Sofie D’Hoore: Reflections of Slow Growth Pioneers
Belgian womenswear label Sofie D’Hoore is an example of total commitment to quality and wearability, a brand that is trusted and sought after by confident women worldwide. Admirers are often architects, artists and chefs: creative individuals with a deep understanding of oneself. This comes as little surprise since each item made by Sofie shares certain traits of these women: calm, earnest and meticulous.
Sofie’s vision hasn’t swayed or faltered, continuously driving the label forward since 1993 while graciously weathering external changes. The designer focuses solely on the creative process thanks to her business partner, Chantal Spaas, who has looked after the brand’s commercial activities since its inception. Together with a dedicated team, these two women have grown an independent fashion label that is solid, yet courteous, in its success.
I met Chantal on sunny September day at the brand’s showroom in Brussels, we spoke in detail about her and Sofie’s backgrounds, building the label organically and why some customers wear only Sofie D’Hoore.
Advance Copy: Hello Chantal, as a small introduction could you talk us through the journey of establishing Sofie D’Hoore, perhaps using some cornerstone events that have shaped the brand?
Chantal Spaas: Sofie and I started the brand in 1993, in a certain way as a very unlikely team – she studied medical dentistry and I studied the history of art. In the ’80s and ’90s I worked for an English company called Michael Ross, they made incredible hand loom knitwear, very complicated but very beautiful, and thanks to a government [sponsored] export program they could go to fairs anywhere in the world, New York, Japan…They didn’t like to travel so sent me instead and this allowed me to learn the trade. It was a much smaller world then; you could go to a fair in New York and call the head buyer from Barneys to come and look at your collection.
Sofie worked with a designer here in Belgium and then went to Milan where she learnt how to really get things produced. The gentleman she worked for was quite famous and represented other brands in his beautiful showroom. After about two years he proposed for Sofie to make her own collection, which she ended up doing, but just as it was finished, they went bankrupt. So, she picked up her collection and came back to Antwerp. At this point, Sofie called and asked if I could sell this collection. I went to see it and really liked it but we let that season go by and started again from scratch with something very small; one pair of trousers and three sweaters, and I think that was it.
This was a completely different thing from what I was doing for Michael Ross, it meant me being in Belgium, putting the collection in my car, driving around and pushing doors to ask ‘may I show you a pair of pants and three sweaters?’ Every season we would add something, but only if we were 100% sure that we could buy the fabric, have enough money and credibility to convince the suppliers and also have someone who could make it to the standards that we wanted. Sofie puts so much energy in getting the pattern right, sometimes a pair of trousers is changed seven times, repeating it over and over. There is an enormous amount of work and I think in the end you can feel it, even if you don’t know anything about patterns.
“It was Sofie’s knowledge of fabrics that convinced suppliers that we could become a good client.”
Chantal: The other thing that was important, and took us very long, was convincing fabric manufacturers. We went to fabric shows but the manufacturers of the nicest and most beautiful fabrics were not very keen on selling to a completely unknown, small Belgian label. There it was Sofie’s knowledge of fabrics that convinced suppliers that we could become a good client. She would go through hundreds of poplins and then pick one out and say ‘this is the one I want’, you would see the guy’s eyes open wide and wonder where she came from, and how she picked out that one swatch? We had a lot of help from our suppliers and bit-by-bit we got access and recommendations to better manufacturers. Every season we would add something: coats, jackets, trousers, we didn’t have dresses at the beginning but that was how long it took, I think by 2005 we had more or less a complete collection.
Finally, another milestone was when we decided to do our first commercial show in Paris, not a defile – that seemed too big, too artificial, too much show. We still don’t have a show and have never paid for a page of publicity.
“We’ve always invested in the best fabric that we could pay for, the best manufacturers and the extra was always put into people.”
AC: Upon reflection, it must feel like a luxury to have given the brand that time to develop and change, for Sofie to create each new category at her own pace?
Chantal: It was, and it wasn’t always easy because it seemed very slow, but I think it was good for the collection and for us. The turning point was in 2008, at the time of the bank crises when a lot of people went bankrupt, but a lot of our existing clients doubled their orders, it felt like driving in second gear and all of the a sudden in forth while skipping the third. At the same time, new clients started contacting us from out of the blue, I remember quite a few buyers were calling and saying ‘I’ve been buying Sofie D’Hoore’s trousers for myself at Le Bon Marché or Dover Street Market but I’ve never considered buying them for our store.’ All of a sudden, it became easier because we had new customers and stores were buying more. At this time we invested everything in people; more pattern makers and a permanent assistant for Sofie because she was doing everything herself. We’ve always invested in the best fabric that we could pay for, the best manufacturers and the extra was always put into people.
AC: It must have taken a great amount of self-belief to get to where you are now, stay independent and gain this respectful position that’s protected from hype.
Chantal: It was a necessity for Sofie. Big companies have approached us, but I think it wouldn’t have worked, not for them and not for us. We’d never be allowed to go on as slowly as we did. But the reverse, of course, is that you work very hard and there are sacrifices to be made in your personal life.
AC: Would you mind giving an example?
Chantal: Looking back now, there are moments where I think maybe I would have done it differently. For example, I went back to work the day after giving birth to my daughter, there wasn’t a week or even five days between the moment that I stopped and I started again. Physically it’s doable, but I remember moments when I thought ‘is this real?’ I was incredibly lucky to have a lady who was like a grandmother to my daughter, and I was still showing the collection in my apartment so at least we were in the same place. It was also very intense for Sofie, to design the collection and be the sole person to decide everything. In the end, you do what you want and as long as you can make a living from it, pay fair wages, and you’re not hungry then I think it can work.
“To work with our brand, you have to understand and feel it, the choice has to come from within.”
AC: Could you tell us about the commercial side of the brand, the one you look after at Sofie D’Hoore?
Chantal: We have about 240 wholesale clients worldwide, fantastic people who respect what we do. I think there can be a misconception when a buyer sees the collection in a beautiful store and says ‘I also want to stock Sofie D’Hoore’– that doesn’t always work. I think that to work with our brand, you have to understand and feel it, the choice has to come from within. You have to like the company DNA, there is something similar to handwriting that continues from year to year and you have to like that writing. Our clients are open to follow Sofie where she is going and the buyer should want to go forwards to where Sofie meanders. It’s very important for me that all that energy and imagination that Sofie puts into creation is represented in each store.
AC: I like your comment on how buyers choosing Sofie D’Hoore should have ‘a feeling’ for the collection. Would you say that the brand’s success is also down to how well the buyer knows their clientele?
Chantal: In a sense, the collection selects a certain person and the final customer is also very loyal. Some come back and have enough income to buy whatever they want; others have to think very hard to buy one piece but they build up a wardrobe that works and that’s very nice to hear.
“It feels like the art world is more important for the brand than the fashion world.”
AC: When preparing for this interview I spent some time scrolling through Sofie D’Hoore’s Instagram, it seems like a lot of your followers describe themselves as art directors, photographers and ceramicist. Does that sound representative of the customers that you’ve encountered?
Chantal: I don’t think I’ve ever recognised a Sofie D’Hoore outfit on the street. However, when I go to an art show or a gallery there, all of a sudden, I see it. It feels like the art world is more important for the brand than the fashion world. When travelling in the States or Japan, going to art events with my husband and being asked about my occupation I would inevitably say ‘I work for a Belgian fashion label, Sofie D’Hoore’ and the reaction would be ‘yesterday I wore one of her dresses!’ This is incredible and it’s often journalists, architects and chefs – people who are creative. It has nothing to do with age or looks, they are women with brains and real creativity.
Once, I met a lady at Le Bon Marché who was picking out many Sofie D’Hoore items, we started chatting and I asked why she needed so many clothes, she told me that this is the only brand she buys for the whole year and everything has to go into her suitcase. She turned out to be a food critic who has to travel to places like India to five-star hotel restaurants, but then she also eats street food, she travels in a Limousine but also second class on the train. For all of these situations, the only thing that works for her is Sofie D’Hoore.
AC: Would you be able to pinpoint decisions or values that may have secured this loyal customer base and maybe the brand’s overall longevity?
Chantal: Quality of the fabrics for sure, the other thing is that it’s always contemporary. I think when Sofie designs there is always a question at the back of her mind ‘is this what we want to wear now?’ She thinks ahead, there is no retro in what Sofie designs, it has to always feel fresh. So I would say that’s what we always come back to; freshness and quality.
“I need to admire the person I work with and Sofie has never let me down.”
AC: What have you discovered about yourself throughout these years of working together with Sofie? What makes for a long-standing partnership in fashion?
Chantal: I think the longevity of certain labels is based on those kinds of couples, I think it’s necessary, I cannot imagine how a designer can work alone. There are many examples, like Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, Armani worked with a close friend, Valentino, Courreges. I think it must be incredibly hard to do it alone.
Your real question is what is necessary? I don’t know about others, but for myself, it might sound a bit corny, but I think admiration. I need to admire the person I work with and Sofie has never let me down. Every season I follow the construction of the collection and she asks for my advice, which I give for what it’s worth, but in the end every season it’s always even better than the last. Respect is also important and you have to be very clear about all things financial, there has to be total honesty.
AC: Chantal, thank you for taking part in Advance Copy’s exploration of independent thinking in fashion.
Chantal: Thank you for your time, Natalia!