Brabant-born Frédérique van Heesch spent years as part of Balenciaga's leather goods product development team before deciding it was time for a change. She left Florence behind and moved back to the Netherlands two years ago to start her own bag label, FVH, where she makes chic bags with a twist, as she says. Fashionweek sat down with Van Heesch at her home in 's-Hertogenbosch.
You started out in economic psychology but ended up in the handbag industry. Tell us how that happened!
"That's right. I've had a passion for fashion since I was little, and I looked at going to fashion school, but when I graduated from a Dutch gymnasium, I wanted to go on to university. I ended up studying economic psychology at the University of Tilburg. Consumer behaviour has always interested me, but after I got my master's, I thought, 'Okay, and now what?' I decided to head back to Florence, where I'd studied for six months when I was 18, to get my second master's from Polimoda."
What did you study at Polimoda?
"Their marketing for fashion, beauty and cosmetics master's. The emphasis of that course is on working in international fashion companies. We were taught by people who worked at places like Estée Lauder and Gucci. I learned all about how to build a perfume, fashion history, how international luxury houses work, which conglomerates they belong to, et cetera. It was very diverse. And the most important thing for me was that you were required to intern at a major fashion house. There are a lot of amazing companies in the Florence area, like Patrizia Pepe, Valentino, Prada and Salvatore Ferragamo."
FVH spring/summer 2016 collection © Hylke Greidanus
And where did you end up?
The Gucci Group, in the leather goods and product development team and ufficio tecnico for Balenciaga, to be precise. I was over the moon when I found out I was going to be able to work there, because working for Gucci had always been a dream of mine. I also realised fairly quickly that, as a foreigner, it's pretty difficult to get work in the Italian fashion industry. Despite the fact that I spoke the language fluently, they'd still rather have a real Italian. After a few rejections, the Gucci Group invited me to intern at Balenciaga. With my Balenciaga bag in hand – I'd gotten it as a graduation present – I went off thinking, 'This surely isn't going to work.' But it's always the same, just when you don't expect it, the unexpected happens. I had a meeting with an American who was looking for a foreign intern. I was from the Netherlands and she knew, 'she'll be able to handle it'. And my bag sealed the deal. It was clear to them that I had a passion for the brand. They told me straight away that they wouldn't be able to take me on after my internship because of the economic crisis."
I feel a but in there somewhere.
"Ha-ha, yeah. It happened anyway. After six months of interning, where I was making product codes, finding the perfect match between leather, fabric, thread and zippers, they asked me if I wanted to stay. And of course I couldn't refuse an offer like that. They gave me a one-year contract and then took me on permanently after that. It was great, because I'll never forget my ex-mother-in-law telling me that I'd never get a job at Gucci. That probably gave me the drive to do it."
FVH Ladylike Shopper © Hylke Greidanus
What's it like inside Balenciaga leather goods?
"Fantastic! We were in the headquarters with 1,200 other people. I didn’t just see everything from Balenciaga, but Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Gucci, too. My eyes were popping in that big studio, or magazzino as they're called there, where they made personalised Gucci suitcases by hand. When I had a real job there, I was working in the ufficio tecnico. I was responsible for, among other things, the men's and fashion show lines, I was in close contact with the styling department in Paris and managed everything with customs. I also made up the so-called BOM (bill of materials) and processed the codes for all the products, materials and colours. The zippers, colours, leather types, amounts of leather, everything that gets made into a bag is input in codes and sent to the producer. It's a big responsibility. If you make one small mistake in a code, you could be ordering 100,000 gold zippers instead of silver. And then you've got a problem…"
"I didn’t just see everything from Balenciaga, but Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Gucci"
You quit after three years. Why?
"It was really great, but at the same time it was a lot of work for very little money. Working through the weekend or until 11:30 at night became the norm. And just like in a lot of organisations, there's some stepping on people to get to the top. It's not exactly like The Devil Wears Prada, but I saw some bags flying. And I was one of the few non-Italians in the company. I was working in a different country, in a different language, in a different culture with a different work ethic. Compared to Italians, the Dutch are very direct and businesslike.”
The Blossom bag from my new spring/summer 2017 collection © Hylke Greidanus
“After three years, I was ready for a change. Tom Ford called to offer me a job, but I decided to go a different way. Despite the lifelong friends I made in Italy – my best friend still works at Balenciaga – I felt like I was standing at that famous crossroads. Am I going to stay here and build my future here? Or am I going to go home to the Netherlands? I chose the latter. I wouldn't trade my time at Gucci/Balenciaga for the world and I learned so much there. I still miss it sometimes."
"The fact that you get to see the most exclusive fashion close up or see what's going to become fashion. Or the unique encounters you have. Suddenly you're making a production receipt for Kanye West, who's telling you that he wants a certain belt for a concert. You're right in the middle of the fashion world. The Christmas dinners were phenomenal, and despite the fact that you were earning so little, they were really generous with gifts and affordable sample sales, like an Alexander McQueen skull-print scarf for €20. I've amassed an enormous collection of shoes, bags and accessories from that time. My mother and my friends too, ha-ha! My old colleagues still send me a nice 'Christmas package' every year."
"Suddenly you're making a production receipt for Kanye West, who's telling you that he wants a certain belt for a concert
When did you get the idea to start your own bag label?
"I'd found a few leather manufacturers in Italy who produced bags, cheaper than the Gucci manufacturers but still very high quality. I joined up with Cartouche Fashion out of Drunen in Brabant to import leather bags for places like the Bijenkorf, WE and Costes. The store would tell us what model they wanted and I'd have it made with the appropriate branding. I did that for about a year and a half until I thought, 'I have so many ideas for my own bag label, I'm going to try to do it myself.' I don't have an investor, so I put up my own savings for a collection with two or three models, then decided to see how it went."
“For a few models, like this Florence bag, the buyers could order from the whole colour chart. Now I also produce them without the gold logo, I get my logo stamped right into the leather." © Hylke Greidanus
How would you describe your style?
"I always call it chic with a twist. I always subtly integrate a special detail that just gives the bag that something extra, like a zipper on the side with another colour of leather behind it. I always work with real leather, I love it and a colour chart can always make me happy. I especially like working with the softer types of leather. Prints? I'm not so into those, and if I ever had to work with another kind of material, canvas seems really cool to me. It's completely different."
What's the process like, from design to bag?
"The design is really all in my head. Once I have the idea, I sketch it out and go to Italy to get a sample made. If I'm satisfied with the prototype, I chose the colours and get a sample collection made to send out to all the agents. There are black and camel designs every collection, then I choose four trend colours, last year it was electric blue. For a few models, like the Alessia – named after by best friend – and the Florence bag, the buyers can order from the entire colour chart."
Where do you find your inspiration?
"I follow a lot of blogs and high-end fashion brands. Every season I'm inspired by a different brand. At the moment, I think the bags that Céline and Chloé are producing are really gorgeous. Miu Miu, too, they have really romantic designs and they work a lot in pastel shades that I really love. I also travel to Florence and Paris a lot for inspiration."
"I had to reorder the Naughty Clutch in Norway because it sells so well there." © Hylke Greidanus
Your bags are available internationally, so where do most of your sales come from?
"In addition to the Netherlands, my designs are sold in Belgium, Norway, Finland and Switzerland. Most of my sales come from Belgium and Norway. Belgians generally spend more on bags and appearance-based products, but Norway is a particularly good seller. I definitely didn’t expect that, because in my experience, the Scandinavian look is totally different. My Norwegian agent is really busy. I hear all the time that they think it's a really good value for money. I had to reorder the Naughty Clutch because it sells so well there."
And in the Netherlands?
"It could be better. When it comes to my designs, the Dutch have a cooler style and they go more for the safe colours like black and camel. I hope that will be different one day, you see that people abroad are more into colour."
What's your favourite bag?
"In principle, I have everything made in Italy from real Italian leather, but recently I've had some more exclusive models produced in Portugal. They can do some different things there. I had the Wave Clutch made there, and I'm really happy with it! It's a bit more expensive. Where my other designs are under the FVH brand, this one is under my new label, Frédérique van Heesch. That's how I'm differentiating my basic line from my more exclusive line."
"This is my newest model from my more exclusive Frédérique van Heesch line and at the moment it's my absolutely favourite. This bag is produced in Portugal and is available in different colours." © Hylke Greidanus
What has it been like to transition from a major fashion house like Balenciaga into your own business?
"I've always had two dreams, actually, to work for a major international brand and to start something for myself. It took some getting used to, but when you're working for yourself, you learn a lot more in a much shorter amount of time. At Balenciaga, I was a small part of the process. With your own company, you're responsible for everything. How much margin is there in a bag? How does it work with agencies? Those kinds of things. You have to learn procurement and make sure that your production is on time, but also manage your agents and do a bit of sales yourself. At the end of the day, I think you learn more doing it this way than you do in a big company. It can be hard sometimes, but in the end it's so satisfying."
What's the best advice you could give to entrepreneurs who are just getting started?
"Oh gosh, then I'll just end up spouting clichés. But yeah, it's true: follow your heart. Follow your heart and if you think you can do it, then you have to do it. Don't think in theories. I mean, I never wrote a business plan. Of course you have to really think through your finances, but sometimes you can also think yourself into madness. You just have to get started."
"In my new collection, I have this model in caramel, electric blue, sand and black."
What's your biggest dream?
"Right now, I'm still designing from my house and I go to Italy every two months for production. My short-term goal is to have my own office and a few employees. And it would be fantastic to launch a shoe collection at some point in the future."
Finally, would you ever consider going back to work for a big fashion house?
"Definitely! I still think it would be great, and if I had to choose, I'd like to work for Viktor & Rolf. I gained a lot of knowledge from all my experiences in Italy, but it would mean that I wouldn’t have time for my own label. It's not a step I want to take yet, because then I'd always ask myself if my label could've been a success. If, in five years, I think, 'Well, things haven't gone how I expected,' then I'd definitely do it."
Headerimage: © Hylke Greidanus