Stefan Siegel was the only representative of the western fashion industry to attend Ukraine Fashion Week in February last year, when it coincided with the biggest political turmoil in the country in decades.
Virtually no international buyers or journalists showed up due to the clashes and protests in Kiev’s Independence Square, but Siegel, the London-based founder of Not Just a Label, an online platform that showcases new fashion talent from around the world, went to Kiev to conduct a workshop and support local designers.
“We felt like, if nobody goes, we should go,” says Siegel. “We’d had so many designers from the Ukraine joining NJAL and they were doing very well with their designs and creativity. I’ve always thought it’s Western arrogance that we have not spoken about Ukraine creativity, because it’s only a two and a half hour flight from London and the country is as big as Germany or France, but we’ve always been very good at ignoring the fact that they are out there.”
Siegel founded NJAL in 2008 as a platform to breath fresh life into the fashion industry by fostering emerging design talents in often-marginalized regions such as the Ukraine.
“The idea is to give visibility to young creatives around the world, without the political limitations you face in many countries,” says Siegel. “It’s creating a global showcase of the best in fashion design while breaking moulds and changing the industry landscape.”
Since its inception NJAL has become one of the world’s most respected fashion websites for its ability to allow emerging talents to bypass middlemen and antiquated systems that make it difficult for them to break through. It does this through an extensive editorial network that helps them gain exposure and a retailing forum that allows designers to finance their progression independently.
More than 20,000 emerging designers from around the world are now on the unique digital and e-commerce platform that drives revenue and brand awareness outside the limitations of the traditional fashion system.
“Our ecommerce side is different because the customer knows that 70 per cent of the retail price lands directly in the pocket of the designer,” says Siegel. “We have a customer base in 188 countries, you can sell anything anytime, and our designers don’t always have to produce on a traditional timeline because the site is split between ready-to-wear orders and made to order pieces for which you have to wait three weeks to receive.”
The singular marriage of creativity and commerce reflects Siegel’s own background in the fashion industry.
Born in the German speaking part of the Triveneto region of Northern Italy – a hub for luxury manufacturing – Siegel studied economics in Vienna before working for design houses and advertising agencies. Following a successful modelling career, Siegel completed an MA in international business administration then joined Ernst & Young, Sal. Oppenheim and then the Merrill Lynch banking group before starting NJAL with his brother Daniel.
“My backgrounds are in fashion and business and for me it was always about bringing the two together to present designers with a viable business opportunity,” says Siegel
He and his brother chose a black sheep as the logo for NJAL, to represent the company’s mission to stand out and confound traditional expectations.
“The black sheep represented perfectly my position in society and how I think, and also young designers in the fashion industry because they swim against the stream,” says Siegel.
The sheep logo makes NJAL a perfect fit with The Woolmark Company, which has announced the global fashion platform as new nominating body for the International Woolmark Prize. NJAL will be responsible for nominating two designers from across 36 newly added European countries including the Ukraine, Iceland, Kazakhstan and Greece that fall within the newly introduced IWP category of Rest of Europe.
“We are extremely excited to embark on this collaboration with IWP as we strive to expand the reach of this prestigious prize to designers in markets previously side-lined by the fashion industry at large,” says Siegel. “Both NJAL and The Woolmark Company have supported rising fashion labels and this partnership is crucial in injecting a hit of creativity into the fashion industry.”
Seven years since founding NJAL, supporting creativity remains at the core of everything the company does.
“The creative economies drive almost everything,” he says. “I love fashion but for me it’s never really just about fashion, supporting creativity is such a bigger story for me. I’m not sure if we will stop at fashion, maybe one day we will go into furniture design, industrial design or some other sectors.”
But while NJAL celebrates creativity, Siegel’s single most important tip for young designers is not to forget commerce.
“Don’t pretend it’s not a business,” he says. “Fashion is a perfect combination between creativity and the most competitive business environment you can find. Our most successful designers are the ones who know how social media works, how pricing works and some even code their own websites. These are the ones who succeed. Next year Instagram is launching the buy button on its pictures so honestly I don’t think we smart designers will need retailers anymore because they will be able to go directly to our customers. There is such a great opportunity for designers at the moment.”
Marcia Patmos travelled to the source of Australian Merino wool to launch her winning International Woolmark Prize collection in Australia