant growth and an opportunity for growth. I would say almost like not reinventing the system, but I think with this year, the system has been forced to change and we took the initiative and for the first time introduced the retail functionality to our site. So, we launched a marketplace where every designer on Not Just A Label now can sell directly to the consumer and can completely bypass the fashion system as we know it. So, the first three months, it’s been online since August, have been fantastic. We have been seeing incredibly interesting results that will change how fashion works. 40 per cent of our products that designers sell are made to order. That means we’re going away from ready-to-wear. That means designers can wait for an order to come in and then make that garment from scratch and ship it out. So, contrary to the sort of Amazonification of the world, where everything needs to be delivered the next day, when somebody orders something they really want, and that is made for them, they are really willing to wait up to 30 days for that product. As Not Just A Label, we take the risk away from everyone because the consumer pays us. We let the designer work on the garment, they ship it, and then the designer gets paid. We give 70 per cent of the retail price to the designers, which is huge. If you would buy the same dress on Net-A-Porter, the designer would probably get about 8 to 10 per cent. So there’s a huge increase in terms of profit margin, because the designers don’t have to go to fashion weeks, as you mentioned, they don’t have to go to trade shows, they don’t need a PR agency. They don’t need to send samples to an editor at Vogue magazine. So, it’s a complete democratization of fashion, but at the same time, you know, curating is still very important and we, as Not Just a Label, we want to make sure that this site is always well curated, because in the end, you know, the average order on our website is about $350. So, we’re still in a very high segment. But I think this is the future because we’re going away from designers over-producing as they can wait for orders to come in. We have a new term that we call cut-to-order, which means the designer waits for the order and starts cutting only when the order has come in. So, designers are not sitting on boxes full of dresses in small, medium, and large [sizes], and are waiting to ship them out. And we have seen an exceptionally low return rate; since August, we had less than 2 per cent of returns. If you compare it to Yoox, to Net-A-Porter, the return rate is over 60 per cent for those companies. Because people buy five dresses and send four back, or even they send all five back. With us, people do not return the item simply because they know they’re working directly with a maker. So, yes, it’s an innovative business model in fashion, but in a very embarrassing way for fashion, it’s also a business model that existed 500 years ago, when you went to a tailor and he had something made for you, you know, and it took that long for the fashion industry to change. And hopefully we can build on that.
Yes, the time was ready for a change. I guess that young designers are really enthusiastic about the change. They need to have that freedom. And they don’t feel asphyxiated by the big houses buying and selling companies and actually ruining the integrity of the fashion system. I think there is a lot of hope and I appreciate enormously what you do for those kids and for those designers.
Alessio, you are also taking care of heritage. You think that craftsmanship and heritage are important, but you will this explain better and point to what you are up to in the coming years.
ALESSIO DE’ NAVASQUES
Yes, my research has started from craftsmanship because I founded the project 10 years ago, called Artisanal Intelligence, AI, that in a way is the opposite of Artificial Intelligence. And 10 years ago, this concept of Artificial Intelligence was not so strong as now. Artisanal Intelligence is something difficult to define, but it is present in all Italian manufacturing in a way.
My research just started from that to connect fashion with other arts, visual arts, cinema. So, we worked at this project that had exhibits, but not only on exhibits, a sort of new model, like a mood board, a sort of big mood board, in which there were heritage, new designers and archives. And this started in Rome because Rome is the place for that, in a way, if we think about the importance of cinema. We’ve just finished an exhibit in Rome that was about the inspiration between costume design and fashion.
And this is the real DNA that we have, if you just think about the designers starting from here –Alessandro Michele, Maria Grazia Chiuri or Pierpaolo Piccioli – that is something that is very connected with the cinema heritage. What I’m talking about is that this DNA is present in all countries, in every different heritage there is a way to talk between people. We started this project in Tulum, that was to connect the design, the contemporary design with the local community in which the crafts are a way to express also a spiritual and very deep message that they received from nature, something super important and sacred. This is for me very important, and could be a way to rethink the future.
It is becoming a trend for different brands to talk about crafts and partnerships, but it’s also a way to produce less and to be more conscious and more sustainable because the artisanal production is sustainable in a way and an important value for the new generations from what I see in schools and the collaborations and workshops that we did.
Stefan, you see a lot of kids coming from school; are they always at a good level? What do they not have?
If I would have given you an answer a year ago, there’s a different answer now with what is going on in the world.
I think there’s probably no education in the world that can prepare you for what we’re going through right now. I think there are no rules and, I mean, are designers prepared? No. But I think, I hope, they find a moment of wakening where obviously the traditional fashion education teaches you also the traditional fashion system, which includes, you know, all the middlemen that we discussed, from trade shows to fashion weeks, to distributors, to showrooms.
The fact that you have to basically rent your collection to a store and then they sell it for you and you get your money a year later, and all of these things that were so prevalent in previous times, because in some way it was built so that designers were almost forced to sort of pay their dues to be part of the fashion game and this system. I think that is gone now.
And I think if there’s one thing that designers need to know right now is how to sell directly from their studio. I think that’s one really important thing. And the other important thing is being flexible in how they operate their business. I think the businesses that will continue to exist and grow next year are the businesses that can scale up really quickly, but they can also scale down really quickly. I think as a business owner, you need to be flexible and you need to be able to, let’s say, work from your home, but you need to be able to employ 10 people when you need them, but you also need to be able to run your business alone when things get really tough. And that’s how I think you should continue building that business. I don’t think there’s any indication that teaches you what, you know, even us as a business are going through right now, because we’re sitting at home and running the business from our kitchen tables.
But interestingly enough, Not Just a Label in 2016, took the decision to already build up a team that works around the world on a remote basis. I’ve been working from home for the last two or three years because we were in London, we had about 30 employees in one big office and the rent kept on going up. And at some point, I realized that 50 or 60 per cent of our yearly costs are just overheads from having an office. So, the same thing applies to designers. I think the creativity is something they learn in school or they get inspired elsewhere and that’s not what I’m concerned about. What I’m concerned about is how you get digitally savvy? How do you do your photography properly? You know, so many designers who are uploading products to our marketplace right now don’t even have current descriptions; how would you describe you’re dress in a way that somebody wants to buy it, or how do you describe your dress so that somebody can understand if they need to get a medium or a large [size]; these are all points that designers need to start learning.
In fact, it’s another business model they have to learn. And they are their own CEO and they have to be careful that they produce locally; do we produce more locally? Alessio and Stefan the same question.
ALESSIO DE’ NAVASQUES
I think it’s becoming more interesting to be more local as we are rediscovering our production, our tradition. For me, my point is now that the creative director is becoming someone that doesn’t only make clothes, but does projects with artists.
When I teach, what I see that is really missing, is the research. The research is becoming flat, something very Instagram, very superficial. The difference is that all the brands, the big brands do millions of projects right now and in the past it was not like that. Now they do film, they do exhibits, they do collaborations with artists, because all these materials are produced for the online. That’s why we need to be ready.
Everything started from a sort of knowledge that we are losing in school, because sometimes they are very technical. And the research is flat when you see the mood board it’s hard to see something really new and interesting. It’s something that is taken from Pinterest, it is something that is taken from Instagram. You see this image and you ask them what is that? And they don’t know; I saw it on Instagram, I saw it on Pinterest. It seems there is no story behind the research, behind an image that is taken for a collection.
How can we resolve that Stefan?
Difficult. I mean, you know, to your earlier questions, I think local production is necessary right now because when the lockdown started to happen around the world, there were those designers who were waiting for their shipping container from China to be offloaded at the port and their factories were closed. I think they were completely stifled in terms of how they run their business. And then there are other designers who manufacture locally and then their business is doing really well. I think that productions are coming back into the local or regional environment in terms of inspiration.
I mean, I have to agree with Alessio. Social media is the enemy of the world right now, and it’s really, really hard and I think the hardest part is that social media is such a low, the lowest hanging fruit in terms of technology. You know, there’s so much interesting technology out there. But the fact that we, in fashion, unfortunately, are pretty happy with something that is quite average, and Instagram is now the biggest tool that people use in fashion to be inspired, but also to inspire others. And that’s an issue. I read a really interesting quote and it said: “the guru does not sit on a mountain and say, have you seen my Instagram account?” And I think that really applies to that.
I think we need to bring together now the digital and the physical to make both more interesting because separated they are a bit weak for the moment. If we can overlap the digital and become more curators, curating is a word that has been used and overused especially in fashion and in art, but I think if a designer learns to curate a dress and tell the story and make it more beautiful by producing a kind of interesting imagery, we make a step forward. What do you think Stefan?
I fully agree. I think it’s just hard at the moment to sort of say we should all be more inspired. Because it’s hard. I see even with myself and my girlfriend. The first four or five months of the pandemic for us were great because being in California and having nice weather and endless nature up here we completely fell in love with nature again, and we were out there and we were inspired. And now that it’s autumn and it’s getting colder and I’m sure in Europe it’s even worse, it’s just, you’re stuck. And at some point, you just stop dressing up, you start wearing sweat pants, you start wearing hoodies. Sometimes you don’t need to be dressed anymore. So, I have days where I’m not even inspired by my own life and I’m looking at this screen every day for 10 hours and it’s just hard, but I think what is more interesting is perhaps there is something that we will find in 20 years from now, we will look back at the era of the pandemic and there’s a really interesting type of fashion that came out. I hope it’s more than the hoodie, but we’ll see. Although the hoodie at the moment is the most sold item in fashion globally.
Stefan do you believe, or Alessio do you believe that smaller cities can again produce interesting designers? Alessio?
ALESSIO DE’ NAVASQUES
I do a project in Italy that is about the migrant trend, the trend created by migrants, the refugees that are in Italy. We helped them to develop their dreams, to study fashion, to have their tailoring. And what is interesting is their approach to fashion. We really need them, because there’s something super, super wonderful new energy in fashion. New ideas and really a new subculture, how they mix the fake, they have their trends, they love to have elements of wax mixed with street culture. We did a lot of workshops together with a museum in Rome. It was super interesting. I think the big cities are a little bit strange and in the cities that are dominated by business it is more and more difficult to find something interesting, something new.
Where do you find the best design Stephan? In what kind of zone in the world?
We’ve always been saying that fashion comes from more than just four fashion capitals and our website is a testament to that. I mean, there are designers from 150 countries and we have 300 new designers joining every month and they come from five continents. So the city of origin for us doesn’t really matter because we see creativity being fantastic all around the world.
What is happening now though, is interesting because about two or three years ago, especially with Brexit, but also with the cost of living being so high in cities like New York and London, those two cities, they lost about 34 per cent of their young, creative populations of people between 25 and 35 years old left those cities. And we know where they went. They went to Berlin to Barcelona, to Rome, to Warsaw, in the US they went to Nashville, to Bozeman. And these are really interesting up and coming cities.
What actually just happened, which is funny, just an hour ago, I was actually speaking on a panel for the region of Alto Adige, where I’m from, and they’re working on some sort of way of recognizing their own creative economy. And I think they’re very early in realizing that there’s a regional power now. There’s no reason to be in these big cities anymore. I’m paying thousands of euros, of dollars, on rent. And I always said, if creatives are not allowed to make mistakes and the society doesn’t benefit, because we need to put creators in a place where they can experiment, research, they can make mistakes over and over again, and then finally come up with something that is finally ready, but it needs to be ready when they want, and not when they need to sell it because they need to pay next month’s rent. So, I think it’s interesting what’s happening. And there’s no reason for people to live in these big cities anymore. And it’s great that it’s coming back, that people can go to smaller towns and they can use the regional resources they have there, which are fantastic. So, we’ll see what’s happening.
I believe in those neighbourhoods and in a new energy coming from smaller cities. I was thinking about Antwerp in the early days. We invented some things and we made mistakes, but it was a kind of natural movement. I’m looking forward to that new way that young people will connect, because big brands are become bigger and more powerful and the smaller ones have to work harder to have visibility. There is a kind of new balance that is going to be developed. Stefan, you were the first to prove it, but there is a lot of work to do, I guess?
Yes, let’s say, the playing field is getting more levels. I think what is great is that if designers are digitally savvy and they can use the internet the right way, then there are no boundaries. They can become very big very quickly. But I think there’s a lot that politics and infrastructures can do. It’s really interesting because I’ve not been living in Italy for a long time, but I was just told that the profession of an artist is not even recognized in Italy. So that’s what those petitions were just saying in the panel that I was on. And I was shocked. There’s no Partita Iva [vat number] for our artists, which is crazy. You know, it’s like the birthplace of art and that’s not recognized. I think these are the things that need to change. And then hopefully the good thing is if you look at how much support agriculture gets. If you have to buy a machine for operating your fields and that costs €500.000, there’s a way to finance that through the government. But if a photographer needs to buy a camera for €20.000 euros, there’s nothing! But I think the return on investment is huge now. I think there are cities like Antwerp, like Nashville in the music industry and so on, if there are small hubs that can now act and just say, we have a building, let’s fill it with artists, let’s make no rent and let’s reduce the taxes for those people and help them, then there’s a huge potential as well.
ALESSIO DE’ NAVASQUES
What Stefan does is great. I’ve worked a lot with Altaroma – that’s a competition that happens in Rome with young designers; the real problem for the designers, is to create their own business, as communication and publication is great, but the real point is how can you build your business? In Italy there is a big problem around that because there is no new brand really, or very, very few. And there were so many important competitions. Many designers are supported by the Camera della Moda in Milan, but no one has a real business or very few. Some, like The Attico who won a prize from Altagamma as young entrepreneur, by themselves through their social media power. And what Stefan does is great, to give the opportunity to develop, to have a window.
I think in the future, the store will be a sort of archive in which you can see the clothes, and then you can order online. The store is a big issue to discuss, because I don’t know if in the future there will be stores. It’s something that will be an experience, it will be something like an archive for me.
We can squat the shops in New York and do something great there; let’s break the rules and go into all those shops that are empty and have no content. I feel, so far, with everybody I talked to, there was a kind of optimistic, positive feeling. There is a kind of tiredness, but I feel there is also a kind of optimism and especially in smaller cities.
ALESSIO DE’ NAVASQUES
Yeah, I think there is an opportunity to rebuild the system that is finished in a way. With the same ways, the same worlds, there will be something new for sure.
So, let’s finish on this survival positive note. And I thank you both for this interesting conversation. Thank you, Stefan, for all the work for young designers, we appreciate it. Keep on doing this, because we need you. Thank you Alessio. Have a nice day.
Ph. Thilo Ross
Stefan Siegel on instagram
Stefan Siegel, a native South Tyrolean — the German speaking part of the Triveneto region in Northern Italy, grew up in an area responsible for over 40% of all high-end and luxury manufacturing, a surrounding where the ‘Made In Italy’ label is really being defined. Following his high school career at Venice’s prestigious military college, the Francesco Morosini Naval School, he kick-started his colourful career during his Economics studies in Vienna when he gained experience in the fashion and media industry working for prestigious design houses and advertising agencies. Following a successful modelling career that took him to five continents, he achieved his MA in International Business Administration in 2004 at the Vienna University of Economics. After graduation Stefan joined the world of finance, working for renowned companies such as Ernst & Young and Sal. Oppenheim in Switzerland, and finally the Merrill Lynch M&A Investment Banking group in New York and London specialising in the Consumer & Retail sector and advising publicly listed fashion powerhouses. Stefan used his gained experience to launch NOT JUST A LABEL (NJAL). Although launching the company on a shoestring in 2008, NJAL today is the leading global platform for emerging fashion designers and ranks among the most respected websites in the fashion industry. As the world’s leading designer platform for showcasing and nurturing today’s pioneers in contemporary fashion, it represents over 45,000 designers from 150 countries. It is an infinitely expanding destination devoted to facilitating growth in the fashion industry and has established itself as a distinctive creative hub fostering innovation.
Alessio de’Navasques on Instagram
Alessio de’Navasques was born in Puglia, Italy, in 1985. After studying Architecture in Rome, he has started his own research focused on fashion and craftsmanship’s heritage with a particular interest in creating connection between the former and contemporary visual arts and new media.
As an independent curator, he has developed exhibition projects, festivals and panels, cooperating with local and foreign institutions, museums and private galleries.
As an art director and strategic consultant, he has designed special projects for luxury brands such as Bulgari and has worked with trade shows such as White in Milan and Fiera Milano; he has collaborated for ten years with Altaroma – the Rome Fashion Week directed by Silvia Venturini Fendi.
He is the founder and creative director of A.I. Artisanal Intelligence, conceived as a platform that researches and promotes innovative forms of craftsmanship, artistic expression and new talents, while keeping in mind the historical realities of Italian manufacturers.
As a visiting lecturer, he has taught in notable Italian fashion schools such as IED, 24 Ore Business School, Giunti Academy, IUAV University and NABA.
Interested in the topics of sustainability and intercultural dialogue in fashion, design and contemporary creative expressions, in 2019 he has worked as a consultant for Azulik’s project IK LAB in Tulum (Mexico), developing the project of an innovative new Arts and Crafts school and research centre in heart of Yucatan jungle, based on the idea of cross disciplinary, cultural exchange and interaction with local communities.
In the same year, he curated Jeff Bark’s solo show “Paradise Garage” at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, the first exhibition in Italy of the American fashion photographer. He has also recently curated “Anton Yelchin – Provocative Beauty”, in the renovated spaces of the Palazzo Brancaccio in Rome. In 2020 he has worked as a strategic advisor on the realization of ROMAISON exhibition about the relation between fashion and costume, at the Ara Pacis Museum, in Rome.
He is a regular contributor to several magazines: I-D, Vogue, Dust and Artribune, authoring a number of articles, interviews and reviews.