Building Damir Doma

It took a fortuitous encounter in front of a bike shop in Bavaria for Damir Doma to find that rarest of things: the right deep-pocketed partner, willing to put in time, energy and resources to see the designer’s fledgling label through its difficult first years and get it off the ground. But six years later, with his own store, close to 9 million euros in sales and a new co-chairman, it is clear that Doma’s ascent up the tricky ranks of Paris fashion has been driven by more than luck. BoF reports.

PARIS, France — “I see a big opportunity in the marketplace, there is a certain kind of [customer] fatigue with big brands, which has created room for very individualistic new luxury brands,” Bernd Beetz, former chief executive of Coty, told BoF, commenting on his recent investment in Paper Rain, the parent company of designer Damir Doma’s young fashion brand.

Damir Doma | Photo: Jurij Treskow

Damir Doma | Photo: Jurij Treskow

Until now the veteran executive, known for his sharp business instincts and hard-hitting management style — which he proved by turning Coty into a one of the world’s largest beauty and fragrance companies (with a market value above 6 billion dollars) during his 11-year tenure at the company — had been mostly silent about his stake in Doma’s company, estimated to be between 20 and 30 percent. But he spoke to BoF on the record about the potential he saw in the young Croatia-born, Bavaria-raised, Belgium-trained, Paris-based designer.

Beetz, an avid sportsman, turned to a tennis analogy to explain his decision to invest in Doma’s business: “If you look at Damir’s fashion, he is really succeeding in giving a topspin to fashion. Just look at menswear, how do you differentiate a suit, [say] a Zegna suit [from] a Brioni suit, [from] a Hugo Boss suit? It is very difficult to see a difference or edge in there; but you look at a Damir Doma outfit and it’s completely different. I come from fast-moving consumer goods; marketing is my background, so I was immediately struck by Damir’s capability to create a difference in terms of look and that’s what I believe people are looking for. It’s a huge chance for the brand, which you can see in how the business has developed so far.”

Indeed, Damir Doma’s emerging label has had a remarkable run in recent years, especially considering it’s based in Paris. In New York or London, it’s not uncommon for independent designers to be building young brands that balance commercial potential with original creative vision from scratch. But in Paris, a city with a fashion ecosystem not traditionally known for supporting young designers, Doma stands almost alone as a young designer building a successful business without the backing of a major luxury group.

After five seasons designing menswear to growing acclaim, in 2010 Doma launched both a ready-to-wear collection for women and a diffusion line, called Silent, which have been well received and are sold at an international network of over 200 stockists, including influential retailers like Atelier in New York, Lift in Tokyo, Joyce in Hong Kong and East London’s LN-CC, which, along with current season pieces, sells select pieces from Damir Doma’s menswear archive.

“There is no question that Damir has made a huge impression on menswear with his earlier shows, having a supreme air and atmosphere about them that wasn’t seen since Raf Simons shows of the early 2000s,” says John Skelton, LN-CC’s creative director and head buyer. “I have been following and working with Damir Doma as a brand from inception and I realised early on that he was undoubtedly going to be a key brand in the fashion landscape for years to come.”

A collaboration with German eyewear brand Mykita also launched last year, has been so successful it will soon enter its fifth edition. And this year Doma was invited to be the featured guest designer at Florence’s Pitti W.

Damir Doma store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré | Source: Damir Doma

Damir Doma store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré | Source: Damir Doma

Most significantly for the designer, a year ago Doma opened his first physical flagship, next to the Comme des Garçons boutique on Paris’ distinguished Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Not many designers of Doma’s age (he is 32) have their own store. Giving a sense of scale to the flurry of activity around the label, Damir Doma’s chairman Stephan Wembacher told BoF that the brand plans to cross the 9 million euro (about $12 million) mark in terms of turnover this year, a figure that is equally distributed across the brand’s three pillars (men’s, women’s, Silent), with the women’s line showing the fastest rate of acceleration.

As one of the founders of Paper Rain, of which Damir Doma is a subsidiary, Wembacher is the business brain that has helped turn Doma’s creative vision into commercial reality. The serial entrepreneur has a background in consulting for the likes of Puma and Porsche Design, and also owns a business, based in Hong Kong, that manufactures smart accessories for tech companies including Apple. “I reached a point between 2007 and 2008 when I wanted to do something new for my own development, I’m a start-up person, so I always need to be building something from the ground up and get anxious when it becomes too large an organisation.”

Damir Doma’s current momentum is the result of six years of slow, steady dedication —  of time, energy and money — on the part of Paper Rain and of the designer himself. Doma, who apprenticed with Ann Demeulemeester and Raf Simons in Antwerp, knew early on that his dream was not to work for a big established house but to have his own label. “I wasn’t a great assistant. I wasn’t very good at working for others, because I always had my own ideas, my own vision.”

“At the same time, when you start toying with the idea of having your own brand, very quickly you find out you can’t do it by yourself, simply because I don’t have the business skills nor the means to finance it all,” continues the designer. Lucky for him, in 2007, he had the good fortune to meet Wembacher in front of a bike store in a small Bavarian town frequented by snowboarders.

The two clicked instantly and soon joined forces to produce Doma’s first collection. The synergy was clear from the start: while Doma brought the creative vision plus knowledge of the fashion industry from his years spent in Antwerp, Wembacher brought experience with sourcing, manufacturing and product development, and — perhaps most significantly — capital.

“We had the energy and resources to build businesses [which] had to be in the creative arena because once you work with the Apple design team for ten years you’re attuned to certain level of aesthetic quality,” says Wembacher. For his part, Doma adds that while he had met other potential investors, crucially, “Stephan believed in what I showed him; he saw its potential.”

“There was no long-term business plan, there was just a men’s collection that had to be ready for fashion week, which was happening less than three months from the day we met,” says Wembacher, who in a way, didn’t really know what he was getting into. “It didn’t sound like [it would require] a lot of money. But once it started, we got dragged more and more into it and the investment kept getting bigger every season.”

Doma’s first presentation, for Spring 2008, attracted instant positive feedback, and importantly, orders from buyers. Importantly, Doma came on the scene at a crucial moment in menswear, when the market seemed to be sighing a certain collective fatigue with the ubiquitous skinny silhouette. In Paris, in particular, the departure of Hedi Slimane (one of the slim look’s original proponents) from Dior Homme in 2007 seemed to signal a readiness for new propositions. Doma was one such alternative, and the offering instantly caught on.

The Asian market, in particular, responded swiftly to Doma’s new vision of how young men could dress, a look that, at first, was characterised by soft, luxurious fabrics, a looser, often draped or pleated silhouette and a monochromatic palette that veered heavily toward greys and black. To date, Asia continues to be a critical driver of the business, with approximately 60 percent of sales coming from the region.

But things didn’t really start to take off for Doma until 2010, when his brand embraced an evolved aesthetic direction and entered a new period of growth. “After one and a half, two years we felt we were being put into a box,” says Wembacher. Indeed, Doma’s collections for men were universally described in terms of their unstructured, layered, and dark quality, a pigeonholing that the designer and Wembacher felt would kill the brand. ‘Goth’ and ‘priestly’ were other adjectives often used to describe Doma’s work, much to the designer’s chagrin. “I was never gothic; black for me is something calm, something deep.”

Sure enough, Doma’s womenswear collections, as well as his more recent men’s offerings, started to feature increasing pops of colour, as well as more tailored silhouettes. “It’s not about changing your identity, it’s more an evolution in terms of fit and construction, it’s about adding on to the core values of your brand, perhaps a new colour, or a new cut, or a more fitted jacket,” says the designer.

The aesthetic repositioning alienated some retailers, who dropped the brand. But it also led to the addition of 20 to 30 new accounts (many in Korea and Eastern Europe) and helped Damir Doma attract a new customer who previously wasn’t aware of the label, someone “who shops for Dries van Noten rather than for Rick Owens,” according to Wembacher.

As Doma’s aesthetic DNA evolved, his brand’s whole operation became bigger. It was around this time, as well, that the designer, who had been running the company more or less single-handedly (with the help of his mother) out of an apartment in the 16th arrondissement, moved to a larger workspace with an office, studio and showroom in the Marais district. “We needed more people for production, quality etcetera, but also to be in a more central location out of convenience for the increasing number of people who were coming to see the collection.”

At the same time, Wembacher and Paper Rain started to take a more hands-on role in the business. “The first two years we were not really involved, we just got the bills and paid them. But in 2010 we started to get more involved, from an operational as well as from a financial [perspective], because once you have more people and you deliver more product the risk gets bigger because the investment is larger.”

Still, until very recently, Wembacher says the brand was losing money. “We are not a large group that can spend extravagant sums of money; we were always under a constraint of funds. It is only now we are really at that point where the company doesn’t lose money anymore.”

Illustrating the challenging sales curve of a young fashion company, Wembacher says: “In the first year I remember we did 180000 euros — and we were at around 5.5 million two years ago. Now, we have roughly around 9 million euros [in turnover], driven especially by the women’s line and by Silent. Those two are growing fastest.”

Luckily, Doma has always been able to count on the advice and support of some very well-positioned people. It was Didier Grumbach, president of France’s powerful Couture Federation, who suggested that Doma branch out into womenswear. And perhaps no one has paid the designer a greater compliment than Concetta Lanciaux, former adviser to LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault, who declared Doma a “modern Armani” (Lanciaux sits on Doma’s board). And demonstrating the wide reach of Doma’s fan base, rapper A$AP Rocky name-checked the designer (alongside Rick Owens, Ann Demeuelemeester, Raf Simons, Tom Ford and others) in a song entitled “Fashion Killa,” released earlier this year.

Regarding the precise nature of his role at the company, Beetz, who this year also invested in the California-based apparel company St. John Knits, says “I am a sounding board. I can help them shape the marketing of the brand, help them expand into new markets, and help them get an even more consistent flow of the image, the collections and the overall cohesiveness of the brand.” He adds, “And I think my understanding of the global markets can be an asset to the brand.”

Indeed, asked about their future plans for Doma’s brand, both Wembacher and Beetz point Stateside. “I am a big fan of the US, so America is certainly that is something that’s on our radar screen,” Beetz said.

We can also expect more collaborations like the one with Mykita, according to Wembacher. “I want to see more very thought-out specialty collaborations in different categories, where we merge our expertise and aesthetic point-of view with [another brand’s] workmanship and know-how.”

For his part, Doma says he’d like to let all the hard work and little milestones of the last two years — the store, Pitti W, womenswear — settle in a bit. It is not surprising that he craves some room to breathe, given the unforgiving rhythm of his workload as an independent designer with a brand of his own, designing up to ten collections a year.

At the moment he is busy finishing up his women’s Spring 2014 collection, which he will present in less than two weeks during the Paris shows. Yesterday, he was on yet another plane to Italy, where all of his garments are currently produced. (This year Doma began working with Zamasport, the Italian manufacturer that also works with Chanel, Givenchy and Burberry.)

But Doma is clearly aware that he is realising his dream and he has no intention of giving that up anytime soon. Even though he has had several offers to design for other houses, Doma plans to keep devoting all his energy to growing his own company.

Still, he doesn’t discard the possibility of taking on another, even bigger investor down the road. “There a big difference between me designing [for another house] and getting somebody on board, maybe a big group, as an investor. That’s something we might wish at some point. But to design something for somebody else, I just don’t have the time right now.”