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Creative,diverse,global

Cultural diversity is becoming a competitive factor in globalization – a conversation with Annett Koeman. By Alexandra Hildebrandt 

Design and production: Hong Kong. Brand management: Germany. Freelancers: worldwide. In Norintra’s design center, globalization is part of everyday life. From its basis in Hong Kong, the company designs fashions for the German market. Its director says, “Cultural diversity is increasing in importance for companies operating globally. It’s not just that companies need to speak to and integrate employees and customers from different cultural backgrounds. Diversity also gives rise to creativity. It is critical for fashion designers to keep pace with trends like organic, LOHAS, or ethical consumption. Diversity becomes a competitive factor.”  

Norintra House of Fashion is KarstadtQuelle’s first design center outside Ger­many. Norintra headquarters is located on the 12th floor of an office building at One Peking Road in Hong Kong. The company designs fashions for Karstadt department stores and Quelle and Neckermann mail order. The production phase takes place in cooperation with Li & Fung Ltd., one of the industry’s largest suppliers. That allows Norintra to concentrate on in­house premium labels, guaranteeing fast market presentation of up­to­the­minute designs. Trendy designs and exclusive collections can be produced by Li & Fung directly and marketed immediately. Time is of the essence: Fashion changes constantly, with new trends reaching the market faster than ever. At the same time, there is competition for ethically sensitive customers. Annett Koeman is the director of Norintra Ltd., with an office in Hong Kong. Her professional career began in 1988 as a product manager for Levi Strauss Germany. But her focus quickly shifted to the Far East, where she accepted positions with Siedensticker Hong Kong and Hugo Boss Far East before joining Otto International Hong Kong and the Otto Group subsidiary Together Ltd. She took command at Norintra, part of the KarstadtQuelle Group, in 2007.  

Ms. Koeman, what is Norintra’s goal?  

AnnettKoeman: Our focus is creative service, tailored to our customers – meaning Karstadt, Quelle, and Neckermann – that puts commercially viable, exclusive collections at our disposal. Our aim is to be in touch with the latest movements in society and prepare for what’s coming next in the world of fashion. Trends are implemented promptly, and that gives us the speed we need to keep up with brands like Zara and H&M. With our strategy of concentrating on our own labels, support from brand managers in Germany has absolute priority. We need to make our premium labels into real brands and give them an unmistakable identity – otherwise we won’t be able to achieve our goals in the market. Slogans like “Everyday low prices” won’t give us the advantage we need. The clothing we offer should convey a sense of desirability and be irresistible to our customers. 

So the premium labels’ primary aim is to convey identity? 

Yes. Branding is not just a question of design. It is also a question of forming an identity. A brand is not an empty value proposition – from the customer perspective, purchases in the future will not be about buying something to wear, but about buying a brand or premium label that stands for something. Identity is created by brands, which also demarcate the space of the purchase decisions. Brands promise prestige and communicate lifestyle.  

How many employees are at Norintra?  

We just got started, so at the moment we have 33 regular employees, along with five freelancers located in Berlin, London, Tokyo, Paris, and New York. When we’re fully staffed, we’ll have around 40 full­time employees in Hong Kong and ten freelancers in the fashion metropolises of the world.  

What priority do you assign to communication? How and in what form does communication take place?  

Communication is key – especially if you’re close to the manufacturing com­panies, working with freelancers scattered around the world, simultaneously dealing with information coming in from the various fashion metropolises, and with brand managers located in Germany. Beyond that, we need to know our target market precisely and address it individually. Colleagues receive regular updates, including Fashion Reports at the start of every season, monthly Trend Reports, and Store Check Reports, along with updates from textile fairs and information on the newest developments on the production side. In addition, we participate in multi­company communication projects aimed at fostering dialogue and tolerance among cultures in an international context, and we support intercultural cooperation between company manage­ment and international subsidiaries.  

What are those projects, in concrete terms?  

The Culture Counts project, for example, showcases the company’s cultural diversity with an in­house publication, Hot Spots. It achieves a very high journalistic quality, with text and photo features from Asia and Europe. We take part in that. Why, from your perspective, is Norintra especially well suited for such a project?  

The people we work with come from England, France, Japan, the U.S., and of course Hong Kong as well as China. We are networked around the world. Yet in spite of the cultural differences, we need to work together closely, across a broad range of time zones. Our activity embodies on a small scale how globalization is reducing the distance between people. That’s where Culture Counts comes in: How do people live and work worldwide? The project’s vision is to overcome the invisible barriers that divide business practices and worldviews. At the same time, its primary focus is cultural diversity and contributing to cultural dialogue, especially as it takes place in an organiza­tion like Norintra.  

Why has managing cultural diversity become one of the top priorities for companies in the age of globalization?  

To name three important reasons: One is that in the future, companies operating globally will have to increase their capacity to integrate employees and customers from different cultural backgrounds into their own fields of activity. Secondly, in global­ization, the corporate culture is a company’s calling card. Thirdly, managers need to know how to present themselves in a variety of cultural contexts.  

What is the value-added of cultural diversity at Norintra?  

It enhances our problem-solving abilities, creativity, capacity to innovative, and customer orientation. Ultimately, a better working environment helps ensure economic success.  

Your team of international designers and trend scouts is always on the lookout for the latest trends. How often do you meet up to discuss current trends, styles in fashion, fabrics, and technology?  

We get together regularly, at least once a week. Or if there are matters of pressing concern – say someone brings out a new collection with pioneering innovations – we’ll arrange an additional meeting. Of course, we’re hoping that before long, we’ll be the ones with the pioneering innovations!  

Do you plan to display your prototypes in trunk shows in upscale department stores worldwide?  

Not the prototypes – but we do plan to take our Limited Edition “Couture Evening Collection” on the road in the fall. It is conceivable that we may use the same method to present our first “Bio Cotton/Fair Fashion” collection.  

In designing prototypes, are the designers allowed to take risks?  

We talk to each of the brand managers in Germany to see how many new, untested trends they want to have in the collection. A certain amount is indispensable for the fashions to express individuality and creativity.  

Does management give designers quick feedback?  

In the deadline phase, we have meetings almost daily. The division managers for Design and Product Development schedule their meetings and travel so that the process is not held up. We can be sure that a manager will always be available to approve designs.  

Fashion is an important barometer of general developments in the design field. The art of reading clothing styles fascinated the German aesthetician Walter Benjamin: In his well-known essay on the shopping malls of 19th century Paris, composed between 1927 and 1940, he writes: “Each season brings, in its newest creations, mysterious semaphore signals of things to come.” What does that statement mean to you?  

I would reply with a remark made by Oleg Cassini: “Fashion anticipates, and elegance is a state of mind … a mirror of the time in which we live, a translation of the future, and should never be static.” Both authors speak of the dynamism of our times, as revealed in how we dress. If one looks back at fashion down the years, one can see what state of mind the world was in, as well as its economic condition. After excess and extremes there is always a “hangover” – a time of purism and concentration on essentials.  

A critical examination of style entails connecting themes that might seem mutually exclusive. People who have mastered style can show us how it is possible to perform a balancing act between present, past, and future. Why does style persist when fashion fades?  

Style is the expression of an attitude that extends to different areas of lifestyle – clothing being one of them. Style has to do with a feel for quality and the will to be individual. The fascinating thing about style is that it is equally at home in the past, the present, and the future. The present refers to what is topical, that which assures that the clothing doesn’t appear dated. The past makes reference to timeless basics. Such classics show that artistic quality cannot be reduced to novelty alone. The indicators of the future point the way to the avantgarde.  

You once said that the Zeitgeist – the spirit of the age – is most plainly evident in fashion …  

Among the determining factors linked to the Zeitgeist are personality and character or individuality. You can see it very clearly in the awakening of the new, trendy eco-labels. There are companies that pay celebrities to promote Fair Fashion and Ethical Fashion, which creates a certain buzz. Through their activity, it has become cool to do something for the environment and to profess one’s sense of responsibility through the purchase of certain products. Consumer consciousness will continue to increase. People who wear an eco-label demonstrate their membership in a certain group and, at the same time, show that they see themselves as part of a larger whole. Lifestyle and attitude become inextricably linked.  

The executive director of Hess Natur, Wolf Lüdge, said a while ago that the adver­tising slogan “Stinginess is sexy,” which was a huge success for an electronics chain in Germany, would be replaced by “Responsibility is sexy.” Will eco-labels have a role to play in Norintra’s future?  

Absolutely! At this point, green chic has even reached the runways of Paris and Milan. That shows that the times when eco-clothing was boring and shapeless are long gone. We need to keep up with this development, because otherwise it will pass us by. There is a sexy, feminine collection in the works for this fall. The idea behind it is that people will buy this commercially viable collection for its design – and by the way, as a free bonus, it’s also organic! That will be the foundation for us to build on. The mixture of Fair Trade and fashionable styles plays a major role for us. Fashion can complement indi­vidual beliefs, as the current eco-boom in all areas of life shows.  

Many factors influence the design of a textile: economic, comfort, brand identity, and ecology. Which areas present the greatest challenge to your designers by demanding the greatest compromises?  

To stay with the previous theme, it is problematic here that there are not enough options in working with organic cotton. The look is too consistent – that is, the idea to a great style might be there, but the materials cannot yet put it into practice. That issue is being addressed as a top priority.  

Your aim at Norintra is to develop trendy styles, while simultaneously paying  

Attention to how that comes about – does that mean your ultimate aim is sustainable value-creation in the supply chain?  

We want to show that Fair Fashion is a theme that can be taken seriously in our industry – that it can be cool, sexy, and trendy, but also carries genuine meaning. That concerns the fashion profile, the “depth” visible on the surface. As I mentioned, at this time we are developing an eco-collection, but our concept won’t work unless the collection is attractive, sexy, and touches the taste and life-style of the customer. Good design and a social conscience can indeed be linked.  

It’s hard to speak objectively about design. Many decisions are made on an emotional basis. Can you say what constitutes good design in your eyes? Why does it signify more than outward appearance alone?  

Good design incorporates global and local aspects. For me, it’s a combination of look, comfort, and easy care. If I buy something today, I want to look great when I wear it, I want to feel good in it, and I want to go on liking it after I wash it. It might be different if I were Paris Hilton – but we work for a mass market, and it makes justifiably different demands with regard to sustainability.  

In your considerations of design, does beauty play a role as an emotional quality?  

You can make an analogy with relationships: Most people give their initial attention to outward things, to so-called beauty. But after just a short time, beauty is no longer enough, if other qualities are lacking. The relationship’s success will depend on whether the partners have shared interests and similar values that give a lasting quality to the partnership. That is also the essence of a successful brand. You need to trust the quality of the brand entirely and guarantee it to the customer. What makes a good designer?  

Good designers have to be risk-takers, prepared to do battle with their own partners to achieve the best possible solutions in development and production. They need visions and the courage to do what they believe in, but even as visionaries, they should be capable of defending their ideas and concepts. They must be able to find the right strategy at the right moment. Even though designing is a very personal matter, designers must be communicative and good at networking. Still, they can’t be obsessed with self-actualization, either. The products have to fit the brand and the target market.  

Will feedback from employees and customers – their ideas and suggestions – influence product development?  

Designers and consumers have something in common: their sensitivity. That has a lot to do with courage, and nothing to do with weakness. Sensitivity strengthens anyone with access to it. Only sensitive people are capable of absorbing new ideas. And those who take things in are also able to effect change. So the answer is a definite “yes.”  

Talent always involves a drive to self-renewal. For that reason, companies should find out more about talent and think about how to recognize and encourage it. What is Norintra doing to assure that its designers develop their talents as fully as possible?  

They work in an attractive environment, with media input from channels like Fashion TV and MTV, with access to magazines and Store Checks in the fashion metropolises. They visit important exhibitions of art and fashion, watch the latest films – that happens mostly in small groups, so that ex­change and assimilation of impressions can happen promptly. One emphasis is always the overcoming of conceptual divides. We offer in-house continuing education and informational sessions on varying themes, such as new developments in textiles. In addition, we have initiated a joint project with an English university-level school of design. Students have the opportunity to accept internships with us: They work directly with our designers and product developers on collections and learn how designs are implemented in production. That experience gives them comprehensive training for their later careers – and with a little luck, some of the most talented may return to us after finishing their degrees. At the same time, we on the other side are confronted with the unpolished approach of young creatives and their unconventional, open-minded way of thinking, so we learn from them as well.  

Dr. AlexandraHildebrandtis Director of Communication­Social Policy at KarstadtQuelle AG.  

Contact: Norintra House of Fashion Annett Koeman, Director Room 1203­06, 12/F, One Peking 1 Peking Road TST Hongkong (SAR) Tel.: +852 (3793) 6289 E-Mail: annett.koeman@norintra.com  

This interview has been published first on changeX Partnerforum.Reprint with permission of KarstadtQuelle AG.