Furniture designer Johanna sells feminine but practical garments that are all handmade and hand dyed by her and assistant Noemi in her studio in Brussels.
We met shortly before the launch of her label JOHANNA VAN DAALEN.
Janis: Tell me about your new brand JOHANNA VAN DAALEN.
Johanna: I am starting a clothing line which is based on what I was looking for and couldn't find. The starting point was a dress - I wanted to find a really simple dress, that I knew I could just pick up and wear whether for working or for going out somewhere. I guess that's due to the fact, that I'm a mum now and in the morning you have to think about what your kid is going to wear, what you're going to wear...
And from that it just sort of grew into other garments that I had inspiration for. Also there was a strong need for me to make the clothes myself. I love making so the handmade aspect is a really important part of it. And to go further: I am really interested in where things are coming from and where things are made, as well as natural materials and natural dyes. I love nature, gardening and I thought: maybe I start with dying my own textiles to get to know the whole process. I am not weaving my own fabrics, although we discussed with Noemi the idea of growing our own dying plants, linen…and weaving our own fabric, but I think that is a little bit optimistic for now. (smiling)
Do you dye all the clothes or do you leave some naturally?
There are basic pieces in their natural colours, pieces in dark indigo and in light indigo. With time I will introduce new colours according to a plant, a place or something that I find interesting.
Was it difficult to find the right suppliers for the textiles?
Yes. You can easily find organic textiles, but they might be coming from very far away. So some of the fabrics I use are linen based, that come from France, which is very close, and the 100% cotton comes from India. I really wanted to find something closer, but that's impossible, because cotton doesn't grow here. I think the alternative would be to find recycled cotton or work with local fibres. But yes, it's quite difficult to find suppliers, so perhaps going to a textile fair would be good for the future productions – or growing my own linen (laughing).
Are you careful with what you shop yourself?
Yes of course, I always look at the tags: where it's made, what's the fabric. I feel nowadays that there is a big distance between the consumer and their understanding of where the products are coming from, how it's made... the younger generation it feels, doesn't seem to have an idea about how things come about. There isn't that culture anymore of sewing, knitting with your grandmother or baking... . In parallel to that, there is a group of people who are not satisfied with what's going on. These people can be quite strong about their opinion, sometimes a little extreme.
I think it would be nice, if the alternative to the mainstream production would become something more natural. I will certainly communicate about the fact that the clothes are made and dyed by me here in Brussels, but I do not want it to be the focal point, I just want to show it and then let people decide.
Another problem is that we are so used to see low prices, mainly for garments, so it's probably going to be difficult at first to get people to realize why it's that price. But if you go to H&M every Saturday and spend 20€ over ten weeks, that's 200€ - you are better off buying a nice top for 200€. That's the way to look at it! The quality of H&M and all these kind of brands is very low, the production isn't based on fairness, the fabric, the colours are very...
yeah, and also the quality of the sewing: you wash it and it lost it's shape!
yes - it looks great on a hanger, but it's a 5 minute greatness.
So what is the thing you look for, before you decide to buy something?
The most important thing for me is where it's made. If it's organic is the second thing I look at. When I see brands like APC - which is a brand that I look up to, its founder is very forward thinking and doing his thing and doing it quite well - but when I see that the garments are made in China, I just think: aargh... I heard an interview with him the other day where he said: I have to produce in China – I'd love to do it in France, but I can't, the prices are too high. And anyway, there aren't that many people prepared or able to do this stuff, so I have to do it in China. And I felt a bit like: yes – but you also want to do a good profit margin, and that you're not saying. You know, I fear that when I see that companies are making garments in Bangladesh or China, that they are being greedy and that makes me feel uncomfortable.
And what about shopping food or other products?
Yes, well, that's the same thing. What's better? Buying potatoes that are grown in Belgium or organic ones that come from the other side of the planet? The organic thing is a bit tricky, so I'm trying to buy seasonal.
Who inspires you in the art of living?
Women with children who have managed to build a company, I'm fascinated how they combine both. I really enjoy looking at how they started and what motivated them. It's always fantastic stories (smiles), like the one of Anita Roddick, who set up THE BODY SHOP. Her husband was going to South America for a year, and she was left with the kids and thought: ok, what am I going to do, I need to make money! So she started making beauty products with natural things like avocado and yoghurt, chose eco-friendly packaging and opened a little shop that became this massive brand!
When was this?
I think it was in the late 70's.
What was clever: she was against animal testing and quite strong about it, telling people: you know, the lipstick you're buying is horrible, look at what they're doing to these poor rabbits! It sort of shook people up a bit and made them realize: it's insane what we're doing! And it's good that it became something quite mainstream. But then, like most of these companies, a big group bought her brand and it becomes something very different.
Where did you grow up?
In the South West of France, in the Pyrenees. My parents lived in a small village close to Lourdes and I went to a very small school: we were three in my class. I loved it – we were skiing every Tuesday - there was a very natural environment. Then in my teenage years my parents moved to a bigger city which was perfect, as a teenager you just hate everything that is natural, you think it's boring – a bit of a shock though as suddenly I was in a class of 30 and we were all the same age (smiling)!
In my late teens and early twenties I decided to learn English, so I went to England. The idea was to come back to France to study architecture, but then I really enjoyed England and I discovered, that you could study very specific subjects like furniture, or textiles. So I ended up staying in England for quite a few years, working as a furniture designer but always using textiles in my work.
And what brought you to Brussels?
Sylvain [Willenz] did. I already knew Brussels and liked the city, it felt very low key. Belgian people are laid back and modest. Everyone is doing their own thing and I really enjoy that.
How did the decision to start your own business come up?
When I came to Brussels, I was struggling to find a job in the furniture design field. I had plenty of experience, I had done quite a lot of things, but still... so I got really frustrated, I love working. I helped Sylvain with his business, but I needed my own thing. I started making crochet mushrooms (laughing). That was nice and I kept going and then thought: ok, what can you do? You can sew. You don't have much money, a little sewing machine, a bit of space: I am going to make collars (because I came across these patterns of crochet collars). I got myself an online shop, did the website myself, took some really nice pictures and wrote to my friends: this is what I'm doing, tell me what you think. And everyone was like: oh – it's really nice… I'm sure it's gonna be doing very well... but not much sales (laughing)! Then I went for a summer holidays in France and on my return I thought to myself: OK, this needs to work, I haven't done all this for nothing! So I wrote a nice email to magazines and the French ELLE blog picked up on it. I was very excited that orders started coming through from people I had no idea who they were! The first one was a lady on a French island in the pacific, so cool! And she bought two! Not just one! (smiling). It then became a bit of a snowball thing. But for me, I realise now, CLAUDINE & COMPAGNIE was a bit of a test. It got me to understand a lot of things and so I'm starting this new brand with a bit more experience.
What has been the most important investment for your business so far?
Researching, meeting people, looking at how other people are doing things and always have the energy to keep going! Sometimes I felt like: what am I doing? Is this a bit silly? You know, I never made clothes before. But there's something inside you that says: no! I think I'm doing something different and I'm sure there are people who'll appreciate it. I just gotta keep going and see what happens. Don't question things too much!
And to relax from work, you like to... ?
Actually - this might sound strange – I love working! It relaxes me, it's not a burden, in fact, if I could, I would work more. It's all so exciting, you just want to keep going.
Great! But when you take a break, what are your favourite places around?
I love the VERSCHUEREN pub, and there's this little shop LE TYPOGRAPHE, have you been there yet?
yes! Really nice.
It's a lovely stationery shop. For lunch and coffee I enjoy going to the WIELS, which is very close by.
Thank you Johanna van Daalen for the interview! To find out more about her work visit her online shop here.
photography, interview & text: Janis Manini Claudia Kanga