• Michael van der Ham
“Stick to your signature. People will come back to you on the basis of that, because they’ll recognise your style. Make sure your collection is a little bit bigger every time, and more saleable.”


Michael van der Ham made his name internationally in 2009 with elegant dresses based on a mix of patterns, fabrics and colours. His customers include the singer Björk. The London-based Van der Ham recently developed a collection for the Topshop clothing chain. “The problem with Dutch designers,” he says, “is that they either have no signature or are too outspoken.”


Tell us how you started in fashion. “After finishing at [Academie] Artemis in Rotterdam, I was 19 and still didn’t feel I was ready to work. I wanted to learn more, so I applied in Arnhem and started in the second year. The course was easier for me than I’d expected. During an internship in New York with As Four, I decided to learn the trade on the job. After that, I moved to London in 2006, because I was blown away by Sophia Kokosalaki, who was working with colours and textiles. That’s what I wanted to do. Sophia’s studio was an intimate  place where I could see the entire design process come together, all the way to the show—it was fantastic. The internship I did after that, at Alexander McQueen’s big company, was totally different.”


Interning was obviously an eye-opener for you. “Yes. I discovered that fashion is a harsh, hard world. They don’t teach you the reality at school. When you leave school as one of thousands of fashion students, you have to be really good—everyone’s after the same job. Or else you have to start a label. You have to have a lot going for you to break through or become successful.”


What did you think of the Lichting candidates’ presentations? “Variable. I thought half the portfolios were very good, and I loved some of the process books—there were some wonderful, fascinating things in there! Sometimes the collections were less good than the books. One tip: when you’re applying for a job, bring your process books with you. Some designers hadn’t done any research—nothing at all—or they were uninteresting. Or I didn’t see any trace of their wonderful portfolios in their work.”


You never graduated, but you have a master’s degree. “I only wanted to go back to school for a master’s, not a bachelor’s. I didn’t feel I could learn more on a BA course than I had in my internships. I specifically wanted to go to Central Saint Martins [College of Art and Design] because of the course’s reputation and because it could help me with my career—and it did. Louise Wilson, who gave me a place immediately, understood that. I hadn’t expected it, because I hadn’t finished the academy.


“Thanks to a starting grant, I was able to finance the master’s and then set up my label. I didn’t originally want my own brand at all; the grant encouraged me. It’s too bad that subsidies are under such pressure now.”


You now receive support from Fashion East and New Generation, initiatives of the British Fashion Council. How does that work? “Every year, hundreds of students sign up for New Gen. I was approached in 2009 after my degree show, but then I had to submit a business plan with budgets. It wasn’t easy, but it was realistic.

“Fashion East and New Gen offer various kinds of sponsorships—shows, joint shows, stands at London Fashion Week and in Paris. You do have to pay, though. It’s not like, ‘Here’s some money, go do something with it’. It all goes step by step.


“I got a stand in London, and I’ve been able to show my collection a few times at London Show Rooms during Paris fashion week. I can also ask them for advice about production, and about handling cash flow. Every season, I have to do the best I possibly can and prove myself one more time by submitting a plan to the British Fashion Council committee.”


What have you learned in this short time? “How to deal with buyers, and how to write orders. And it’s important to repeat recognisable pieces. If you don’t, people will say, ‘Last time you had certain designs—where are they now?’ I’m known for making dresses out of different fabrics. So I do one every season.


“Sometimes I would like to do something completely different, but on the other hand, it’s great that I have a style, like Armani or Lanvin.”


How do you see fashion today? “There are no trends anymore; designers have their own signatures. I think it’s because there’s saturation in fashion. Today, a designer has to have a signature.


“The problem with Dutch designers is that they often have no clear signature—or else they’re too outspoken.


“I’m not under the illusion that what I do is revolutionary, but I know my work fills a niche; there are always people who want it. I have 12 sales outlets—not a lot, but they’re good shops.”


What advice would you give Dutch designers starting out? “If you have your own label, go to Paris. And keep going there. Buyers won’t come to you—take the initiative. After my first sales season, I only had three outlets. But you have to give buyers the chance to keep seeing your collection.


“Tip number two: stick to your signature. People will come back to you on the basis of that, because they’ll recognise your style. Make sure your collection is a little bit bigger every time, and more saleable.”


By Georgette Koning