Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Cornelius Suen and Alan Ng
Photography by Jenkin Au
Introduce yourselves to our readers.
I am Ollie Van Roost. I am a co-founder and the creative director.
I am Mer Van Roost. I am a co-founder and I work in all aspects of the business but mostly in the marketing and sales departments.
Tell us why and how you decided to start up Bruxe Design?
Ollie: We used to do a lot of designs for snowboard companies. We started the design marketing office and worked on that for a bunch of years. Gradually, we found ourselves sitting on a bunch of ideations that we thought were great but that ultimately never went everywhere. We were sitting on so many designs that the company felt was stylish but too risky, so they passed on a lot of them. We thought that the best ones were overlooked by the company so we decided to take those designs and start a small collection of bags on our own. We always talked about designing and we also thought about doing designing other items. We weren’t looking to specifically establish a backpack brand or an accessory brand; we just wanted to design and we just happened to start with bags. When we first started designing for ourselves, we wanted to do it right and start off with a business plan. Unfortunately, we did not have enough money so we decided to just order some bags and jump into the designing process headfirst. That was how Bruxe Design started and here we are today.
Who came up with the name “Bruxe Design” and what does it mean?
Ollie: We wanted a name like Adidas, a name that doesn’t have an immediately accessible meaning but sounds really good, with the whole vowel-consonant structure. We came up with “Bruxe” because we thought it sounded classy and expensive. Also, the fact that it’s hard to pronounce creates for it a sense of mystique. Also, we were born in Brussels so “Bruxe” plays off of that too.
Your logo is a stylized “B” in what looks to be an old English font. This logo was very well received and has been associated with your brand. How did you come up with this logo?
Ollie: The font isn’t even old English. We started working on the logo with Brussels in mind as a starting point. We used the crest of the Belgian monarchy as inspiration and decided to make our logo crest like by adding serifs. There is a lot of familial pride in Belgium where familial lineages are well documented and go back thousands of years. We liked the idea of staying true to one’s roots and really knowing one’s history, so that was part of our inspiration to style our logo like a crest. We wanted the logo to look nice and pay homage to our country of origin as well.
What were some of the greatest difficulties you encountered while establishing your brand?
Ollie: When you build a brand, you want to repeat the same formula over and over again, whether it is in how your market the brand or in what products you carry. You want to create a sense of familiarity with the brand and have your customers feel comfortable and know what to expect. While this is good, we didn’t want to do it because we may be setting our brand up to be pigeonholed if we did. When brands are so set in their ways it may be hard for them to branch off into new things that they may want to try because they either get too comfortable with what they are doing and the consumer has come to expect that familiarity. For us, the brand is an extension of our office. We are constantly coming up with new design ideas so we tend to just brand a lot of the stuff we come up with and wait to see what happens with them. While we choose to be unpredictable and not follow a branding formula, there are difficulties because we cannot always convey a clear message to our customers. We go from designing bags to chair inspired jewellery. People don’t really know what to expect from us and have a tough time establishing a sense of familiarity with us, so that makes things tough sometimes.
Mer: It’s hard to start a retail store because people don’t always want to try new brands. We had to work with smaller retailers at first. Also, marketing is difficult. It’s really marketing driven here in Canada and marketing is taken really seriously here. All the little details are important like, who is on your team, what is your six month strategy, or what is your two year strategy. We are the complete opposite in how we approach marketing. We are mainly just two guys so everything has to come organically and we don’t have the manpower to really push the marketing. We work with a few blogs and a few guys that we trust and we just try to get the word out slowly.
When did you guys start working on establishing Bruxe Design and when was the launch?
Mer: We started working on it in the fall of 2007.
Ollie: Our first collection launched fall of 2008.
You guys are recognized for the design and quality of your bags. Tell us about your bags.
Mer: We didn’t want to push our logo with the first collection so we went with an all black collection that had black logos. The five bags we were launching looked like sihilouettes. We thought the designs were great but they were refused by a lot of companies. For our bags in general, quality is very important. We also like our designs to be clean and traditional looking as well.
Your bags and your other products are unique from what many other companies are doing in the industry. What are some of the things that you draw inspiration from?
Ollie: We are inspired by a lot of the same things that inspire other designers, like popular culture and the 1920s. However, we approach our products more from a design standpoint than from a trend or marketing standpoint. We don’t bother with what’s hot on the market right now. We go with what we want to do and what we think is aesthetically pleasing. Ultimately, the difference in our products from the vast majority out in the market lies in our designing process. We have a very loose designing process and a lot of what we create stems more from design intuition than studying the latest trend reports. I think this is why our products come out looking a little different.
What, in your opinion, is the difference in designing a product from a design mindset rather than from a trend or marketing mindset?
Mer: The design will be more timeless. Three years ago, people were big on all-over prints. We didn’t do that. Instead, we did a bag that was laser cut. It was kind of trendy at the time, not as much as the all-over prints, but it will still be classy in ten years. We focus on quality, durability, and achieving a classic look. We don’t focus on the hot color that’s going to make the bag a hit this year but undesirable next year. We are mindful of the trends that are shifting around us but we feel that the bigger companies focus on the market too much. They see what’s doing well at the time and jump behind that. They sell a lot of bags that way but we do not believe in doing things that way.
You guys were quite young when you started Bruxe Design. Do you see it evolving with you as your grow or do you feel that it has grown all it can at this point.
Ollie: It’s not going to change much. We do want to diversify and aim some stuff at kids later on though. However, the 25-50 age range is our target demographic. By 35, most people have a design awakening and realize that they no longer love what they used to. We want to focus on those who have this shift in taste and offer them something new to try.
Another popular product is your handmade chair inspired jewellery. It’s a very original idea. How did that come about?
Ollie: We are chair nerds and think that they are absolutely beautiful. People love chairs. If you ask architects and designers what their top-ten favourite objects are, five out of those ten objects will be chairs.
Mer: It’s the most iconic thing for architects and designers because it’s often the first thing they study in design school. Jewellery is hot right now too and there is not a lot of masculine jewellery to begin with. I was apprehensive when Ollie suggested we design jewellery but when we finally did, the line was a hit. We had a soft launch for the line on blogs the day after Christmas and we received 1200 e-mails after new years from people who were raving about the line. We hadn’t even officially launched it yet!
How does it feel to work with your brother?
Ollie: We want to kill each other sometimes but at the end of the day, you need to really trust somebody and know that their agenda is yours. Neither of us have our own agendas. We have the same goal. We trust each other. I can’t replace him.
Mer: We both have our design tastes. When you go into business with people who have other projects on the side, you may discover that they are looking out for their own wellbeing or for the betterment of their other projects. It’s better this way. We have the same goal and we work well together.
You guys have a close knit business and it’s great that you do a lot of the stuff yourself. How do you maintain the essence of the brand while expanding the business?
Mer: We will always be very involved in every aspect of the business. We are also very hands on. We do renovations whenever we get a new office or a new showroom and it’s fun w hen you don’t work with your hands a lot to get dirty. We want to follow Stussy’s method. They have fourteen employees who are paid very well and kept very content. They run a very tight and efficient team over there.
Ollie: There are other people involved besides us. There is a guy who has been with us for a year now and he came in as an intern but is now doing amazing design work for us. We are putting together quite a team. Ultimately, I would love to be on the golf course every day. While we will always be involved in the business, we don’t necessarily want to be in the office every day.
How important is it to source the highest quality materials for your designs?
Ollie: Very important. It’s difficult when you want to authentic about so much stuff but I think that this is what characterizes us as people who really love design. At the same time though, we are making it harder for ourselves. Our designs may get lost on the customers who buy the bag but cannot appreciate the craft and quality materials that went into it. Nonetheless, we do it this way because we want to.
Mer: Higher quality materials and craftsmanship leads to higher quality products and will build the brand up strong. There may be risks and the whole process takes longer, but people will trust your brand. Ralph Lauren is a great example of one such brand. Its popularity is resurging now but it wasn’t all that popular ten years ago. However, it has always been a reliable brand that people have trusted and that is why it’s been around for so long. We are going to start designing clothing so we are sourcing from a really good fabric company. It may be a little more expensive to do so and it might be hard to compete at retail with our expenses, but like Ollie said, it keeps our integrity. We have pride in what we put up.
What are the most important elements of design for your as individuals?
Ollie: I would say the creation process for the design. If you study the process of a lot of designers you will see their values. It comes down to taste. People do it every day in a sense. When you get dressed in the morning, you are doing designing. When you buy furniture for your house, you are designing. It comes down to price too. It comes down to taste, price, and the choices you make.
Mer: I would say the execution of the design into a good product. Our product is very understated but it still has appeal. We draw inspiration from the iPod. The guy who designed the iPod is a genius. It has a simple, beautiful design that is accessible and practical to use. We don’t want to reinvent anything. We just want to make our products what they are supposed to be, pure and simple. For example, a bag should be super clean, made with good stitching, and made with good fabric. Simple is often hard to do though.
What is HYPE?
Ollie: HYPE is street hustle.
Mer: HYPE Is bullshit. HYPE is when you don’t have a strong enough product. HYPE has sold a lot of products that do not have real HYPE. A lot of companies have had it really easy in the last ten years. Why should I pay $60 for a t-shirt that is worth $20 only because a celebrity endorses the product? People are getting sick of this so that’s why a lot of heritage brands are popping up.