Contemporary fashion platform NJAL breaks with old conventions

NJAL founder Stefan Siegel about the challenges of today's fashion system, his partnership with Zalando and the future of fashion

In an interview with Stefan Siegel, founder Not Just A Label

Stephen Seal
Stefan Siegel by Thilo Ross

Author: House of Eden

Not Just A Label was founded in 2008 with the vision to revitalize the fashion system. The platform supports the presence and integrity of over 50.000 designers from 150 countries. The designers' goal: To become influential voices in the fashion industry. And that's exactly what NJAL is helping with, by providing emerging artists an opportunity to present their designs at any time and from anywhere. The aim is to break through the rigid paradigms of fashion.

The special thing about NJAL is that it encourages young designers to use sustainable and ethical production practices, while at the same time providing impulses for versatile collaborations. The designs are personalised, tailor-made and delivered directly from the designers' studios. Founder Stefan Siegel talks about the challenges of the fashion industry, his partnership with Zalando and what the future of the fashion has to do with music.

"For me, Contemporary Luxury means that I can have something that no one else has. Something that has been personally produced for me and my money goes directly to the designer, in order to go back into that region locally."

By founding NJAL, you recognised a forward-looking trend in the fashion industry early on - how did that happen?

Maybe it all started in my childhood. The Italian region I come from is characterised by traditional luxury manufacturers. After my studies, I worked at Merrill Lynch and, together with my team, acquired smaller labels for large luxury groups - small labels at that time were Alexander McQueen or Stella McCartney. However, even before that, I had a lot to do with fashion during my studies: I worked for Wolfgang Joop as well as many other different retailers. My experience as a model also brought me into contact with many designers.

njal szabo sihag

Source & Copyright by Szabo Sihag via NJAL

At that time I had my own website, where I shared my own travel photos. And everyone was asking me, who had built that website for me. After all, back then you had to buy a domain and know at least a little bit of programming to build a website. Personally, my brother helped me with that, as he is good in computer science. So what happened was that designers asked my brother and me if we could design websites for them.

At that point, I asked myself: "Why can't there be a platform where all fashion designers can show and sell their work?". That's exactly how the idea came about to curate a platform where designers can actually present themselves - at no costs. After only three months, 500 designers were already represented on NJAL. A clear sign that something was missing in the market.

Which problem of the fashion system are you addressing with your platform?

The fashion world is different today than it used to be. I don't want to say that we are independently responsible for this change - but we have somehow contributed to it. In the past, it was always like this: For young designers to become successful, they had to sell and to sell, they had to be represented in retails shops. When retailers realised that there are so many young talents just waiting to be positioned in a store, they unfortunately also realised that they didn't have to pay them for this opportunity.

As a result, more and more questionable and unfair business models entered the fashion industry. For example, the concept of consignment, which means that designers give their entire collection to stores and only receive money at the end of the season - as long as something has been sold. At some point, this development became so absurd, that shops demanded exclusive rights for three seasons without paying the designers. This is where Not Just A Label comes in and solves the problem. It's about increasing the visibility of hidden talents - without exploiting them. The goal: We want creativity and design to be valued - not the PR bubble around a label. It is therefore particularly important for us not to take money from the artists on NJAL.

What are the typical challenges of fashion entrepreneurs?

Now, designers are smarter and have more options. They can for instance sell directly to consumers and also have a lot of power through digital platforms like Instagram. On the other hand, a strictly defined mantra still prevails in certain markets and specific segments: It says that designers need to be present in certain magazine, showrooms and Fashion Week in order to be a relevant voice in the fashion scene. As all of this costs a lot of money, it is not very efficient.

the french parrot

Source & Copyright by The French Parrot via NJAL

More efficient: Directly approaching customers. However, it still takes a lot of courage to start a direct-to-consumer brand as a designer - you only sell online and independent of seasons. In Los Angeles, almost all brands now work this way. Brands don't open shops, don't hold shows at Fashion Weeks and don't wait for Anna Wintour to give them her blessing. They have their own website, sell directly to consumers and invest money in digital marketing.

So in the status quo, there are these two worlds for young designers. And that's why I think that, compared to 10 years ago, there are actually fewer problems for young designers. However in contrast to that, the fashion industry has completely different problems today. The industry is facing the existential question, whether and in what way fashion can still be relevant at all. My feeling is that the palace of the fashion industry is crumbling at every corner and is trying to stay relevant through celebrities and image making.

How do you choose your designers at NJAL and what is a "Black Sheep"?

In the past, we were present at all fashion weeks and shows - now we do almost everything online. We also collaborate with almost 200 universities and recruit graduates whose potential we recognise. Apart from that, the scouting almost goes by itself now. Most of the times, designers approach us directly. That's how we get about 300 new designers a month and many of them have been in the business for a long time. Accordingly, our landing page on NJAL changes practically every week. The special thing about it: You always see a selection of the currently best or most interesting designers - our Black Sheeps.

There are certainly enough brands in this world already. And that's why the most important challenge for young designers is to find what's special about themselves, to be unique and to stand out. Of course, designers from Berlin or Paris create quite similar products. But we have 50.000 designers from 150 countries on our platform. There are clear differences between artists from Chile or Australia. Different fabrics, techniques, artisanal traditions, cultures and inspirations result in incredibly diverse designs.

What is behind your partnership with Zalando?

The partnership has been running since the middle of last year. The principle: We select young designers for Zalando, who are then presented and sold at the Fashion Market Place. Zalando quickly realised that it doesn't make sense to sell the same shoe as Farfetch or Net-A-Porter. It simply needs much more conceptualisation on the market. Accordingly, Zalando has taken an innovative path by working with NJAL. And inspired: In the meantime, we cooperate with four other major retailers, who are also trying to differentiate their portfolio with more exclusive products.

LADA LEGINA 3D PRINTED

Source & Copyright by Lada Regina 3D Printed via NJAL

We choose a special form of collaboration - competitive collaboration. This means that we sell the same products as Zalando, for example. The reason for this is that Zalando consumers are not the same as Not Just a Label consumers and vice versa. So everyone benefits from the cooperation. However, a lot still needs to change in terms of business models. For example, it doesn't make sense to ship products three times around the world instead of shipping them directly through your own brand.

How did your B2C shop come about?

We successfully launched our online shop during the pandemic. The key is that we give the designers many advantages. For example, we allow them to deliver within 21 days. The reason for this is that while some designers offer ready-to-wear pieces, 40% of our sales are made-to-order. This means that the products do not exist at the time of ordering. Instead, designers receive an order, get in touch with the customer, offer their exclusive service and then tailor the product to personalise it and make it to measure. For us, this method is an extremely productive solution to make the fashion industry more sustainable.

We have two target groups: On the one hand, of course, Gen Z - very young people with lower purchasing power on average. In return, however, this generation has a great will to establish social and sustainable standards as the new norm for consumption. On the other hand, our main consumer is a lady between 30 and 50 years old who has enough money to buy a Louis Vuitton dress - but doesn't do it, because she prefers something unique. This means that our main target group is a rather upmarket audience; a self-confident woman who knows what she wants.

What does contemporary luxury mean to you?

When I own something that no one else has. When that product has even been personally produced for me and I know that my money is going directly to the creative source to go back into the region locally. That is the definition of luxury to me.

Miro Misljen

Source & Copyright by Miro Misljen via NJAL

For me, sustainability has more to do with mindset. Young talents are automatically sustainable, because they produce in small quantities and operate in a regional environment. Yes, sustainability has always been an issue for us - but we are very pragmatic and don't wave the big flag. What we do simply makes sense and is a sustainable solution.

What is your vision for the future of fashion?

I think the fashion industry will develop in a similar direction to the music industry. 20 years ago, there were five big music labels and you had to buy music or listen to what was on the radio. Accordingly, you had neither much choice nor any real chance of self-determination. And this is exactly how the fashion industry works to a large extent. Actually, all the big brands belong to eight strong conglomerates. Corporations that simply own everything in the fashion system. The result is that we are currently dictated what we can and should wear - there is no real freedom.

Today, however, you can go to Spotify or similar apps and listen to whatever you want. You can consume music by young artists without knowing them before. You can discover new things and be convinced by the product itself. And that's exactly what we want to achieve in fashion. We create the opportunity to explore designs by emerging talents from Nigeria. Sure, for this we compete as well as fight bitterly with the eight corporations. Nevertheless, this is the direction the future will take.

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