Clemens en August is not your conventional luxury brand. The Munich-based labelwhose minimalist style and rock flavor have made fans of fashion-conscious celebrities like Sienna Miller and supermodel Lily Colesells its collections by going on tour. Twice a year, Clemens hosts a three-day sale by creating a pop-up store, often at a contemporary art gallery or museum, in one of 12 cities around the world. Advertising is strictly by word of mouth or email invitation (the indoctrinated sign up at Clemens-en-august.com). Shoppers who turn up are then issued a personal code that allows them to purchase the designs, including made-to-order items, online only for that season.
So far, the guerrilla tactic is working. In the three years since its launch, Clemens en August has steadily gained a cult following. Its email subscriber list has more than doubled in the past year, and sales have increased 30% over last season. Tour cities have expanded beyond Europe to include New York City and Tokyo, with requests from Chicago and Los Angeles.
It doesn't hurt that without advertising, brick-and-mortar costs or store markupsand because all items are sold in limited numbersthe brand's prices are less than half of what they would be at retail. The discount factor has done nothing to detract from the label's status. Scottish actor James McAvoy sported an edgy, tailored Clemens tuxedo at the Oscars last year. The lead singer of the Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand also owns a Clemens-designed tux, and the band referred to the label in a recent GQ interview as their cool discovery.
"It's like a rock concert," says Alexander Brenninkmeijer, the company's Dutch founder and former business partner at Kostas Murkudis. "We were trying a new strategy."
For Clemens en August and many fashion companies like it, dreaming up a new retail strategy is less a matter of creativity than of necessity. In an economic downturn in which even high-end luxury fashion brands are canceling plans to open flagship stores, both newcomers and veterans are taking renegade approaches to retail. The Stockholm-based label Filippa K is allowing customers to resell the designer's products by opening its own "vintage" store. Natalie Massenet of the successful designer e-tail site, Net-a-Porter, recently launched an outlet version, theoutnet.com, featuring deeply discounted prices. And the websites yoox.com and gilt.com were established for the purpose of selling high fashion at very low prices.
Clemens en August, whose chic, sporty details are redolent of the heyday of Helmut Lang, opened its first pop-up shops at the art spaces Kunst-Werke in Berlin and MAK in Vienna in 2005, and the collections sold well. "I was surprised by the quick response," recalls Brenninkmeijer, 41, who with his longish hair looks somewhat like a '70s rock star.
Brenninkmeijer was born into fashion. He is a fifth-generation descendant of the Brenninkmeijer brothers, Clemens and August, who in 1841 founded the German textile-and-fashion retail empire C&A, which has more than 400 stores in Germany and branches in 16 countries throughout the world. And while it may appear that the young Brenninkmeijer's methods are a modern-day challenge to an old style of retail, in fact they have long run in his family. The brothers used to travel to the north of the Netherlands on foot, selling high-quality fabrics to wealthy farmers who didn't have time to go into the city themselves. "Driving a van to Munich, to Berlin or to Vienna with merchandise, I realized that it was very similar to what Clemens and August did at the time, just the modern version of it," says Brenninkmeijer, who named the label after the brothers. "I thought it would be a nice homage to the founding fathers."
Itinerant retail is only one of Clemens en August's strategic ideas. We realized that there is a market even for a new brand with no recognizable name as long as we don't get too expensive," says Brenninkmeijer. To highlight its reduced rates, Clemens en August's tags feature two numbers: the actual price and the estimated amount that, say, Barney's might charge. For example, the tag for a silk dress reads $365 and $941. A men's tuxedo has a tag that reads $714 and $1,786.
The brand's other innovative move: selling only in-season collections, which means that at Clemens en August, you don't have to buy a heavy winter coat in midsummer. "When it's getting cold and people need something new, they will have the merchandise right in their locality at the right price," explains Brenninkmeijer.