How I Did It: Jos Van Tilburg - G-Star Raw

To many potential entrepreneur s, the prospect of entering a market domina ted by brands such as Levi's, Lee and Wrangler would seem like commercial suicide, but not to G-Star founder Jos Van Tilburg.

Featured March 05

IT'S IN THE JEANS
To many potential entrepreneur s, the prospect of entering a market domina ted by brands such as Levi's, Lee and Wrangler would seem like commercial suicide, but not to G-Star founder Jos Van Tilburg. Josh Sims finds out how he did it.

They may have been invented in 17th-century Nîmes (hence ‘denim’) but Jos Van Tilburg is still excited about jeans. “Jeans are always in development,” he enthuses. “Ways of cutting the pattern, ways of weaving the fabrics, ways of washing the denim. Creatively, there are no limits and I don’t see the market slowing down. Denim isn’t about target groups anymore. It’s more about a mindset: everyone feels like wearing a pair of jeans some days. I wear them every day of course. I sleep in them!”

Van Tilburg has more reason than most to suffer from the denim-mania that has swept the fashion industry in recent years. He is the founder of the Amsterdam-based G-Star brand, just 15-years-old but already available at 3,500 points of sale across 36 countries, with 16 of its own shops and another 30
planned across Europe this year. More impressively, far from being cowed by the sheer size of Levis and its like, G-Star has recorded between 20%-30% growth every year since it launched, making it the pre-eminent Dutch fashion brand and a world leader in its field.

WHAT ARE YOUR UNFULFILLED AMBITIONS?
G-Star likes to wrap unexpected and non-fashion-related objects in raw denim. I would like to see us pack an aeroplane in raw denim.

WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU HAVE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
In fashion, only one thing is sure; the fact that nothing is sure.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB?
I started out as a salesman in a retail shop.

That G-Star has come to be recognised as one of the most progressive companies working in denim, is perhaps best illustrated by its latest project:a line (launching across Europe this spring) made by G-Star and shaped by the Australian, product-design star Marc Newson; the first collaboration between a mass-market fashion company and an industrial designer. “We thought it would be interesting to give him the opportunity to work on the most beautiful fabric in the world: denim,” Van Tilburg only half-jests. “Marc initially said, ‘But I’m not a fashion designer,’ and I said, ‘We don’t need a fashion designer. We’ve got plenty of those.’ We wanted his very clear handwriting and fresh, unexpected way of approaching things.”

Indeed, thinking about denim and how to take it forward has been exactly what Van Tilburg has done: “Business was not in my blood,” he concedes. “My origins were not as a trader or businessman, though I did always have money problems...”

He started selling the blue stuff as a 20-year-old shop worker, before progressing to become a wholesale salesman for a Swedish jeans company called Dobber. What fascinated him, and still
fascinates him, were the vicissitudes of fashion: “Seeing new products coming to the market that nobody liked, and which next week everybody loved,” he says. “When we said the jeans fit for women should go down to the hips, everybody said woman wouldn’t want that, because it would make them look fat. Now, every woman wears low-hip jeans. Consumers get used to the taste, then they’re hooked, and suddenly the market is there.”

Van Tilburg’s real break, though, came when the Secon Group, an international fashion company, with whom he was working at the time, wanted to launch a denim brand. Van Tilburg struck a deal with a Swiss denim supplier operating out of the Far East. It stipulated one condition: he must use their brand name under licence. The brand was called Gap Star.

"That was fine, for the first four or five years, in Holland. The goal was never to go global, so I never really thought much about whether there was room for another jeans brand. I just knew the Dutch market, and thought there was a niche," he says. "When we launched, all we ever thought about was surviving. And then, if you survive, you want to maintain your success. And if you maintain it, that's when you start to ask yourself, ÔOK, so why not try Belgium? Why not Germany, or the UK?' Suddenly you're working all over the world."

"But when I started to export I hit a problem with another company with a similar name," he adds. "We agreed I'd delete the A and the P, which has actually worked out better for us internationally."

That was not Van Tilburg's only problem in building G-Star. He concedes that, without Secon's early financial and logistical expertise allowing him to focus on sales and product development, G-Star might have failed. But even with its assistance (Secon and G-Star separated fully in 2002) he has had his issues with over-cautious banks. "We had to persuade people that G-Star would work," he says. "Fashion is an easy market to make fast money in. But it's also an easy market to lose it in. Fortunately, retailers believed in the market."

The first three years of the company saw tremendous growth, but there was no profit. An urgent reappraisal resulted in a much stricter methodology and a clearer idea about what G-Star represented and how it was to work. Today, G-Star still creates everything in-house, from ad campaigns to brochures, shop interiors to exhibition stands. "We're a very close team of people here," he quips, "we trust nobody!"

The fashion market's lust for the Ônew' that allowed G-Star to launch is now proving a bit of a headache. If just a few years ago its jeans could be guaranteed a shelf-life of several seasons, now products are dropped by consumers as quickly as they are grabbed, increasing the pressure on G-Star to generate new ideas. "In fashion you need fresh fruit all the time, you need innovation all the time," he says. "Selling fashion is not like selling toothpaste, because you wear it, you see yourself in it and if it doesn't reflect you in the way you want it to, you don't buy it."

That said, I still want to be selling everywhere, and to everyone," he adds, hoping to capitalise on the notion that sometimes everyone feels like slipping on an easy pair of denims.

FIVE THINGS I WISH I'D KNOWN:
1) "The world is smaller. You need to think and act globally."
2)"Business is all about work: you have to put time and energy into it. Be sharp: many people have ideas but don't realise them. Execution is where the work is."
3) "People buy passion. You don't have to sell it, but nor can you fake passion. People can smell it when it's fake."
4) "Always be straight forward. It solves so many dilemmas."
5) "It's good to be independent, but remember that nobody is really independent. You always have obligations: to your bank, suppliers and customers."


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