The MONA WIE (ad)venture

In a nutshell

During my career in the financial sector I found it difficult to find beautiful, meaningful clothes that would make me stand out. I wanted to assume my femininity and be taken seriously in a male-dominated environment without looking like a flight attendant. I wanted my personality to be reflected in the clothes I was wearing, too. I thought that since I spend so much time in the office, it would be a shame not to wear clothes that I really like and in which I feel physically and mentally comfortable.

At the same time I had observed the dwindling quality and longevity of the garments, as well as the increased use of mineral-oil derived fabrics (e.g. polyester). It seemed to me that the art of fashion had made way to a mere numbers game...I talked to my younger sister who is a marine biologist about this phenomenon. She suggested I watch The True Cost, a documentary that exhibits the business model of the fast fashion industry and its negative impact on our planet and humans. What I saw was truly appalling and made my fashion consumption much more conscious. It eventually also triggered my desire to launch a fashion brand that would be an antidote to fast fashion: timeless, curated, highly qualitative, natural, long-lasting and ethically produced.

I am glad to share more about the story of Mona Wie because it enables me to credit all the talented and skilled people that contributed building this label and to whom I am extremely grateful.

The process

First steps

In February 2016, with the encouragement of my younger sister, I did the first brainstorming of my fashion idea.

First brainstorming of my idea (look how I wanted to call the label initially )

I contacted some people in the sector to better understand the business model and how to approach this huge endeavour. I was lucky enough to meet Mansour Badjoko, a like-minded Brussels-based designer who had already embarked on producing ethically and using eco-conscious fabrics. His suggestions were very helpful and his encouragement gave me the confidence to pursue my business idea. And while I was enthusiastic about my idea, it would take me more than a year to really commit to it...

Fast forward one-and-a-half years, having quit my private equity job, I conducted market research to find out what women were looking for in their business attire. The features that came up time and again were sophisticated cuts, comfort and creativity. To my surprise very few women cared about sustainable fashion, hinting that it was a compromise on style. I was ready to prove them wrong.

One of the reasons to change careers was to design my professional life closer to my private life. Therefore, from the outset I chose to integrate my bi-cultural persona (half-Belgian, half-Portuguese) into the brand: Belgian, and even more so Antwerp is famous for its leading fashion savoir-faire, and Portugal is known for its high-quality [ethical] production within Europe.

Trust the process

And there I was at the beginning of 2017 with this vision of my ethical fashion label designed in Antwerp and produced in Portugal, but with no clue where to start... My friend Carlos who was just transitioning from consulting into fashion suggested I read the book “How to Set Up and Run a Fashion Label” by Toby Meadows.

A good read for someone with no experience in the fashion industry

This book gave me a lot of insights and helped me to work out the different work streams - I could not help it but considered it was like managing another acquisition. The first work stream that I identified was to find a designer and a pattern-maker. I contacted some designers and pattern-makers in Belgium that I had found via the search function on LinkedIn. From the 20 something messages that I sent, I only got one answer from an empathic pattern maker who had made a similar career change as I did. She was not able to work with me but she suggested I talk to a designer who had set up his own fashion label and who would surely be able to share some good advice. The 1-h meeting with this designer turned into 3 hours and was extremely valuable because he shared so much practical advice I would have never been able to find in any text book. He also suggested I talk to Elke Hoste, a lauded pattern maker from Antwerp who also teaches Cuts at the Academy of Arts, to ask her if she would be interested in collaborating on this project.

In June 2017, I met with Elke - it was an instant click! The meeting with her was a turning point in the project because she knew a very talented designer (whom I will refer to as Cazenove for privacy purposes) who had been her student at the Academy that could work with us, and she told me to stop hesitating about the concept and pushed me to get the ball rolling...So, I chose to focus on a mono product: 4 dresses and soon after, Cazenove and I met with each other to discuss the idea. I was so glad to hear that he totally understood what I was up to. He asked me to provide a mood board and some brands that would proxy the style/design of my fashion brand.

My first attempt at a moodboard

While I was waiting for Cazenove’s sketches, I decided to embark on another whole new workstream for me; branding. At this time I was working out of Secondhome in Lisbon, and fortunate to attend several workshops on this topic and be able to talk to many knowledgeable people. I asked some people to help me brainstorm on a brand name. None of the propositions (e.g. rafü, Bizeve) felt quite right though and I decided to stick to the work-in-progress name “Mona Wie”, which is also my facebook name. With the brand name decided I reached out to a very talented graphic designer for the logo and typeface. Hervé Jungblut made three propositions, and one of them hit the nail on the head; it was subtle, feminine, elegant and modern at the same time!

The MONA WIE logo and typeface

In July 2017, the first sketches for the dresses came in. After a reiterative process we chose four designs; two fitted and two looser dresses. It was important to me to offer designs for different body morphologies.

Sketches of the 4 dresses

In August 2017, Cazenove and I met up with Elke to discuss the design and some technical points (which I could not follow ). During the following weeks, Elke produced the toiles and very sophisticated patterns for the four dresses.

The toile of the shirt dress (aka Aiko dress)

The next step was to search for Italian high quality fabrics. I was extremely lucky to find a Prato-based wholesaler of deadstock fabrics from all major fashion houses (e.g. Prada, MaxMara, Chanel, Marni), where I could buy high-quality fabrics in low quantities and yet affordable prices.

The artsy fabrics wholesaler in Prato, Italy

Choosing fabrics was completely new to me but I let myself be guided by my intuition to find a nice colour palette and the most adapted weaves for the dresses. I made some mistakes, but this will help me to choose better in the future!

Dealing with adversity

The next workstream was the sampling process, for which I had to find an atelier, who was willing and capable of sampling, and consecutively producing the dresses. I will keep this episode of the venture relatively short since it took me more than 6 months, travelling from South to North of Portugal, many meetings and three badly sampled rounds of dresses, a lot of discussions and adversity...This was the period where I thought of giving up three times.

This extreme adversity resulted from my powerlessness face-to-face with these sewing plants and my agent. Even though I was the client and I was (over)paying they did not care to provide high-quality sewing because of lack of interest and time or because of my ignorance of sewing. Some of them were also just not capable.

Since I was at a loss on how to deal with the production facilities, I reached out to a childhood friend of my mother, Nandita, who has 40 years of sewing experience. I was very lucky she assisted me technically in showing what high quality sewing was and what I ought to accept and what not.

Just a couple of pictures of bad quality sewing:

"For me, perseverance, gut feel and fun are the most important ingredients in developing a business idea."

 

With the help of Nandita, I found a very experienced atelier in the centre of Portugal, just 10km away from my mother’s village who have the savoir-faire for sewing the dresses. With hindsight, I am happy I did not accept the previous atelier’s poor sewing quality and that I believed in finding a better atelier than the ones that my agent had presented to me. I am also happy that I did not accept the adjustments to the designs that the less-capable ateliers wanted to me do so that they would be capable of sewing the dresses - it would have killed the soul and the uniqueness of the designs of the dresses. And of course, I am extremely grateful to Nandita for her knowledgeable advice, her positiveness and her pushes to stop whining and keep on moving !

Nandita estou extremamente agradecida por ter te conhecida e por todo o que fizeste para mim e a marca! Vamos passear em breve. Beijinhos

Nandita and I celebrating after work is done!

Tangibilisation

While I was still in the strenuous sampling phase, I decided to get my hands onto a more cheerful pass-time; preparing the fashion shoot! My designer put me in touch with Erika Rodin, a photographer who had just graduated from the Academy of Arts. I loved her authentic and unfussy photographing style, and considered it perfectly fitted with the label and the dresses. We met a couple of times to discuss the project and find a suitable location.

Studio scouting with Erika

Erika convinced me to work with a stylist, a professional fashion model (note: I thought that my sister Dunja who had occasionally modelled for artistic shots could do this job perfectly - no offence), and make-up artist.

We were recommended Kim Peers for the styling and that’s how I contacted her. I went to Antwerp to get to know her and talk about the project. It was an unusual meeting in which we first talked about each of us, our lives and what we wanted to achieve. We then talked about the styling of the shoot and she proposed some models that would fit with the brand image. At home I realised that the most adequate woman to represent the brand was Kim herself since she embodied all what the brand was about; elegance, femininity, timeless beauty, she exuded strength and confidence through her serenity, and she is a woman who chooses what she does with her time, talent and energy. That’s what I told her and she happily accepted to be the model and the stylist of the shooting! Very similarly, I was very happy that Ana Japson agreed to do the hair and makeup.

Some pictures of the quite intense shooting day on 18 February 2018:

Ana is doing Kim's make-up and Erika is preparing the set (meanwhile I am ironing the dresses - pity that no pic was taken of me doing that )

Seeing the dresses coming out so wonderfully on the pictures at the end of the shooting day was such a gratification for all the hard work until then:

Spending the weekend choosing pictures while listening to my fav artist: Robert Glasper

With the shooting done, I was ready to build the web-boutique but felt quite overwhelmed with getting the design of the website right. My friend Emma who I’d met at Secondhome (and who is also the name-giver of the Emma dress) suggested I talk to Celina Cabral, a designer with a background in fashion. It was very comforting for me to know that Celina was on the same wave length as I when it comes to the fashion industry. She immediately understood what I wanted to achieve and agreed to work with me on the project. Then my university friend Ronny introduced me to Jeffrey Dalrymple who is web developer and our international website team was complete: a Brazilian working out of Lisbon, a US citizen working out of Thailand, and myself from exotic Brussels This was a very fun and most importantly very fruitful collaboration as you can see on the website!

I also needed stationery, e.g. clothing tags, business cards. My graphic designer Hervé recommended a Letterpress appearance with his design. On facebook I found Quadratim Letterpress, a collaboration between “a typographer father [Luís] and an apprentice daughter [Vânia], bringing back the magic of traditional printing” based in Portugal.

Letterpress by Quadratim, design by Hervé Jungblut

Launch of MONA WIE

And the story ends with the official launch of the brand at the beautiful Ambiorix venue of The Library, the coworking space where I am a member.
A little souvenir from the launch party sketched by my friend Jean-Claire Lacroix on that same night:

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