Celebrating an important birthday this year, the Antwerp-based company aims to direct attention to its heritage and history but also to point out the lessons it has learned and the strengths it has developed as a local brand with sales across the globe.
So what has made the Kipling brand such a strong one? It’s a feat many Flemish labels have tried, yet few have achieved it.
The launch of Kipling may have been a carefully considered business undertaking by three entrepreneurs, but the distinct characteristic that would set their bags apart from competitors came about as an accident.
A mistake in the dying process caused the dye to overheat and crinkle the nylon, thus creating the signature look that is still iconic for Kipling today.
They embraced the mistake, which was the first sign that Kipling would take advantage of its creative environment – the burgeoning Antwerp fashion scene. It went on to adopt a fitting motto: Fashion is too important to take seriously.
The company started bending the rules of conventional luggage and fashion bags and epitomised that attitude by attaching their irreverent mascot – a small, colourful monkey – to each of their bags.
The current head of design, Tina Debo, wants to connect with the history of the company; she asked Xavier Kegels, one of Kipling’s founding fathers, what inspired him to use a monkey as a mascot, and he said: “Only a brand that is playful and sees the world through the eyes of a child would do that.”
Locally, it didn’t take Kipling long to create a loyal following, and it soon became the go-to brand for kids’ school bags, backpacks and functional travel luggage. “Interestingly, our research shows that we tend to lose customers around the time when they start rebelling in their teenage years, but they come back to us once they settle down and start looking for timeless quality again,” says Debo. “It’s what we think makes us Belgian.” And apparently this is exactly what makes the brand so successful abroad, too.
The research to which Debo is referring was conducted over the course of last year. “We worked with the Munich department of American design company IDEO, and together we travelled the world, visiting all our international markets to investigate why our brand is famous,” explains Isabel Van den Broeck, head of marketing for Kipling. “Remarkably, all the markets considered Kipling being Belgian as its feature characteristic. It’s considered a quality label.”
Kipling’s headquarters are still in Antwerp, but since 2004 it has been part of the American VF Corporation, which holds numerous other apparel brands. But that hasn’t affected that Belgian appeal. “Every brand within the group has its own identity,” says Debo. “The support might be shared by everyone, but the creative department is our own.” Debo and Van den Broeck readily admit Kipling has moved further away from its DNA during the past five years, as the brand wanted to take on a more fashionable approach. “We were moderately successful at that, but we finally realised people weren’t expecting those kinds of handbags from us,” says Debo. “Our customers don’t associate Kipling with trends, as trends are destined to fade away, and Kipling bags are meant to last beyond one fashion season. So we altered our course again.”
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the past year,” adds Van den Broeck, “it’s that a successful company can only be famous for one thing – and for us that’s nylon. So in terms of materials, we really decided to simplify, and our consumers seem to react positively to that.”
Additionally, Kipling also clearly defined the group of women it wanted to reach. “It’s not possible to design for every woman, so we thought about when Kipling becomes relevant for women, and that’s when they are settling down.
The Kipling customer knows who she is and what she wants and needs. She needs practical solutions to juggle sports, kids, work and love in her life.”
The biggest change in Kipling’s approach has been to put their customer first. “Tina might be the design director, but she doesn’t just design what she likes,” explains Van den Broeck. “Before our sales start, her designs have already been presented to small audiences around the world, and we have listened to critical feedback. In fact, we’ve developed a special concept for this: a girls’ night in, to which we invite fans, haters and just generally opinionated people to give us their opinion on ideas, concepts and designs.”
Debo: “We think that this approach is fairly unique in the fashion industry.”
Van den Broeck and Debo live and breathe the re-energised spirit that is driving Kipling today. “When we look at how Kipling is spread all over the world, we just see this enormous potential for growth,” says Van den Broeck. “Our presence is still dormant in many markets, but we have much larger ambitions for our brand.”
■ Founded in 1987 in Antwerp by Vincent Haverbeke, Xavier Kegels and Paul Van De Velde
■ Sold to a private owner in 1992
■ Sold to VF Corporation, which also holds brands such as Timberland, Wrangler and Lee Jeans, in 2004
■ Kipling bags are distributed in 64 countries around the world
■ Each season introduces up to 80 different monkeys, each named after a Kipling employee
■ During the past five years, Kipling has doubled its worldwide sales figure
Kipling is celebrating its 25th anniversary throughout the year, promoting new projects through a dedicated website. “We have thought of 25 ways in which we can give back to our customer,” explains Isabel Van den Broeck, head of marketing. “We started this month with the presentation of our Kipling Classics line: a limited-edition collection of re-issued and edited Kipling styles from 25 years ago.”
The brand also invited eight artists from around the world to create artwork inspired by their bags. “We sent them a very open briefing: Do something that makes us smile!” says Van den Broeck. The results of the experiment make up the Play with Bags installation in shop windows worldwide (Chinese artist Li Wei’s entry is pictured above). The photos can currently be seen in the Inno store window on Brussels’ Nieuwstraat. April will see the launch of the Hip Hip Hurray bags at the special birthday price of €25. A gigantic Kipling monkey (of 220 centimetres) will make an appearance at the largest department stores in Europe, and special limited-edition monkey mascots will be unveiled in the autumn. www.25yearskipling.com