Part 1: In the forest
A dear friend came for a visit a while ago. Her name is Ama. We are quite different, yet somehow the same. I guess that’s how a lot of friendships work – you see a bit of yourself in them, yet you learn so much from it. Ama is a curious lady in many ways – young and complex, gentle and determined. I admire those qualities in her.
She has dark hair and bright eyes and a whiff of seriousness about her: impeccable posture and a calm presence. But she’s also full of fun and laughter, with a curious and lively eyes.
On top of all that, she has a brand new, shiny sportswear brand: Népra. Elaborately thought-through and beautifully simple, yet never boring. Sourced and manufactured in Europe. I’ve had Népra’s clothes for a few months now and I can say it without any hesitation: I’m a huge fan.
(TL;DR: There’s a discount code at the end.)
It’s full-on summer in Leipzig – everything is hot. I’ve been sweating a lot, hanging out in the garden, taking naps and struggling to finish any project. A break in routine is more than welcome. Ama has been planning to visit me for a long time and I’ve been eagerly awaiting new Népra pieces, putting together one-by-one my perfect exercise wardrobe. I want to hear the whole story from Ama.
Upon her arrival, we go out with Musti, breathing in the smell of wild garlic and the forest. It’s mid-day and quiet. “But why did you start a sportswear brand? Seems pretty random.”, I ask, picking some wild garlic shoots. It will be a pasta sauce later on. Ama thinks for a bit. I open a beer. I love beer drinking and dog walking.
“Hmm, I guess the disheartening experiences I had with my own gear. My life had been increasingly revolving around exercise and I loved it. But the clothes couldn’t keep up with me, they wouldn’t follow me where I wanted to go – they were rather obstacles than assistants to my performance.”, Ama says. “I’d say that’s where it stems from.”
Part 2: At the gym
We’re at my Crossfit box, Crossfit Deluxe. It has a familiar smell – rubber and sweat. Concrete parking lots and old Leipzig industrial buildings spread out into the distance outside, in bright sunlight. We’re ready for a good workout.
Ama is actually the main reason I ever got into the sport. Crossfit convinced me right away: it is the first and only sport that hasn’t managed to bore me. I get bored easy – all of my sports experiences and memories are mostly about me looking at the time (“can’t be that much longer gggGGGGGRRRRAAAAAHHHHhh only 5 minutes have passed since i last looked!”). Even though I have been quite active for a good part of my childhood and adult life, I’ve had relatively few positive sports experiences, my exercise has been always a slightly reluctant habit. My best memories from childhood involving sports are playing dodgeball at school and swimming and diving on the summer holidays. But the first time at Crossfit, the time just flew by.
Ama is adding weights to her barbell. I’ve been thinking about the inception of great ideas for the whole day, ever since she arrived. What do you do with an idea? I wanted to know the many steps from there to here.
S: How did this whole idea come to you – about Népra? Has entrepreneurship been something you’ve always seen yourself doing?
A: It was simultaneously straightforward and random. In short, I had graduated, doing CrossFit and wondering what to do with my life: pondering all the big questions. I’m also a self-starter – I have no trouble motivating myself, I don’t need supervision to get things done. So in that sense, maybe entrepreneurship was always in the cards for me, even if I didn’t actively plan it. If anything, I was looking for a job where I would be happy for a long period of time. Arguably, the best way to ensure that is to create that job yourself!
S: Ok. How did you build Népra and the brand out of that? What’s the inspiration?
A: Well, I have to reply for my business partner, Essi, too. Népra is Carelian and means water. The word resonates with us in a fundamental way – perhaps a cliché, but Finland is the land of thousands of lakes and in our core, I think it shapes us. We think the name encapsulates all of our inspirations and values: nature, Finland, Finnish identity, being clear-cut – even minimalism. I’ve always been fascinated by the water element. I spent my childhood summers swimming, boating and fishing with my dad. In the winter, we went ice-fishing. So the water aspect brings some very raw and beautiful, early memories.
Somehow Népra’s logo seems very fitting to me: a little frog that’s just hopped out of the water. It’s cute and a little unexpected but all-the-while elegant.
S: How did you meet Essi then? You guys were complete strangers before founding Népra, right? I can’t even imagine how it feels to start a project like that.
A: Meeting Essi was nothing short of a miracle – we clicked instantly. We immediately shared our vision. I had almost lost hope in finding a partner to work with, but the moment I met Essi, Népra became a reality. It was no longer a dream and vision I kept running after without the proper tools. Essi thought about my proposal for a few days. I was nervous and impatient – it’s a bit like starting a relationship with someone, sweaty palms and excitement. As personalities, there is something fundamentally similar in us, but elaborating us further, I’d say we are quite different in the end. At least in the way we work. I’m better at handling the big picture, whereas Essi has the eye and the nerves for the piety to focus on even the most minute details. I don’t have the nerves or interest for that. For example our logo – Essi polished it for ages before she was happy with it. So in that sense I am definitely the more generous of the two of us.
S: It sounds like it’s kind of a leap of faith, just like in relationships. There’s only so much you can know about the other person without committing to them somehow. But it sounds like you two can really fill in each other’s gaps. Personally though, I think I’m also in the big picture camp…
A: Yeah. Like – at some point I always just want to say “Yes, it’s good enough already!”, but then Essi comes to the rescue: she has the relentless hawk eye, when things are starting to look all the same to me. It’s wonderful to work with someone who is so committed to improve and improve even more. It’s something I truly admire in her. And she does it with everything! Our products, print materials, graphics, everything.
S: I’m often brainstorming business ideas and hearing business ideas from friends. Now that you’ve got this far, what advice would you give to someone who’s only taking the first steps in becoming an entrepreneur?
A: It requires a lot of really tough choices. It’s really important to keep going and not get stuck in indecisiveness. I’m quite an intuitive person which has helped me grow more secure, even when in my brain “I’m not so sure”. So with time I’ve managed to find that voice and “gut feeling” I can listen to with confidence. I’ve stopped fighting against it. And in the end, there is no crystal ball to look into – no amount of research will give you a 100% certain answer that your decision is water proof. Nobody knows. So after informing yourself on the matter – do what feels right. Well, we’ve done that, anyway.
Part 3: In the factory
Aaaaaaaaaahhhhh, the hottest day yet. I can feel my pores oozing sweat when I stand in the sunlight, even for a couple of minutes.
We decide to check out a bit more of what Leipzig has to offer, cycling around the city ending it with with the always-enjoyed abandoned factory tour. We go to the Maschinenfabrik Philipp Swiderski in Plagwitz, close to where I live. It’s a stunning spot: HUGE and derelict, in the middle of renewing neighbourhood – a Lidl, a 24h gym and offices. I call it the “end of the world simulator”. It’s a unique juxtaposition of old and new – ruins, history and nouveau capitalism in Leipzig. Walking through the brick hall, filled with rusting pipes and overgrown with grasses, mosses and such: I also try to think of exactly what attracts me to Népra.
I’m a practical person and I appreciate when things are done well. Heck – the name of this very blog is called “practicalities”. When discussing our values with Ama, the concept of practicality has come up. Especially in clothing, practicality and comfort has been a rather untrendy aspect. It seems to me that most brands constantly struggle between practicality and good looks, often favouring the latter.
“I have a very practical approach to Népra”, Ama says, “I mean, I don’t actually have any background in fashion.”
We climb up the rusty stairs, to the roof. There’s a hot breeze while we gaze over Plagwitz: trams go by, people go grocery shopping. We marvel the hauntingly beautiful dead space, in the middle of it, falling apart, purposeless.
“But with sports clothes, especially – I think a practical approach is appropriate. Since sports are inherently related to movements, the form should always follow function.”
Let’s talk about that.
S: So Népra is a very practical brand – the designs and patterns are made so that form follows function. Could you elaborate the issues with other sportswear and how Népra has started to tackle them?
A: Well, while we do collections for both men and women, the whole design process started with the almost utopian dream of having the perfect pair of training tights for ladies. You know: a pair that isn’t see-through, that you don’t have to keep pulling up and readjusting in the middle of your workout. The current trend is to make really low-cut training tights, meaning that every time you squat or crouch, you’re flashing to the whole gym. Same goes for tops – they seem be designed to flaunt your cleavage, rather than give appropriate support. Also, our tops are cut to form, they are not made in the form of a tube. Because a woman’s body is not straight! Even the less curvy ladies have some distinction of waist and bust – a straight tube just won’t fit right: the top will need constant adjusting.
S: I can relate to all these issues. My personal pet peeves are having to pull the pants up and the top down throughout the workout. How have you gone about improving these things? How do you even decide what products to make?
A: We just have a look at the market – what is lacking? What kind of demands do different sports have, that are not met? This part is not that hard, the issues and challenges are quite easy to quantify. Then we start to assess how would the garment have to be different, to fulfil the requirements needed. Obviously, my part here is mostly verbal…
S: Right. And then you have to turn that idea into a physical product…
A: Yes. It’s Essi who embarks on her journey of actual designing and pattern making. She’s an engineer and she’s amazing at figuring out how to get the form and the fabric to seamlessly follow the movement. When the pattern is ready, Essi will make first prototypes – usually one or two – and adjusts the pattern as she goes. When the pattern seems to be ready, she makes another prototype, usually of the actual fabric the garment would be made of. This is when she’ll check all her calculations, flexibility and such. When this part is ready, Essi makes the product card for our manufacturer in Estonia, where they usually make one more prototype to be absolutely certain that the product will be impeccable.
S: How is the Népra catalogue developing and coming together? Do you have some design guidelines for your collections?
A: During our first year, we’ve put together this basic collection with simple, basic items – good looking items that fit well and do their job. It has also been designed keeping in mind that it should be something that’s easily approachable to the customer: not too many bells or whistles or such.
Part 4: On the river
The main reason I love living in the west of Leipzig, is the proximity to the river Weiße Elster and its canals. We have been around Leipzig with Ama, cycling with wind in our hair – but we haven’t done my favourite thing: exploring the rivers and the canals in my neighbourhoods.
Fun fact: Holbeinstraße, next to Weiße Elster-river has the biggest crime rates in Leipzig according to some metric. It’s in our neighbourhood and it’s amusing as it’s definitely a super duper upper class street – the crime rates come exclusively from stealing fancy cars and navis. There’s a reason they say there are “lies, damned lies and statistics”.
Ama’s visit is also drawing to the end, unfortunately. But we still have some topics to discuss: it’s quite rare that a sports brand associates itself with ethical values so strongly. I would like to learn more about Ama’s take on it.
We are renting a canoe – planning to go up and down the Weiße Elster and further to Karl-Heine-Kanal. It’s great – you get a completely different perspective on the city and your own neighbourhood. You get to see places you don’t have access to generally. On a hot day like that, there are many more people on canoes and riverboats. There’s a gentle breeze while we paddle down the canal. We stop for some frozen yoghurt.
“Clothes are interesting – they are very concretely present: close to us, on our skin, on us, being our shield and our outer layer against the world and it’s impacts. In that sense, they are a part of us.”, Ama says. It’s true, we all wear clothes – the experience of wearing clothes or garments is almost universal. “Also the idea that all of our clothes have been made by other people, there is this very human aspect that moves me.”
S: It always seems a little silly to ask this… but could you tell me why ethical values are important to you, personally?
A: I’m a highly sensitive person and it impacts my tendency to empathise and look at things from other people’s perspective. I’ve also been interested in holistic well-being for many years, so that’s where the ethical aspects come to play. So for these values and interests to spread over to all areas of life is just a natural development, I guess.
S: You also manufacture in Estonia, which is pretty cool. Could you tell about your manufacturing process? How does it work?
A: Overall, we have quite a unique relationship with our production site. It’s almost our own tailor rather than a factory: the company has around ten employees. They are of an impressive crowd of ladies with very high standards and focus on details. For example, for the men’s shorts, there was a total of five prototypes made, most of them by our seamstresses, to really fine tune the pattern for optimal fit.
S: So your production site is in Estonia, with that crowd of impressive ladies. What about your fabrics, where do they come from?
A: Our fabrics come from Northern-Italy. Unfortunately, for a small company like us, it’s currently impossible to investigate where the fibres come from. It’s too big of an undertaking. It’s something we’d like to do in the future though, but we have focused on the first two steps: sourcing and manufacturing sustainably in Europe with responsible suppliers. And our fabrics are all Öko-certified, so that, too.
S: I’m very impressed how Népra has managed these values and executed such a supply chain. Even more so perhaps, as your products are not in the high-end, but more in the mid-range and very accessible for consumers. Many larger companies specialising in technical sportswear have similar prices, yet the quality and fit is incomparable.
A: Oh, definitely. In my opinion, we’ve all been brainwashed a little into thinking that f.ex manufacturing in Europe would be somehow ludicrously expensive. Of course it’s more expensive, but as an entrepreneur you just have to deal with a different set of choices and priorities – for example, how much profit you want to make per item and what kind of price competition you want to enter. You have to pick your battles. For us to do it any other way, to compromise this, would in my opinion fail Népra’s clientele.
S: I’ve sometimes wondered what is really behind this holistic well-being: if it’s entirely individualistic or executed on the expense of others. Like, does the general concept of holistic well-being consider ethical values as a part of well-being? Or going even further – the well-being of others? In that sense, I think Népra has a very fresh perspective. You’re also a proof that it’s possible to be an entrepreneur without subscribing to the consumption hysteria. The values seem very modern and I’m hoping the rise of companies like Népra is indicative of a “New Wave of clothing industry”.
A: I really hope our customers see that, too. And I hope you are right about a new wave! I think when more players come along, the industry can change. But there are also many hidden perils and pitfalls with good intentions and a lot of intuitive good-will action can be a little ill-advised and counter-productive. So as an entrepreneur, the choices should be well researched so you know you’ll deliver to your customers. For example cotton – even organic – is often not that ecologic raw material, even if marketed as such. Also, although recycling cotton is better developed these days, it has usually been synthetic materials that have been properly repurposed and recycled.
S: I agree. I think the key is perhaps that we need alternatives – there’s actually a real market for them. I would hope that finding the balance between consumption, need and stress, would be core questions for any modern business.
A: Yes, I do sometimes struggle with this – how to find a balance? We believe completely in our products and our brand, but we are also very conscious regarding the excessive consumption in our society. Still, marketing our brand encourages consumption. Yet if nobody buys our products, well – we cannot exist and we cannot push forward the change. Still, we are making new things in this world that hardly needs new things. And again, we believe our products are better and worth making. I guess the balance is finding the mindful and conscious means of consumption – it can’t and shouldn’t be avoided altogether.
S: Well, I follow certain pivoting nooks and crannies of the internet and social media quite attentively and there are many indicators. I think the tide is turning, even if can be hard to pick up the real things from the white noise of all the cross-influences and cross-trends. The process is slow, but it is clearly a growing trend in the last years. I mean even H&M has an “Ethical”-collection…
A: Yes, I’ve have noticed that too. We do subscribe to the ethical values, but we try not to use it as a marketing tool, even though I’d like to think that it’s something that would make customers choose us over another brand. We try to think of it as an obvious, but we don’t base our entire marketing or brand image around it. What still makes us stand out, is the fit and the quality. Ethical values are in the background as our basis, our foundation.
S: Népra is such a new brand, but it seems like you’ve come such a long way in the last year already. I guess you have plenty more to come?
A: Well we definitely want to do more kind of leisure wear – versus classic sportswear. We did our first collaboration with the Finnish company PureWaste for our logo shirts and we’d love to go further in that direction, maybe first with a pair of college trousers. But overall, we’ve tried to stay away from the idea that sportswear is just for sport. Népra’s clothes are simple and elegant enough to pass as leisure wear when combined with normal clothes. For example the ladies tights double as leggings and the men’s shorts don’t really scream sports shorts. That’s the beauty of versatility and simplicity. Our current goals for the future is to finalise our basic collection: the women’s shorts arrived this summer and we are making long-sleeve shirts in the fall – for both men and women. We are also going to release some socks, with a wonderfully cool tennis & retro take on them!
S: What about Népra’s dreams? Or plans for further future? Not immediate plans?
A: Hah, of course. We want to be the leading “new wave” sportswear brand in Europe – a trendsetter and a forerunner.
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(valid until 30.09.2016)