We have known the likeable team around Jochen Smuda and Martin Fussenegger for a while now. The young duo founded their brand Ucon Acrobatics 15 years ago with “the vision to develop a lifestyle brand anchored by creativity, quality tailoring, innovative appliqués and ethical production”. Over the years, there have been ups and downs and the option of quitting has been discussed not only once. But the boys have proved stamina and found their way to adapt to a changing market: 1.5 years ago, they decided to slowly wave goodbye to their beloved apparel collection and fully concentrate on bags and backpacks – with good results. Today, the four-people-team delivers accessories to 27 countries worldwide, including Japan, Australia or Canada from their studio in Berlin-Friedrichshain. We spoke to Ucon co-founder Jochen Smuda on the brand’s history, current market challenges and having too much of everything.
Congratulations to your brand’s 15th anniversary! Looking back on those years…which have been the most rewarding but also most challenging points so far?
There have been so many great things happening in the past 15 years that this is actually very hard to tell. To be honest, it’s often not only the best moments that I remember best, but also the most difficult ones.
We’ve just had our anniversary party at the office and celebrated with a lot of friends who’ve been following us since the very beginning. At this party we showcased all the lookbooks from the last 15 years (many of which I didn't really have a look at for years) and flipping through those catalogues really brought back some good memories. It is really nice to see how we have grown up personally and how the designing process of the company reflects that.
There have been a lot of changes in the last year, because Ucon Acrobatics has grown up with us - and looking back I think it is great to see that, because it shows that the label has always been moving. We didn't really design our collections for the request of the market, we’ve always been designing what we liked personally.
And answering your question about the most challenging points - I guess there are always challenges, every day. And we have to be aware that the world around us changes every day. Consumer behavior, the economic situation, the people’s taste, everything. I’d say there have been three major changes in the company over the last 15 years- but a lot of small changes every day. If you aren’t able to change and try new things in a company sized as ours, you aren't able to survive for 15 years.
Did you ever think of quitting?
We seriously thought of quitting twice, but not because we didn't like our job anymore, but because of financial problems. Like I said, the market changes, and you have to constantly change yourself and adapt. The last time we thought about quitting was just about two years ago, because we didn't manage to be relevant enough to survive with our clothing line. Everybody really liked the collection and the lookbooks but the sell-throughs in the stores were slow, so we had to think of something different. We started to concentrate more on accessories and launched a very small bags collection of three bags, and this is how we slowly started to move from clothing more into accessories and finally into bags and backpacks.
Which advice would you give a youngster who wants to start his/her own fashion label?
Just go out and do things. If they do not work out, change them. This is how we started as well. Advice is really difficult as every story is different and every brand works differently. What might be good for Ucon Acrobatics is not good for Nudie Jeans or Filling Pieces. It is really difficult to say, because also the different markets will react totally different. In general, maybe the best advice is to stay patient and follow what you really want to do. Only reacting to the market is a short-time strategy. You need to have a clear vision to keep going.
A while ago, you decided to stop doing apparel and fully concentrate on bags and backpacks. How did you come to this decision and has it proved right for you?
We decided that way earlier, but actually the first backpacks-only collection only launched this fall. We changed things accordingly in the background for 1.5 years and prepared this step very well. Since a lot has changed in the clothing industry over the last years, we decided to go for something new. The reason for that is that small, independent labels with a focus on quality seemed to be worth less and less, since major chains flooded the market with low-quality products. We currently feel so much pressure in the market that we decided not to continue our clothing line any longer. It just felt very wrong. But as we strongly believe in our idea of innovative, modern, functional and especially minimalistic products for a whole new generation of creative consumers, we changed our direction. And this has really proved to be the right decision, since the feedback from a lot of retailers is overwhelming. Maybe I also need to add that Martin (my business partner and our designer) is actually a product designer and not a fashion designer by trade: he graduated 10 years ago with a backpack collection. It’s quite funny, since it all comes back now and he can really enjoy designing amazing backpacks. Everything seems to be back on the right track again.
Are there simply too many clothing brands out there?
In our western world I personally think there is a lot of 'too many' in a lot of directions. We are living in a world of capitalism and only the best ideas and concepts seem to survive somehow. There are also a lot of shoe brands, food brands, car brands, furniture brands - there is just too much of everything. But good and quality products will always be relevant on this market. If you do something good, you will attract customers. And the better your idea is, the more people you attract. I would say you just need good arguments to tell your customers why they should buy your products. Is it the quality, the price point, the unique design, the technical details or maybe just the great PR you are doing? There are many ways to do something good. Coming back, I personally think there are way too many brands in general on the market where I often don’t understand why people buy into them, but I also totally know that people might say the exact same thing about Ucon Acrobatics. There are just a lot of different people with different minds, and in the end this is what makes our life interesting - so it’s all good.
What are the new trends in backpack design?
We are always trying to get into new fabrics and new very clean and minimalistic shapes. That's part of the whole story. So it is not that we want to follow trends, we want people to understand that our idea of backpacks is different to other companies’. We fully concentrate on very clean silhouettes and technical details. Speaking for our models you can often wear them in 2-3 variations, without destroying the design itself. We are not following the 'outdoor/heritage' look, we offer something new to the market and I think this is why we are getting such a good response right now. If you want to do something great, don't copy the bestsellers on the market, do something new. How many brands out there just copied Herschel's Little America up and down, back and forth? It's crazy to see that. Adding two leather straps to your backpack does not make you a great brand.
Which new styles can we expect from you?
There is a lot in the making right now, we are actually testing a lot of new things in terms of shapes and fabrics. There will be a great launch at Firmament Berlin very soon for a new special project we are launching. At the moment we are really into unique fabrics, there is so much more to do on accessories, so we are trying to push that very hard. We will release a 100% paper fabric very soon in our collection which is just incredibly nice.
How do you develop your collections? Is thinking in seasons still contemporary?
We are still ordering in the seasons, but with a strong NOS program we try to move totally away from that. We see that the re-order business became super strong (actually 45%) so that we have to think in new ways. And that's what we are doing, since our production is now running almost all year long and we produce our top ten products on a constant basis. It was -and of course still is - a difficult task in terms of stock management but we are trying our best to deliver not only two times a year. I guess it is very important to react to that feedback from the market and find new solutions.
Where would you like to see Ucon after the next 15 years?
We will see what the future might bring. If I could choose, it would be nice to keep establishing a quality brand, distributed worldwide in nice stores. We want to make products which make people happy. That was the reason we started the brand 15 years ago. We had the idea of doing something cool and get people juiced about our products. Nothing really changed so far. I think it's great to get good feedback from people who like your ideas and products. If we could attract even more people in the next 15 years to buy our products and use them in daily life, even better. (smiles) Staying true to our core values during fifteen-plus years in business helped us to create a company we're proud to run and work for. Our focus on making the best products possible with sophisticated fabrication, technical knowhow and an open-minded philosophy has brought us where we are right now and hopefully brings us even further in the next 15 years.