How to turn a student project into a successful business? Yannick Blättler - entrepreneur of…
How a program manager from Airbus started a sustainable fashion brand
Karen Rauschenbach, Founder of The Blue Suit
A couple of years ago she was building airplanes, enjoying a successful career in an international environment, and only joking about the idea to start a sustainable fashion brand. Today she creates women’s denim suits, which are already being marketed in several countries, while her brand The Blue Suit symbolizes slow fashion and ethical entrepreneurship.
It sounds as if Karen easily accomplishes whatever she wants. However, she tells us frankly how much effort it really took to revolutionize her life. 18 months of hesitation and self-searching, a year of planning and another six months before the first sale. In this interview, Karen explains why after 15 years she left her beloved job to the unknown of entrepreneurship. How she built her business in a completely new sector, why honesty and respect are more important than profit and most importantly, how to unite both in your business.
Karen, tell us a little about your background: where did you grow up, what was your childhood like?
I grew up ‘in the middle of a forest’, not far from Dresden, Germany. My parents owned the restaurant there in a kind of remote place where people would come on weekends. From an early age I used to help there and I think it influenced me in many ways. I love nature and being outdoors, I like meeting new people, making them happy and being helpful.
As well as this, since I came from East Germany and the Wall fell when I was 14 years old, I dreamed of travelling and seeing the big world. I thought that a job in an international company could take me where I wanted to be: working in different countries and getting to know new cultures. When I considered which profession would be in demand in the future, I decided to study transport logistics.
Did this profession enable you to fulfil your dream of working internationally?
Totally! Already during my studies at the university, I had done an exchange year in Spain and the U.S.. And after graduation I got a job at Airbus: I started as an intern and ended up working there for 16 years. I still remember my very first project. It was to transport the company’s newest and largest aircraft from Hamburg to Dresden. That was an enormous logistical task and also a great opportunity for me. The aircraft had to be delivered safely in pieces, then built together in a hangar, brought to certification safety tests. There was a lot of organisation behind it and the whole project was extremely fascinating.
When it was over, I moved to the company’s office in France for 2 years and then to Hamburg. Just as I had wanted, I immersed myself in the intercultural world; I worked with international teams and specialists from different countries, who spoke different languages.
I wanted to do something more meaningful than just making money, wanted to set an inspiring example.
Sounds like you achieved your professional goals. Then why did you decide to leave this profession and start something completely different?
Well, after about 15 years it can happen that you start reflecting on your career and thinking, “Is this really what I want to do for the next few decades?” I loved my job and the industry, but one thing about every big company is that you are always somewhere in a hierarchy, you can’t act independently. So I asked myself: Is it me who drives things, or are they actually driven by the company? I wanted to find out what I am capable of on my own.
In addition, I think that having children changed my career perceptions. I wanted to do something more meaningful than just making money, wanted to set an inspiring example. My twins were 8 years old when I considered the entrepreneurial path, and thanks to them I know exactly why I do what I do, even when things are not going particularly well.
While the desire to work independently is understandable, your choice of industry is remarkable. How did you decide to start a fashion brand despite 15 years of experience in logistics and aviation?
Well, it didn’t happen in a day. When I was thinking about my career, I wasn’t sure what to do next. So I decided to take a 1.5 year sabbatical and use it to think about my future. To put these thoughts in order, I was considering additional education, such as executive MBAs and other classic career programs. But while looking at them, I found myself thinking that they did not inspire me at all. Then, quite by chance, I came across social entrepreneurship and was completely captivated by the idea.
What exactly is social entrepreneurship?
It is a business model based on three pillars: creating a good product or service, doing good for all those involved (customers, employees, partners) and doing good for the planet. Actually, that is what really bothered me in a corporate career: the fact that doing great business does not necessarily mean doing it in a good way. It didn’t feel right, because it’s very important to me that I can be honest and open, that I can treat others with respect. Social entrepreneurship reflects my values and the intention to go beyond profit. I want to show that doing good and doing business belong together.
While researching this business model, I found the THNK School of Creative Leadership in Amsterdam and decided to join their program. It was an independent, experience-driven 6 month course consisting of three blocks: understanding who you are as a person, defining what question or problem in the world grasps your attention, and developing an idea that you want to work on.
Did you already have the initial business idea before you began at this school?
Yes, my idea from the beginning was The Blue Suit. It came to me when I worked at Airbus and was always lacking cool business attire that would be both comfortable and sustainable. I once had a great denim suit. But it wore out over time, and I couldn’t find anything similar to replace it. I remember joking with my colleagues that if nobody creates it, one day I would do it myself. At first it was just a joke, but here we are.
So basically, you wanted to create a product that would meet your own needs?
Absolutely. But not just mine, of course. I have many friends and colleagues who have exactly the same problem. They need something robust that will last all day: To take your kids to kindergarten in the morning, go to the office and maybe go out after work. They need clothes that fit this kind of busy life, adapt to different circumstances and don’t wear out easily.
But before you came to school in Amsterdam, you were not sure whether you should actually implement this idea. What was the turning point, when you decided: ok, that’s it, I am starting my fashion brand instead for returning to my corporate career?
To be honest, it was a very difficult decision. I was totally terrified because I knew that starting my own project would mean leaving a secure network that I had been building for years. What helped me to make a decision though was being in this THNK class of 34 people, from some 26 nations, with completely diverse backgrounds. Seeing them, their pathways and what they have accomplished, inspired me so much. This experience and mutual support enabled me to take this step. I don’t think I would have the courage to do it if I were alone.
Starting a company together with someone is like getting married.
How difficult was it to start a project in a completely different field?
To tell you the truth, I had no idea about fashion, I only knew how to build airplanes! But when I pitched my idea at the school in Amsterdam and mentioned that I can’t do it without a denim designer, there happened to be a friend of my current co-founder in this very room. She connected us almost right away. Coincidence, luck or fate – at this time Yvonne, a Dutch denim designer with over 30 years of experience, was also looking for a new project. Shortly afterwards, in May 2017, we met in Amsterdam, and one year later we formally founded the company in Zurich.
You’re in Switzerland, she’s in the Netherlands, and you haven’t known each other for that long. How difficult is it to set up and run a business together under such circumstances?
I would say starting a company together with someone is like getting married. And just like marriage, you won’t know for sure if it will work in the long run until you try to go further down this road together. Of course, before taking this step we exchanged a lot. We talked about our values, our vision and what is important for each of us. We both wanted to work with people who share and support our approach: to be respectful and fair to customers, partners and teams.
We also fit well together in terms of expertise: Yvonne has all the knowledge and experience in fashion, and I organize the business side. We work remotely and usually do Skype meetings 2-3 times a week, where dozens of topics need to be covered. Although it sometimes slows us down, being in different countries has its advantages. Since we are located in different economic zones, we can play both hands and approach different markets faster.
Tell a little more about your brand: what is the concept of The Blue Suit?
We make classic cut denim suits for women. Denim gives an interesting twist to traditional office wear. Each of our pieces is made from high quality fabrics and with a lot of love for detail. This makes them very robust and fit as if they were tailored specifically for you. Also, the name of the brand – The Blue Suit – speaks for itself. Blue for us means not only the color of denim, but also production with care for the planet.
For our clothing we use certified organic denim. I know it sounds very ordinary, but in reality, it is a true challenge to find high quality organic fabrics in the colours and textures you need. The denim we use to make suits has nothing in common with 5-pocket jeans. The fabric should be unicoloured, dense enough to hold its shape, but also slightly stretchy to fit the figure. If you are looking for all this and at the same time for it to be certified as organic, you will be lucky if you can find at least a few options even at specialized trade fairs.
Where do you produce and how often do you create new collections?
Our production is located in Italy. It’s a very small atelier that actually specializes in men’s suits. But we deliberately chose them, because men’s suits have a lot of great details and pockets that women’s suits usually don’t. We thought: This is exactly what we want tailored for ladies!
As for the product range, we have a basic collection of dresses and suits in dark blue denim. We want it always to be available so that our customers can come back to get another piece to mix and match. It is a very small, one-purpose collection: two jackets, four pairs of pants, a dress and a skirt. Additionally, we make limited editions with different clothing pieces or different fabrics.
Do you remember your very first sale? How was that?
Of course, we even opened a bottle of champagne back then. I think it was in October 2018, Arlette, the owner the RYTZ store in Bern, told me that she sold a dress. It is so amazing to see that you can launch a new product that someone likes enough to pay for it. Not friends, not family – a real customer! It’s at moments like these that you realize that so many great things are possible if you only dare to try.
Shops sometimes say that they only take you seriously after they have seen you at least 3 times at the fair.
Just 1.5 years after your first sale, the Blue Suit is already available internationally and in multiple stores. How did you develop your brand so quickly?
A huge part of our development strategy is participation in trade fairs. Sometimes our entire schedule is divided into “before” and “after” the fair. We have already exhibited in Munich, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Berlin and of course in Switzerland. This is very valuable for finding cooperation and increasing brand awareness. You know, shops sometimes say that they only take you seriously after they have seen you at least 3 times at the fair. You are still there, you have survived, you can be trusted.
We also directly approach sustainable clothing stores that we believe fit our brand philosophy. Of course, it is not easy to get into stores, the competition between the brands is high. So far we have managed to get into 8 stores in Switzerland, 2 in the Netherlands and 2 online platforms. I am very happy with this; I did not even expect such a growth.
That is really impressive. So your business is developing even faster than you imagined?
Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s not always so cozy and relaxed. All this time it’s been like a constant roller coaster ride. There are days when I get all excited; other days I ask myself, “Why did I do that again?” In contrast to being an employee, when you don’t even care where the next sale comes from, being an entrepreneur means taking responsibility for all processes in your company. I had to learn a lot, but it’s very valuable knowledge that I’m sure will always remain useful to me.
What was particularly challenging for you in this range of business tasks?
What I find particularly difficult is the self-presentation part: constantly being out there, talking about your brand so that people actually notice you. Both Yvonne and I are not the type of people who like to talk about themselves. But as a small company you most certainly have to do that. Since it is one of the biggest challenges for us, we found a way to do it differently. We put the focus on our product, not on ourselves as creators.
How exactly do you do that?
Our product is qualitative and very distinctive, you can spot it. We noticed that many customers who liked The Blue Suit willingly tell others about it and thus advocate for our brand. That is extremely valuable. Therefore, we always try to involve strong inspiring women to wear our clothes. For example, one of our clients is a dancer, choreographer, book author and just a very energetic and authentic lady. She exudes positive energy, and that’s something we want to transmit via our brand as well.
Or one of our models: she is originally from Angola, but at the age of 10 she fled with her family as refugees to Holland. Despite her difficult background, she is just such a positive person with a can-do attitude, that it’s always an inspiration to work with her. Another lady we work with is one of the top influential people in feminism worldwide. She advocates for women’s rights in the Middle East. All these amazing ladies challenge their surroundings with the way they think. That is why they are not only clients or partners, they are true role models to me.
What have you learned from your business experience that you can recommend to others?
First of all, I would say that one should do things rather than discuss or plan them endlessly. At least that works really well for us: Just do it! When we hesitate, we simply ask ourselves: “What is the worst that can happen? Ok, if this ends up as a total disaster, we’ll go find a normal job”. Such an approach gives us the freedom to create something different, to try something new. Besides, all the experience we have gained along the way is incredibly valuable. So as an entrepreneur you can only win, not lose.
And finally, business is really fun if you consistently build it up in a way that suits you. Then you actually do things that you love while working with people you enjoy spending time with. For me this is the definition of success. And that is true luxury.
Thank you very much for this inspiring conversation and your valuable tips. We wish you every success with your project!
THE BLUE SUIT CONTACTS
Learn more about The Blue Suit
LinkedIn (The Blue Suit): https://www.linkedin.com/company/the-blue-suit/
LinkedIn (Karen Rauschenbach): https://www.linkedin.com/in/karen-rauschenbach/