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Clemens en August takes fashion on tour


His family founded the retail giant C&A and now Alexander Brenninkmeijer runs a fashion label of his own. It’s chic and affordable, as Josh Sims discovers

Josh Sims
Josh Sims ,

It was perhaps inevitable that Alexander Brenninkmeijer would make a name for himself in fashion. But the minimalistic-chic aesthetic of the men’s and womenswear of his brand Clemens en August was probably not the direction many of his relatives might have expected him to take. Brenninkmeijer’s family was behind the German textiles and fashion retail giant C&A, which throughout the 70s and 80s pioneered a faster kind of cheerful fashion at everyman prices.

Affordable favourite
At first glance Brenninkmeijer’s label is as divorced from high-street fashion as might be expected from a line favoured by the diverse likes of actor James McAvoy, artist-filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson, model Claudia Schiffer and architect Rem Koolhaas. Yet it’s born of Brenninkmeijer’s realisation that designer clothes need not be incredibly expensive.

‘There is a market for interesting clothes just as long as you don’t ask a lot of money for them,’ says the entrepreneur, who is currently building investment for major expansion. ‘In my situation I can sometimes afford to buy something more expensive. I might see that something is a nice piece of design but I’m not going to pay €2,000 for it. I’d rather take the risk of waiting for the sales and it still being in my size, which a lot of people do now.’

Brenninkmeijer should know. After a spell as ladies’ dresses and maternity-wear buyer for C&A, he was co-founder of the influential Kostas Murkudis label. He says that often the pressure on prices is a consequence of rapidly rising property rents and staffing costs.

At Clemens en August a signature sharp, modern classic men’s suit can be purchased for about €800, around half the cost that the equivalent quality item would be elsewhere. In order to keep prices down Brenninkmeijer has adopted a radical selling technique.

Fashion on tour
You won’t find Clemens en August in the shops. Brenninkmeijer wanted to avoid buyers cherry-picking the most commercial pieces and breaking up the mood of a complete collection. Nor does Clemens en August have its own stores anywhere. It simply can’t afford a prestigious flagship ‒ not, at least, without a price hike for its clothes. Instead Brenninkmeijer tours with his collection each season, setting up shop for a few days in an art gallery or theatre. He is currently visiting London, Zürich, Vienna, Hamburg, Cologne and four other major German cities.

Fans are advised in advance to put the dates in their diaries, come along ‒ or rather dash, since each piece is made in limited numbers ‒ and buy for the season. ‘It’s personal, people get to know each other, and they get to see the fabrics up close, what makes them special. There’s a private members’ club mentality,’ he says. Of course, it does not do Clemens en August any harm that this semi-restricted access also gives the label cachet.

‘We’re very much focused on the product and operate kind of off-the-grid,’ he explains. It creates, he says, an insider edge and this works well ‘because in fashion we often want most what we can’t get. Of course, there are other brands that are much cheaper than us,’ he adds ‘but they don’t have the cut, the fabrics or the feel. And we can focus on all that because we don’t have the usual fashion brand overheads. Back when we started we thought of trying to open just one spectacular store but reckoned it would cost around €10m. We ended up inviting friends and their friends to come along and see if they liked what we were designing. We still didn’t have a name for the brand then. But it all sold in one evening.’

Yet Clemens en August is closer to the ethos of the family business than is perhaps obvious. Go back to the very origins of the C&A name and you discover a pair of brothers, Messrs Clemens and August, the company founders from whom Brenninkmeijer takes his label’s name. These two started what in 1841 became the pan-European giant by making clothes and selling them in their own off-beat way, too: shop-less, they would travel from region to region and sell high-quality fabrics direct to cash-strapped farmers. Clemens en August does much the same today, only its customers are likely to dress better.

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