Flemings in America: Raf Maes on boards, brands and doing business in LA
In the second of our series on Flemish people living and working in the United States, snowboarder-turned-entrepreneur Raf Maes from Mol talks about staying humble in the face of growing success in LA
A natural evolution
As a pro snowboarder for 10 years, Maes (pictured) travelled the world from mountaintop to mountaintop, eight months of the year. It fostered a love of travel that permeated his career.
“I really liked the travel aspect of snowboarding,” he tells me. “I started combining my Helly Hansen sponsorship with my career. They needed an assistant to take care of the European team, of which I was a part, so I became team manager. That meant I could ride, combined with an extra budget. It was a good job, doing what I loved for a few years.”
From there, it was a natural evolution. “I started a distribution company in Belgium for streetwear and accessories,” he recalls. “That’s where I gained experience of working with brands – learning what they did well and what they did wrong, and from there I created our own brand, Komono.”
The sunglasses and watch company has experienced progressive growth, first in Europe and now in the US. “The US was one of our last countries, and it was a big market,” Maes explains. “We didn’t want to be amateurs, so we waited until the brand was ready. In 2014, there were 200 stores selling our products and, as of today, there are over 600.”
For a brand that only launched in 2013, he reckons that’s not bad. “We’re in Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters, as well as smaller boutiques. It’s diverse. We’re pretty happy with what’s happening.”
Doing business in person
Trying to crack the US market was the catalyst for Maes’ inclination to move stateside. Working with an American sales and PR agency and dealing with a nine-hour time difference meant that “it’s been two years of me calling and emailing until one in the morning. We want to make it happen here in the US, and you can’t do it from your chair in Belgium. It’s a very big market; you need to be here. A nice talk face to face is better than LinkedIn.”
We think globally while respecting our down-to-earth mentality and European aesthetic
Maes thinks that a focus on personal interaction is one of the reasons behind Komono’s success. “With major brands, you need to listen to your partners or examine the market situation,” Maes says. “Some brands are very arrogant, even destructive. We’re constructive; we listen to what’s happening and come up with solutions as needed.”
Despite this success, he’s determined to stay down to earth. “We keep listening to our partners,” he says. “It gets harder as you grow, but this should be fundamental. Some brands don’t see partnership, they just see a channel to sell. But for us, it really is a partnership.”
Belgians, he believe, keep both feet on the ground and stay realistic. “It’s a nice quality to have,” he says. “Belgians have strong ambitions, but we keep calm about it. I don’t have the urge to try to impress people.”
And that understated local pride comes through in the brand. “We always want to stay a Belgian brand with roots in Antwerp,” he insists. “We’ll never become an American brand. We simply want to translate our message, to connect both worlds. We think globally while respecting our down-to-earth mentality and European aesthetic.”
No holding back
That’s not to say he doesn’t have respect for American culture. On the contrary, he says he’s found the overt friendliness a welcoming aspect that better suits his own outgoing nature.
“Here in California, it’s very friendly,” he says. “There’s openness about talking about successes. Belgium is a bit more reserved. People are more protective of their success; they try to hide more. I’m an open book and love to talk about things, and that’s certainly possible here.”
The sheer size and scope of the US also inspire Maes. “We just collaborated with an artist and illustrator in Philadelphia,” he says. “There’s a bigger network to work with, and that’s one of the goals of being here – to collaborate with good brands, artists and designers.
“There’s a young and creative energy in a city like LA. It’s larger, with a bigger concentration of creative people, which gives me a lot of inspiration as an owner.”
Photo (c) Guillaume Lechat