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Baukjen on taking America and opening pop-ups

By Danielle Wightman-Stone

Dec 18, 2018


British retailer The Baukjen Group is at a major crossroads, it has two very successful fashion labels, Isabella Oliver offering premium maternitywear, and Baukjen, a contemporary fashion label offering capsule wardrobes for busy modern women, and they are looking to their customers to help put Baukjen on America’s radar in a “big way” with their crowdfunding campaign to raise 400,000 pounds.

Following an investors breakfast with key customers at their head office, a former post office in Kentish Town, FashionUnited sat down with Geoff van Sonsbeeck, co-founder and chief executive of the e-tailer to find out more about why they feel Baukjen will be a success in America, why crowdfunding, as well as their plans to launch roaming pop-ups across the UK.

There’s a real buzz as we walked through the office, and it isn’t a surprise as this is a British retail group that has seen its net sales increase by around 26 percent over the last two years, and in April 2018 it reported annual sales of 18 million pounds, and this online native group is looking to expand upon this into 2019 as it looks to replicate the success of its premium maternity label, Isabella Oliver with its contemporary sister brand, Baukjen.

Currently, the US accounts for 55 percent of Isabella Oliver sales, which the fashion group states is continuing to grow, however, maternity clothing is very niche, “The relationship you have with a customer is of course very short, they sometimes say it's like you're always on the first date,” states Geoff van Sonsbeeck, and they are now looking to Baukjen with its broader appeal to put the British fashion group on the global map.

“In six years we have grown Baukjen to over 170,000 customers, and I would say it really is a UK brand to date, probably 95 percent of our customers are in the UK,” explains van Sonsbeeck. “But what we've come to realise is, and again by popular demand from customers, but also by celebrities wearing us in the US that we can just see that there is a real proactive demand from the US coming our way.”

Van Sonsbeeck added: “We are increasingly selling there and what we would do is implement a carefully orchestrated marketing approach where we replicate our tactics from the UK and roll that out in the US. We have a great advantage over a whole range of other companies who will say it's the promised land of America and actually many of them fail there, we however, have a great advantage that we've done it for 13 years with Isabella Oliver.

“We know the suppliers, we know how to run it from the UK. We know that we do not need boots on the floor, we don't need expensive offices, overhead structures, we can actually run it in a very orchestrated approach, with social, digital marketing and direct marketing. The product is right and a customer is in almost insatiable volumes in the US in a booming economy and we know that we can do it.”

Baukjen launches crowdfunding campaign to raise 400,000 pounds

“The big gap is the resources to really make it happen because the one thing we've learned over the years is temptation is the dangerous one, and the US is a huge opportunity with, in our case, low risk, but it needs ring fenced capital,” said Van Sonsbeeck. “It needs to have enough budget to say, now we're going to do a big push, because we're not going to do it lighthearted, we either do it properly or we don't and that's why we need about 200,000 pounds. This is what we need to get to a certain scale, by which time the newly established customer base in the US generates enough volume to sustain itself and drives further acquisition.”

Van Sonsbeeck, added: “It’s a real opportunity, clear and present and we want to grab it.”

Baukjen via a Crowdcube campaign is looking to raise 400,000 pounds in return for 3.02 percent equity stake, but while crowdfunding is a great way for start-ups to get investment and get their name out there it hasn’t been used as much for more established businesses and Baukjen thinks this is changing.

Why crowdfunding? “Because it's not too much and is not enough to go to private equity, also friends of ours own Mr & Mrs Smith just raised highly successfully there and it was just listening to how they managed to mobilise their customer base by turning them into ambassadors and you know, it resonated with what we stand for.”

Van Sonsbeeck, continued: “We have very loyal, engaged relationship with our customers and just being in a position where we can invite them to be part of this journey in another way than just buying from us, but actually being part of the course and become a shareholder in that journey - just made sense to us.

“I think it's only recently that it has been a real opportunity for established businesses to look at, and I think it's here to stay and rightly so, because now if you have a passion for a brand you can be part of it.”

While the American expansion is one of the biggest goals for Baukjen, the contemporary womenswear label is also looking to bring the brand closer to the UK customer, as well as attract a new audience, and the crowdfunding will also help develop a physical presence with concessions and pop-ups. There will be a constant roll our of pop-ups for the brand starting next year in the UK, with a least three pop-ups running at any one time across the country, added the fashion company.

“Pop-ups we really believe in for so many reasons to be closer to the customer, to really let them feel and experience the brand in a three dimensional way in and to engage with customers because we only get better by learning, as well as for sheer brand awareness,” explained van Sonsbeeck. “It's good to be present in places where digital doesn't reach.”

He added: “I would mostly follow my customer, which of course we know very well where they are, but equally the whole idea is that you open up in places where you haven't reached yet. I would definitely expect one in London at any time, as well as maybe Exeter, Bath or Glasgow.”

But don’t expect permanent standalone stores anytime soon, “As an e-commerce player, I like to be agile and flexible and be able to move as the customer moves - so I will never find myself locked into longterm leases,” van Sonsbeeck explained.

Baukjen’s crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube closes on January 18, with investors receiving various rewards, such as gift vouchers, VIP cards offering discounts, as well as personal online styling sessions, invitations to investor drinks with the brand, and for people investing more than 50,000 pounds they can expect a dinner with the founders.

As of December 18, The Baukjen Group’s crowdfunding campaign had raised over 66 percent of its target with 265,530 pounds from 194 investors.

Images: courtesy of Baukjen

Isabella Oliver