DESIGN E-COMMERCE INSIGHTS: UTOPIAST
Slovenia-headquartered e-commerce website utopiast offers a curated selection of fashion, home and beauty items from south- and eastern European designers, all with a special story to tell. Sandra Gubenšek and Katja Butala, founders and creative directors of the store, have gathered and are introducing the work of the most talented young independent designers, who source sustainably and produce their collections locally, from Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Slovakia and Czech Republic – with new designers joining every month. We caught up with them to discuss marrying fashion and lifestyle commerce, highlighting sustainability and local production, and running a successful e-shop.
What is your background and what led you to starting utopiast?
Katja: We both have at least three things in common: a marketing communications degree, an extensive working experience in marketing – ranging from advertising agencies to the corporate world, and the most important of all: passion for beautiful things – Sandra’s is more directed towards fashion, mine towards interior.
We have noticed the lack of brick-and-mortar as well as online stores with selection of items created and made locally in our region. With the globalization, customers started looking for something unique, and gradually became more aware of the benefits of local production. But they still need to contact each designer directly, and talk to them in person in order to buy the product. It is the consequence of lack of resources of emerging designers that would allow them to invest in business, marketing and distribution, internationalize and compete on the global market. utopiast launched, since we saw the opportunity in connecting our knowledge and passion for presenting our regional design on one hand with the market demand on the other.
How did the decision of combining fashion and beauty with interior design come about?
Sandra: The idea comes from our belief that style is not simply the clothes we wear. It is much more – the space we live in, our work, our leisure time, the books we read, the movies we watch, everything that drives us. It is about our identity and the choices we make every single day. And we wanted to create an online space that would connect some of those things.
utopiast differs from other similar stores in the fact that is very curated and personal. Its selection is limited to the designers from South and Eastern Europe, and then paired down to the things we actually wear, use and love.
It seems to me that today anyone entering the design industry has come up with a “story.” Do you think that there will come a time when consumers will start doubting their authenticity?
Katja: It is all a consequence of the fact that retail is again becoming more personal; customers are gradually getting more conscious and they want to know the people who created their products, be fascinated by their dedication and passion. I agree that many times these stories have become exploited and just a tactic of differentiation, without an actual background. We wish that consumers would start doubting the authenticity of the brands in general, and be able to distinguish between those that are genuine, real and actually walk the talk and those that do not.
Some designers you feature have their own online stores. What are they turning to you for? What do you think you offer most – visibility or sales?
Sandra: utopiast offers selection of fashion, home and beauty items that share tendency for minimal, functional design and fairness towards people and environment. Most of our designers see the opportunity in being presented online in a company of brands with a similar aesthetic and approach towards business. Since utopiast is still quite small, we have a much more personal relationship with designers. We often help them with business decisions, marketing consultations etc., which is also one of our advantages and directions we plan to develop more in the future.
How do you find new talents? What is your opinion on trade shows? Are they important or is an online lookbook enough for you?
Sandra: We usually do the research ourselves – we keep our eyes open, and constantly search online and offline for new and exciting brands we would like to work with. We contact them, and then if the time and place allow us, we meet the designer in person, go through the collection, talk about mutual expectations etc. When deciding for the cooperation, we keep in mind our principles: timeless design, impeccable craftsmanship and sustainable local production using natural materials. We prefer designers with a strong identity who continue their story where they left off the previous season as opposed to those who are completely changing their direction every season.
Trade shows are a great opportunity to see and feel the products, and meet more brands and designers in one place. But we don’t visit them as much for the sole fact that the emerging designers from our region usually aren’t represented there.
What skills are required to run successfully an e-commerce platform?
Sandra: It is so many things: from the keen eye and refined aesthetic to the constantly evolving business skills. It starts with the vision, building of your identity, selecting the right target group, reaching out to the customers in unique way, and then fulfilling their expectations. There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes of the store that are unavoidable, time-consuming and not sexy at all, and you have to own them all while constantly staying open to change.
With so many fashion e-shops do you think that all of them could be sustainable businesses?
Katja: Of course not. There is no highly competitive industry where all of the businesses would be sustainable and profitable in the long run. To succeed, you need a unique voice and offer, and to be able to constantly learn and adapt to the changes. But since we wish that design from our region would be more represented in the global market, we would actually love if there was more competition. It would definitely bring more attention to the area, promote our designers better as well as raise important questions about sustainability, development of the region etc.
Is there a particular story or event that made you sensitive towards producing locally?
Sandra: It had actually started with the observation that it was getting harder than ever to wear unique things. Something that our parents experienced as a consequence of closed borders in former Yugoslavia is now becoming a reality for our generation because of globalization, global brands and the fact that no matter where in developed world you travel, people wear same clothes, live in similar interiors, listen to the same music etc. The second reason is of course the impact of all of this on our environment. The price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, while the human and environmental costs have grown dramatically. I have decided I don’t want to support this system and started discovering new ways to curate my wardrobe in more sustainable way as well as encourage people towards more responsible buying decisions through utopiast.
Katja: When coming of age your visual aesthetics – let this be your clothing or interiors – evolve and mature and become part of your identity. In the world of global consumerism, it is important to nurture your uniqueness and cultural background as well as to be aware of our impact on the environment, culture and society. Many crafts are redundant these days because mass production took over. In interiors, I especially love different flavors of the regions – from design and materials to patterns. Diversity is something that makes you rich as a person. I believe interior design should be personal, and reflect you, your passion, the places that you have visited. This way, it becomes interesting, dynamic and utterly you. And that is what we also want at utopiast: offer customers products that are made to last and will grow with their evolving aesthetic.
What is your ultimate goal for the Utopiast?
Sandra: Our goal is to build a meaningful international retail brand that would offer visibility and sales to emerging designers, and have a long-term impact on the way design of this part of Europe is perceived in the eyes of customers. Working with independent designers daily we have noticed they often need help with starting and growing their businesses which is also one of the directions we plan to explore more in the future.
Images © Utopiast