United Nude is another one of those fashion brands that reached success success via an unconventional path. For instance, its founder and creative director Rem D. Koolhaas’s background was not in fashion or design, but architecture. Though, he is not to be confused with his uncle, a famous Dutch architect with whom he shares a first and last name.
United Nude, if you’re not familiar, is a global shoe brand sold in 30 countries with 10 freestanding stores. Rem founded it in 2003 with Galahad Clark, the seventh generation of the Clark’s shoe family. Now, the brand is on the climb, looking to expand U.S. retail and maybe more. Just today, Footwear News announced that a shoe Koolhaas designed in collaboration with Iris van Herpen will be produced and made available for purchase.
Koolhaas described the shoe as “against gravity,” which is probably not an unusual challenge for the designer. In terms of design aesthetic, the brand has become known for producing conceptual, innovative designs that probably wouldn’t be possible without Koolhaas’ architecture background. In a way, he told us, his lack of accessory design training was an advantage. Click through to learn more about his career, how United Nude came to be and how the name of the brand was almost “naked woman now,” plus a peek at the spring 2012 collection.
Fashionista: How did United Nude come about?
Rem D. Koohlaas: I was studying architecture in 1999 and I was heartbroken over a girl and one day I was sketching shoes and–it’s a true story–and I came up with this shoe. It was the first shoe that we tried to sell. I was trying to sell my designs to all different brands. I was working for my uncle with the same name as me–a famous architect–I was working on the Prada store. I met Miuccia prada. I showed the shoes to them, went to Italy, showed them to other people and everybody said, ‘It’s not our signature. If you want to launch this, you need to start your own brand.’ Then, I was introduced to Galahad Clark who’s a seventh generation shoe maker form the Clark’s shoe family and then we started the brand together.
I didn’t get the girl back but instead I started business. We launched it in 2003 and we’re now selling over 200,000 pairs each year
How did you come up with the name?
We wanted to call it ‘Nu,’ which means ‘now’ in dutch, ‘naked’ in french and ‘woman’ in Chinese so ‘naked woman now,’ but we couldn’t get the trademark for ‘Nu’ so we turned it around and it became ‘united’ something. One of my professors was a fashion consultant who used to be the right hand of Jil Sander and she helped me with the name and said it should be called ‘united something’ and then…nude. We went back to the naked bit and when you start a name the first thing you do is figure out if you can get the name and if you can get the dot com, it’s pretty clear that you can get the name and now almost 10 years later, we still like the name.
How did you and Glahad come up with the money to start the business?
When I met Galahad Clark from Clark’s shoe family, you know, it’s a big company; it’s a rich family so when I met him, he was the first person to say, ‘Oh let’s start a business together’ and he said, ‘I’ve got some money and contacts and you’ve got the design skill and we can figure out how much money we’re going to invest.’ But we started with not too much money, still a couple hundred thousand dollars, but still I wouldn’t advise anyobody to start brand with less than million dollars.
What was your biggest challenge in the beginning?
Figuring out what a shoe was. It was an advantage to not have a shoe background to be able to come up with shoes that shoe people wouldn’t come up with and that’s why we had a tremendously successful, impactful beginning. But, at the same time, to be able to grow it, I need to educate myself by doing, to become a shoemaker and I’m still not really a shoemaker. I also don’t see myself as a shoe designer; I see myself more as a brand builder. With my architectural background, it’s easier for instance to design the store than to design the shoe.
Where do you get inspiration?
I don’t have a specific type of inspiration, but I do get inspired by how things are made, by the materials that I’m working with, shapes you can only do with certain materials, so you try to push the envelope of that specific material, which is actually very true of industrial design or an architect’s approach to say, ‘I’m going to use this material and show what is possible to do with this material.’ Some are inspried by furtniture classics, some are inspried by classic fashion shapes combined with archtiectural shapes…
Are you ever inspired by your famous architect uncle?
The experience that I gained working for him at the Prada store…because I was working on the conceptual phase of the prada store at the very, very beginning and I was reading about trying to figure out how to create a shopping experience rather than just, you come into a shop and you shop there.
Was there a moment that you felt was your ‘big break?’
When we opened the Amsterdam store, which was the first flagship store that we opened, it was alway our goal to create the full package, a full brand experience, so where you have your own product in your own space where you control the space where you can play your own music. When you have your product in other people’s stores, it’s theirs. You’re just one small part of their whole atmosphere, wheareas when you do it all yourself, you create this world of your own brand and I think that was really a benchmark for us and there were like hundreds of people that came to the opening and the streets were filled…It was a great celebration of a great moment and I think that was the biggest moment for us.
What would you say was the ballsiest thing you’ve done for your career so far?
To go around with little suitcases and have meetings…if you don’t have a showroom, you really have to knock on people’s doors. Even before I started the brand, I knocked on Versace’s door. I called him up and was like, ‘I’m in Italy, can I show up for a meeting?’ And they were like, ‘Um who are you? No we don’t work like that,’ and I said, Well I just went to Prada and I’m here,’ and eventually they were like, ‘Okay come’ and actually Brian Atwood was the accessories designer for versace at the time, so I sat down with Brian Atwood. He was actually very nice and I showed my stuff to him and he was really impressed and they were all really supportive of what I did.
You make ballsy moves all the time, but in the beginning, when there’s nothing, you really have to put your foot in the door.
Where do you see the brand in five years?
We’re always trying to figure that one out and we want to grow it so of course there has to be more. We sold over 200,000 pairs this year, in five years it should be over a million pairs. But we will also probably have bags, watches, sunglasses, maybe even clothing, because we do a lot of collaborations with fashion designers. We support a lot of designers, getting them shoes for catwalk shows if they dont have their own shoes. It would be amazing to have your own catwalk show at some point and that means you have to have your own clothing. Right now, we have several designers working on shoes and I dont see why we couldn’t do that for clothing, just put a team together of really good people and just experiment.