superchat the hague: bart zwanenburg + johan stork

© common kin - partners in retail: johan stork, bart zwanenburg and sam manus

the hague is the dutch government seat, and abroad better known for its frequently headlining international court of justice than being an happening shopping destination. but a small quirky store, tucked away in a downtown alley, fosters plans to reach out far beyond - they actually already do... - with an appealing retail message, and could somewhat change the city's rep in that specific field. we're talking common kin, a cool menswear shop founded by retail veteran johan stork [js], and his partners bart zwanenburg [bz] and sam manus. this innovative trio thinks big and out of sheer passion, with a holistic approach of the retail business. the store's identity, the merchandise on offer, and the meticulously planned online expansion, all of it reflects a balance many retailers could learn from. superfuture sat down with johan and bart to talk some retail and see what they're up to.
 
how did common kin come about? [js]: i’ve worked for 14 years for a local retail chain, both as a buyer and store manager. i have more or less honed most of my retail skills there, and during a period of time when it was still a leading player in the field. before I started with common kin i had had several plans to set up a business of my own, but market conditions proved to be too tough to go ahead with it. but the retail game changed dramatically through the [previous] economic crisis and the internet boom, those two factors created exciting new opportunities. mind you, the initial business plan of common kin actually included an online store.
 
i had already contacted an online marketeer and a graphic designer to collaborate and create a full-fledged concept around it. although i initially hired them for their expertise, i had envisioned to offer them to participate in the store once they had made the concept their own. i’m all for collaboration, common kin as a store name hasn’t been chosen by accident, you know. i seek kindred spirits, to make connections, and that’s also what our logo reflects. well, that’s how the story started back in summer 2011. and only after two months after the store launch, bart dropped by. wielding a camera, he was exploring downtown the hague for a school assignment. 
 
[bz]: indeed! i was studying trend watching and concept development at the time. i had tagged along with a friend of mine who interested in film and fashion, and who had an avid interest in retail. when we arrived here i was immediately taken by common kin’s shop concept and atmosphere. i liked the interior of the shop and the warm and personal approach of the customers. so, i got into a lively conversation with johan, and kept in touch with him ever since. i happened to be looking for a job on the side, and frequently inquired about one at the store. a few months later when johan was about to leave for berlin on a buying trip, he proposed to join him .
 
that trip sort of sealed the deal, we got along really well and i was hired. during the next two years i worked as a sales associate while additional tasks such as branding and online activities had been delegated to me as well, allowing me to develop my skills. [js]: us getting to work together happened quite organically, but bart used some bluff to get the job. to be honest, I was actually looking for someone with a certain tenacity, drive, and more importantly, knowledge of how to present yourself online. i acknowledged very early on how important it is in the retail business to clearly communicate your identity online.
 

© common kin

bart just seemed to have all it takes. besides, we had that necessary click during our trip to berlin. [bz]: after two years the next step came up. I had planned to finish my education abroad but meanwhile we had developed a clear division of tasks. but by then it was merely a question of merely leaving or participate in the common kin business. it took me a little while to consider but it became clear to me what I wanted and I quit my studies to start full-time as a partner at the store. we almost immediately started to brainwave how to set up our online business. [jh]: we already had a couple of meetings with third parties when during summer of last year sam manus, a regular customer of ours, walked into the store.
 
as usual we started chatting about brands, new developments, and at one point he also suggested going online with our business. well, that suggestion was very well timed. it turned out he was working as a fashion e-consulting specialist at one of the biggest e-commerce consultancy firms here in the netherlands, and because sam liked our shop so much, he proposed to help us out by offering his expertise for free. astonishingly, the next time we met he came up with an extensive online report on the brands had been carrying. it was very detailed, indicating the most popular brands, even to the level of specific products and styles people were looking for online. 
 
[bz]: he even had calculated the quantities we should be buying, sam’s analysis was incredibly extensive. [jh]: obviously, we were impressed and as a result sam has become common kin’s third partner. he has kept his day job at the consultancy firm but is now doing e-commerce for our store on the side. we’d love to have him full-time on our team but we’d have to bulk up our operations first. but I’d like to emphasize that it all happened organically, and i think it would’ve been quite frustrating if i had to actively search for a guy like him. i truly believe it all fell into place because we try to be innovative and different in everything we do. and even though each of us has a different expertise, we inspire and complement each other. 
 
what’s the concept of common kin’s store interior? [js]: the specific feel we put into putting our collections together should be translated into the physical store and our online presence. a classic base is always our departure point, but interpreted in a clean, contemporary way. it’s what i tried to instill in tessa kuyvenhoven, architect and founder of studio intussen. i didn’t want to discuss materials, colours and design, i just wanted to make sure she understood who we were and create a corresponding design, leaving everything up to her trusted skills. this resulted in the use of original and pure materials, such as cardboard, untreated mdf and steel. it has all been captured in, what i think, is good design with a subtle wow effect.
 
that’s actually also what I also seek in collections. you know, for me a pair of pants doesn’t need three legs to baffle me. two legs will suffice, as long as there’s an added value in the fit, shade…or anything. i need to be triggered by innovation of some sort. so, the like-mindedness in this project was pretty essential. [bz]: we further tweaked the design of the store when we decided to go more high-end with common kin. but the alteration has been done in a very accessible way, without making the store too austere or too cold. [jh]: we intentionally shunned very luxurious materials, partially due to costs, but mainly because it isn’t what our concept and vision stands for.
 
how would you describe the profile of your customer? [js]: i’d say a more mature kind of customer of about 25 years and older. but when it comes to formal garments that would be 35 years and over. you know, we mainly consider ourselves as our target audience, and i trust there’s a crowd out there that share our aesthetic view on clothes, ha! we actually pull quite a lot of brand-conscious creatives to our doorstep. [bz]: yeah, particularly a specific group in and around the hague.
 

© common kin

streetwear and fashion have increasingly merged over the years. has this trend influenced the way you purchase collections for the store? [js]: we certainly don’t wish to bring together stüssy and marni, but follow a trail somewhere in the middle. to us labels such as alexander wang are streetwear, but its approach to design is more sophisticated. this kind of style seamlessly matches carven, which is one of our new labels. the inspiration of carven’s current collection are mobsters from the 1920s, which manifests in prints and the elements taken from suiting from that era, beautifully mixing up streetwear and contemporary style. [bz]: it’s interesting to see that internet has very much indicated that fashion increasingly is happening in the street, much more than back in the day when only catwalk shows were relevant. the number of fashion blogs simply prove that. so, streetwear has gained tremendously in popularity and i would say it has invaded the realm of high fashion. 
 
so, you recently launched an online store. is there a difference in what you offer online and offline? [js]: not really. but there’ll be a slight difference during sale periods and when new merchandise arrives. sale offerings will be longer available in our brick and mortar environment while the newest items will be first introduced online. but the majority of brands that we carry increasingly offer four collections instead of only two. carven and marni for instance, now also release t-shirt collections when their respective autumn-winter collections have just dropped in stores. this spread has made the retail business commercially more interesting for us. i think it’s something which could be further improved within fashion retail. [bz]: this spread also enables you as a retailer to do the same with your budget. in northern europe the climate is a leading factor, we're dealing with four separate seasons here. but i can imagine circumstances are somewhat different if you’re a retailer in, let's say, australia.
 
it comes across that the launch of your online store is in fact a reboot of your overall online presence. what are your plans exactly? [bz]: common kin should be a platform with a certain appeal and where people love to shop. there are two different approaches as an online retailer: you either build your identity around your online store, or you create an identity with additional content, such as a blog. we aim to do something in the middle, by presenting our merchandise in a certain way but also with editorial content. we plan to collaborate with photographers, stylists and editors to achieve that. we just love to share our view of fashion. [js]: the styling bit won't be added to dictate people how to wear it, but to propose possibilities. it'll be a presentation that'll make us happy too. as said, we consider ourselves clients of common kin.
 
how important is social media for you? [bz]: we've had quite a few talks about the topic. it's an important element of our online presence and it's a great way to reach out too. but it also seems a quantity-driven thing with the objective to gain as much likes as possible, while to us it's merely about expressing ourselves and keeping it real. [js]: it's nice that our growing clientele abroad has positively affected our facebook and instagram page, but we prefer quality over quantity, and we hope to reflect that in our communication.
 
what's your view on common kin's in-store relationship with the customer? [js]: well, just be yourself. be sincere. we're not the kind of sales associates who'll be telling you how well that shirt matches the colour of your eyes. we're enthusiastic about our store and we'll passionately tell you about our collections. that's it. [bz]: and we serve good coffee!
 
any plans for the future that you can already reveal? [js]: for the next few seasons our focus will be our online platform. we're actually not fully sure how to evaluate our current brick and mortar presence at this location. we do have plans with the store which we can't reveal yet, but they could very well have an influence on the decision to stay put or to relocate elsewhere. so, there'll be expansion in the near future but mainly one with an online focus. i don't mean to be arrogant or pretentious, but i'd like us to create a solid name for ourselves. 
 

© common kin