Unbound, Undaunted, and Unexpected | EDGE Talks To VanElse

Most people in the fashion industry told me I was too old, and without an education and the experience I would fail as a designer  in the industry.  I am glad I proved them wrong.

– Else Hardjopawiro

I am glad you proved them wrong, as well! There is no age or education limit when your mission is to create artistic and meaningful designs in contrast to the commodified, overproduced, and low innovative output that’s the industry today.

Else Hardjopawiro, the Dutch designer of VanElse, in a short amount of time, has been awarded and recognized for her design contribution to the industry from high profile media outlets, suppliers, fashion week producers, and designed the gown worn by the actor, La Voix, in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie for the golden carpet London premiere. Based in The Netherlands [born in Suriname, South America], she is primarily a one woman design team while being a full time caregiver for her disabled mother.  A tall task, but Else does it all with a spirit of positive energy and gratitude.  Her ethically conscious collections, influenced by architectural lines and structure, are inspiring and stimulating statements. This prior [25 year tenure] CEO is serving up a dish of purposeful limited edition pieces with no desire to be part of the mass crowd.  What I have learned from Else’s story is that she is not bound or intimidated by traditional fashion norms and she embraces the unexpected. Cheers to you, Else!

RPHill: Else, how did you get started in fashion design and how long have you been in the business?

EH: I used to be a CEO. For almost 25 years I built up a career as manager and CEO of various companies. My main focus was then spatial planning and major infrastructural projects besides coaching executives.  At the end of 2011 beginning of 2012, I quit my very successful job to pursue a dream I had since I was a little girl – being a creator of beautiful garments, exclusively for women.

Unfortunately, something really sad happened.  My mother got a stroke in December 2012, when I was just starting my brand.  I stopped developing my brand to organize the care for my mother, who was paralyzed and couldn’t speak anymore.  Because I was the only child in the Netherlands I felt obligated to take the care upon me.  All my brothers and sisters live in Suriname.  After a very intense 3 months period of rehabilitation my mother could walk a little again, but still couldn’t speak.  She wasn’t the same strong woman she was before. She was completely dependable on others.  My husband and I decided then to take her into our home.  This was a true challenge for us.  After a very emotional year trying to find a balance between the intensive care my mother needed and the development of my brand, I carefully restarted again by the end of 2013 beginning of 2014.

I can understand the difficulty of this setback, your mother’s illness, in launching your brand.  As you moved forward, what motivated you to create art [design clothes]? 

I am an artist.  Without a fashion education and having no experience at all in the fashion industry it took a lot of guts to try it in the fashion industry. Most people in the fashion industry told me I was too old, and without an education and the experience I would fail as a designer  in the industry . I am glad I proved them wrong.  I love what I do. Just follow your heart and pursue your dream and passion and it will all work out well.

Tell me about your path to exposure, recognition, and accomplishments.

In 2015, I was able to present my first official Spring Summer 2016 collection inspired by African print.  A fabric supplier in African wax prints, who saw my designs, asked me to do the window display of their stores with some of my designs and in return would sponsor the execution of my collection. This supplier, Sonna African Textiles Belgium, granted me the opportunity to sponsor part of my participation at the Africa Fashion Week London 2015.  It was a great success being noticed as one of the top 5 designers to look for in 2016.

After this event, the brand became more successful; Best Designer at the Africa Fashion Week Barcelona 2015, Best Designer Africa Fashion Show Geneva 2016, and the Best Designer at the Diaspora Showcase Africa in Tucson Arizona in both 2015 and 2016.

In addition to your fashion week exposure, VanElse has been seen in British Vogue and Elle UK magazines.

Yes, being recognized by British VOGUE and ELLE UK as emerging and new designer 2016, I managed to amaze people who didn’t believe in me.  I was twice featured in a Scottish Magazine, twice in New African Woman 2015 and 2016 and so much more.  To be asked by one of the actors of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie to design a gown for the great premiere on the golden carpet in London in 2016 was like a dream come true. Worldwide coverage of my design on the golden carpet by VOGUE, ELLE, The Guardian, The Telegraph and so much more….. I had a moment of fame and I was proud.

Every single design is a piece of art for me. Because of the fact that I don’t have a fashion education, I am not bound to what is possible within the fashion inquiries.

Having this kind of success and acceptance into the fashion industry can put your brand on the fast track.  Is that what you are finding?

Being successful has brought me more recognition in the fashion industry.  I seriously gained more brand awareness for my brand VanElse. I regularly get invitations from fashion weeks or fashion event organizations from all over the world to showcase my collection. Some examples: Vancouver fashion week, Montreal, California, New York, London, Paris, Cannes, Milan, Dubai, the Africa Region, the Caribbean and so much more.  But because of the illness of my mother and the fact that she started with her dialysis treatment this year I had to say no, even to those who wanted to do a partial sponsoring just to have me on their runway.

Nevertheless, those moments will come again by just keeping the dream alive. I enjoy the life I have, love to create new things but also appreciate the moments I still have with my mother.

Having my collections sold in the United Kingdom at three exclusive boutiques in Scotland, England and starting this year in Northern Ireland I can say that I am a very privileged, grateful and a happy person.

What’s a typical day like for you?

A typical day; wake up, drink coffee with my husband before he goes to work, then give my mother a bath, help her to put her clothes on, preparing her breakfast and the days she has to go to the hospital for her dialysis preparing her for the taxi (three days a week).  If not, I do the same thing in the mornings and while taking care of her (preparing her lunch, her dinner, etc.), doing the things I love to do the most – designing and creating.

Depending on my schedule I sometimes work on my designs at home, or go to the studio to consult with my tailors or preparing orders.  Those moments when my mother is having her treatment in the hospital I can go out to do the things what are necessary for my brand.  Within 4 hours, I have to rush back home to be there when my mother returns from the hospital. I’m always on the run, always busy combining my work as a designer and the 24 hour care for my mother and my family.

I can personally relate to the honor it is of caring for your mother while juggling the rest of your life.  You have a very positive spirit and outlook on life.

That’s why I try to enjoy every minute of my life.  I don’t have time to keep myself busy with negative energy.  I surround myself with people who can lift me up and who empower me as a person to grow and to be that kind of person I want to be.  Devoted, grateful and appreciating of all the good things life has to offer.

Let’s talk about the intersection of fashion and culture.

Fashion can reflect significant cultural shifts in a modern society.  You are based in a country with a rich cultural history, particularly in the visual arts.  A few well known painters that have left their historical mark are Vincent Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and the American artist Willem de Kooning who was born and trained in Rotterdam.  How is the vision for your designs influenced by culture [maybe in particular the Dutch culture] and how does that impact your design process?

I am autodidact.  I learn of just following my passion and listening to my heart.  I also like to paint and draw.  Every single design is a piece of art for me.  Because of the fact that I don’t have a fashion education, I am not bound to what is possible within the fashion inquiries.  I just follow my heart to create what comes in mind at that moment.

I inherited some skills from my father and uncle who were both architects and, of course, my experience as a CEO working on great infrastructural projects and spatial planning. People, mostly men, often compliment me on the beautifully shaped lines and the way of the structure of my designs.  The look is very feminine, fierce, but still very elegant and sensual.  People who know me often say that my designs looks so easy, yet realize it’s rather difficult to copy.  As my tailor use to say to me all the time, why do you make it so difficult for yourself?  But then when the designs are finished, he always laughs and says, ‘now I know why!  Your designs have their own signature’.

Regarding the element of color, your designs fully realize the inherent attractiveness, fun, and strength of color in clothing, along with your bold African print textiles. The painter, Henry Matisse, has been noted to say, “When I choose a color it is not because of any scientific theory, it comes from observation, from feeling, from the innermost nature of the experience in question”.  Given that the fashion industry tends to shy away from exploring the use of color, why is it important to express color in your collections?

I love colors. I get inspired by a lot of things. I love people, buildings and architecture, nature and everything that moves me to create.  Even sadness, loneliness and being angry can inspire me to create the most exciting outfit ever.  It doesn’t matter, if I get inspired I create to express my feelings at that particular moment, trying to capture what I feel and see.

Maybe it’s also because of my home country Suriname, my Indonesian roots and being raised with different cultures.  It made me a colorful and diverse person.  I love to express myself to the world by not being standard by having a very colorful mind.

I don’t want to be part of the crowd who chooses to produce their collection in other countries where it’s much cheaper.  I respect people too much to try to gain profit from other people who aren’t paid a proper way.

How do you rectify the creative side with the commerce?  What percent of running your business is the creative versus the business side of it?

I am a creative person while my husband a much disciplined financial expert.  He supports me all the way helping me with the finances and taxes.  I appreciate it very much, because that is one of the skills I don’t have.  I find it very difficult to master it and I must confess that it isn’t my favorite thing to do.

Fashion used to be for the exclusive, now it’s inclusive with the popularity of social media.  People can see everything.  Mystery and the element of surprise, to some degree, are lost.  You produce a limited exclusive offering that is numbered.  Cheers to you!  Tell us why and what is the response, reaction from your customers?

First: All my collections are limited with a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 50 of each of my designs. Depends on the fabrics and on how I use the fabrics. If a design is limited to 6 pieces only, on the label it will say 1/6 or 2/6 or 6/6, meaning after the 6/6 is sold, there will not be another piece executed in that fabric.  Sometimes I do very exclusive pieces – just one, because I use different fabrics to make a cloth and then afterwards make a garment with it.  I want to be exclusive and stay exclusive.  My clients, who are mostly businesswomen, can appreciate it because, as you know, some businesswomen like to stand out and make a statement.  Most of my unique pieces are statements.

Second: On the other hand I choose to do so because of the 24 hour care for my mother. I would need a team around me if I would choose otherwise.

Third: I don’t want to be part of the crowd who chooses to produce their collection in other countries where it’s much cheaper.  I respect people too much to try to gain profit from other people who aren’t paid a proper way.  My designs are fair made by tailors in the Netherlands whom I collaborate with.

As you mentioned earlier, African Fashion Week London recognized VanElse as one of the top 5 of African designers to watch for in 2016.  Congratulations!  Mainstream media and the general public can often pigeonhole African fashion as its own separate category.  With the growth and popularity of African fashion, fueled by the Western culture, how would you position your brand?  Would you categorize it within the African fashion market or a broader appeal as a Western fashion brand that has African influence and/or inspired by African culture, or defined as something entirely different?

My brand has positioned itself as an exclusive brand, strictly for women. I did the African print collection because I was inspired by the vibrant and vivid colors by that time.  But I also love to work with plain colors.  My brand should not only be recognized as an African print inspired brand, but a brand that is made to be worn by a broader appeal.  For that reason I presented my “Business in Style” Collection 2017 at Pure London, which is totally different, but still recognizable as the VanElse brand.  The VanElse brand has its own signature.

Else, at the end of the day when you have put in a lot of hours, when the pressure of the deadlines are immense, what keeps you going?  What makes you feel celebratory?

The fact that I have found the balance between taking care for my mother, being there for my husband and my two children (although they have their own place) and the development of my brand, that is still growing, sometimes makes me feel like a million dollar woman appreciating all the things happening in my life. I am grateful of all the blessings and receiving all the strength every day to manage what’s on my path and what still lies ahead of me is my way to keep up and to hold on to in this life.

Else, you certainly are on the right path.  EDGE congratulates you and wishes you continued success with VanElse.

Photography: Courtesy of VanElse


Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor