Dirk Ghijs from the Inqubator podcasts caught up with Inge Onsea, co-founder and Creative director of Essentiel Antwerp to hear how she's coping during these turbulent times in fashion.
Let's take you back to March 15th. Shock! Everything closed. How was that for you?

Inge — That was a big shock to us. It was very tough. Mentally, but also physically, because we were really understaffed in our office. While we normally work on a collection with 20 people. We were now only with the 4 of us. We couldn't just stop. We had to bring a new collection to the shelves within 6 months. It was also very exciting at the same time. It has really been a time of contradictions.

What about all the staff? Was there such a thing as telecommuting?

Inge — The staff of our 55 stores were at home and in the office, we had a few people per department who worked from home, but absolutely not with the full crew, we couldn't afford that. We had to let go of 25 out of 300 employees, which was a very difficult decision. On the other hand, we have regained the family feeling because of it. The smaller the teams, the closer the collaboration.

Tell me more about making that collection, you normally do that with 20 people, how did that go now?

Inge — Despite the fact that we have now made it with only four of us, we were actually ready two weeks before the deadline. We really put our shoulders to the wheel and just kept going. Normally, decisions need to be considered by various people and now it is much more direct and therefore efficient.

Can that also be seen in the collection? Is it cleaner? Does it have more unity?

Inge — It really is completely different. And we have also started to work completely differently. We've really had time to re-question ourselves and rethink the process, even with fewer people. I don't know why.

So that is a positive evolution?

Inge — Yes, I think that a lot of positive things have happened which actually feels very strange to say because it has also been a terrible period.

You always see the positive in everything, but I also want to hear about the turnover, you must have a difficult year. Is it comparable to 2006 when you suddenly had half the turnover?

Inge — No, not comparable, in 2006 it went so much more gradually. This has really been an abrupt knock on our heads. On the other hand, we were normally always supported by the banks that pre-financed us to initiate the orders. That has not been the case now. We have been able to save ourselves without them now. But, obviously because we had to make very big decisions. For example, we will not deliver 30% of winter orders.

So they had already been ordered?

Inge — Yes, they had already been ordered by the wholesalers in January. Then the lockdown came and a radical change had to be made. We had to choose whether we would reduce all the orders of our customers or would make the difficult but necessary decision to stop supplying some customers. We went for the second and concentrated on retail and web.

"We've really had time to re-question ourselves and rethink the whole process."
And what about London for example? When I last spoke to you it had just opened and it was marching like a train.

Inge — They are now open again but they were also in lockdown, we will see how it goes there, the first numbers are good. After the lockdown, there were a lot of revenge shoppers. People really had missed shopping. I used to wonder if physical stores were even still needed, now that has become crystal clear to me again.

So the shopping experience remains just as important to you.

Inge — Super important. Another great new experience during the lockdown was to be able to help our customers through WhatsApp/FaceTime. I have participated myself and it was really great. For example, you saw a mother with two daughters sitting together in front of their screen and Leen (Store manager of our Flagship store) showed the whole collection, or a man who had reserved a time slot for his wife for her birthday.

So maybe that's where the future lies, with tele-personal shoppers.

Inge — Well, we still offer it to our customers. I believe that social contact is very important.

Let's go to the Marketing department. How did you survive?

Astrid — It was very intense. Of course, the communication and positivity were important and luckily our brand lends itself to that perfectly, with all its colours and prints. Battle boredom was and still is our motto, so that's what we did.

This is certainly an office with a lot of atmosphere, did you miss it a lot?

Astrid — Sure, but we are lucky that we can also create atmosphere on a distance via video.

I am going to listen to your colleagues. What were the recent weeks like for you Charles?

Charles — Good! We did a lot together with a smaller team and that actually went very quickly.

Sounds intense, did Inge impose the whip?

Charles — Not the whip, but intense is an understatement.

What do you think Sofie?

Sofie — It was intense, but also very educational and interesting. You learn so much from each other when you are in a smaller team.

And of course, you already practically live together with Inge, being her personal assistant?

Inge(laughs) We now even do sports together.

She really doesn't let go of you, does she?

Sofie — No, no, it's all together now. The line has absolutely faded.

"We have regained the family feeling because of it. The smaller the teams, the closer the collaboration."
Hey, another question, Inge. I've heard that many other companies are thinking about producing more locally and not that far away anymore because the supply chain had been a real problem now.

Inge — The moment the world went into lockdown, Belgium did as well and if we would only have been producing here, we would have had the same problem. I still believe in the strengths of certain countries to produce something. My Chinese suppliers are the best in silk and printed fabrics, I always go to Italy for our knitwear and jersey is really a specialty of Portugal. In this way we also spread our risk. If Portugal goes into lockdown, we will still have goods from China.

As a manager, how do you keep your people alert since they work from home a lot?

Inge — I think it's very important to stay transparent and not hide anything. To just say it when you're in the shit. To just be honest and take people with you every step of the way.

Tom — The atmosphere at our office was surprisingly good, because we were all united with the same goal. There was an energy that was different from normal.

Are you going to hold on to that now?

Tom — We will definitely try. We see ourselves as a family who's working on the same thing and in which everyone is truly passionate. With us it's really swimming or drowning and people with passion swim. Very fast.

What have you learned in the past months?

Inge — How resilient our team is. This period is one that will go into the history books and actually we adapted so quickly. And how important the team is, the family-feeling and the contact.

The warmth is essential?

Inge — That's essential, yes.

And the colors!

Inge — We still want to be your pink pill, always!