LONDON, United Kingdom — Dean and Dan Caten are used to celebrating anniversaries together. Brothers in business and identical twins, these two have followed perfectly parallel paths, studying together, landing their first job as co-creative directors at fashion house Ports 1961, and sharing the wheel at the helm of their Milan-based brand DSquared2, which this week marks its 20th anniversary.
“Things are just falling into place right now,” Dan Caten told BoF, during an exclusive video intervew in their home in London’s Notting Hill.
They certainly are. Today, the DSquared2 business turns over €210 million per year and has expanded from its origins in menswear into womenswear, accessories, childrenswear, eyewear and fragrances, as well as Ceresio 7, a restaurant in Milan. Next month, DSquared2 will open a store in London’s Conduit Street and the label is poised for rapid retail expansion in 2015, both online and off.
Svelte, with chiselled features, salt and pepper hair and smiles that reveal glistening white teeth, Dean and Dan grew up the youngest of nine siblings in Willowdale, Toronto. After a semester-long stint studying fashion at Parsons in New York, the brothers got their first real break when they joined Ports 1961 (then called Ports International) as co-creative directors. “It’s always, always better to work for someone else and to learn,” said Dan. “My boss used to always say, make your mistakes on my money. Because then when you're ready, you've already made the mistakes you need to.”
The fledgling DSquared2 launched in 1995 before a series of early high profile collaborations with music stars including Madonna and Christina Aguilera propelled the label into the global mainstream. “We really, really appreciate the energy and support that we’ve got from the celebrities that we’ve worked with,” said Dan.
Womenswear — the first of many expansions into new product categories — came in 2003, following a DSquared2 collaboration with Madonna. Three years earlier, in 2000, the brothers had worked with the star on the music video for “Don’t Tell Me,” and were commissioned to design 150 outfits for Madonna’s Drowned World tour. “We didn’t do women’s yet, so we added a few things that were men’s things adapted for a woman,” said Dan. “Two seasons after we started women’s.”
The label’s first womenswear collection was launched to the tune of stardom, with models including Naomi Campbell and Karolina Kurkova walking in a theatrical catwalk spectacle for what was still, at that point, an emerging fashion brand.
“We had casting over €750,000, which, naturally, we didn’t have [the money for] at the time,” recalled Dean Caten, who, along with Dan, lent on the enthusiastic personal support of the models themselves. “They came out of a plane and we had fans rush in underneath the plane with cameras, screaming, so when Naomi comes out they’re all screaming her name, taking pictures. She’s like, ‘You need to have fans at every show. They give you such a big energy instead of a boring front row that doesn’t event clap.’”
But much of the “big energy” that drives the brand comes directly from the brothers themselves, who see the creative direction of the label — from its youthful focus on denim and bold slogans to its current embrace of more mature categories including elegant men’s tailoring and opulent gowns — as an extension of their own changing identities. “The evolution comes with time,” explained Dan. “When we started the company when we were young; we were in a different kind of headspace and the things we were doing... I mean, the company really reflects us and our lives. Always keeping ourselves in mind and tailoring to our own needs, the brand has just matured as we matured in age.”
As the label has grown, some things haven’t changed. DSquared2 remains privately owned and the Caten brothers maintain a style of management that reflects their own bond. “It’s not an employee-employer relationship,” said Dan. “We always say that we’re the Dsquared2 family.”
One way in which the label has evolved is via licencing deals. While shoes, bags and accessories are produced in-house, a large proportion of the business is now done through partnerships. “We saw the pros and cons of not everything being under the same umbrella,” said Dean. “It’s like a pizzeria or a restaurant. You pick one thing, you do it great; that’s the pizzeria. In a restaurant, you have to do a lot of things great... The perfume people, they have to be outside, because they know the perfume.”
Physical retail is a key component of DSquared2’s evolution and a critical tool in the company’s brand communications arsenal. “The whole push with retail comes from the image of the brand and the way people perceive who we are,” explained Dan. “As the brand has matured and has changed over the years, it’s our responsibility, also, to put the message out the way we want it to be understood, because some people have a misinterpretation of who we are and what the brand is. So by doing our own retail stores, we can communicate exactly the message that we want to communicate; we have the look of our stores, we have the trained people that understand the brand and the product.”
Last year, the company opened its first US store in Los Angeles, having decided to focus its retail efforts on the American market after learning that most of its online shoppers we’re based there. In 2015, DSquared2 plans to bolster its eight-store presence in China.
“I think, the Chinese market — there’s just a huge potential. We are opening stores, we’re just not opening them at the rate that we wanted. So we’re taking tender steps into the Chinese market,” said Dan, of what the brothers both agree has proved a challenging market for them. “We have to be really precise about where we go and who we go with.”
“We came from a little suburb and everything was against us. ‘How are you going to go from there to there?’ Our father was the first person to say that,” recalled Dan, looking back at the trajectory of the business he and his brother have built. “And you know what, we’re just going to go there. And we’re going to shoot for there.”
Twenty years later, are they “there” yet?
“You know what, just now, twenty years later, we’re ready [to start],” he said. “We’ve built our foundation, we’ve built our company, we’re financially set in certain ways, we have everything kinda lined up. Now we have the machine, we need to start pumping her and making her run.”