CAES on Starting a Slow Fashion Brand
Dutch womenswear label CAES is Helen de Kluiver’s exploration of slow fashion. The brand was realised from Helen’s reflection on personal values and professional experiences in fast fashion. The result is an in-depth study of modern fashion principles, a set of standards that directly address inherent industry problems and appeal to the expectations of discerning customers.
We look back on the moment when Helen took a leap of faith to pursue her vision and how CAES puts ethical standards above archaic industry expectations.
Advance Copy: I’ve been hearing CAES come up in conversations recently and it seems like a positive and exciting moment for you right now, so I can’t wait to hear more. But first, what is the correct pronunciation of CAES?
Helen: It’s ‘case’ as in a case for your body. It’s also the name of my father who passed away when I was a young girl. His name was Kees, but you pronounce it also as ‘case’ and it’s quite a popular name in Holland.
AC: Thank you for sharing the depth and personal meaning behind the brand’s title. You started CAES in 2019 and I feel like we’d all love an introduction to who you are. Could you talk about your childhood years? Do you recall creativity being a significant part of your life?
Helen: When I was younger I was always interested in clothing. I was making clothing out of paper for my brother and he was like my mannequin on the weekends. We had crepe paper in different colours and I used to make dresses for him with this paper. I was really interested in clothes and how to make them. That’s why I decided to go to fashion school.
“I want to do things differently, I want to do better. That’s why I started CAES.”
AC: Did your parents or grandparents do anything connected to fashion?
Helen: No not at all. My father was a scientist specialising in space rockets and parachute systems but he was also really into materials and eating in the right way. He was really into discovering everything about what food we should eat. Especially when he was sick he wanted to know which food he should [eat] or what’s good for his health. So for me, it’s also something I grew up with. We also went on holidays to Austria and Scotland, climbing in the mountains or hiking, we were always in nature. We were not about fashion but about being in nature and really caring for the earth. Childhood was really important for us as a family.
AC: When respect for nature is instilled from a young age it doesn’t leave your conscience.
Helen: That’s true. And I also want to do things differently because my father always did. He always wanted to know everything and as a person, I want to do things differently, I want to do better. That’s why I started CAES, it’s in my nature.
“I was so used to working in the fast fashion industry that I was almost against it and really wanted to do the opposite.”
AC: It’s wonderful that your father passed on his curiosity and love for knowledge to his children. In a way, you are now sharing those moral values with others through your approach with CAES. How did your career in fashion start? Did you study in Amsterdam?
Helen: I studied Fashion Management which is more [about] economics and math. When I was done with school I joined a company here in Holland. It was a big brand and at first, I worked in the buying department, it was a lot about figures and it wasn’t really what I loved. So they let me go to the styling department and the head of design taught me how to draw and how to make concepts. I learnt everything from her, from scratch. In the end, I became the Head of Design but it was a big commercial company and they made huge collections each year and did not really care about what they make or how much they make. In the end, I wanted to do something different and focus on quality. That’s why I decided to set up CAES.
AC: How did you make that decision? Leaving a stable job to start your own company, whether that’s in fashion or otherwise, takes a lot of courage. How did you have the confidence to quit your job and set off on your own?
Helen: I was working there for years and [when] I decided to quit we were in conversation about starting a brand together. But they were still the same: they wanted to make a lot of money. It was such a different vision from the one I had in mind. I was so used to working in the fast fashion industry that I was almost against it and really wanted to do the opposite.
“You can do the things you love and work with people you like, and that’s really worth something.”
AC: Did you feel like you had to prepare yourself to become a business owner?
Helen: Yes, I did prepare but I’m the kind of person that just lives day by day and maybe that’s a good thing. There are a lot of aspects in the business that are quite tough but I thought: ‘I will just do this and every problem I will face, I will solve it.’ Today, I just do everything and we’ll see what tomorrow will bring. Yes sometimes it’s super difficult and you have a lot of problems but you can do the things you love and work with people you like and that’s really worth something. I think I learnt more in the last year than in 10 years of working in fashion. You really get to know yourself, it’s like a mirror in front of you.
AC: What did you envision doing differently when you began CAES?
Helen: I wanted to make CAES a collection in editions and to focus on the quality. CAES is like a case for your body, everything you eat but also everything you wear on your skin needs to be of good quality. That was the vision behind CAES. But I don’t think it’s just about quality, it’s also about working with the right people and treating people right. I’ve worked in fashion for many years and found it so frustrating how people treated each other because that doesn’t really fit with me. It’s such a harsh world. When I set up CAES I wanted to treat everybody in the same way and just be normal. Just do it together. I want to build a community with people who love the brand – who love to sell it and share the same vision. So for me, it’s much more than just a brand. I think that was what I was missing while working in the fashion industry.
AC: I think that’s something that is lacking for many fashion designers: those personal connections to different parts of the process.
Helen: And I think it’s so needed now in the world. To care about everything – about the world, about people and each other. That’s what I was missing for years. I want to do everything differently to how I was taught or what I was used to doing.
AC: What I find interesting at the moment is the fact that we can use the word ‘care’. People can discuss ‘caring’ in the context of fashion, or the world, without the negative connotations of weakness. I love observing these slow-burning changes which move us in a positive direction.
Helen: It’s true that maybe new and younger brands care about who they work with, what they do and what qualities they use. They care about the little things.
“When I set up CAES I wanted to treat everybody in the same way and just be normal. Just do it together.”
AC: When talking about CAES you also refer to the principles of slow and sustainable fashion – could you describe how you’re trying to implement these ideas in a business sense?
Helen: We are making smaller editions so we have time to work on the articles and to be more aware of what we’re making, and not make collections of 200 pieces. To focus on what we make. We make two collections a year. We are selling with larger retailers and they have schedules for sales periods so we have two sales periods. It’s not that we can launch an edition whenever we like. That’s the only thing that’s not really ‘slow fashion’. But we do smaller editions and we focus on the quality – we use a lot of organic cottons and VegeaⓇ leather which is made from the waste of the wine industry. We also work with a pattern maker who works in 3D. So she makes the pattern and inputs the fabrics so you can see how the silhouette moves. Sometimes you need to make three samples but because we do everything in 3D, we just need one sample and we use less fabric.
AC: Those are big steps to making a difference, to feeling like your decisions are less harmful.
Helen: And also, I think to be transparent about where you produce. We do everything in Europe, in Portugal, so we know where everything is made and the people who made it. And that’s also very good to have in your own hands – to see that the people are treated right. Sometimes when you work with suppliers you never know where things are made because they could have subcontractors. We want to have everything [under] control and that’s why we decided to produce everything in Europe.
“We are making smaller editions so we have time to work on the articles and to be more aware of what we’re making.”
AC: You mentioned balancing the desire to do things in a less seasonal, slower way while still having to abide by fashion’s seasonal sales calendar. Do you think there are other industry barriers that are preventing CAES from growing in an even more thoughtful and caring manner?
Helen: A lot of retailers are asking for more collections and pre-collections and more styles. And sometimes that’s pretty hard to deal with because you have your business vision and you want to stick to this but it’s still the fashion industry and everybody wants to earn from it. It’s hard to find someone who understands the vision of your brand and who doesn’t want to change it. For example, we have a new collection coming up and we always use items from previous collections just to show that you can wear the old with the new and we add some vintage pieces in with the new. It’s not always about newness, you can combine things and you don’t have to buy a totally new collection each season. We really want to tell this story in our campaigns and shoots.
AC: I find this approach to styling and presentation so refreshing because it feels outdated to keep portraying newness and disposability all the time. How would you describe your version of success for CAES and its relation to your life?
Helen: If I can do what I believe in then I’m happy. I don’t need to have a super large brand but I want to stick to my vision. I think that’s my success.