It is a €25m business with some 70 stores around the world. Yet German clothing company Oska flies decidedly under the radar, having won a cult following among women to whom most of the fashion world pays little regard. ‘I’d say our average customer is 50 upwards – and when you’re that age it’s not easy to find beautiful clothes that don’t make you look silly, ancient or too young,’ says Helmut Bayer, who founded Oska in 1997 with a couple of partners (long since bought out) and who now runs the company, with colleague Stefanie Schmitz as designer. ‘That puts us in a particular niche.’
It’s one Bayer has been careful to cultivate, perhaps chiefly through a close understanding of his customer: the newly liberated late middle-aged woman, free of children, perhaps, Bayer half-jokes, divorced and free of husbands, reborn and ‘ready to start a new life’, as he puts it. ‘I’ve seen that pattern with women I know closely over and over. Women go through far more fundamental changes in their lives than men, and they get a very clear idea about what they want in life.’
And, in seems, in the way they dress. No Oska garment, for example, has any exterior branding. ‘You might love it when you’re young – look at Abercrombie & Fitch – but when you get to a certain age you don’t want to buy into a brand but to express your own personality,’ says Bayer. ‘The older you get, the more individual you get, the more opinionated you get.’ Similarly, seasonal shifts in style are not what it’s about either. If you want catwalk fashion, go elsewhere: each season at Oska is, as Bayer puts it, ‘not a new book but a new chapter for the on-going book’.
Each collection is based first and foremost on fabrics: their colour, texture and drape. Oska works closely with Pro Len, its main manufacturer in Prostejov in the Czech Republic; not only does the region have its own textiles heritage, but its position allows it to source materials that manufacturers in other parts of Europe struggle to find, especially high-quality leather, hemp and silk. Oska also has its own dedicated dyeing works there, which allows for complex garment-dyeing (resulting in a much richer hue that fades naturally over time) and makes what it does very hard to copy. Consequently, Bayer concedes, Oska’s are not the cheapest of clothes – but, he implies, you get what you pay for.
Certainly, although Bayer insists his Munich-based company is a fashion business, much of Oska’s approach seems to cut against the usual industry grain. ‘It’s quite an old-fashioned approach to making clothes, I suppose, and certainly very unlike the high-street volume brands of today,’ says the one-time fashion sales agency rep, who started the company because he’d grown despondent over the poor quality of the clothing he was expected to sell. ‘Each collection just grows out of the fabric. Really, the power in the fashion world lies with fabric manufacturers, not designers. You don’t get quality clothing out of bad fabric any more than you get a quality car out of bad steel. The fabric is crucial to how a garment can be cut, how it washes, how it ages. If the clothes are German in any sense, it’s in the emphasis on quality and reliability.’
Bayer also likes his clothing to last from the standpoint of both ethics (‘I couldn’t produce in Bangladesh, for example – I couldn’t live with myself,’ he says) and sustainability, although it is not something he often stresses. ‘Buying “green” is only moving forward a little. The bottom line is that actually we should just buy less. We shouldn’t buy it at all. But who wants to hear that? And it’s not great for business either,’ he laughs.
And business is good: although he would like to double turnover in the next five years, as it would make Oska’s necessarily high development and prototyping costs easier to absorb, he does expect growth of around 50%, which seems a comfortable target for such a smartly targeted company. In the circumstances, one wonders why Bayer hasn’t tried his successful formula on menswear, too, beyond the extant capsule collection. After all, that was the original idea, back when the company started out being called Oskar. ‘We’ve tried a bit but it doesn’t work as well,’ he says. ‘Men at the same stage in their lives tend to want very simple designs, to stick with what they know and buy the same thing over and over. I’m like that – and I’m in the fashion business.’