Share what you wear
The four women behind The Netherlands’ newest clothing concept, Lena, would like for us to all look a little differently at the clothes hanging in our closets, and especially at how most of us wear only a small portion of them regularly. They believe a lot of change needs to happen in the fashion industry, and from their headquarters in Amsterdam they’re building up a like-minded customer base that’s eager to help them bring positive change to it. Their story is one of entrepreneurship, consumers and fashion. And it’s proof that once an idea is born, giving it a little incubation time simply makes it even better.
Who are the humans behind Lena?
Elisa: There are four of us. I’m Elisa Jansen. I’m 32 and I studied Fashion management. During my studies I started a vintage clothes webshop along with my two sisters, Angela and Diana. After graduating we loved it so much that we decided to open a physical store in Eindhoven. We’ve always been trying to find ways to re-use clothing in a fun manner. We had the store in Eindhoven for eight years. It was called Doortje Vintage and our fourth partner, Suzanne, worked freelance there. She had a similar vision to the three of us sisters and was the missing link in our team. Doortje Vintage is now the parent company of Lena. Out of personal interest we did a lot of research about the fashion industry and discovered a lot of things we did not like. I personally was already buying more secondhand than brand new clothing items, but you can still have way too many. Today, European consumers ask more and more questions before buying clothes: Is it going to be too expensive? How do we know it’s good for the environment? So we finally decided to start a clothes library, and that is Lena. I’m responsible for overseeing strategy and finances.
Diana: I’m 34, the middle sister, and I studied Fashion at the Art Academy in Utrecht. I am in charge of putting the clothing collection together here at Lena.
Suzanne: I’m 32 and studied communication in Eindhoven. Afterward I also attended the Fashion Academy like Elisa, but with more focus on branding and concept. After graduating I worked at Doortje Vintage and now for Lena. I’m responsible for Lena’s social media, communication and PR.
Angela: I live in Eindhoven and studied at the Design Academy. I’m a graphic designer so I created Lena’s branding. Today I’m responsible for the brand’s look and feel.
It’s clear that each of you brings a different piece to the puzzle that makes Lena. How did Lena start evolving from just the seed of that initial idea?
Elisa: About five or six years ago, my sisters and I were on a holiday and we stumbled upon the idea of a clothes library…
Angela: Yes. The idea felt so big and difficult to accomplish that we always parked it and continued in other directions. We didn’t dare to go for it but it stayed in our minds. Then three years ago we finally did it. We started it.
Elisa: We debated a lot of things, but one thing we were absolutely certain about was that IF we did it then it had to be big and it had to be in Amsterdam. We were convinced that a small vintage store would not work. Then there came a point when our physical vintage store in Rotterdam? was closed for two years, so that was the perfect window for us to start Lena.
Diana: Doortje Vintage was one of the first vintage web stores in Holland so we wanted to keep doing innovative things in that domain. We also felt we had a unique idea that fit perfectly into the times we live in today, so it was the right moment.
Elisa: It’s also important to mention the role of Amsterdam in Lena’s story. People are more open-minded in this city.
How does a “clothing library” like Lena work?
Elisa: We are basically a clothing store that allows you to “buy” clothes in a more conscious way. The main focus is actually borrowing clothes, which you can do with or without a subscription. The subscription works with a credit system. Every clothing item is “priced” with a specific amount of credits on its label. The lowest subscription is €25/month, which gives you 100 credits each month to borrow clothes. For example, you might borrow two dresses of 50 credits each. And it’s up to you how long you keep them — you might return them the next day or you might not return them until a few months later. But the moment you bring them back your credits are available to you again towards borrowing other clothes. You can come back as much as you want, it’s very flexible. There are also higher subscriptions which give you even more monthly credits. Recently we even started a borrowing program that doesn’t require a monthly subscription, you just pay a week price. It’s a bit more expensive but there’s no monthly fee.
Diana: About the clothing collection itself, a large part of it is vintage, Made in Europe and a minimum of 20 years old. We also have new pieces as well, mainly coming from European eco labels or collaborations with local designers.
And you’ve recently even made it possible for subscribers to shop at Lena online?
Elisa: Yes, that’s now possible on our website and we’re very excited about it. We explored a lot of different options and systems for online borrowing solutions. Our subscribers helped us a lot by thinking through the different methods with us and sharing their opinions about what works and what doesn’t. Two big obstacles that we faced with our concept were that people are very busy and also that it’s not always physically possible for them to get to the store. Even if you just live on the other side of Amsterdam, it’s still not that easy to come by.
So you can live outside of Amsterdam and still be a Lena lover.
Suzanne: Correct, we have several exchange points in the Netherlands: five in Amsterdam and one each in Utrecht, Eindhoven and Arnhem. When borrowing online it’s very important to have somewhere convenient to pickup and drop-off the clothing, otherwise it means high shipping costs plus shipping’s environment impact. We’ve already partnered with several stores who embrace the Lena concept and we want to keep expanding the number of pickup points in Holland and abroad. There are similar concepts in Scandinavia, Paris, Barcelona and Madrid, but everyone is doing it in their own unique way. But this is still a very young and innovative concept, so all of us together are creating a small community that shares new knowledge, experiences and discoveries with each other along the way.
What’s been a very positive experience for each of you since starting up Lena?
Elisa: We feel a strong need for change the fashion industry and our subscribers give us a lot of positive energy. A lot of people ask us if they can help in some way, which is a very different way of working compared to the traditional fashion industry. It’s very hard work and it remains a startup, but we believe 100% in the need for a store like Lena. The fact that so many people love helping us, making Lena something from all of us, is the most positive thing Lena has brought to me.
Diana: I agree. I personally enjoy seeing how our customers come back every month. It results in us building a different type of relationship with our customers, our subscribers. It’s very different compared to the vintage store we used to have in Eindhoven. Here at Lena we have several employees and working with them is great because we all share the same vision.
Suzanne: Excited subscribers also give me energy, but I’m personally very excited to see how many clothing designers and brands want to collaborate with us. As a result we are able to positively influence the production processes of many of the items that end up in our collection. We try to be a platform where both the designers and end users can provide feedback to each other and find ways to change the industry.
Angela: I’ve focused mainly on the branding of each of our projects. As a brand Lena wants to be very transparent and open, and that idea has continued to grow more each year. More companies are starting to think this way, but it’s still a learning curve for all of us. As a graphic designer I see personally how that gives me the ability to step away from my computer and build relationships with customers myself.
It’s clear that you’ve made your customers a very central part of the story. Do you see customer relationships like Lena’s being the future of entrepreneurship?
Elisa: Hard to tell. We can only say that they are certainly the engine and force behind our own success. It’s really fantastic to have the close relationship with so many of our customers. When a Lena customer cancels his or her subscription for one or another reason, you can usually see that they wish they could keep it. Sometimes it’s because they are moving to a different city or another country.
Angela: I believe we can call it a deeper layer of entrepreneurship. A layer of partnership that you build together. It’s sharing, not selling.
Elisa: It’s also a different type of relationship that we create here. When a ‘real’ store needs to sell clothes, it is harder sometimes to be fully honest to a customer if a piece doesn’t suit him or her that well. At Lena we have nothing to lose by being truly honest to a subscriber if something is not a good match for them. There might be a better piece somewhere else in the store for them, or if not they can come back another day to see what new pieces have arrived or been returned by other subscribers. That mindset is very appreciated by our subscribers and results in a much more pleasant work environment for us. Customer relationships built on honesty.
What’s something that’s surprised you while working to build the business?
Elisa: An older woman walked in one evening and at first sight I thought maybe she’d had a bit too much wine to be able to judge Lena the right way. But actually she was just extremely excited about the concept. She surprised me by taking subscription and now, several months later, she is one of our most loyal subscribers.
Angela: I’ve noticed that people have very different reactions when you explain the concept. It ranges from being very excited to being extremely confused and finding it hard to understand the reasoning behind it.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs trying to kick off a new project, whether it’s in fashion or another field?
Angela: Don’t be afraid of the ups and downs. It’s part of it and you will learn a lot by riding the waves. And if you’re not doing it alone, it will be very helpful to work on the relationship(s) with your business partner(s) in order to grow closer and get to know each other better.
Diana: Be willing to work hard. Every day. But if it is really what you want to do, you’ll enjoy every minute of it.
Suzanne: Make sure that whatever you’re choosing to do is something you stand behind 200% or it will be difficult to keep doing it. It is a lot of work and can be very challenging. You have to be very grounded every day.
Elisa: You can make as many plans as you want and rethink it all constantly, but in the end you just have to jump in and go for it. It is also important to know that you’ll have to tweak along the way. Don’t be afraid to change, adapt, go back to something, add new products, designs, and so on.
Startups and projects like Lena can sometimes find themselves so focused on the immediate moment that they forget to make longer term goals. Looking forward, what does your more far-reaching vision of Lena’s future look like?
Elisa: Oh, we have them. We are thinking about opening Lena stores in other big cities. After we began this one we got questions from people all over the World asking how to startup their own clothing libraries in other places. The difficulty with this concept is that it has a broad audience. Our youngest subscriber is 15 and our oldest is 60+. Having one collection that appeals to everybody in that age range is a challenge. Multiple libraries that are each focused on a different segment would be ideal but we can’t build multiple libraries Worldwide on our own. Plus it would take too long to create an impact. Instead we would like to stimulate others in starting up their own libraries. We now have the knowledge of building Lena and we want to share what we’ve learned with other people around the World. We also created an online system specifically for Lena, that now other starting libraries will be able to use. Having that type of backend system can be a very big step forward for others with similar concepts. We hope to give support and use Lena as a playground for starting clothing libraries Worldwide.
X This conversation had place in the fall of 2017
X Interview and photography by Johan Bockstaele
X Images captured with a Nikon Df
X Interview conducted in Dutch, translated and edited by the clever ZOTEYE minions