Embracing the Unknown, with Graanmarkt 13
Nestled in a quiet square off Antwerp’s bustling city centre is a townhouse that stands at one with its neighbours, housing a multi-brand boutique, restaurant and top-floor apartment. This is Graanmarkt 13, and their story is one of envisioning and pursuing positive change in retail.
As a young couple Graanmarkt 13’s Owners, Ilse Cornelissens & Tim Van Geloven, learned every part of the business from scratch, for the multi-brand floors of the store they enthusiastically followed standard practices of fashion retailing buying, selling, discounting. Then came a realisation, that deliveries of fashion collections are skewed, irrational and failed to financially benefit their boutique or satisfy customers. The stock would arrive well in advance of its seasonal peak time, and in line with industry standards, it would go on to be marked down before reaching full sales potential. The Owners saw heavy discounting eating away at profit margins, stock going to waste and frustrated customers feeling fooled by inflated prices. The relentlessness of this cycle is an uncontested fact to those working in retail, but Ilse and Tim decided this way of working didn’t fit their values and, against the industry’s current, they withdrew from seasonal discounting to explore another way.
I sat down with Ilse to find out how her and Tim broke away from the system, the ensuing changes to the daily running of the store and advice for brands and retailers looking to do the same.
Advance Copy: Hi Ilse, thank you for welcoming me at Graanmarkt 13. Could you tell us how you and Tim met and founded Graanmarkt 13; boutique, apartment and vegetarian restaurant by Chef Seppe Nobels.
Ilse Cornelissens: My husband Tim Van Geloven and I were both living in Amsterdam, I studied law and he studied economics. I think I wasn’t into law and probably wouldn’t make a very good lawyer, but we were into renovations and all sorts of different projects. Tim’s sister used to have a store in Amsterdam and I joined her on a few buying appointments, I was always very interested in this too.
I was very fortunate because my grandmother left an inheritance after her passing, so when Tim and I finished our studies there was an opportunity to think with freedom. We wanted to do something for ourselves, our dream was to create a place where different fields could come together; food, fashion and art. It was difficult to find a space in Amsterdam, but my roots are in Antwerp and we knew that people here understood quality and you could still find nice abandoned buildings. So, we packed our bags and thought why not try it?
We found this building inside a city square, in the middle of Antwerp with 4 or 5 other houses also up for sale. I think a lot of people were afraid of the number 13 and so it stood empty for ten years, abandoned but beautiful. After buying the building we found the architect Vincent van Duysen, who together with us, created Graanmarkt 13 as a beautiful box, then it was up to us to fill it. This is how the adventure started.
AC: Could you explain the story behind the distinct branding and messaging used throughout the building?
Ilse: We wanted to create an address without a name and met Base Design’s Dimitri Jeurissen through our architect, Vincent. Base Design incorporated our idea coming up with ‘Graanmarkt 13’ and special phrases to represent its identity signed with this address. We use these phrases to reflect where you are in the building or the story, for example, the restaurant wine menu says ‘wine is bottled poetry’.
AC: How did you face the challenge of starting such a big project without having prior experience?
Ilse: We were only 27 at the time and everything was so new for us, from the taste of food to architecture, fashion, everything. Graanmarkt 13 started with us being ‘green’ and we’ve learnt the importance of quality and details from people with experience, and from our team here in store.
In the beginning, it was just the two of us and then our Chef Seppe Nobels came from a Michelin Start restaurant in Provence. We worked together to develop a modern vision for Graanmarkt 13’s restaurant, this was seven years ago and Seppe has since created a signature style based only on vegetable dishes. Another example is our Art Director and now close friend, Bob Verhelst, he is the scenographer for the Antwerp Fashion Museum, working on beautiful exhibitions like the recent presentation of Martin Margiela’s work for Hermès. We’ve learnt how important details are from these people who are experienced in their fields.
“We’ve learnt the importance of quality and details from people with experience, and from our team here in store.”
AC: Two floors of Graanmarkt 13 are dedicated to fashion and lifestyle products, could you tell us about the initial brands and concept for this part of the space?
Ilse: The same happened in terms of the store as for the rest of the business; we were still young and inexperienced which made it difficult to have conversations with big brands. This was the moment when Isabel Marant started growing a lot, they believed in our project without even seeing it and together with Marni they were some of the first to join Graanmarkt 13. Representing Isabel Marant’s collection at the store from our first season helped us a lot, especially since we were a destination off the beaten track.
AC: Let’s dive into that pivotal time about four years ago, when you decided to change the buying strategy of Graanmarkt 13’s multi-brand store. Could you tell us more about that moment and what prompted this move?
Ilse: After a few years we felt like we were pushed to grow; when brands start to get bigger they begin to pressure retailers to buy more stock, the brand sells so you are encouraged to grow. In the end, things can get out of control and, as a store, you may even become a victim of this behaviour. At a similar time, there was a lot of negative information being published about the fashion system as a whole, but nothing was changing. We were witnessing this situation and thinking if we don’t do anything then we are just another complaining retailer. You can change yourself and do something; change the system.
AC: How did you act on these feelings of frustration with the industry?
Ilse: We wanted to say no to discounting, but we knew that doing this would make it difficult to carry on working with bigger brands that have worldwide distribution. At this point, we had to decide if our relationships with these brands have grown apart and I remember deciding to stop seasonal discounting one week before I going to Paris for a buying trip. I was imagining how I was going to tell brands that I will quit buying their collections for Graanmarkt 13, I’m a very reliable person so that was just crazy. The sales representatives didn’t understand our decision or what we were trying to do, that was too bad because we thought that something would click and we could collaborate on different kinds of exclusive projects.
“If we don’t do anything then we are just another complaining retailer. You can change yourself and do something; change the system.”
AC: How did you replace this loss of bigger brands that were previously core to your fashion business?
Ilse: We planned to buy differently; a lot less and smaller brands, thinking carefully about how and when things should be in store and making sure we don’t have too much summer stock. We don’t show everything at once and every week we change the selection to reflect how we feel. Another thing that is different since we changed the strategy is that we focus more on the budget on things like beauty, which could also be interesting for a store that only sells fashion.
AC: What was this transition period like?
Ilse: When we changed the concept of the Graanmarkt 13 I had to be on the shop floor a lot because I wanted our staff to explain the change as a philosophy. I was expecting some customers not to understand the change and to possibly receive some negative comments. I was pushing the staff, reminding them that we won’t be representing Isabel Marant anymore or organising regular seasonal sales. We had to explain to our clients the reasons why they should carry on visiting Graanmarkt 13. This especially applied to our fashion clients who couldn’t find what they would normally come for, they were confused and stayed away for a while, but in return for this, we got more creative customers. Now, three years later we feel that we are back on the map for a lot of people who stayed away during these years. Clients thought we were lost, that we were not ‘in fashion’ anymore, but this is exactly what we prepared our staff to hear and that’s okay because these clients come back around. Things need time and if you change you will find solutions to where you need to go.
“I had to be on the shop floor a lot because I wanted our staff to explain the change as a philosophy.”
AC: How do you ensure that customers have a reason to frequent Graanmarkt 13 regularly? Have you found a solution to maintaining that mix of freshness and newness without regular seasonal deliveries?
Ilse: This process is about finding out what interests people and bringing newness in different ways, we believe in creating special moments and scarcity. One idea that we are testing is dedicating the store to one designer, giving brands a stage, not just a corner but the whole store. The first time we tried this idea was with Extreme Cashmere in November, and it was a huge success. The second time will be next week with the Belgian designer Sofie D’Hoore. This allows us to do things we’d normally not have the budget for and there are many fantastic smaller brands that are open to different ideas and concepts. If we were to do something like this with a certain brand each month then customers will have a reason to drop by often.
“There are many fantastic smaller brands that are open to different ideas and concepts.”
AC: Could you tell us about the upcycling events hosted at Graanmarkt 13?
Ilse: We organise second-hand client sales that help customers stand in front of their closets and see how much clothes they have. The timing feels right because people are more aware of sustainability, they love to clean out their closets and we give them the opportunity to make some money and spend it again at Graanmarkt 13. This is combined with a curated sale of things that just didn’t work over the years, items that we hand-pick individually for this occasion.
AC: Do you see a difference between doing regular seasonal mark-downs and more curated sales such as this?
Ilse: During normal markdowns, people would always feel cheated, they were afraid that the item they like would be marked down again later, they were never really happy. In comparison, what I see happening with our up-cycling client sales is that customers are treasure hunting and when they find something, they are so happy. Meanwhile, buying less and second hand is becoming more popular, and I think this could grow even bigger in the future. For example, this weekend fifty people brought in their clothing and, in terms of turnover of second-hand clothes, we had our best weekend in ten years.
AC: I think there are many brands and boutique owners who would like to make a similar step and your experience could be of much help to inspire them. How would you reassure brands and retailers that working outside of strict seasonal cycles and fashion weeks is possible?
Ilse: As a retailer, my opinion is that we did it and it worked. At the beginning it wasn’t easy but before it was also difficult because discounting made our margins too small for the costs that we needed to cover. Now it’s getting better and better, so the result will be a real improvement. Something true is that as a retail partner Graanmarkt 13 is not as reliable anymore. We don’t always buy collections regularly because I have to take into account what we have in stock and think about how to mix newness with fresh brands. I used to never skip seasons, but I think this is how it should work. Brands’ turnovers might drop initially, but in the end, one buyer increases their budget one season, another decreases, it gets into a certain balance and everyone buys a little less. For me, this could solve a serious problem of surplus stock. I also think that we should only show new collections twice a year and do 4 or 5 drops.
AC: Do you think your method of managing stock could work on a bigger scale of department stores?
Ilse: Graanmarkt 13 is a tiny boutique and it’s in our own hands, but I do think about how a department store could manage something like this. I think it’s difficult, but in the end, if more people do something differently the schedules will change and it is possible to get the same result with less stock. I think the problem is that everybody just buys too much. Now, at Graanmarkt 13, we have 75% – 80% sell-through, but you can’t reach that if you are giving a collection only 2 or 3 months of selling at full price. This is how you ruin the world because you just buy stock to throw it away, it’s a huge problem. What you should try to do is to have a sell-through of 80% with about 20% new stock at any given time. Big and small retailers who say they can’t make a change, I think ‘why not?’ Our results are only getting better and yours can get better too. It’s a matter of daring to do it, people are too afraid to change.
“This is how you ruin the world because you just buy stock to throw it away.”
AC: Let’s turn to online sales, what advice do you have for multi-brand boutiques that are suffering from online competition?
Ilse: I don’t necessarily believe in a standard way of retailing if you have the usual mix of brands you become a display for e-commerce. You have to be different, a store that offers things that you just can’t find everywhere, there is enough variety in the world, we are just not looking at it. There is always something and there will always be something so you have to make decisions to survive because if you don’t, I’m convinced that many boutiques will close.
AC: What could a successful independent fashion store be like in the future?
Ilse: I think there will be a place for bricks-and-mortar retailers in the future, but it will have to be re-thought and redesigned differently, in two words – scarcity and moments, if you’ll be able to show that and what craft is while utilising online tools, then I think it can be easy. But if your store presents things that can be found everywhere else then you are competing with big brands, but you have to step out of that competition. Maybe even we, as Graanmarkt 13, are not doing enough? There was certainly a conversation about going down the route of a gallery space, similarly to Blue Mountain School who only present things made together with creators taking the direction of art and collectables. I believe there are many new formats out there.
AC: Looking back on the last few years, do you feel like your personal and business values are more in-line than before?
Ilse: What we are doing with Graanmarkt 13 feels great, and after a successful client sale this weekend, seeing people smiling and having fun – that’s what we want, for them and us. You will be a happier person, if you decide job-wise or business-wise, to make decisions based on your values. We should try to think of the world we are living in now and imagine what it will be like for our children. People are becoming more conscious, thinking about what they are doing, buying, eating and so this really is the time for fashion to change, and if Graanmarkt 13 will ever close I can honestly say that we’ve tried our best.