Rem D. Koolhaas describes himself as “kind of a control freak.”
“I want to get involved with all the things that are happening in our company,” said the United Nude creative director, who founded the brand in 2003 with Galahad Clark of the Clarks shoe dynasty.
That desire to master the business means Koolhaas has a hand in everything, from design to management. And it’s all been a learning experience, particularly since the designer studied architecture and has no formal education in footwear. “I’m not a scared person,” he said. “I’m eager to figure it all out.”
Koolhaas’ intrepidness is reflected in United Nude’s unique approach. The label is constantly reinventing itself — relaunching its website every six months and pushing the envelope with increasingly fashion-forward footwear with seemingly gravity-defying constructions.
In addition, Koolhaas said he likes to experiment with other products. The designer recently created a high-end chair and is now working on something even more ambitious: a concept car. He said watches, sunglasses and jewelry are also possibilities for the company. “Our goal for United Nude is not to just stick to footwear but to create a very diverse lifestyle brand,” Koolhaas said. “Our goal is to be a big player.”
One way the firm is achieving its goal is by retail expansion. Over the last two years, United Nude has opened at least a dozen branded doors, including a pop-up shop in London at the end of January. Another store in Madrid is slated to bow this month.
Here, Footwear News talks with Koolhaas about the company’s growing store count, appetite for collaborations and need for reinvention.
How have you been able to open so many stores so quickly?
RK: It’s very easy because we have a good formula. We developed a whole shop concept in a factory building and made adjustments until we had almost standardized components. We have already created the layout before we choose a location, so the floorplan takes me less than 60 minutes to design. It’s all existing elements, so designing a store is like a little puzzle. Also, because it’s quite a simple concept, it’s not a very expensive shop to run.
How did you come up with the store concept?
RK: When I worked for my uncle — [renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas] — on the Prada store concept in New York about 10 years ago, I learned that the shopping experience was very important, but it also had to be memorable. I knew [the United Nude stores] had to be extreme but simple, so I turned the shop into a cross between a theater and a gallery. It’s a dark space where the shoes in the main display are presented like little works of art in their own frames. Lights [illuminate] the product and nothing else. At our store in Amsterdam, which is on a busy corner, people just stand there at night and look. The light moves and changes colors and they are wowed by it. When I first saw that, I realized we had done something right.
Does your background in architecture influence your work outside of product and store design?
RK: [United Nude] has a strong interest in materials and new technologies, which is very typical of an architect’s approach. The good ones — the conceptual ones — are always looking for ways to push boundaries and play with gravity. That’s the biggest challenge [when it comes to making] buildings or designing shoes. We create shoes that [more-traditional] shoemakers just never come up with because they don’t have the same motivation and the same desires. You have to feel the need to reinvent over and over again.
Your longest-running collaboration is with couture designer Iris van Herpen. With whom are you joining forces next?
RK: We are working with [Dutch street artist] Niels “Shoe” Meulman. He goes by “Shoe,” but that was just a coincidence because we really chose him for his skills. He combines calligraphy with graffiti, and he is a master at beautiful text. We put text on the upper of a shoe with a normal stiletto heel construction and it was very elegant, so we are developing that style. At first, we were just thinking about [creating a limited-edition shoe], but now we are considering putting it into our main collection for spring ’13.
Why are these partnerships such an important part of your brand?
RK: We are building a name as a big collaborator. It’s a lot of fun, of course, but we are also a content-driven brand. We have a story to tell and we try not to bore people. [For example], if you [posted] only [ads] on your social media, people would probably just get sick and tired of you. But if you can say, “We did an exhibition with a new designer in Korea,” people like it and they talk about it.