Operating from the small coal-mining city of Bochum, Manfred Säck and Klaus Nolde have been in charge of European distribution for some of the world’s most popular streetwear brands for 25 years. Here the two talk about their beginnings and their new projects, such as opening the latest Stüssy store in Amsterdam and their own web shop.
I don’t know when (if ever) I typed in a term for a Google search with exactly zero video results popping up (and very few useable picture hits either). But that's what happened when I was preparing for my visit to Bochum, where I was to meet with the eponymous founders of arguably Germany’s best-known streetwear distribution agency, Säck & Nolde.
It is unusual for people who have been working for years with webophile and hype-worthy brands such as Stüssy, Undefeated, X-Large or Jason Markk to keep a low digital profile. But perhaps it’s also symptomatic of the subtle and steady working style of the personable distribution team from the Ruhr valley.
Manfred Säck and Klaus Nolde met in the late 1980s at a commercial college in their hometown of Bochum, although their work together only began in earnest a few years later: Nolde was working for a small distributor for outdoor brands and Säck was bored with his business studies. Together they hit on the idea of setting themselves up as independent distributors of brands–just which brands was at first still up in the air. “At the start we wanted to sell bikinis! Beautiful women and fashion shows in California. That really was our first idea,” laughs Nolde. On September 11, 1992 they registered their business.
At first the two tried to contact American companies in need of a German distributor via the International Chamber of Commerce, but this proved difficult. So after a while, they decided to just go to the US. With standby tickets Delta Airlines used to offer at the time, they flew to the States for six weeks, stopping first in New York City. There the two, half for personal reasons, half out of professional interest, went to the legendary Union Store on Spring Street–today, as fate would have it, the location of the local Stüssy store. They got into conversation with a staff member (was it the Union boss and later Supreme founder, James Jebbia? Who knows.), who suggested they get a copy of the new Source magazine which listed all the new streetwear brands in the country, including their phone numbers and addresses. Armed with the Source, the two set out for the West Coast and made the rounds of the various labels, including a very positive visit to the streetwear brand X-Large and its founder Adam Silverman in Los Angeles. “On the flight back we made the decision: ‘Okay, let's do that think with the gorilla logo,ʼ” says Nolde. And so, back in Germany the two placed their first order with X-Large for $3,000 from their savings. Only later did they discover through a skater friend that Mike D of the Beatie Boys was a shareholder in the brand–naturally, a welcome marketing boost.
On the flight back we made the decision: ‘Okay, let's do that think with the gorilla logo.
We always took a tent with us, and when we had no money for a hotel we simply drove to the campground,
From the goods they had bought the two put together a sample collection (the rest was parked in the attic at grandma’s), and went on a tour of Germany with it. Without an established network of retailers or the wonderful research facilities of the Internet, they drove their old VW Passat through Germany’s downtown areas, went up and down the shopping streets and spoke to people with cool T-shirts (at the time, Freshjive, for example), and asked them where they bought their gear. Call calling par excellence. “We always took a tent with us, and when we had no money for a hotel we simply drove to the campground,” says Nolde.
They immediately invested the proceeds from the first order in a new, larger order. In those days business didn’t involve Excel sheets or digital lookbooks, but was fairly analog. “They really did take Polaroids, stick them in an envelope and send them over to us. It was like: 'Look, we have a new jacket.’ In addition, there was a fax indicating how much was in stock and rough renderings, and we ordered from that. It was always a bit like Christmas when the packages arrived!” says Säck. Business took its course and in 1993 the two even opened their own X-Large store in Cologne. “We were a bit too early with the whole monobrand concept, I reckon. Somehow, people didn't get it at the time,” smiles Nolde. “But we held out for four years anyhow!” In 1994, at the age of 25, Säck decided to quit university once and for all and to devote himself entirely to the distribution firm. Nolde too, who initially worked part-time in other jobs, took it up full time shortly afterwards.
Gradually, their portfolio increased to include more brands and products: always connected in some way with the hip-hop, skate and graffiti scene, mostly from the LA area. From Phillies Cigars that became popular for blunt-rolling in Larry Clark’s 1995 movie Kids to robust outerwear by Spiewak. Because Säck & Nolde were also directing distribution of the powerfully hyped British streetwear label Silas & Maria at the time, by the mid-2000s Stüssy became aware of the lads–and finally chose them to distribute the US label in Germany, after its partnership with its previous importer, Martin van Doren, “became shaky.” Since then, Säck & Nolde has accompanied the brand through all its highs and lows. “The brand was actually never burned, even before our time,” says Nolde. To ensure that remains the case, there are currently global instructions to reduce the number of Stüssy customers and to ensure a balanced collection statement: no one is allowed to order logo shirts only these days, even if demand is certainly there. “Currently, we receive many inquiries we have to reject. It is very nice that the demand is there, but you have to conduct a few unpleasant conversations too.”
As the crown jewel of their partnership with Stüssy, in mid-September Säck & Nolde had the privilege of opening the third European Stüssy Chapter store after Milan and Madrid: in the heart of the red light district of Amsterdam, straight across from Patta, in collaboration with the local Patta distribution team.
But things don’t always run so smoothly with all brand partners–as Säck and Nolde also had to find out. For example, with former trend label, Emily the Strange, whose red, white and black graphic merchandise went through the roof in the years around 2003–and then became "practically unsellable within nine months", as Nolde explains. "That was a bitter phase because at the time revenue from the brand accounted for a large share of our total sales." This stumble gave the two the impetus to broaden their approach from then on and not be so strongly dependent on just one brand.
Having a good nose for new brands and opportunities is as crucial as it is tricky. In addition to good timing, the chemistry with the brand and the “brand hygiene” within the agency have to be right.
“Of course we have acquired a little experience over the years, but sometimes you can be in the right place at the right time and still not see it,” explains Nolde. For example, the two have later regretted turning brands away, but they have also added brands to their portfolio which rather unexpectedly turned out to be good business–such as the sneaker cleaning brand, Jason Markk. “In my opinion, there is no secret formula. When you are offered a brand that is already going strong, of course it’s easy. But you have to make the decision to distribute it when a brand doesn’t exist here yet and isn’t a big seller anywhere else,” says Säck. Or, as Nolde says, “It’s like playing the lottery!”
Basically, the two look for “genuine brands,” and not just in textiles: smoking accessories or charger cables also are distributed by Säck & Nolde. Currently, they are interested in a manufacturer of outdoor “drinkware.” “We have always been in love with products. What interests us is: Can the brand convey a certain lifestyle, is there a story behind the product? We are looking for real brands, not just goods,” says Nolde.
In my opinion, there is no secret formula. When you are offered a brand that is already going strong, of course it’s easy. But you have to make the decision to distribute it when a brand doesn’t exist here yet and isn’t a big seller anywhere else.
For their love of products, the two have just created a further outlet: an e-commerce project to which they are “treating themselves” to mark the 25th anniversary of their agency. At Sehrgoods.com, Säck & Nolde not only offer brands from their portfolio, but also furniture, cosmetics, books, luggage, and more–things the two like themselves, some of them small brands from many places on the globe otherwise unavailable in Germany. The intention is to also establish “Sehrgoods” as a brand name to enable the launch of their own (smaller) products in the future.
Rather than a way to drive sales, the two see Sehrgoods more as a creative space for themselves. They don't believe that classical distribution work will die out one day. “The digital revolution has changed our world considerably. Strong brands like Supreme or Palace can market and sell themselves on the Internet, and that is, of course, bad for distributors and agencies like us,” explains Nolde. “However, the bright side is: the success of Stüssy or other brands of ours can also be systematically pushed through good online marketing.” In addition, companies seeking to grow rapidly in Germany often simply need the structures and customer contacts of an agency, adds Säck. “Starting from a certain critical size or number of selling points, direct marketing like that becomes difficult. In the end, the customer often wants a distributor in the loop–we function as a buffer and contact between retailers and brands. A buffer against problems!” he comments, laughing.
After highs and lows (both cite the intro of the euro in 2002 as the most dramatic business event), today Säck & Nolde are “on a firm foundation.” Currently, they are exclusive distributors in Europe for around 13 brands, including 40s & Shorties, Incase, Jason Markk, Malibu Sandals, Native Union, Stüssy (Women), Uglydoll, Undefeated and X-Large. From warehouse workers to the marketing manager, they employ 15 to 20 people, plus a few freelance sales reps outside Germany.
The two managers claim they have never had a dispute and have seldom disagreed in 25 years. “In relation to the company there is always only one correct decision,” says Nolde. They don’t have any set formula for success aside from honesty, reliability and seeing to it that things continue to work. “Mr. Spiewak once said to us in person that he has the greatest respect for us because, in the 10 years we have been working with him, we have stood by every commitment we ever made, 100%. That sticks in my mind,” says Nolde.
Do they really have the feeling of working in the fashion industry? “That is a really good question that I have often asked myself,” says Nolde. “Actually, yes. We are permanently confronted with the question and know which brands stand where and what trend is taking place where.” Säck adds: “But you eventually reach the point where you simply need this other world where not everything revolves around the next collab. You need that detachment, so you can clear your head again for things you want to pursue. Running this company is the main thing for us, not to hang out on blogs each evening, too.” Stepping away and being in Bochum where both their lives are centered, with their families, is helpful. “The good thing about this job is that it takes you to so many international cities. But it is always wonderful to come back home. It isn’t all just about Paris and Berlin,” says Säck.
About Säck & NoldeManfred Säck and Klaus Nolde founded their distribution agency in Bochum in September 1992. Their brand portfolio currently comprises around 13 brands, including 40s & Shorties, Incase, Jason Markk, Malibu Sandals, Native Union, Stüssy (Women), Undefeated and X-Large, the US streetwear brand that started it all. For these, they are exclsucive distributors in Europe, with core markets being DACH, Benelux, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. In September, Säck and Nolde co-opened the Stüssy Chapter Store in Amsterdam. Their own weshop Sehrgoods.com was recently launched, too. Depending on seasonal fluctuations, the company employs 15 to 20 people.
A condensed version of this interview appeared in our GERMAN ISSUE. Find out more about its stars and shapers in the print magazine or check the digital magazine here.