Yvonne Koné is the founder and CEO of her eponymous fashion label, which combines Danish minimalistic design with the Italian tradition of craftsmanship. Yvonne sat down to chat with NUORI founder Jasmi Bonnén about everything from her humble beginnings in Jutland to the operational challenges of niche luxury brands.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
What made you become the person you are today?
I was originally born here in Copenhagen, but at the age of seven I moved to a much smaller community far away from the capital. I was the only person of color in this community and really stood out so I had to turn that into something positive. That time defined who I am today in many ways.
When I was 20 I moved back to Copenhagen. A year later, I decided that I wanted to become a designer. I had been thinking about it for several years, but I hadn’t dared to express my dream out loud. Getting accepted into the Danish School of Design is very difficult. People, even my own family, would tell me it's going to be impossible to get in, or it might take several application rounds over several years. But if someone tells me something is going to be difficult or tough, it has the opposite effect on me, it becomes my fuel. I need to prove them wrong!
Did you get into the school?
Yes, I got into the school, and it was completely different from what I had expected. I wasn't really that excited about all aspects of the education. I started with textile design, which was mostly about fabrics, textures, prints, colors. I liked that part, but I couldn't see where it was going because it was a bit too “artistic”. I didn't want to be an artist – I wanted to be a designer. That's why I changed and went into fashion design instead.
I also didn't feel that this was right for me because the people who were there were really excited about the whole fashion industry. I could just as well have worked with architecture or furniture design or something that is more about lines and proportions and colors and structures rather than doing a new fashion collection. So in a way, I never really fitted in. That's also why I thought, I have to do something that is my own.
STARTING A BUSINESS
How long was it between your studies and the moment when you realized that you wanted to have your own business?
I think I knew while I was in school. I had two children while I was there, and I wanted to do something I could do while I was breastfeeding. So I started to knit- I found that was quite relaxing. I knitted scarves and then I sold them. I actually started my little business three years into my education.
Seeing that people wanted to buy my scarves gave me a lot of confidence early on.
When did this business evolve from knitting to the current beautiful accessory line that you have in your name?
I actually had a collaboration with a Danish bag company. We were invited to work with them while I was at the design school. And at that point when they asked me if I wanted to do something, I wasn't really ready.
But eventually, after I finished school, I started to work with them. I worked with them for three years and they actually invited me to do my own line. It was my name produced by them, and it was a really, really good experience in many ways because I ended up managing part of the production and a lot of other things, even though my job title was technically just “designer”. That gave me a lot of experience.
But in the end, I felt it was time for me to do my own thing. I wanted to do my own thing exactly the way that I felt was right. The company was producing everything in Asia. I wanted to produce in Italy. That just felt right because Italians have a long history of producing leather goods. And at that time, nine years ago, production was really booming in China while Italy was bleeding.
And the quality is a completely different story, and also proximity is so important. We at NUORI work with physical products as well, and the fact that you can actually visit the place regularly where your products are being made and you know the people and you can trust that the quality is good – is all so important. You know that the ingredients, or in your case the materials, are sustainably sourced. All of that is so important when you put your name to a product.
THE CHALLENGES OF STARTING A SMALL BRAND
Have there been any challenges you’ve had to overcome when building your business?
Definitely. The whole production process.
I have almost closed my company several times just because I lost so much money in the process of finding the right people to produce my products. I was tricked so many times. It was really difficult. I've tried maybe ten or more different producers before I found the people I'm working with today.
I think it's really important to try to get to know the people who produce your products and try to understand where they come from. Because then they're also willing to invest in you and understand where you come from.
When I see the people I really love, all the people I work with, I feel that they're almost a part of every product in the end. It's the joy of working with them and seeing their work that makes it all worth it.
Also, I’ve always liked the challenge. So maybe I would just be bored if it was easy!
SUSTAINABLE BRANDS IN THE FAST WORLD OF CONSUMERISM
What I love about your line is the fact that you can find the same models and designs season after season. I think this is such a valuable lesson for us also in today's very fast-consuming society: there is a level of quality to some items, and you can produce that same design over several seasons because everything about it has been so well thought through. There's no need to make a new one. I think that's beautiful.
It's what I've been trying to do from the beginning, but it's also a challenge.
It works the best in my own community because we have very dedicated clients. But when I sell it to retailers, it's difficult because their clientele expects something new all the time.
We actually deal with very similar issues in our business. We are also expected to come up with new products constantly to gain visibility and awareness. We also said we don't want to add unnecessary new items. We don't need a third eye cream, since we feel we already have the perfect eye cream. Why would I add a third one?
Also, the people I'm working with now are working for much bigger like luxury brands. I’m still so small, so it shouldn't really be possible.
But maybe you're their favorite brand.
They say I am, but I'm also a pain in the ass because our orders are really small compared to their other clients. I cannot say who - but some of the world's biggest brands.
I know exactly what you're talking about. We have exactly the same challenges. We make freshly produced batches and we can't make a lot in one go. So we have to make very small amounts and everything has to be hand-filled and blended. Even just finding a machine that's small enough is a challenge. But for some reason they also love us. And we have a good relationship.
WHAT IT’S LIKE BEING A FEMALE ENTREPRENEUR
There is a lot of focus on female-led companies right now. At NUORI, we're not just a female-led company- we are female only company. And it's not by choice, it’s just how it happened. Do you feel it's been an advantage or a challenge for you to be a woman-led company?
I feel in the long run, it has been really positive. In the beginning it was really challenging. Because especially in Italy, I feel, it's mainly men who work.
At one point I brought my children to the production site, because I decided I needed to stay for a longer period. I stayed five weeks or so just to understand: What is the production process? Who are these people? How are they working? What happens every day? And they were looking at me as if I was crazy. ‘What do you want to do here every day?’ And I said, ‘I just need to understand how everything works.’ I felt like that was a turning point in our relationship. I had to bring my children because that's just how our family structure is. I felt like they respected me for that because they value family so much. And I don't know if a man would have done the same.
My background is in bigger corporations. Mentioning that you have children or bringing them to work was not very acceptable as a woman. You want to downplay that. As an entrepreneur, I love the fact that I can blend the two things into one- my family and my business.
What would you tell young women who dream of creating their own brand?
I really think it's important from the beginning to really ask yourself if you are completely passionate about the project or the idea you have. Because if you feel that, then you're able to stretch yourself.
I also have some friends who started late. I always encourage them to just do it. Because what is the worst that can happen? That you close it? Lose some money, and then what?
That's it. On the other hand, you learn a lot.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.