Lies Mertens, Designer & Entrepreneur
This interview appeared first on CNTROL+F.
She’ll probably refute the following statement, but Lies Mertens is a leading example for her Millennial peers. She’s a graphic designer who started creating her own leather handbags when she couldn’t find what she was looking for, built her own brand while working part-time in the fashion industry, gained recognition via social media and is now setting up her own boutique in the heart of her hometown, Antwerp. She’s multi-talented, flexible, hands-on and idealistic... All in all: someone we look up to.
While she does appear confident and approachable online, Lies is someone who sees which way the cat jumps in real life. When we pick her up to drive to Cap Blanc Nez in France, she seems a bit distant at first, but first impressions can be deceiving… The longer we drive, the more Lies shows us her true colours; she’s deliberate, quirky, down-to-earth and funny, too. By the time we arrive on the shore of Calais, Lies feels comfortable and confident enough to strike a pose along the cliffs of chalk.
There’s this expression that loving someone is learning to ‘let go’, and Lies feels the same about her hometown. She’s a city gal at heart and loves the hustle and bustle that comes with it, but Lies regularly needs to reconnect with nature, to return to Antwerp with a fresh pair of eyes. That's why she couldn't pass on our offer to swap the city for a mini adventure to northern France: amidst the preparations of opening her own boutique and managing the production of her biodegradable leather bags in Portugal, Lies knew the salty seaside breeze and September sun would help to clear her mind and see things straight again.
Full name — Lies Mertens
Date of birth — 04.03.'90
Zodiac sign — Pisces
Where do you live? — Antwerp
Describe who you are and what you do — A designer slash entrepreneur
Favourite fictional character —
Eric Northman from True Blood
The book you can read over and over again — The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Favourite dish — My mom's cauliflower casserole
Tell us a little about your professional background.
"I grew up in a small village nearby Antwerp, but decided to study Graphic Design at LUCA School of Arts in Ghent. Partly because the school made a good impression on me, partly because my then-boyfriend studied in Ghent and I wasn’t allowed to live on my own in Antwerp. I liked living there, but after four years I had outgrown the city and wanted to see and experience more. As lots of my friends were living in and moving to Antwerp, I left Ghent and bought my own apartment. After graduating as a graphic designer, I felt a bit anxious because they never taught me how to commercialize my work, or how to make a living of it. While I started working as a part-time graphic designer, I also did a Master in Creative Industry Management at the university of Antwerp, where I learned the basics of management in only one year. I found it incredibly interesting to translate creativity into something else."
How did you end up designing leather bags?
"That same year, I couldn’t find a beautiful, functional and affordable rain-proof backpack which I could use when driving my race bike, so I decided to study leather processing to make one myself. Besides creating my own unique leather goods, the thought of ‘doing something with it’ never crossed my mind. This changed when I met Bert Pieters and Yves Drieghe of creative agency DIFT, who were organising ‘De Invasie’ at the time. From all the participants, they chose me and four other creative makers as ‘the ones to watch’, and treated us to an inspirational trip to London for intense brainstorm sessions. When I look back on it, this was a pivoting point; it was the first time I could see myself commercialise my products. A few months after, I took the plunge and launched my own company."
There’s a difference between launching a company and building your own business, right?
"Indeed. Launching my own company was just the start of it! I needed to find the right supplier, a tannery that doesn’t use chrome, a production company inside the EU to bring my designs to life… It took me about six to nine months to sort these things out. But it did grow organically; I didn’t even think about a brand name! When designing a new website to promote my work as a graphic designer, my friend Eline Ros encouraged me to mention I design bags, too. And because the URL carried my name in it, it became the name of my brand. These things happened unintentionally and coincidentally, but I guess that’s how I manage my business. I’m quite impulsive, but I’ll always listen to my gut feeling. I try to be as straightforward as possible, and only join forces with people I find trustworthy and feel comfortable with. Another thing I learned from setting up my own business, is to be problem-solving. When two days prior to my big brand launch last June, I heard the bags wouldn’t arrive in time. I immediately started changing the concept so no one would notice the bags weren’t there to buy. I did panic though, but after calling my best friends (who also happen to be entrepreneurs themselves) for advice, I just improvised and didn't let the panic paralyze me."
What’s biodegradable leather?
"Biodegradable leather is environmentally friendly and compostable in 15 days. My bags are metal-free and chemically innocuous, unlike most chrome-plated leather products. Chromium is a heavy metal, and often discharged by the tanneries nearby rivers, causing serious pollution of water and soil. A well-known substitute for chrome-plated leather is vegetal leather, which is friendlier for the environment but will patina over time.
As I don’t like the look of patina leather, at least not for my designs, it took me a long time to find a tannery that treats leathers in such way that they look chrome-plated, but aren’t. The leathers I use are also treated with a special coating, so they endure exposure to rain."
Besides efficiency and femininity, one of the core values of your company is sustainability…
"I don’t want my products to have a big impact on the world, and try to reduce the ecological footprint of my company as much as possible. That’s why I only design a limited number of bags each year, and try to keep the designs as timeless as possible. Because of the high-quality material and timeless design, my leather bags and accessories should last a lifetime."
But sustainability isn’t part of your one-to-many marketing story.
"When you start your own business in times like these, it should be a given you want to minimize the impact of your company on the planet as much as possible. I just don’t want to use sustainability as a marketing tool for my company; I want it to be self-evident. The same goes for transparent communication, which is the only way to gain your customer’s trust. There will be a FAQ page on my website on biodegradable leather, and I even want to send the certificates to those who ask. Even if things don’t go as planned, I feel much calmer when I communicate honestly about it. Open communication goes a long way."
What’s it like to be your own boss?
"It feels great! (laughs) I’m not one to work for an employer, at least not for a long amount of time. I’m quite pigheaded and get frustrated quickly when someone doesn’t listen to my well-intended advice. Being your own boss is quite the contrast with being an employee: when I don’t give myself entirely, nothing happens. I’m the only one to blame when something goes wrong, but when things go right it can make me feel very worthwhile. It’s a satisfying and empowering feeling to create a business out of your passion. I have some sort of business vision, but I do like a second opinion and value good feedback. I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask people for help. That’s why I’m also a member of VOKA Bryo, the 'Bright and Young network' of Flanders’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who act like my sounding board and help me with everything business related… It was an honour to receive their award as one of the three most promising start-ups."
Can you tell us about your boutique?
"I impulsively decided to have my own shop when talking to the girls of Studio Collect, who told me they were leaving their temporary store for their flagship store around the corner. As always in life, one thing leads to another... I'm opening the doors of my first store this Wednesday. For the interior design, I asked Atelier Bontekoe Van Put, the new collective of my friends Jaap Bontekoe and Jonas van Put. I truly can’t wait to have people ‘enter’ my universe. An offline encounter with someone or something is so much more powerful than an online one. Creating my own business happened intuitive and has been incredibly rewarding thus far. I don’t know if I’m a real 'business woman', but I love what I do and hope to be able to keep doing it for a long time to come."