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Stefan Siegel

The founder of Not Just a Label tells Graeme Moran why a change in shopper attitudes is needed if young design talent is to flourish.

Can you explain the concept behind Not Just a Label?

It is the world’s leading designer platform for showcasing and nurturing today’s pioneers in fashion. Working as a digital launch pad for emerging designers, we succeed in providing a free-of-charge space where talent is showcased to a global audience.

The concept is to ‘discover and support pioneers’ – how exactly do you go about discovering and supporting them?

After launching in 2008, NJAL was quick to become the fastest growing platform of its kind. With over 7,000 designers in 94 countries, we represent the largest conglomerate on young fashion designers. By insisting that no young designer should be forced to pay a large sum to get the exposure they deserve, we provide designers with an all-encompassing digital space to kick-start their careers. NJAL finds its most supportive partners in the leading design schools, publications and fashion brands, credibility is crucial for our business.

What do you think makes someone a pioneer?

A brain for starters! Joking aside, I think pioneering means looking forward, changing rather than passively consuming. Taking risks and abandoning the common path, which sounds so obvious but today’s creatures of the commonplace do everything to keep you part of the process.

Why did you decide to set up NJAL? Where did the idea come from?

NJAL is based on an idea that came to me and my brother Daniel.  We realised that the Internet can act as a networking platform for future fashion designers and those who are ready to present and sell their collections to the world. The industry lacked such a platform; we wanted recruiting and trend scouting for fashion designers to be carried out on NJAL without geographical limits… literally a global showcase. There is also a strong business aspect within NJAL’s idea - support for grassroots talent across creative industries these days is crucial and by helping to develop thousands of brands we have a strong impact on the future of the industry and the way it works.

How many designers do you represent?

7,413, and they come from 92 countries.

How do you decide and edit who appears on the site? What is the process? How do you setup relationships with designers?

I have a great team that scouts designers, edits the pages and maintains the relationships with the talents. NJAL has a face, it is not an anonymous website. The scouting team, lead by Harry Weiler, meets the people and attends the trade shows and events. Most of NJAL’s designers have been handpicked at fashion weeks and graduate shows. This practice allows us to understand their market environment and allows NJAL to show greater consideration to the idiosyncrasies of the different markets and to the vastly different needs of the individual designers. This personal service develops a trusting relationship that, in turn, gives unique access to information that is highly valuable for our future strategy.

How does the concept work with it being free for designers? How does NJAL make money?

By not charging for our services we are able to attract the best designers worldwide, we want to put an end to designers always getting the raw end of deals. We work with designers, we share the risk and if they profit, we profit too. We take a commission on all items sold via our online stores, however our main revenue streams are larger collaborations and consulting jobs, where we include our designers as much as possible.

Your site had a redesign this year – what impact has this had on the business?

We relaunched the site in May to cement our position as the market leader in promoting and retailing collections of up-and-coming designers. We were able to increase the traffic by 60% and sales by 70%, and the traffic growth rate has been more than 20% per month since then.

Where is most of your traffic from – the UK or international?

UK, US and Europe are our main markets, however Asian countries are increasing rapidly.

Are you planning anymore changes?

Reinventing ourselves is part of the process, we want to stay ahead of the game.  Exciting tools and new parts of the sites will be launched very soon.

How important do you think blogs, tumblrs, facebook, twitter etc are to fashion nowadays?

Somewhere between very useful and completely useless. The latter because you could argue there is a disconnection between the social media followers and our actual customers, who are able to buy pieces that cost a few thousand pounds. On the other side, the youth that are growing up with social media will evolve in to one of the most well-informed and aware groups of customers in about 3-5 years. Once these kids have the purchasing power, the strategy of many retailers will have to change, and between us, I cannot wait for that moment when everyone will have to come up with something unique to get shoppers on their side.

Would you consider another pop-up store or even a permanent bricks-and-mortar space?

With more than 7,000 designers on our books everything is possible; from stores to trade shows, catwalk events or a gallery. Most likely, however, we will come up with something completely new. Aren’t you sick of pop-up stores by now?

Who are your top three tips for the big names of the future in fashion?

Check the Black Sheep section on NOTJUSTALABEL.com, they can be found in there!

You often support graduates – how important do you think places like Central Saint Martins are to fashion?

We work closely with the leading 50 design schools across the globe and lecture at many of these. Schools like Central Saint Martins are vital to shape the future of fashion, especially because some of these schools create talent with the drive to create their own brand and are willing to challenge this competitive environment and to stand out. These are the places we find our designers at, and help them to achieve their goals.

You set the company up with your brother – do you ever argue?

Always. When we don’t argue then we know something is wrong, or we are taking things for granted, which is never good for a start-up company.

Before setting up NJAL you studied an MA inInternational Economics and worked in finance – why did you decide to leave this career and start up NJAL?

I gained experience in the fashion and media industry during my Economics studies. After graduation I joined the world of finance, working among others for the Merrill Lynch’s M&A Investment Banking arm in London, focusing on the Consumer & Retail sector. I think the idea to start something new came when one sunny afternoon I realised I did not want to work for a bank any longer, my brother and I also knew a lot of aspiring designers who were telling us about their difficulties and one thing lead to another. We started NJAL with no clear revenue model, we just wanted to become a credible platform with a legitimate business model, money was secondary and it paid off.

How do you bring this knowledge to NJAL?

To be frank, these aren’t the best days to be a banker, but I wouldn’t want to miss one day of my previous career…nor of any other sectors like media or music I have previously worked in. Working in finance at least taught me how to be professional, how to work under pressure and we at NJAL work with fantastic team-members structured as if we were a listed public company. We even answer every single email we get…and that is quite something for a fashion company.

What do you like most and least about your job?

I do what I want. I really like that and I wouldn’t give it up for anything or anyone (hint: venture capitalists, stop trying). The least? Definitely the isolation, the insecurities, the continuous pressure, not sleeping at night, constantly thinking about the business and not being able to enjoy time with your friends I guess.

You get to travel a lot with your job – where are some of the most interesting places you’ve been?

Some of the most interesting places were Russia, Estonia and Lithuania. We’re excited about Lebanon and India next month. This is where we find designers who are able to use their background, culture and inspirations to create something unique.

Tell us an interesting story from one of your trips?

Last week I was in Prato, just outside of Florence. The city is home to the largest concentration of Chinese people in Europe -some legal, many more not.Besides about 300 Italian registered clothing and textile manufacturers there are some 3,200 Chinese businesses making and producing collections for retailers under the‘Made in Italy’ label.Quite an interesting sight, considering some see it as a rescue for Prato, others as a thread to Italian’s quality manufacturers as the so called ‘pronto moda’(fastfashion) ruins the reputation of Italian textile tradition.

NJAL has an editorial side to it aswell as an online store– whyis this? Do you think online stores need this editorial angle nowadays?

When we started NJAL, we were always asked at fashion shows if we are ´press or buyers´. While paper publications are becoming more prized and collected, online editorial content now links up with retailing channels. We editorialised our designers and their collections even before we were able to retail them, so it was something quite natural that has now evolved into something powerful.

What can the industry do to offer more support to graduates and new designers?

‘Helping designers’ is like a bandwagon at the moment – everyone wants to be on it. But a lot needs to be done on the manufacturing side. UK designers hardly produce in this country as prices are prohibitive. However, it’s not only the industry that has to help; shoppers have to understand that investing in a piece from a young designer is more sustainable than buying low-quality from the high street.

What’s next for Not Just a Label?

We’ll challenge the (fashion) Klingons for interstellar domination. And then some… 

  • Stefan Siegel is founder of website Not Just a Label, which promotes and sells up-and-coming designers

Quickfire questions

Who are your top Tweeters?

You have to follow @Queen_UK, the ‘Queen of Twitter’ makes me laugh every day. There are another 200 people we follow; my favourites are those making fun of an industry that takes itself too seriously.

What blogs do you read regularly?

I go through about 50 blogs and fashion websites once a week. Diane Pernet’s A Shaded View, Vogue Italia and Wallpaper are on top of my list.

What are your favourite cities to shop in and why?

Too many to mention, in terms of stores selling emerging designers, London unfortunately does not lead the way. New York, Moscow, Copenhagen and Milan are fantastic.

Who are your favourite three designers or brands and why?

How can I answer this question without offending the other 7,410?

What would we findon your iPod?

I just got two new albums, one is by Jim Croce, classic rock sounds that make me relax on a plane. The other album is by the Silver Jews, check them out.

What was the lastbook you read?

Google AdWords for Dummies!

If you had to wear one outfit for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A birthday suit…stupid question, stupid answer they say.

Whose personal style do you admire?

Napolean Dynamite

Napolean Dynamite

[Writer] Anna Piaggi, [designer] Rick Owens, [mountaineer] Heinrich Harrer, [racing driver] Graham Hill, [film director] Luis Trenker, [style icon] Iris Apfel and of course [film character] Napoleon Dynamite (pictured).

What has been your biggest fashion splurge?

A bracelet by NJAL’s Aoi Kotsuhiroi.

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