How unisex fashion label Pal Offner aims to break with gender stereotypes
We talked to Sabina Pal, one of the two creative minds behind Pal Offner, about being an independent designer, about femininity and masculinity and how it all began.
“Boundaries between masculinity and femininity, straightforward and experimental design, Zeitgeist and timelessness melting away,” the idea behind the label Pal Offner redefines gender stereotypes – by not defining them at all. We talked to Sabina Pal, one of the two creative minds behind Stuttgart based brand Pal Offner, about being an independent designer, about femininity and masculinity and how it all began…
What happened in this ominous Friday night in December 2013? What made you decide to found your brand?
I was in Stuttgart to visit friends by end of the year. It was a fun night out in the city and we had a couple of drinks. We were in a bar at Wilhelmsplatz in the city center when Nele asked me if I want to join her for a cigarette outside. And then she started a very sweet proposal – a founding-proposal!
Nele always had the wish to found her own label but was looking for the right partner to complement her. For me this suggestion came out of the blue. We knew each other only briefly and I had no points of contact with the fashion industry so far. Thus, I would have never expected her to take me into consideration. But somehow she did. And she had the right feeling. I got super excited and thought that this might be ‘it’ – the job I always dreamed of but didn’t know about until that moment it was rolled out to my feet.
It was two years before when I started discovering that particular design niche of avantgarde black fashion for myself passing by a boutique in my hometown Frankfurt.
So, in the moment Nele asked me, I immediately thought it all made perfect sense. So, we started planning and finally quit our jobs to have our own company. Very exciting times!
Sabina, your career took a few detours to eventually run into fashion – why’s that? How did your love for design evolve?
Right, my deep dive into fashion business-wise was a lucky coincidence. However, marketing and advertising is not as far away from it as it might seem in the first place.
When I decided which career path to take I first contemplated with communication design. However, when being confronted with the pure creativity of students at their exhibition at the school of design, I realized – that’s not me. I am a creative person, I am in love with design and aesthetics but I am not a creator myself. Having one or another creative moment or outcome and a good feeling for harmonious design doesn’t automatically turn you into a designer. You better acknowledge this before ending up in mediocrity.
So, I decided to study Media-Economics and go into a branch that combines strategic thinking with creativity and aesthetics. This led me straight into advertising. I had a blast during my almost seven years at Ogilvy. As one of the biggest international advertising agencies I was lucky to meet great mentors and a diversity of brands and projects. Without being aware, I learned everything I needed to start our own business: from classic project management, working with creatives, production and clients, to strategic thinking, brand building and business modeling.
Lastly I was lucky enough to meet Nele and start PAL OFFNER, which ultimately is the perfect result of the intention I first had when making the choice on my studies:
Combining creative work with strategic, structural work.
Unisex fashion is a difficult field – many designer put men in ‘womens’ clothing and the other way around, claiming it’s unisex. How do you define this term for you and your work?
Well the question is what or who defines mens and womens clothes as such and the other way around? Shouldn’t the approach to unisex be exactly to blur those lines? If you want to take unisex to the extreme, than there should be neither clothes defined as “mens” nore others defined as “womens”. In this sense it makes perfect sense to put men into women’s clothes and the other way around. For us however, the clue is to offer the range. To open up that boxes of gender by giving all options, having styles with different levels of what our society defines as masculine or feminine.
From our point of view the main issue with unisex is a different one: Getting rid of shapes. Indeed it is not easy to create fitted styles that work on all men’s and women’s bodies. However, this won’t be the case to “single- sex-brands” either. Probably everyone knows this from searching the city for the perfect fitting pair of trousers. But from our point of view, this shouldn’t lead to working only with oversized, neutral shapes. Surely these items can be part of the variety and look you offer. We have some, too. But it should never be the core. We think that this is key to the approach of unisex if you really want to make a social and cultural change that creates freedom for all personalities: To create diversity in the shapes each person can choose to wear.
— Having one or another creative moment or outcome and a good feeling for harmonious design doesn’t automatically turn you into a designer. You better acknowledge this before ending up in mediocrity.
What was the most important lesson you’ve learnt so far as independent designers? Any tips for likeminded creative minds who dream about founding their own brand?
Oh were should we start … maybe the resumé are these three things:
1. It’s good to be an all-rounder.
From our perception, probably the most important thing to being successful apart from your creative concept is great control of tasks, timings and budget – so basically a well-structured project management. At least, if you want to do it for a living, being a great designer is not enough.
Further, if you are a person that prefers to stay in the back, this is a pity when it comes to selling your product. As there won’t ever be somebody who can present your product and brand with the same emotional affection and authenticity as you can.
Plus, you should always keep in mind that the “shiny“ part that you see from outside is the smallest part of your daily life when founding your own business. It’s like all new businesses: You should not consider yourself too good for any kind of jobs. In the beginning you need to be ready to do anything from cleaning the toilet in your studio to hefting fabric roles and boxes etc. It’s helpful if you are not too much of a delicate person.
2. You need endurance.
First, because the beginning is tough.
The first months after the founding one of us was always in panic – because we where afraid of things going wrong, that we cannot overcome the amount of to do’s you have when setting everything up for the first time and also we had no knowledge about some things at all (for example the endless field of customs). We literally worked day and night … the natural adrenaline shots you get when you put all your money on one card helped, though.
Second, because building a fashion brand without investors and limited money is a long-term effort. Creating lasting relationships with collaboration partners and clients, continuously approaching prospects and making sure you get better with each collection is key and doesn’t happen over night.
3. Learning to get relaxed.
Following up the last statement, this is very important: By all these efforts, you have to learn to take things easy.
You are often facing challenges where you first have to find your bearings. Plus you work together with many, many different people and natural materials – which both means that there are always surprises you did not expect and plan. Then you take a deep breath and find a solution. If we would still panic in each situation as in the beginning… well, we probably would have gone crazy by now.
Does this sound negative? No, it shouldn’t! We’d encourage everyone who is willing to puts his or her hands on all these varieties of tasks and learn new things each day to make this step. The fact that you are your own boss and do even the unpleasant work for yourself neutralizes about all frustration. And in the end, there is also the shiny part. The moment of the shooting, when you see everything you created and worked hard on in the past months finalized and becoming alive. This is priceless!
More and more companies focus on sustainable materials and an eco-friendly production, what role do these values play in your own work?
Our first goal is to produce under fair working conditions, with high quality and short distances of production.
Thus we draw our fabrics from European suppliers and chose materials that are made predominantly from natural threads or reasonable material-mixes. Further, our development and production is fully taking place in Europe: We develop the collection with pattern makers and tailors in Germany. The tailoring for production is being done in Bulgaria and Romania, while the piece dyeing is taking place in a family owned company close to our studio. When we started our work with our German-Bulgarian partners we spent two weeks at the factories and were very happy about the familial working climate. Then Sabina, being born in Bucharest, had the deep wish to give something back to her birthplace by shifting part of the production to Bucharest. This is great, as through her Romanian skills we have a great connection to the factory. A nice side-effect is that after our meetings with the factory, we always get a nice meal at Sabina’s grandmother. For the dyeing it is important to us, that we can jump over to the dye-works easily, as this process is very complex and needs a lot of synchronization which is harder to control from afar.
Our shoes are handmade in Italy, our bags hand-stitched in a single-person studio in Greece and our jewelry is hand made by our lovely friend and jewelry maker, Katharina Geiger, in Berlin.
We know the people we work with personally from the boss to the tailor and we know about their fair working conditions, which is very important to us.
How do you imagine the future of fashion?
We would like to add one word: “How do you imagine the future of fashion business?”
Because we think that while we can have lots of creative ideas of how we see the future of fashion, we also need to make sure that they get the chance to be shown to the world. The way of how fashion business works is something we should have a deeper thought about. By now probably everybody stumbled over the discussion of “fast-fashion” — big companies diverging from two seasons (Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter) and producing new styles from month to month.
We won’t talk about the ecological effect that these mass productions have on our world and society, because this is being discussed in many other places. But we also like to point out the effect this has on creativity and the appreciation of craftsmanship. One thing leads to another: Designs of last month are “old”, so they are being reduced quickly, which people know about, so they wait for sales. Which is surely frustrating for shop-owners. Which naturally makes them have to fight for their businesses. Slowly they push each other to earlier and ‘better’ sales-campaigns making it even worse. Us, the brands, are being pushed to deliver early in order for our customers to have more time to sell the clothes full prized. Which makes all labels preferably deliver summer collections in January, when it’s just starting to snow and winter collections in June, when we have 30°C. Which leads to the fact that labels have an extremely short period of time to create and produce. Which again means that you drive all your supplying partners nuts in order to make it happen as quickly as possible. At the same time, people do, however, expect the most creative designs and best quality. This is just a rough overview, there is much more to it. But we think it shows quite well the grievence: The result is that the actual craftsmanship, the work of the designer and the many people that put their back into the creation and implementation of each piece and the appreciation of the garment just peters out.
If we want to create good working conditions for everyone in this cycle and keep the diversity in fashion through small brands that bring new creative energy, all of us – fashion labels, fashion lovers and retailers – should rethink this cycle.
Which neubau eyewear frame would fit best to your costumers?
As summer is coming, they’d best go with Sigmund Carl sunglasses. A classy base-form framed with a strong statement. We like the play with the thin and thick frame parts – as you can see in our own logo!