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KNOTORYUS Talks to Belgian Designer Toos Franken

KNOTORYUS Talks to Belgian Designer Toos Franken

You can’t help but get drawn into designer Toos Franken’s thought process when you meet her. Speaking quietly but decidedly - flashing a quick smile between sentences - she bounces ideas back and forth, allowing you to track the creative process churning synchronously alongside her focus on business realism. Starting out where most of Belgium’s cream of the crop matured, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp Fashion Department, Franken navigated dropping out early (having a baby will change the course of your life quite considerably), starting afresh sewing in the ateliers of our greats Haider Ackermann and Ann Demeulemeester. This lead to her taking on a new course to become a pattern designer and raising a second kid while branching out as an independent designer. An Amsterdam runway show, a major switch-up to aseasonal collections and one fast fashion rip-off brouhaha later, the designer is set to open her own flagship store in the nucleus of Belgian fashion: the spot across from MoMu fashion museum in Antwerp's Nationalestraat. It’s 'big days, bigger changes' for Toos Franken so we checked in to see what’s glittering on the horizon.

KNOTORYUS: Congratulations on your new flagship store, right in the middle of where it’s at in Antwerp fashion. That’s a big deal. Can you talk us through the process of putting the store together and how you’re feeling at the moment?

TOOS FRANKEN: We started creating a new business plan about a year and a half ago and weighed what the best next step for me would be. After a long time of considering the pros and cons and doing the calculations, having a flagship store turned out to be pivotal. It’s a calling card. Once the store is up and running, next year, we’ll look into focusing on business to business sales.

KNOTORYUS: What did you want your own dedicated space to feel like?

TOOS FRANKEN: It needed to flow with the way I am, follow the essence of how I try to communicate. I wanted it to be serene enough, but off-kilter too. For me, the store space feels like coming home again. I moved away from Antwerp a few years ago and a sense of homecoming is what I wanted to inject into the store. And warmth. I worked with space designer David Konix, he often collaborates with Belgian brands Essentiel and Komono and does a lot of set design. David asked me for a few keywords, wanted to know how I would describe myself, the brand and the things I value. That’s what we’ve been working on together.

KNOTORYUS: What are the main challenges in doing that?

TOOS FRANKEN: The budget. (laughs) Weighing up which investment has what kind of impact and whether the expenditure is justifiable. Some things take up a small amount of money and have a big impact, other items are just the other way around. It’s about divvying up what’s worth it and what will come of it, how durable it is, how temporary it is... And  the challenge is to eventually get the story straight in the store, when everything is put together. The official opening is slated for the first weekend of September but we’re doing a dry run for two weeks before that to work out all of the kinks. It’s my first time operating a store like this. Finding the right staff is very hard too.

KNOTORYUS: What kind of people are you gunning for?

TOOS FRANKEN: Right now I envision collaborating with someone who’s mature enough, who’s able to give customers the same feeling they get in my atelier. My customers keep wondering if I’ll be in the store full-time and they’d like to keep seeing me. So, this person needs to be able to exude the right kind of feeling for the client base. They should be serene enough but still know how to sell – I really don’t know how to sell. Someone who’s truly dedicated to the business, that’s so important, you really need to be a supporter of the brand, I think. It would also be very nice, but that might be too much of an ask, to find someone now who could grow alongside me and become a bit of a right-hand partner. Yes.

KNOTORYUS: I’d like to go back to the beginning: you studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp Fashion Department, then you worked in the sewing ateliers of Ackermann and Demeulemeester. How do you look back at those early days, especially comparing them to now? I feel like opening a flagship is a time for reflection.

TOOS FRANKEN: Yes, it’s funny, but someone asked me recently whether I regret not finishing my education at the Academy. My response was that the thing I regret most, personally, is not being able to find out if I could’ve done something good there. Operating within that bubble, that whole vibe… It’s an extremely creative cocoon you’re in, learning at the Academy, and everything else is shut out. I wonder what I could’ve created there, that’s what I regret most.

KNOTORYUS: You had to become an independent designer quite early due to the circumstances, so it’s normal to wonder what you could’ve done had you been able to go all out. Are there any other ways in which you might be able to let it all out creatively today?

TOOS FRANKEN: Too few. There’s always a price tag involved, not only the budget needed to make a creative piece but the sales price too. I do look forward to getting into more of that all-out kind of designing when the brand is a bit more established.

KNOTORYUS: Did you envision that this was going to be your path when you were a teen? Was creativity bolstered in your family life?

TOOS FRANKEN: My mother’s a graphic designer, so it was. I was always very creative, I studied Sports Sciences and took up Visual Arts in my senior year. I adored drawing, but I never thought I’d get into the Antwerp Academy. It was a good luck shot for me, thought I’d enroll and if I made it through, great, but if it didn’t work out that would’ve been okay. Then I passed the exam. That’s when the feeling emerged, of really wanting this life. Now, I can’t think of anything else I could or want to do. There’s nothing else I’m good at.

KNOTORYUS: Now you have young children of your own, how do they feel about you being a fashion designer - are they aware of your work?

TOOS FRANKEN: The eldest one is. He’s super proud, he goes: “Mum, your name will be on a store in Antwerp!” They’re both into drawing, the youngest one is really picking that up with ease. My eldest son also recently told my mother: “My mum will be in Antwerp a lot this month, the store is opening and when that’s done, she needs to spend her time in the atelier because she has to make new stuff.” I think that’s amusing, he really has a grasp on things, in a way. Sometimes they hang out in the atelier when I’m designing too.

KNOTORYUS: If they told you they wanted to try their hand at fashion design later, what kind of advice would you pass on?

TOOS FRANKEN: Fashion needs to be something you can get behind for 1,000%. It requires a lot from you, it’s no Monday to Friday gig. Working creatively is a mentally draining process, they need to be strong enough to do that, really need to be convinced that this is it.

KNOTORYUS: What do you do when you need to recharge?

TOOS FRANKEN: I do much too little of that. I find peace in working, in a way. We just spent some time on holiday, of which I had 2 or 3 days of really being at ease. Last year, we went surfing for the very first time and I thought that was really special. You can only think about the action in the moment because the power of nature is so overwhelming. But if that’s not the case, I can’t switch off, really. My activity needs to be pretty extreme in order to switch off. But that’s okay, I really love working.

KNOTORYUS: You staged your first show at Amsterdam Fashion Week last year. What was that like for you?

TOOS FRANKEN: It was nice to try out, having a big organisation to back you, but you have less of a say than if you did it independently, of course. I think I’m not ready to do my own show again in the coming years, not with the brand, not personally, not budget-wise. I believe it's not necessary yet. For me, it’s up to the established brands to do shows and do them well. The idea is to do a showroom in Paris next March. Belgian buyers mostly go there for their selection anyway.

KNOTORYUS: Last year a huge international chain copied one of your designs, what did that experience teach you? Did you get to talk to anyone from Zara?

TOOS FRANKEN: The mother company sent out a forceful statement but I was informed that their local division was upset about the situation. I mainly let it slide. A lot of people still approach me to say they feel sorry for me but I just repeat to them that this situation didn’t break my heart. Of course, it sucks and it’s a pity because it takes away from the value of a product – people think every piece of clothing costs the same as fast fashion and I’m making a killing.

KNOTORYUS: But they don’t see the difference in production costs when you’re an independent creator. When we last saw each other, at your 2018 collection presentation, you mentioned fabrics being incredibly important to your process.

TOOS FRANKEN: I’m always a lot more drawn in by the texture of a fabric than by a print. I don’t really know why that is, I like feeling the richness of a fabric without putting a print on it. A fabric can jumpstart a collection because it’s so rich and says so much that it doesn’t need anything else, that any model would look good in it. At other times I have a story in mind first and sometimes I start a collection from base patterns because I have an education in pattern making. I set time apart for designing but that often doesn’t work out. Usually the stories pour out in a moment when I should be resting, at night. I do a lot of creative thinking in the car as well, or when I’m stitching or sewing. When I’m doing things that don’t require a lot of deep thought.

KNOTORYUS: At the collection presentation, you also seemed somewhat surprised when you were complimented on your pieces. Is it hard for you to share something as intimate as your own designs?

TOOS FRANKEN: I feel like it is, yes. I always spot the flaws in everything - but I think that’s a good thing too, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to create pieces that are better than the last ones. As soon as you start coasting along, I feel like it’s time to change things up because there’s a lack of challenge. I need that.

KNOTORYUS: You’re hard on yourself, to be able to keep going.

TOOS FRANKEN: It think it’s necessary, in this industry. I probably just have a restless soul, too.

KNOTORYUS: Do you still create a lot by hand?

TOOS FRANKEN: I draw patterns by hand and deliver them on paper to my manufacturers. I’m one of the few who still does that, I love working by hand. Patterns are drawn with a pencil and I sketch with pencils too. If I were able to paint more, I’d be happy. It has crossed my mind to get back in to it, perhaps when things quiet down a bit. It’s completely different, there’s not a product for sale when you're painting, no consumer to take into account.

KNOTORYUS: Are there any artistic influences or creators right now that are really on your mind?

TOOS FRANKEN: What I’m really into right now is Galliano for Margiela. I think that’s very impressive work. I would love to get married in that.

KNOTORYUS: That’s right, you’re engaged! And you do custom bridalwear as well, will you be designing your own wedding look?

TOOS FRANKEN: No. (decidedly) Definitely not. That would be like having a chef cater their own wedding party!

'Head On' - Cai Guo-Qiang (c) Hiro Ihara and Mathias Schormann

KNOTORYUS: The story for ‘Juniper’, your 2018 collection, was based on herd behavior, mass weddings in Korea and an artwork by Cai Guo-Qiang where a pack of wolves throw themselves against a fiberglass plate infinitely.

TOOS FRANKEN: Now it’s about the 'Juniper' woman straying from that herd. If she leaves everything that she was supposed to be doing behind, if she goes down a path that’s not been mapped out in front of her, where does she go? Who does she meet?

KNOTORYUS: What’s your view on the fashion industry today, what are your hopes and expectations?

TOOS FRANKEN: I feel like people are becoming more aware of fast fashion and everything it entails and the way it’s operated. I hope that awareness grows. At the same time I feel like some parts of fashion are overblown, some particular items of streetwear for example get unnecessarily hyped up. I know what my prices are, I know what certain materials cost - I take on higher costs because the production is so limited - but to charge five times the sales rate I would need to charge is shameful to me. It gives people a negative image of the entire industry.

KNOTORYUS: Sustainability is part of your brand values as well, can you elaborate on the importance of that aspect of fashion production?

TOOS FRANKEN: It’s essential to me but it’s an illusion to think fashion can become 100% sustainable. There’s always a negative factor. Say, for instance, that your product is 99% sustainable - which is impossible - it still needs to get washed by your clients or dry-cleaned. Of course it’s good to strive for as much sustainability as possible.

KNOTORYUS: Don’t you think a sustainable industry is inevitable?

TOOS FRANKEN: I don’t think it’ll happen. For most, money and profit remain the prime considerations. Sustainability is super important, but if I divide the concept up in ‘ecological sustainability’ and ‘ethical sustainability’, I gravitate towards ethical fashion first because I think that’s a crucial part of ecological advancement anyway. If ethical fashion were to be properly tackled, it would also have the right ecological repercussions.

KNOTORYUS: Are there designers or people from different industries that you look up to in that sense?

TOOS FRANKEN: I think Stella McCartney is doing a good job.

KNOTORYUS: And more locally, you’ve got brands like Honest By Bruno Pieters and ROMBAUT putting out great work too.

TOOS FRANKEN: Absolutely. I think Honest By's approach is really special because they actually showcase each individual cost. But at the same time, when the margins are on full display, people are still shocked. Those who are not involved in the industry still wonder: “Why is this or that cost added in?” While the prices mentioned still exclude a lot of things. Your entire creative thinking process isn’t factored in, neither are your 27 prototypes and 12 try-outs for a sleeve.

KNOTORYUS: Is there a way you think you could communicate that to your own client base?

TOOS FRANKEN: That’s a part of my marketing and communication that still needs further exploration. Everything we make is produced locally by a Belgian manufacturer. I keep an eye out for manufacturers in Italy, Portugal or France but it just needs to be done right.

Mike Van Cleven (c) Toos Franken 2017

KNOTORYUS: All of this considered, why is it important for you to be an artist, to create beauty, in the world we live in?

TOOS FRANKEN: For me, it's a very easy way to voice my opinion without people having to agree. If I post a critical quote on Instagram, I lose a bunch of followers. Through my collections, I can tell a story about a certain topic that you can completely disagree with and all in all, it doesn’t matter that much. You can even really like a piece, but not agree with the message it stands for. That’s okay. I can make a statement without it having to please every single person. I feel free and easy in that.

KNOTORYUS: You also have an eye for diversity in your lookbooks and presentations, is that a conscious choice you’ve set out for yourself?

TOOS FRANKEN: That’s really important to me. What I emphasize, with my own kids, is that there isn’t anyone alive who is inherently different from them because of their background. But casting-wise, diversity hasn't been a particularly conscious choice. It’s just plain logical, really.

TOOS FRANKEN Antwerp (Nationalestraat 25) opens officially during the first weekend of September.

Header image: (c) Filip De Smet
Lookbook 2018: (c) Mike Van Cleven

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