‘Their Way’ offers the stories of DIY entrepreneurs at the forefront of art, architecture and music. We delve into the messy, yet inspiring and insightful process of entrepreneurship. We celebrate and cover compelling stories, challenging ideas and integrity from around the world.
‘Their Way’ is about making entrepreneurship, and the challenges that come with it, easier. We feature insightful people across different communities, visions and industries. Because we believe interesting things happen when different ideas collide.
This month, we’re speaking with Leonneke Derksen, founder of LĒO, a Belgian clothing label bringing an uncompromising dose of clubbing-inspired realness to the fashion industry.
Horst: LĒO is making waves! Nationally and internationally, the hippest rappers, DJ’s, socialites and reality stars make appearances in your designs. Can you tell us where it all started? What is your background, what drew you to fashion?
Leonneke: Well, it is definitely not a story of being inspired by dolls, my mom’s napkins or seeing my grandmother stitch. Honestly, I’m from a small town in The Netherlands, where fashion wasn’t exactly the talk of the town.. so I wasn’t specifically connected to that. What I did always have in me, creatively, was some notion of storytelling: making little drawings, notes, storybooks, always based on what I saw or experienced myself.
At 18, I mostly wanted to get away and explore the world, meet new people and discover other cultures. The Antwerp Fashion Academy seemed like a right place to start. I still don’t know how I got in though. Perhaps the fact that I printed my resumé on a t-shirt, made up for my non-existent portfolio. It expressed my long standing fascination with fabrics. Even today, with tons of experience and know-how, fabrics have this way to suddenly react in a way that you didn’t expect. It’s an endless field of research and exploration that keeps on inspiring me. What I’m doing now lies a bit in between that, there is a good dose of craftsmanship, though it’s mostly about facilitating an experience for me.
After Antwerp, I got the once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to go to New York for an internship at pret-à-porter brand Sea NY: “You can start with us, but we need you by the end of the week.”. So I packed my bags and left. Even though I really wanted to stay, I moved to Paris after that to work with Balenciaga, when it was still run by Nicolas Ghesquière. That truly was an eye-opener: a high-luxury brand with a completely different structure and way of working. That was followed by a sequence of various experiences, working for brands such as Cacharel, Carven (where Guillaume Henry truly inspired me) and some high-end streetwear labels.
Horst: When did the idea pop up to start your own label, and how did you approach that? What were the biggest challenges?
Leonneke: As I made a ton of friends and grew a community around me in Paris, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one being slightly surprised with the fashion industry in general and how it’s organised. People are expected to work crazy hours, have no life outside of their jobs, and most shockingly, every creative goes to the same libraries, reads the same Vogues and picks up on the same things. For an industry that pushes you to constantly look for the next big thing, it all just felt a bit old and outdated. So the idea of doing it on my own grew gradually.
By that time, together with my good friend Mattias (Medaer), who is co-founder of LĒO, we were making clothes for Step by Step, a boutique in Antwerp. They wanted a sort of in-house brand for young people.
We went to fabric stores, bought leftovers from their stock and created rather random but cool garments out of that. There was a lot of tie-dye denim, but we didn’t even use a fixed size system. We earned some money, and as more and more stores became interested, we suddenly had to create a company. No business plan, no investors, it’s a bit of a weird story, I know. Normally, you probably need about a year to set your goals, create a strategy and so on. LĒO bore out of a more hippie-way of doing things, though I’m happy to say that has changed over time. We got a bit more serious, professionalising and even getting ourselves a website (laughs) by 2016.
In spring-summer 2017, we launched our first collection. For me personally though, the brand really took a more distinct direction with the AW 2018 collection, Visitor, telling the story about someone being at an illegal rave underground party, who would have to take a plane the next morning. I’m really drawn to contradictions: situations or images where there is some sort of tension, or a clash of vibes. The idea of being in your party outfit and having to change to a sleeping jogger to go on a journey. The collection featured blown up air pillows and airplane belts, big prints inspired by Ryanair logos etc. It’s the first time we got picked up widely, and we were contacted by Bella Hadid’s stylist. Eventually, during New York fashion week, she was spotted taking a chopper with one of our dresses that said “undeclared” in bold letters. That was such a solid image, it was well understood and went a bit viral. Vogue contacted us, Dazed and Confused and all of the big magazines followed, LĒO was on the map.
Horst: Can you explain us a bit more on who’s in your team? Who is the ‘we’ you keep referring to?
Leonneke: It’s crucial that I say ‘we’, cause I’m never alone. I mentioned Matthias, co-founder of LĒO, who keeps an eye on the brand and follows every step of it. Then we have Kim and Héloise, my two assistants. In addition, we work with several interns, all girls for the moment. And then there are the collaborators external to the studio: printing studios like BIIM in Brussels, various freelancers, factories, fabric suppliers, sewing ateliers and many others with whom we keep a close relationship.
And then finally there’s the shops. This might sound cocky, but I honestly think that the shops selling LĒO throughout the world are the most beautiful shops of the city where they’re at. I’m very grateful to be working with them.
Horst: Can you tell us a bit more on the production process? Where do you get your fabrics, who processes them, who are your suppliers etc.?
Leonneke: In the beginning, we started off with a lovely atelier in Belgium. I wish I could say their name, but I can’t, though they know who they are and that we appreciate them a lot.
Advancing our research with fabrics and dyes, we collaborated more closely with suppliers in Portugal (for denim) and Italy (where we produce most of our accessories). The prints are mostly done in Brussels. Overall, we care for the entire production process to take place in Europe. Quality is one of the reasons underlying that decision, but so is keeping an eye on things and remunerating fairly and investing in your local community and keeping people around yourself employed.
When the pandemic hit, the big fashion houses started to preach the ‘produce local, buy local’-mantra, though with LĒO, we’ve been doing it for the past five years. I have to say that made me a bit part, for this to be so inherently part of the brand’s values. Of course this also explains our price point, it’s the bare minimum for the quality that we bring and produce ethically.
Horst: How do you position yourself towards sustainability? Is the contemporary fashion reconcilable with ecological ethics?
Leonneke: Not really. It’s impossible to be part of this system, while pretending to be sustainable. We have to be honest: if we get a press request, we also ship over packages with DHL and planes to the other side of the world. We did make the conscious choice to limit real animal material as much as possible. Our shoes are made with real leather because of quality reasons, asides from that we work with faux fur and faux leather from an amazing producer in Italy. We produce locally and in small amounts, and try to be creative with waste material (such as our new line of masks, a great way to use up small bits of fabric). The tie-dying that happens in the studio is with such small amounts of paint and bleachers, that it isn’t going to kill any dolphins. However, we are complicit when we buy from factories who waste humongous amounts of dye after using it once. If we really want to do something about that, everyone has to stop wearing colour. I guess that’s not really an option? Because it’s contradictory to fashion, we don’t promote ourselves as a sustainable brand, even if we try to do the best we can.
Horst: Because of the small production and the unique style, LĒO is getting somewhat of a cult-status. What or who do you design for?
Leonneke: I don’t think it really works that way for us. There is not one “LĒO-girl” living in Paris or New York that looks or acts a specific way. For us it’s more about: what kind of experience does a person want to have, how do they want to feel in their clothes?
We had a t-shirt in our last collection Trip, depicting the elements ‘state’, ‘substance’ and ‘scene’ as the necessary ingredients for a true experience. Clothes are so intertwined with creating a mood, but it works both ways: you put on a dress or a coat because you’re feeling a certain vibe, but the clothes talk back to you as well, giving you a certain attitude, refining your attention for things, altering the way you look at yourself. That’s what I’m attracted to. There is no way of knowing upfront what LĒO will generate with the one wearing it, you can wear the same piece to your own wedding as spending a Sunday morning in bed with it. It’s really about exploring the plurality of these potential experiences.
Also, once you put something in public space, it’s not really yours anymore. Even though we love full-on dragon looks, we don’t expect our clients to dress like that everyday. Many big fashion houses try to maintain this control, for me the interesting part is letting go.
Horst: You’re very much inspired by clubbing, trance, nightlife and raves. How does your own personal lifestyle tap into that? Does this aesthetic symbolise something to you?
Leonneke: I can’t say that I don’t like a good party. But I don’t think it’s only stemming from that. Going back to the idea of an experience, it’s about reliving the memory: a specific evening, a space, the people you were with, the clothes you were wearing.. all of that’s pretty important to me. For instance, I find it rather sad that we don’t have a Sunday outfit anymore, or clothes that were only meant for going to school. I mean obviously it’s good that dogmatic idea’s like that are disappearing, such as school uniforms, but I do regret that we don’t dress for occasions anymore. Maybe nightlife is the new church? I might offend some people with that though (laughs).
No but really, it’s not about getting drunk, it’s about hearing live music, discovering places and people, feeling inspired and about experiencing something together with like-minded people. The cultural connection that occurs between people in nightlife shouldn’t be underestimated.
Horst: How do you position yourself towards the way celebrities are picking up on your brand, and how Instagram can endorse or act as a gatekeeper from what’s hot and what’s not?
Leonneke: It has always been like that in fashion, trends come and go, and people who influence that come and go as well. Perhaps it’s more extreme and going in accelerating speed now, but I do acknowledge the value of social media platforms. They allow us to connect with fans, buyers and potential clients, but also with new friends and collaborators. Mamiko Motto for example reached out when she was in Brussels, now she’s doing all of the music for our shows and video’s. Every kind of cultural evolution comes with its advantages and disadvantages, they are always explored but also exploited by capitalism. Fashion is not any different.
Horst: How are you experiencing the consequences of the global pandemic on your business?
Leonneke: At first, I was pretty scared and struck, everything just stopped from one day to another. If our stores close and can’t buy us, we have to stop producing, and the factories we work with will run out of work. So my fear mostly went out to my collaborators.
The thing with fashion is, it’s such a far-reaching and long-stretched chain of activities. If there is one problem along that chain, everyone suffers. And Covid-19 was such a global and unexpected hit. Luckily, our sales didn’t drop that much for now, I think our clients continue to want to treat themselves a bit.
What remains is my fear for the social consequences, regardless of economic repercussions. It’s not a good head space to be in, when we are ought to feel guilty about wanting to keep on working, see people, be outside and get together. Now you can, now you can’t, everything gets mixed up. So many people are struggling with social and psychological problems. This might just be the most impactful, that we forget how to humanely connect with one another, or have to learn it all over again.
Horst: Any advice for young entrepreneurs?
Leonneke: Now, at this moment in time? Don’t do it. Haha I’m joking. I don’t think I’m old or experienced enough to be handing out advice. Actually, come to think of it, if I would have followed all the bits of advice that people were giving me when I started out, I would have arrived back at the very beginning. It’s all just opinions and subjective ideas, whereas everyone’s trajectory is so personal. So maybe, don’t take too much advice!