Oukan’s beginnings were more unusual than some. The concept came about following the 2011 tsunami in Japan when founder Huy Thong Tran Mai started a charity project to help Japanese designers showcase their collections. This turned into an ambition to bring Japanese brands to the German market permanently, culminating in the opening of the Oukan store.
Since then the brand has also added restaurants and developed a reputation for helping young designers break into the European market. And there are still further developments to come.
Alexander Danner, store manager and buyer, reveals Oukan’s aspirations to make its store the first ‘living magazine’, hints at new directions to come and flies the flag for supporting the avant-garde world through collaboration.
How long have you worked at the Oukan store?
I’ve been working here for four and a half months. My background includes working at a couple of magazines in Germany and then I helped set-up an agency doing marketing, PR and brand building for avant-garde brands. It was a new concept to make it easier for young brands to get all the results with a small budget.
During my time with the agency, I got in touch with the owner of Oukan, because I wanted to sell him my brands. And I ended up working for the company. I’m now the store manager, the buyer and take care of the whole Oukan business.
What is the story behind Oukan?
Six years ago there was a big earthquake in Tokyo in Japan. Our founder Huy Thong Tran Mai started to collect money in Berlin and he sent it all to Japan because he wanted to help the designers to make some money as they were not able to go to Paris or Milan to sell their collections. He also opened the door to Berlin Fashion Week for a handful of Japanese designers to showcase their collections. Afterwards, they contacted him again and asked him if he wanted to open a concept store as they wanted to give him something back.
This relationship is why a minimum of 50 per cent of all the brands that we sell are from Japan. Every year we also choose one or two young designers to train with us and we help them to enter the international market. Sometimes there are brands that you can only find in our store in the whole of Europe, because we always try to find the new talent, and then we bring them to European market.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment, I’m receiving a new collection. Also, since I started here, we have switched a concept a bit, as I want to create the first living magazine. This means that when you enter our door, it’s not just a concept store or avant-garde store, you enter the store in a real magazine.
Every month I try to do another event. Sometimes they are not related to the fashion scene. In February, I did an exhibition with a photographer, Anatole Kotte, featuring photos of Hollywood actors.
Next month I am going a gallery weekend of nude photography going back in the past of the Vogue. And in October we plan to do a bigger exhibition with Japanese designers.
This is the way that I want to go because I believe that if you don’t connect different worlds as a fashion store and you just focus on your black clothes, you will lose your store after many years. My experience from the last years in Paris and Milan is that especially the black avant-garde world is breaking down totally at the moment. This has several reasons, such as the political systems are changing in Europe. But also showrooms are collecting brands and they are just renting out spaces but they don’t give back something to the brand. They don’t help them to enter into the market. So, this is why I changed the way we work and it is very successful.
In the summer we are moving completely our store to Ballhaus, an old dancing hall in east Germany. We’ll also be changing a little bit of the concept to go more into the smell world as we add some more perfumes, candles. I just received a new perfume yesterday. It’s very cool because I was fighting to get them. The designer for the perfume is also the designer of the robe for our current Pope.
I guess we will have much more attractions than now, because now we are really hidden in a side street. But in the new location, this is an area where many young people are located. Also, we try to keep our relationship of course with our main customers, which should not be difficult because our main customers are really an international mix from Moscow to New York.
We are also building a restaurant in Berlin, so that is a second business.
What sort of role does the restaurant play?
The restaurant is connected. It is part of our concept. We open the restaurant five days per week, from Monday to Friday. We have many different people who come by every day to enjoy their lunch, which is always a mix between Asian food, high cuisine, mostly all natural foods. It’s really part of our concept. People can relax, take their time, read some magazines, sit down and have a cup of tea, whatever – they can choose whatever they want. Afterwards they have the chance to go through the exhibition or go through the store and check out some clothes.
Do you think you might open a store in any of those countries? Or you are focusing on being located in Germany for now?
This is my plan. We’re building one restaurant after another. We already have now, two or three restaurants, but my idea is definitely in the next two years to open a second store somewhere outside of Germany. I also want to have an Oukan installation or something next year and take it to another country. To spread our name and our philosophy in a better way and to show different people our concept.
What are the key principles to making the living magazine work?
At the moment of course, I still see it as a store. What we don’t like, and we stop the whole team, we don’t speak any more about being a concept store. At the moment everybody is calling themselves a concept store, but most of them don’t have a real concept. For me being a real concept store means that you have to realise events not just twice a year. You have to go on in a regular way. I see ourselves more already as a magazine.
We will realise this in the summer when we make it official because then we go online with our new web page and so it will be a real magazine. Then we are working across all the different fields – interviews, music playlists etc. We are also very progressive in the way we work. We try to help out the Berlin fashion week to get more impact again. Germany is not really a fashion country, we have some great stores in the country but that’s all it is.
We also represented our clothes during the Prague fashion week, and the owner asked to meet up with me after about a long term collaboration about how he can get more attraction in Prague. This is something we also do, we try to help other people or other business field. Sometimes we also bring two designers together for collaborations that don’t have any impact for us. We just do it because we love what we do. We always try to bring different people from different fields together.
This is mostly the problem that I find here. I have a huge network but sometimes I would love for stores to unite so we’re able to do something together to protect our avant-garde world. So bring different people around one table and try to create something new. And this is so impossible.
In terms of retail in general, do you think that’s the way things are going or more the way you would like to see it?
The problem is everything is online. Customers are doing their research already over the internet and this makes the retail business very hard. Most stores I know are praying to stay in good shape. I would say that from 100 stores, 90 stores have to fight to survive. They have to fight every day. I have it here sometimes, last week I had three days with no customers in the store. But I know my cost and I have a team of 15 people, I know what I have to pay. For me retail changed a few years ago, so all is going to be online. Online the fight against each other is very hard, because the customers check you out on every detail.
But I believe that the physical store is still necessary, because this is how we sell our clothes. It could be the best picture in the world online but a picture you can’t touch. And if you touch one time in your life a good fabric, then you fall in love and then you’ll buy it. But a picture, of course you will order it but 50 per cent of the boxes you will receive again. The customer returns products because there isn’t anyone around to teach them how to dress it up and to tell them why this piece is so special and so on.
How does Oukan approach customer service? What do you think is the right way of having that kind of human connection in-store?
As the customer enters our door, I introduce myself with my name and the position and introduce my team. Then for me it depends on if you are a good salesman or not. Because not every customer wants you to stand right near them. I offer every customer some drinks, a relaxing song, enough time. For me, the whole customer relationship is the most important thing in the retail business. Because online you get may get interaction through a post, then you sell some shirts like bread and you make your money but it is not the way how I want to go on.
I developed my team in the same way that Japanese people do. If you enter a store in Japan, it doesn’t matter if it is cheap clothes, expensive clothes, whatever – they are so helpful. I have never seen it in any other country. For sure you buy a piece and you go out of the store with a big smile on your face and you never think about the high price. My experience since I changed the way we sell in the stores, I have so many customers that pass by just to say hello. This is the biggest compliment you can get, for me. If you build up a good relationship a customer comes back.
Are there any brands or people that you find particularly inspirational?
I’m a big fan since the beginning of the Fallow store in Brisbane, Australia. If you enter their page you will fall in love. This is just the best example for me about how avant-garde stores can present themselves. It’s beautiful in every way. This is really a big inspiration for me and then of course, I still read many different magazines. I’m a big fan of King Kong magazine and Dazed & Confused for sure.
Supermarket is another store I love. Another iconic store in Dusseldorf is called ELA Selected, which has been there 30 years now. You just can learn and look up to this icon. Because for me, the real icon is sometimes not the designer, because a designer is producing maybe a great collection but without the store he’ll never sell any pieces. And I mean, if a designer does not sell, he’s unsuccessful.
It’s a joy to watch what they are doing. With ELA Selected and Supermarket, we are already in the process of setting up a new event because we want to work together and get a little bit closer. So really to show the other avant-garde stores that it is possible to connect with each other without losing any power.
Because in the end, we have all the same goals – we want to introduce customers to our collections and we want to sell. Sometimes if you don’t think about competitors and you think about getting connected with friends, it makes for me business so much easier. Because there is this big energy and you can reach another step.
I like to inspire other people and to get them on board. This makes perfect sense for me because of how the market is at the moment. What you have to do to convince customers to build up a relationship, because language is so much more than just spoken words. Language could be everything. And language is for me also to connect people, to bring them together because then, you develop a new language, a language from a new group. A new language could be so powerful.
Images courtesy of Oukan