BERLIN — Investment-banker-turned-entrepreneur Regine Harr never meant to end up in the fashion industry — but she saw an opportunity and seized it.
The Stuttgart native sensed a hole in the online apparel market, one that Austrian-born Boris Berghammer had also picked up on, and when the two combined their business and design instincts, the result was Nelou — an independent "style hub" that aims to become for your wardrobe what MySpace became for indie musicians.
“The world is changing,” says Harr. “People are beginning to recognize there is value in the things individuals produce.”
Described as “the best of independent style”, Nelou has already provided a home to more than 450 independent clothing designers the world over — saving many the burdensome cost of either a physical store or an e-shop, thus enabling a larger array of designers to showcase and sell their work.
Under the tagline “Less fashion, more style”, the site is one of a number of European startups successfully tapping into valuable niche markets by innovating solutions in the areas of art, fashion and design.
“The whole idea of ‘making’ rather than simply consuming is taking off again,” says Harr. “No one has really knitted or sewed like they do now since the 70s when the advent of mass production set in.”
“We don’t pay what the clothes we are wearing are worth right now: if we want to take responsibility for our lives again, we need to take responsibility for the way we consume,” Harr says of what she senses as a growing consciousness among North Americans and Europeans.
Sites such as Etsy provide successful forums for the trade of handmade trinkets and gift-style products. But until now, the market for independent fashion has gone largely unserved, Harr points out — an emerging problem in an era where an ever-growing number of consumers prefer a niche connection to the purchases they make.
As the debate about risk-averse European venture capital firms and entrepreneurs sputters on, the question turns to that of what unique sensibilities Europe has to offer the global web scene — and some say companies like Nelou have hit the nail on he head:
"The potential advantages I see in Europe haven't fully manifested," Dr. Burton Lee, a Stanford-based advisor to start-up communities in the US and Europe, said.
"But the confluence between art and design culture and tech startups could be where Europe begins to excel."
Lee says it will continue to be important to monitor the formation of startups in the areas of fashion, art and design in tech to determine whether Europe is beginning to leverage its native strengths. He cited Finland's Rovio, the makers of Angry Bird, as a typical example of the perfect storm.
At the NEXT Berlin 2012 conference (#next12), Brooklyn-based investor Charlie O’Donnell reiterated the need for the German capital to develop its own identity as its tech scene matures:
“Stop trying to replicate Silicon Valley: you’ll learn more from your own failures than from anyone else’s story,” he said, adding that the most successful entrepreneurs aren't the ones who know the most, but those who learn the fastest.
Harr couldn't agree more about the need for adaptability. Following numerous German startup awards, Nelou has migrated to Silicon Valley to connect with the tech community there. But Harr says she's prepared to be mobile when it comes to enabling fellow entrepreneurs.
"What I love about my job is facilitating other people," Harr said.
"These are small to mid-market designers, meaning they’re entrepreneuers as well. Think about it: if we eventually all buy clothes from people who produce them in their own studios, paying what the things we’re wearing are worth, we could strike an important balance."
With a stint at Muhammad Yunus' Grameen Bank in Bangladesh under her belt, Harr says she thinks the future of consumption will continue to change and that entrepreneurs should keep an eye on the shift.
"One new economic trend isn't about growth, it's about sustainability," she said. "We dont want to reach a mass market, we just want to allow people to take responsibility for their consumption habits."
"There is a fair price to be paid for everything."
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com