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On a picturesque street in the heart of old Amsterdam, on a canal lined with colorful townhouses and hundreds of parked bicycles, sits an old, gigantic church that is the design studio of Dutch fashion brand Scotch & Soda.
To reach the space you have to climb a narrow, rickety staircase. Once inside, the only furniture you see is lines of desks and racks of clothing along the side walls. Most of the space consists of a vast floor covered with piles of clothes assembled around pieces of paper, pictures ripped out of magazines, random artifacts, and inspirational signs. To outsiders it might seem like madness, but this is how the magic gets done.
Scotch & Soda is very much an Amsterdam brand. This city has always been known for its liberalism — it is the home of Van Gogh, of legal drugs, of the Red Light District — and this brand’s progressive style fits in seamlessly. The latest collection has velvet jackets with bright flowers for men, gold striped pants and neon silk shirts for women, and hot red leather gloves with the words “Good Luck” printed on them. Even seemingly traditional items like black jackets or jeans have surprise touches like colorful seams, illustrated buttons, or reverse cuffs. The items may look like couture, but they are relatively affordable. Blouses, for example, are priced in the $50 to $250 range.
While its spirit is Dutch, the inspiration for the clothes comes from all over the world. Every designer is encouraged to travel the globe and come back with items that inspire them. It could be a painting, a poem, a hat found in a vintage store, a stone. Then, the team builds a collection around that (literally). The website puts it perfectly: “Treasures uncovered on worldly wanders are poured into collections and signature looks that clash eras, classics, places of inspiration, meshing unexpected fabrics and patterns.” This winter there is one collection inspired by biker culture and Tibetan nomads. Another is centered around “high-voltage” pop music.
Ari Hoffman, the US CEO of Scotch & Soda, came to the brand two years ago after working with labels like Yves Saint Laurent, Lacoste, and Gant. Calling this company “whimsical,” he applauds the freedom Scotch & Soda’s designers have. “Typically you go into a design environment and there is structure and formality. It’s more laid-out, there are more plans,” he said. “This is a much more free-flowing, free-spirited environment… It’s a bunch of young, creative, crazy people with no corporate walls around them, literally.”
Scotch & Soda has been making clothes this way since 1985, when it was founded as a wholesale company (in 2001, the company was re-branded). The then-owners, fashion-forward thinkers Harry Schofield, Leonard Feinblatt, and Leonard Buzz, were so sure of their method that they didn’t do any marketing, relying solely on word-of-mouth recommendations. “There wasn’t a lot of pomp and circumstance,” said Joseph Suchodolski, the company’s public relations and marketing manager who works in the New York office. “It grew by being a little under the radar and letting the quality and clothes speak for itself.”
For decades this strategy worked, and the brand expanded naturally. Within years, Scotch & Soda had separate men’s and women’s lines, a collection for children (Scotch R’Belle for girls and Scotch Shrunk for boys), a denim line (Amsterdam Blauw), and fragrances (Barfly). By 2010, the company had opened its first US location, a flagship in Soho. In 2012, London received two stores of its own. Now, there are over 160 freestanding stores across the globe, and Scotch & Soda can be found in 8,000 additional retail outlets, including boutiques and department stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s.
Even as buyers snatched up Scotch & Soda clothes, they didn’t fully understand the brand or for what it stood. Carina Svensson, who joined the company four months ago to work in the marketing team, remembers her friends being confused when she told them about her new job. “They said ‘Oh, it’s an American brand or it’s a Spanish brand,’” she remembers. Cory Cartee, NYC Market Manager, said when her friends who work in fashion wear Scotch & Soda, no one can place the origin of the items. “They go to work and everyone says ‘What is this?’” she said. “It’s not, ‘That’s Vince. That’s Reiss.’”
Others don’t know how old the company is. “Every time I meet a customer who buys Scotch & Soda, the way our business is structured and the way distribution is, the way we are located, it seems like every customer feels they just discovered the brand and no one else knows about it,” said Hoffman. “But how do you become a $400 million business a year if no one knows about it?” When I was in Amsterdam, ladies in an upscale hotel bar were talking about how they discovered this cool new store while walking around the city that day.
So when Scotch & Soda was acquired in 2014 by Kellwood, a manufacturing brand, and Sun Capital, an investment firm, the priority was telling the Scotch & Soda story. “The new ownership sat down and said, ‘Let’s put our time and energy into making this a brand people are familiar with,’” said Suchodolski.
Internally, they created The Academy, a workshop for new staff and in-store stylists. For a day, they head to a room in the company headquarters where they examine the clothes and master the company’s ethos and methodology.
For the first time, on February 14th, 2016, Scotch & Soda participated in New York Fashion Week, giving a presentation at the Sir Studios in Chelsea. Creative director Marlou van Engelen chose four corners of the globe — Tibet, the Scottish Highlands, the Silk Road in China, and Fleon, a tiny village in Norway — and displayed styles that represented the native colors, silhouettes, textures, patterns, and personalities of each place. It may seem odd for a Dutch company to be indulging in Silk Road designs, but Scotch & Soda believes inspiration can come from anywhere. “We have a longstanding love affair with the world,” said Engelen in a press release. “This stems from our Dutch heritage. We are a country of explorers, and have historically traveled the globe.” This fall, the brand gave an equally creative presentation at the Angel Orensanz Foundation in New York City’s Lower East Side.
The company releases marketing materials to buyers and members of the press. The latest is an iPhone app and newspaper named The Misguiding Guide of Amsterdam. It interviews several personalities from Amsterdam (a hairstylist, a fashion photographer, and a member of a brass band are all included) about where they like to get lost in the city. One person talks about his trips to a video game bar at the end of a long day. Another sits in a certain chair every day at 4 p.m. because the lighting is perfect. All the characters, of course, are in Scotch & Soda clothing. The idea is for the brand to present itself as explorative, quirky, and off-the-beaten path.
And the brand is busy opening new stores and letting customers come and see the style for themselves. Scotch & Soda already has 27 locations in the United States and has its eye on several new ones.
If the brand gets what it wants, the problem will then become how to maintain its mystery and curiosity. Said Suchodolski, “I would like to say it’s a household name now, but I don’t think we are there,” he said. “It’s that happy medium that we are always looking at. We also need that uniqueness to the brand.”