Strellson – It’s Not Just About Fashion

 

 

In addition to Joop and Windsor, Strellson is the third brand operated by the proprietor-owned Holy Fashion Group in Kreuzlingen. All three brands are managed individually, each with their own distinctive strategy and orientation, and internal career moves between the brands are rare.

Bringing some life into the otherwise extremely linear and neat showroom, the two well-dressed men cheerfully enter the airy salesroom with a brisk step. Marco Tomasi is wearing a Strellson two-piece suit made of black tricotine; Thomas Jaeger pretends he has to inspect his muted gray-black checked suit, before patting down his white beard and announcing: “And this is a light flanell Strellson suit made of pure new wool.”

Tomasi tells us he started at Strellson as “a complete newbie.” He goes on to explain that he wasn’t a newcomer to the branch, however, and that he had worked in several areas of the textile industry before starting his career with Strellson and advancing to his current position as Creative Director. “I think I must have worked in just about every department of textiles, from purchase to sales, including industry,” the designer with Italian roots tells us. Then, 15 years ago, he made the transition to Strellson. As he recalls, his passion for sewing and designing started early, inspired by his mother, who worked as a seamstress. He laughs: “And I’ll admit that my interest in sewing was also fueled by the fact that I was a skinny teenager.”

If I wanted clothes that fit me, I either had to adjust them or make them myself.

Thomas Jaeger has a similarly diverse background. A trained retail salesman and graduate of the LDT Nagold Academy for Fashion Business Management, he first came in contact with textile production, weaving, embroidery, and dyeing during an internship in New York. After gathering his initial experiences over the course of half a year, he was invited to stay on in the menswear department. “I spent some time knocking on doors, visiting customers, sales, all that kind of thing. It taught me a great deal,” he adds reflectively. Then he hired on with Strellson, first as a regional sales manager in Düsseldorf, Germany. This was roughly 20 years ago, when Jaeger was in his late twenties and the concept of the actual Strellson brand was still in the making. Today, in his capacity as Brand Managing Director, Jaeger is one of the driving forces behind the Strellson brand, and he and Tomasi collaborate closely on the brand’s strategic alignment. Tomasi says: “Over the years, we have steadily built up and expanded the brand little by little.” And Jaeger adds with visible pride: “With regards to looks and presence, we can honestly say that we’ve done a good job. Our motto has always been: It’s our responsibility, but all that counts in the end is the brand.”

You only become successful once you stop wanting to put yourself in the foreground.

A scratchy start

Strellson’s breakthrough came with its iconic coat made using Swiss military blankets and featuring an integrated pocketknife. “The Piece,” as Jaeger calls it with a hint of nostalgia. “Although the material meant the coat was very scratchy and even smelled at first, everybody had to have one. It became a real hype.” Tomasi continues: “And this in the summer of 2003, the hottest summer Switzerland has ever experienced, with temperatures peaking at 104 degrees.”

The hype started after a short article appeared in the Handelsblatt, a leading German business newspaper. “Suddenly the phone began to ring off the hook,” Jaeger recalls. They had started with a limited production of 3,000 pieces. “At first we were wondering how we would move the entire lot. Then one customer ordered 10, another ordered 200 pieces, and that was it,” Tomasi tells us gleefully. And Jaeger continues: “We placed an ad in one of Zurich’s main newspapers, the NZZ, and after a few days the whole lot had sold out and we had to produce more. For a while, we couldn’t even get our hands on enough blankets to meet demand. But things like that are impossible to plan. Somehow we just managed to hit the Zeitgeist.”

In the meantime, the shape of the coat has been refined, but the integrated penknife remains part of the design. “The jacket actually led to Strellson’s expansion into two product lines,” Jaeger tells us. “After the coat episode, Strellson was split into a sportswear and a business line, each with individual distribution strategies. Ever since, Strellson’s Premium Line has focused on business suits, while the Sportswear Line continues to revolve around the coat.

Whoever stays on long enough automatically becomes a part of the brand

Much has changed while the two men have worked at Strellson. “Today we’re both finding we have to delegate a lot more,” Jaeger says. “But when you’ve accompanied a brand like a baby, every single step of its way, you’re happy to take on new challenges.” What hasn’t changed, however, is that all products continue to be designed in Switzerland. “This isn’t a slogan; it’s an attitude,” Jaeger says, and it’s evident that he’s not saying this for the first time. And Tomasi adds: “We’re a brand with an international focus. Clean. Straight. Urban. And always with the claim Designed in Switzerland.” Jaeger goes on to say: “We want the end customer to sense this, to meet with the same brand concept no matter where: In retail stores, shops in various cities, the Internet. All points of contact have to communicate the same brand experience.” “Yes,” Tomasi chimes in, “next to the actual product, the brand is our greatest asset. Everything else comes second. The quality has to be guaranteed, and growth has to remain sound.

Every brand needs time to grow.

“We started out as a small team,” Tomasi recalls. “Just four people in the design department. Over time, more and more came on board, and now there are 15 of us in all. And 90 percent of those who joined us over the years are still with us.” Tomasi is very proud of what he calls their “sound growth.” “It takes time to understand a brand philosophy, to live it, and to pass it on to others.” And Jaeger adds: “That’s what’s so great about this company. Whoever stays long enough automatically becomes a part of the brand and is promoted accordingly. That is why we try to hold on to our employees as long as possible, even though they theoretically could transfer to one of the other brands. Working with people who uphold the same brand values is very satisfying.”

Jaeger takes a sip of water, smiles to himself, and leans forward; recalling the past has reminded him of his earliest experiments with textiles. “I was pretty young, too, when I first tried making things for myself. As a teenager, I had a sewing machine, and even made myself a pair of trousers and a jacket. I still have the machine, but hardly ever use it anymore.” Looking at Tomasi he says: “Too bad we didn’t take pictures of everything in those days the way we do now. We could look at the clothes we made then.”

Tomasi nods with a rueful smile: “You’re right, a lot of things have changed. Today we are dealing with an extremely well-informed public. Not only has photography become a part of our daily life, gathering information has, too.” This has a direct impact on companies: “Transparency is becoming more and more of a must, whether you like it or not. And I strongly believe that the new generation will take a different view of a lot of things.”

Gathering information has become a part of our daily life, which means transparency is increasingly becoming a basic requirement for companies.

“All these factors need to be taken into consideration when designing and managing a brand,” Jaeger says. “We are careful to track which way society is heading, to observe the trends, and to establish the current interests of the men we’re trying to address. What goes on in their urban lives? Where do we place the accents? It’s not just about fashion.” And Tomasi adds: “Sustainability has become an important issue and it would be foolish to ignore it. Our trading partners have clear expectations regarding our products and want to know where the different parts originate from.” Jaeger continues: “It’s crucial to remain on top of these issues. And, keeping Strellson’s DNA in mind, we let all the answers and results of our work flow into each new collection.” “This is extremely important” Tomasi agrees. “We do the research, try to get an overall picture by going through life with open eyes – we observe people in cafés, sometimes even managing to put our cell phones down for a moment. You don’t have to travel far; there’s inspiration to be found in Kreuzlingen if you know where to look,” he says. “Exactly,” Jaeger finishes off, “and knowing what’s out there helps us define the framework for the brand. Then we throw out everything that doesn’t fit into the concept. That’s how we remain true to the brand and continue to exploit its potential.”

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