— How and when did you end up in Moscow?
— I came here six years ago. It was suggested that I work for six months in the bank’s branch in Moscow. Six months turned into a year, then two years, and, as you can see, I am still here in Moscow.
Born in a small town not far from Amsterdam, he graduated from Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Came to Moscow in 2008 as a bank employee. In 2011, founded Costume Code, selling made-to-order suits to businesspeople. Tailors in France, Spain, and Tunisia make them according to the measurements taken in Moscow. Customers can familiarise themselves with the suit’s finer points on the website or Facebook page, and feel the material for themselves in the stores in central Moscow. And in Surgut now, too.
— But how did it come about that you left your job in the bank and began trading in clothing?
— As a rule, every bank has its own dress code in operation. I saw that for an employee of a Moscow bank, dressing stylishly, observing these rules, was not such a straightforward proposition. My Muscovite colleagues solved the problem by going shopping in Europe. And I myself, from my own personal experience of working in Amsterdam, knew that there are a lot of businesses there which tailor beautiful clothing for those obliged to comply with a dress code, however strict. That’s how I came up with the idea of filling this niche in the market.
— Did you have something to do with the fashion industry, the tailoring business, beforehand?
— Not at all. Mine is a finance background. I graduated from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. I was born a stone’s throw from Amsterdam.
— When did you decide to take your leave of the banking sector?
— I worked in the bank in Moscow for about three years. Four years ago, I started to discuss our commercial project with my Russian partner. We gave it the name Costume Code. I worked both at the bank and on the new project for a couple of months, all told. And it is now three years since I have been dealing in suits almost exclusively.
— Is your partner also a financier?
— Not at all. Ekaterina Lopatkina has experience in the creative disciplines. She draws well herself and has a marvellous grasp of design, web design, marketing, promotion via social media, and recruiting personnel. We complement each other perfectly. I deal with the logistics, production, the boring accounting side, whereas Katya is more involved with promoting the business using her creative abilities and experience.
— And how much does it cost to start up a similar enterprise?
— We are often in talks with investors and franchise partners about this because I will say straight off: opening such a shop costs, from the point of initial investment, between four million (about 80,000 euro) and six million roubles, depending on the size. That includes everything: rent, refurbishment, furniture, documentation, mannequins, staff training, and their wages.
Of course, a lot of money goes on the rent, but in our particular case, most money and effort goes into the production of the clothing itself. We use rather expensive material and our tailors are located far away from Russia. But the end result makes it all worthwhile: the cost of us making a suit varies from 29,900 to 70,000 roubles, and depends only on the fabric selected.
— Did you get a loan from the bank to start your business?
— No banks at all. My partner and I invested our own money. Taking out loans is an expensive business, but it’s not just that. When you don’t know beforehand whether your project is going to be a success or not, going to the bank is very risky. It’s a different proposition now, when all the processes are up and running, when our success can be measured in terms of numbers. Now is the time when we can start to discuss investment.
— Is it easy trading with Moscow when tailoring is set up in different countries, and you are using material from abroad? Do you go in person to Italy to negotiate about the fabrics?
— No, we resolve issues with Italy by email. We choose Italian fabrics out of considerations of quality and not of branding. We could create very expensive garments with expensive material from well-known companies, but that’s not what we specialise in. I go regularly to Amsterdam only – not only are my friends and family there but the Dutch really know about good suits; there are a lot of companies in Amsterdam like ours, and I pick up ideas there which inspire me.
As for the tailors, they work for us in Spain, France, and Tunisia. Of course, there are fine tailors both in Britain and in Italy, but then our suits would cost astronomical amounts, and that is not part of our plan.
— How did you manage to find these tailors in these countries?
— I am not going to speak about this: it is our trade secret. It wasn’t easy: we spent over a year looking for the tailors. But now that the system is in place, it is all running smoothly.
— But it would be cheaper still to have them made in Russia. Surely, we must have some good tailors here?
— We did try to collaborate with Russian tailors. But the infrastructure which would enable us to start work straight away without any further investment isn’t in place.
— Or wouldn’t it be cheaper to have them made in, let’s say, China?
— In China there are, undoubtedly, good tailors. But we didn’t manage to find them. I’ll explain. I know about quality. A tailor who sews brilliantly nine times out of ten but who, on the tenth occasion allows themselves to slack off, is no good to us. We need the sewing to be sufficiently good 99.99% of the time.
But there are other people who do the fitting. And they are all Russians. In all, out of the 15 people on our permanent staff, I am the only foreigner. Fitting is also skilled work but we spent time on recruitment and training and now, after three years of working at it, we have an excellent team.
— How many shops do you have? Where is your head office?
— Two in Moscow: on Spiridonievsky Lane and on Ostozhenka. The premises there are a little smaller but it is a lovely, cosy place. Here on Spiridonievsky, there is more of a business-like atmosphere. We recently opened a shop in Surgut: our franchise. And our office is in a coworking space, “The Work Station” in Neskuchny Garden.
— It’s a great place but there aren’t any individual rooms there where you can quietly discuss things not intended for others’ ears.
— We have our own table, but no walls. We discuss our work openly but if we need to talk about something confidential, we go outside and discuss everything huddled together under the trees. Or we use the meeting room. It’s not the whole team which gathers there, but Ekaterina, our head accountant, our logistics and marketing experts, and I myself, work there regularly. There are 10-15 coworking places in Moscow, but “The Work Station” in Neskuchny Garden is a wonderful, one-off kind of place.
— How important in today’s world are the online and offline elements of the trade?
— Facebook and Instagram are the best platforms for us to show people what we deal in. In a photo, you can take a look at the texture of the fabric, the stitching, the buttons, how the buttonholes have been finished: these are the details by which people can judge the quality of the work. People can see the soft shoulder line which lends a suit a fashionable Italian style. There too, on social media, you can interact with people, find out what clients like and what they don’t like. We are not a large company, and the mainstream media like GQ, Men's Health or FHM are not suitable for us due to the cost of advertising.
— Do you have any clients who don’t come at all into your offline shops?
— Yes. If they have chosen the material, the cut, the type of buttonhole, arranged a fitting at home through the website, then there is no need for them to come to us at Ostozhenka or Spiridonievsky. It’s very convenient. But I don’t believe in a clothing trade without shops. There will always be people who want to touch the fabric, discuss the cut. I believe that for such a business, the ideal is a combination of online and offline commerce.
— Are your clients mainly businessmen?
— Yes. Bankers, lawyers, those in consulting: those who work where there is a dress code. Sometimes they order suits for both a wedding and for dinner and parties all at once.
— Do government officials come in occasionally? They too have a dress code.
— Not really. Usually they have different price ranges, different criteria. Our strength lies in relatively inexpensive, good quality suits, without any loud brands. I would say that in the niche we occupy there aren’t any obvious competitors in Moscow, and we are not looking to move into any other niches. A shop has opened now in Surgut. An entrepreneur who likes our idea and is prepared to invest money made himself known there. But we are not planning on expanding after the fashion of the massive Moscow chains. A small company has its advantages. We are not treading on anybody’s toes and are taking up our own place.
— Is Moscow a fashionable city? Or is it lagging behind Europe?
— Ekaterina follows all that. I don’t think that it is lagging behind, but that’s not the issue. Business suits have their own rules, some of which are a hundred years old, or more. Employees don’t have a choice: they have to follow the rules. But you have to know the rules and know how to play with them whilst adhering to the spirit of them. We know the rules and try to make our suits so that they are not boring: we vary the fabrics and the cut. Russia’s problem lies not in lagging behind the fashion world, but in not knowing the rules. The rules are very simple. You don’t come to the office in a green shirt etc. But fashion is whimsical. Following it is not at all like following the rules.
— Does Moscow offer a comfortable life for the foreigner?
— Yes, absolutely. There have been big changes over the last five years. In Holland, nothing changes. Bicycles for hire have even appeared on Moscow streets. Obviously, Moscow is not a cycle-friendly city at all. It is poorly set up for that. But I have grabbed a bike a few times already.
— What type of car do you have?
— None! I am about to buy a bike here. I’ve got three of them in Holland, but there they are also a means of transport whereas here they are exclusively for recreation. In Moscow, as in any big city, it is important to strike a balance between working intensely and being able to relax, to be at one with nature, to find a quiet spot. Katya’s family have a dacha. I go there sometimes for some peace and quiet. And in Holland I can take a rest from the frenetic pace of Moscow.