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Amsterdam Fashion Week's Favourite Show

Individuals, the brand run by Amfi students and teachers, gets set to launch its 6th collection in what is widely considered to be one of the hottest shows around. We take a behind the scenes look ...

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 15-01-2009

The students at Amfi, the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, are gearing up to put their 6th prêt-à-porter collection for Individuals down the runway during Amsterdam International Fashion Week. The brand, the brainchild of Nannet van der Kleijn, brings together Amfi’s creative community and 20 third year students for a fashion show and statement store in Amsterdam.

“There is nothing else like this,” says Van der Kleijn, the school’s deputy director. “The brand incorporates the whole food chain of fashion and pulls together students from branding, management and design into a real-life project.”

Nearing their deadlines, the students work frantically in an alcove on an upper floor of the school. Today they are starting to style the final looks and all the available mannequins are draped in separates. The conversation is heated. Fabric, patterns, memos and inspiration boards are strewn around and every face looks exhausted.

“It always comes together in the end though,” says Van der Kleijn. “It is very stressful, but that's fashion."

When signing up for Individuals, students think it will be the most commercial undertaking they ever pursue. What they come out learning is that limitations are the DNA of creativity. Without rules, there would be nothing to break and without context, references would be devoid of meaning.

“Context is freedom,” says Van der Kleijn explaining that much of the negativity felt by students towards the idea of working for a commercial brand evaporates days into the project. “Whether it be about budget or timing everything has limits,” she says, “and it is inside those limits where creativity flourishes.”

When Van der Kleijn first started with Amfi she knew immediately that she wanted to launch a brand that showcased the school’s soul. “I had people in the industry calling me crazy and saying it would never work,” she says, “but I just said ‘why not?’ This is what fashion is. It is about making real clothes for real people.”

The first person she called to her team was head teacher for fashion and design, Peter Leferink. “It was a huge undertaking and an enormous challenge so I knew I needed him,” Van der Kleijn says.

As a brand, Individuals faces all the usual struggles of a young label, but also deals with a new fashion team every season. A lot of the students turn up to class with little to no understanding of the history of the brand or even what the semester will entail. It’s like starting from scratch twice a year.

Leferink, however, takes it in his stride and even relishes the opportunity to guide these fresh minds through the creative process. It all starts with a group discussion about inspiration. “We talk about what's going on in the world right now,” he says. “About stuff on the streets, politics, music, movies … whatever they are experiencing. As a group, we try to narrow that down to a feeling.”

This season the collection is called Holy Bleach and is about freedom, self-expression and exposing oneself. “Fantasy, Berlin night clubs and cobble streets,” says Leferink who thinks creating cohesion with so many creative minds at the helm isn’t a problem.

“They are all young and more or less concerned with the same things,” Van der Kleijn says. “Literally nine out of ten say they prefer to go naked than covered … they have a shared feeling and a common sense.”

“Which is what fashion is,” interrupts Leferink. “And also what fashion school is all about … searching for that shared feeling and learning how to express it.”

For the students it’s been an unforgettable experience. “It’s amazing that as students we get the opportunity to do something so real,” says Sangeeta Singh, an Australian exchange student. “We have nothing like this back home … For me the communication part has been the toughest. We are all young so naturally feel most comfortable working with our own ideas. We are not used to being confrontational or communicating disagreement in a professional way … these people are my friends and crossing that line is hard.”

Van der Kleijn compares the brand’s market appeal to that of French boutique labels like Isabel Marant and Vanessa Bruno and says she tried to stay very realistic when conceiving the brand. “I aimed at what I knew we could do,” she says. “And that is a middle class, European market. Amsterdam is a really tough group though and I'm not sure why. I think they just prefer to style themselves and have a very individual look.”

Apart from their own flagship store on the Spui in central Amsterdam, Individuals is stocked in Van Dijk, owned by Wendela van Dijk, in Rotterdam. “Wendela really understands our brand,” Van der Kleijn says. “She hangs us alongside Margiela, Marant and Costume National…. All the brands that have the freedom to be creative and which have an opinion.”

That’s decent positioning given Van der Kleijn’s five year plan. “That’s how long it takes to break even,” she says. “To be successful it takes eight.”

The tension among the students is palpable. They have just days left to finalize a cat walk show – the garments, the styling, the music, the models, the accessories. It is the biggest moment of their design lives to date. “I never dreamed it would be like this,” says Singh. “There is just so much more work to be done.”

And after three years Van der Kleijn still gets goose bumps watching the students pull it all together in these final moments for a fashion show that is now one of the most popular at fashion week. “I think as I get older what I appreciate the most is that search for nakedness in one's personality,” she says. “Seeing these kids explore that is really beautiful.”

“Exactly,” concludes Leferink. “It’s about daring to be naïve.”

Images: Individuals winter and summer 09

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