UCON Acrobatics was founded in Wangen, Germany by a trio of friends who were looking to make clothing unlike anything else being offered at the time. The idea was to make street wear that was held to the same quality that you would see from master tailors. Eight years on and UCON is now a full-time venture with distribution deals in Australia, America and most of Europe. It’s a success story by any measure of the word. UCON co-founder Jochen Smuda sits down with Format to talk clothes, success, business and people.
â€œHopefully we can maintain our â€˜undergroundâ€™ status, as weâ€™ve never tried to become one of the biggest brands on the planet. We would rather be recognized as the brand that is unique and fresh – one that is close to the people.â€
Format: What was the inspiration behind the creation of UCON?
Jochen Smuda: The inspiration was to create something unique, something that was different from everything else on the market. We had no idea how far it would go, nor did we know in which direction it would go but that didnâ€™t deter us, and when we started, we did everything to the best of our abilities. We had fun developing the UCON brand and today we strive to improve things so that the brand can grow from strength-to-strength.
Format: Tell us about the people behind the UCON brand.
Jochen Smuda: The company was co-founded by my brother, Steffen (financing / bookkeeping), my good friend, Martin Fussenegger (product design / production) and myself (marketing / sales). This was back in the day, when we were still at university, and very much as a side project. It grew quickly so when Martin and I finished university we put all our focus and effort into UCON. We moved the company headquarters from our small hometown of Wangen, in the south of Germany to the capital, Berlin where we found a place that we loved to live and work in.
My brother moved on to an investment job and is now only responsible for the financial overview. Besides that, we work with excellent contributing designers, which helps us move UCON forward. We hired Matthias Matschke to take on the public relations and our current Intern is a huge help with our online activities, photo shoots and assisting with the daily business chores. Additionally, we have good friends doing the Flash and programming for us.
Format: How does UCON differentiate itself from other clothing lines?
Jochen Smuda: First of all, since day one, weâ€™ve had the vision of creating a brand that is independent and unique. We have always wanted to be the best at what we do, and we want to do everything ourselves. UCON doesn’t offer colors from stock; all colors are dyed especially for us.
All our products are cut-and-sewn to guarantee a comfortable and perfect fit. Additionally, the products come pre-washed, so the cotton products only shrink a little bit. We offer pretty much everything we love: jeans, hoodies, backpacks and shirts as well as a complete Elle (girls) and Silhouette (tight cut products) line. I think the main difference is that we try to make each item the favorite garment in any wardrobe!
Format: The company philosophy states â€œJust because an architect designed a building or object for a specific purpose it does not necessarily mean that we should all adhere to this notionâ€. Many of your products consciously use creative seaming as a focal point of the garment, Is this the embodiment of the philosophy?
Jochen Smuda: Modern architecture plays a significant role in influencing our designs. Therefore, we not only abuse architecture for skating but also for getting ideas for new cuts and styles. We think a lot of brands are very limited in what they do. I think it is not only because they are not able to produce them, but also because they donâ€™t want to risk doing it in the first place.
UCON is not a big brand, we have our own rights, and so we pretty much do whatever we want. We experiment a lot; try out new things, even if they donâ€™t turn out to be a big seller, it is way more important to feel satisfied with the products you make. That is our way of creating a line – to have the courage to try out new things.
Format: Do you have a favorite garment from the collection?
Jochen Smuda: I really love all our products otherwise we would not produce them. If you ask for my personal favorite right now, well, I am wearing the â€˜Synchroluxâ€™ Hood.
Format: If UCON Acrobatic could be recognized for one thing, what would it ideally be?
Jochen Smuda: Definitely cut-and-sew, that in combination with the subtle creative details we love so much.
â€œYou always have the right to make mistakes but not to make them twice. Make mistakes, analyse them and try to do it better next time. Thatâ€™s the only way to avoid trouble.â€
Format: What do you think lies ahead for UCON? Where do you want to see the brand going in the next five years?
Jochen Smuda: We will have to see where it takes us, we have worked on the face of UCON for eight years, and there is constant progress with every collection. There is no fixed goal for where to go and when to stop – it is always developing at its best. We could try to lead UCON in a specific direction, but we canâ€™t predict where it might be in five years.
We try our best to work with the best shops – those who understand what we are about, and what our products are about. Hopefully we can maintain our â€˜undergroundâ€™ status, as weâ€™ve never tried to become one of the biggest brands on the planet. We would rather be recognized as the brand that is unique and fresh – one that is close to the people.
Format: Youâ€™re present on MySpace, and more recently Facebook, two very popular social media web sites, is generating an online presence a priority for the brand?
Jochen Smuda: The web is becoming more and more important. Especially in the market we serve. We plan to re-launch the MySpace page soon and we have an updated newsletter system in the works. The web site and online shop will become a bit more interesting. We have some plans for that, but it is really a lot of work to update it all the time. Right now we could hire one person just to take care of the online banners, updates, blogs, newsletter and all that stuff.
Format: What kind of struggles / challenges have you faced as a new label?
Jochen Smuda: There are constant challenges when you run an independent company such as ours. The last year has been particularly tough but weâ€™ve realized our dream and built the UCON headquarters in the middle of a vibrant area of Berlin. The space includes a showroom, office, photo studio and warehouse, which require all kinds of infrastructure. We programmed our inventory system and online shop from scratch because there was nothing perfect available. We also handled most of the renovations on our own, to save money, which turned us into skilled construction workers too [laughs].
Unfortunately, the biggest struggle was dealing with a producer who was able to generate high-quality products, but personally was a dick. The company was overwhelmed and couldnâ€™t produce the high volumes of UCON goods, with such varying detail on every product. Samples came out late or unfinished and it was too late to find a new producer for the next line. Many shops were unhappy. We have since ceased working with that company and found the best producer you can imagine, plus we have a second, as back up. You always have the right to make mistakes but not to make them twice. Make mistakes, analyse them and try to do it better next time. Thatâ€™s the only way to avoid trouble.
Format: Has the current economic climate changed the way you do anything at UCON?
Jochen Smuda: Not really. We are not so big that it would affect us in a hard way, as we are still an expanding brand, taking market shares from bigger brands. However, Iâ€™m sure there will be some economic difficulties. There are always some shops that cannot pay their bills and maybe the number of shops will grow. I think it will be more important in the next few years that you trust the partners you work with. In these times you look twice at whom you are working with to prevent damage in your own company.
More Info: www.ucon-acrobatics.com