Alexander Brenninkmeijer: C&A man strikes back
Brenninkmeijer's family once dominated high-street fashion. Now, he runs a cut-price label loved by the A-list - and so exclusive it has no shops or stockists
Sunday 04 May 2008
It was perhaps inevitable that Alexander Brenninkmeijer would make a name for himself in fashion, although the minimalist aesthetic of his chic brand, Clemens en August, was probably not what his relatives might have expected. Brenninkmeijer's family was behind the German textiles and fashion retail giant C&A, which throughout the 1970s and 1980s pioneered cheerful fashion at everyman prices before Topshop got in on the act (and before C&A unexpectedly closed all its UK stores in 2001, after running up huge debts).
Indeed, Brenninkmeijer has returned to fashion with a label that, at first glance, is as divorced from the hoi polloi of high-street fashion as its celebrity fans, among them the actor James McAvoy, artist Sam Taylor-Wood, model Claudia Schiffer and architect Rem Koolhaas. But, while we are not exactly talking Primark prices, the concept was born of Brenninkmeijer's realisation that designer clothes are just too darn expensive.
"There is a market for interesting clothes just as long as you don't ask for such a lot of money for them," says the 40-year-old designer. "In my situation I can sometimes afford to buy something more expensive. I might see that something is perhaps a nice piece of design but I'm not going to pay £1,500 for it. I'd rather take the risk of waiting for the sales, which a lot of people do now. And sometimes you'd be stupid not to. By creating exclusivity through a high price, some brands get to make a lot of money selling accessories and fragrances. But most top-end clothes are over-priced."
To keep Clemens en August's prices down – a sharp man's three-piece suit, for example, can be had for under £400, compared with £1,200 for an equivalent item from a traditional high-end brand – Brenninkmeijer has adopted a radical selling technique.
You won't find Clemens en August in the shops – Brenninkmeijer wanted to avoid the way store buyers cherry-pick the most commercial pieces and break up the mood of a collection. You won't find that Clemens en August has its own shops, either – it simply can't afford a prestigious flagship, or not without a price hike for its clothes anyway. Nor will you see a Clemens en August ad anywhere. Rather, Brenninkmeijer tours with his collection, visiting Berlin, New York, Copenhagen, London and nine other cities, where he will set up shop for three days in an art gallery or theatre. Fans are advised in advance (sign up at www.clemensenaugust.com), put the dates in their diaries, come along and buy for the season. Of course, it does not do Clemens en August any harm that this restricted access also gives it an accessible exclusivity and insider cachet.
"Unfortunately, the worlds of C&A and high fashion are very different, so being part of the C&A family hasn't really opened doors. Besides, we wanted a new way of getting a designer collection to market," says Brenninkmeijer, who was a buyer for C&A before leaving to go it alone when he turned 30.
Clemens en August is not alone in circumventing the usual fashion retail system in order to get goods to market at a reasonable price: bespoke lingerie label Kalita runs house parties, for example, while jewellery company Legge & Brain provides a limo to drive you to your big event, allowing you to do some shopping in the car en route.
Like C&A, Clemens en August is resolutely price-conscious, but it is closer to the ethos of the family business in another respect. Go back to the very origins of the C&A name and one discovers two brothers, Messrs Clemens and August. In 1841, the pair started what became the pan-European giant by making clothes and selling them directly to cash-strapped farmers. Clemens en August does much the same today, although its customers are likely to smell a little sweeter.
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