Keytrade and Horst share DIY entrepreneurship as a common denominator. With ‘Their Way’ they inspire their shared philosophy through a new content series. ‘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.
This month, we’re speaking with Ophelia Debisschop, founder of Ophelia Lingerie Label. She welcomes us in her studio and shop in Antwerp.
Horst: Can you tell us something about Ophelia, about its origins and the course you decided to take with your label?
OD: Initially I studied art, more precisely autonomous design, though from the start I combined this with an evening course in underwear design at Syntra, convinced that this was what I wanted to invest my future in. The course allowed me to focus not only on form and technique, but also on presentation and content. After the course I worked for a year in a fabric shop to save up for an additional training or internship abroad. Eventually I ended up in Paris with a small lingerie brand, where I could work for six months. I couldn't imagine a better preparation, it almost seemed like a lingerie boot camp: starting out in the studio - where I handcrafted dozens of models a week - I became the designer’s right hand after a while: which marked my first introduction to marketing, communication and sales.
On my return, I enrolled for a Master's degree in Fashion Management in Brussels, and started my label under the advantageous legal status of student-entrepreneur. I put 1000 euros in my account, which I had inherited from my grandfather who had just passed away, and gave myself six months to see where that would lead me. Meanwhile, 4.5 years later, Ophelia has slowly but surely grown into a healthy company. I've only been working full time on Ophelia since last September actually, before I was still working at Gallery Sofie Van De Velde. Although it was very inspiring to work with a female entrepreneur, it turns out that there are just too few hours in a day to combine a career in contemporary art with running my own label. Nevertheless, her trust and the fact that she confirmed me in my role as an entrepreneur, gave me a lot of confidence to sail off and start my own business.
Horst: How did you manage to pull this off financially, with only 1000 euros of starting capital?
OD: Everything I earned was immediately reinvested in the brand. Each expense was carefully weighed up: if I took part in a press day for 400 euros, I had to sell four underwear sets to get out of it. That's how it's been for a long time: constantly counting each euro that comes in and goes out, and estimating the feasibility. Thanks to my training, I fortunately didn't have to invest in machinery, since I could use my school’s facilities. As a result, production in those first years was "free", as I hand-made all the pieces myself. With regards to the purchase of fabrics, for lingerie this is rather limited. Though it did take me some time to find a proper supplier, my intake is very small: big brands order around 10,000 meters, i’m more likely to get in between 50 and 100 meters of fabric.
On top of that, there was the issue of transparency and fair trade, which was crucial to me. It took me a few years of working through retail, but now I finally have a proper supplier who doesn’t mind my small quantities and can offer me fabrics with the OEKO-TEX label.
Horst: Is Ophelia your personal statement towards a fashion industry you’re disappointed with?
OD: I've never tried to make a provocative statement, my way of working and philosophy come from personal self-evidence. Though I have been stubborn, because I wanted to create a conscious and responsible brand and not compromise on ethics. I sell every single piece I make. I use every piece of fabric I buy. Ophelia runs on a very small scale: all my stock is here in the studio, so I work on a daily basis with everything at hand and try to be as efficient with my material as possible. In addition, I organise workshops to design your own bra, in which the last leftovers of fabric can be processed.
Unfortunately you can't make a bra that lasts a lifetime, so lingerie isn't a sustainable product as such. However, overproduction is a problem that can be tackled. Because all my designs are adjustable, and because I provide clear instructions for care of the garments, my pieces are made to last longer.
My studio is the place where the design is born, where preparation and finishing happens, and where custom made models are produced. The overall production is done in a factory for corsets and shapewear in Roeselare. The finer tinkering that creeps into many of my designs is something that I have to monitor up close, so their proximity works very well.
Horst: Ophelia's designs stand for elegance and comfort. Your aesthetics are original, and clearly depart from feminine sensibility. What's your angle on this? How do you deal with conditioned beauty standards?
OD: During my internship in Paris, I noticed how little the industry is concerned with comfort. For me, this has become somewhat the focal point, thanks to the direct contact I have with my clients. I really see it as a total package: Ophelia places the woman and her experience central. Through my designs, I hope to compliment and embrace the female body in all its appearances, rather than pushing the body into a straitjacket.
Detached and unrealistic beauty standards through which we are conditioned actually turned out to be totally unfounded, even during my graduation project. I designed lingerie for three women, without knowing what they look like, purely based on conversations I had with their partner. What struck me was how this fixation on 'sex appeal' was far removed from what these people really wanted for their loved ones. When couples come to the store together and the woman tries something on, the first question asked is almost always "how does it feel?". Starting out in lingerie almost five years ago, I was surprised to notice how disconnected we sometimes are from our own bodies, just because of that compelling and unrealistic beauty standard that has prevailed for decades. I don't sell pre-formed or push-up bras, and quite often I had to convince people to dare to try something on. Fortunately, a lot has changed in recent years in terms of body positivity.
Horst: How do you go about creating an aesthetically coherent collection?
OD: I always start from a story or a character (often a female artist), which forms the basis for a mood board with a defining colour palette and a poignant title. This summer the tagline is "don't forget to smell the flowers"; my aim is to inspire the client and evoke associations stemming from personal remembrances. In a next phase, the fabric is modelled directly on the mannequin, the sketching on paper is only done afterwards to find continuity within the overall collection.
Conversations with my customers are also essential, I'm very customer-driven, I often launch new products if there's a specific demand for them. So I recently I came up with a breastfeeding bra, and a sturdy bra for older ladies. Through polls and feedback on social media, I can actually make something that meets existing needs. Experimenting with colour was also something that my clientele encouraged, and thus has grown grown steadily in my aesthetics.
Ophelia produces two collections every year, but I don’t do discounts and sales. Throughout the year I try to offer both the summer and the winter collection, so that my customers can choose between respectively fresh and colourful extrovert pieces, or warmer and darker fabrics for a more subdued style. Some swimwear added to the range in summer. This method allows me to work very short notice, something for which I had to justify myself in the past. According to the 'normal' trajectory, I would now be selling my winter collection to suppliers, and finishing the design of 2021’s summer collection. By staying true to my own rhythm, I can get a collection in the shops only a few weeks after I finish the designing process. By not working two seasons ahead, I feel more involved and connected to the story that I’m trying to convey with my costumers. Moreover, the retailers that sell Ophelia also appreciate that they can respond spontaneously to trends and costumer needs.
Horst: Ophelia sounds like an ideal scenario, and a win-win for the fashion industry. Are you eager to become an example for other companies? To what extent does it seem feasible to influence the consumer, but also other makers and buyers? How can you achieve this proactively?
OD: It’s true that I do hope to set an example. This is also one of the reasons I started to focus more on personal branding, to reveal the person behind the brand. Not only because it’s my reality - Ophelia is literally an extension of myself - but also because I like to coach people who start their own brand, or engage in discussions about transparency in the fashion industry. However, the whole process has mainly been intuitive, so I don't have a script or a success formula to share.
Horst: Your shop and production are specifically focussed on Belgium, yet your communication happens in English. How do you see Ophelia gaining visibility and outreach, nationally and internationally? What are your future ambitions?
OD: I'm really happy with what I’ve achieved so far, and hope to continue with this methodology for a long time to come. I work alone, and that has been a conscious choice: I want to be able to do everything in my business myself. I don’t have the ambition for Ophelia to become a large company, as I want to keep that close contact with my clients. Exploring the international market is therefore not a priority at the moment, I don't have time to think up a strategy for that, and I certainly don't want to compromise on the other responsibilities in my job. Looking back at the last 4.5 years, I’ve worked like crazy. Although I've never had a negative financial year, all my profits equalled a break-even for my company, because I didn’t have a salary myself. Now that things are getting a bit smoother and more comfortable, I want to stretch this momentum: I know what works, I know my rhythm and I feel what Ophelia needs. At the moment I get my satisfaction and happiness from that.