Five years ago, two friends of mine started a new brand called Eat Dust. Generally speaking, my initial gut reaction in regards to anyone starting a clothing brand is one of worry. After having spent the last 17 years working in the clothing industry, the pitfalls, challenges and strain of making any brand work, let alone run it at a profit are immense. Nevertheless, when I first sat down with Keith and Rob, the co-owners and founders of Eat Dust, I was convinced of their commitment to creating something special and honest.
What convinced me was their ability to draw upon so many relevant and genuine reference points in their lives to create a tangible idea that was not only wholly genuine but also exciting. That is what sets brands apart. It is possible to learn tailoring, manufacturing, sales, marketing and so on. What cannot be learned from a YouTube channel or lurking on other people’s Instagram accounts are the experiences based on genuine positive involvement over a prolonged period of time in a field of interest, both personally and professionally, adding your own DNA and then utilizing your own ability to create something uniquely you. This is what at the core sets Eat Dust apart from the rest of the flock. Granted, the fact that Eat Dust happens to make some exceptionally good product does add to the mix, but the fact remains. In a world that no longer rewards integrity, talent and determination, Eat Dust have unwaveringly held up the torch of how it is done on their terms, and not anyone else’s.
Eat Dust are based in Antwerp, Belgium and is owned and operated by Keith Hioco and Rob Harmsen. Both come with a long, successful past in the clothing industry. Keith initially started as a denim designer for G-Star after having successfully finished at the Royal Academy of Arts in Antwerp, and then notably, as Senior Designer for Raf Simons before starting Eat Dust. Rob’s background initially started in skateboarding before becoming an influential spiritual advisor to some of the denim giants such as Diesel and Levi’s, doing hugely creative and groundbreaking work for these brands years before most of us knew what the Internet was. Personally, both Rob and Keith draw from a steady diet of skateboarding, art and the right kind of DIY attitude that involves anything from motorcycles, cars and generally just getting it done the right way.
I met with Keith and Rob in Berlin a few weeks ago to recap the last five years, what went wrong and right, to dig a little into their current mindset and what their plans and goals are for the time to come.
We’re in Berlin, five years down the road. How do you guys feel?
RH: Amazing! [Laughing] No seriously, it’s all good. After 5 years we now work with over 60 stores in 14 different countries. Our existing accounts are growing with us every season and new accounts are coming in. Most importantly, the product is selling in those accounts and every one is happy with that, as are we.
Looking back, were you able to follow through with what you set out to do when you started?
KH: I feel we never gave in to “industry” demands, with Eat Dust, we do what feels right, when it feels right. Sometimes our customers like what we do and sometimes they don’t, that’s a risk we are both willing to take.
RH: We are fully aware that creatively, we are hard to pigeonhole and whilst that isn’t part of our business model, it is who we are. Eat Dust is an extension of Keith and I. Like everyone else, we aren’t one-dimensional. We are interested, inspired and influenced by a large variety of life and that is translated into our brand. There have been times when stores have not always understood what we did, which is more our fault for possibly not explaining our headspace properly, but in the end, the stores and people we work with, trust us. In our experience, the more said accounts buy into our aesthetic and line, the better it works in the stores.
What was one of the hardest challenges to overcome in regards to running Eat Dust these past five years?
RH: One of the hardest set backs in the past was problems with our suppliers — suppliers are key to any brand and unfortunately, when you are a small brand such as we are, you do rely on them more then they rely on you. A lot of aspects of their business is out of your control and when their business model changes, ours suffers. That has happened but we moved past and beyond that. Secondly, we need to work harder and more efficiently when it comes to delivering our products on time. Five years down the line it is only Keith and I that do most of the behind-the-scenes work and that aspect of the business can and will be improved.
KH: Despite the challenges though, we are happy that we stuck to our original vision of how we wanted to run this brand, both creatively and from a business point of view. There is always going to be room for improvement and we are aware of them. I believe as long we are aware of them, things are OK.
In regards to challenges, how have you dealt with overcoming the pigeonholing of Eat Dust as a specific type of brand over the time?
KH: That certainly has been a bit of challenge. Over time, Eat Dust has occasionally been labelled as a motorcycle brand because of the life style that Rob and I live. Yes, we drive and occasionally customize motorcycles. We also do a lot of other things that are then translated into the brand. When the stigma of a biker brand started sticking to us we started introducing tailored suits to the collection, for example. Not only as a counter reaction to the public perception, but also to showcase the fact that there are many more facets to us and what we can do. We are just as at home in old streetwear as we are in late ’60s, early ’70s counter culture, denim, skateboarding, metal, rock and everything else. Every time we released a collection we felt like we tried to introduce a facet of us, again, not to confuse, but to show what makes us tick. With this new line we both feel we finally have merged all of our influences into one coherent line and actually pulled it off.
RH: Exactly, I’m really stoked on what we put together this time. It feels and looks like all of us combined into a really tight and clear line. All aspects of our interests and passions are combined and most amazingly, it all makes sense. It is not jumbled and confusing, on the contrary, when you look at the entire line I know it makes sense. All of our past experiences and interests have merged into a new alternative culture, and we are not alone in that view. Luckily.
With that, did you have a five-year plan when you set out?
KH: No, absolutely not, and definitely not in terms of a traditional business plan.
RH: After four years of being in business, we started thinking of a five-year plan. We now have a goal, or many actually, and it gives us more structure as to what we want to achieve. That’s good. I believe that having had a five-year plan from the outset could and would have been a problem.
KH: With Eat Dust, we have always focused on the product first. We are not a marketing-heavy company. For us, creating exactly the type of product we envision to the best of our ability is our goal. Everything follows suit. We don’t want to waste our resources on creating fancy marketing-oriented stuff that doesn’t have content. Content, our product, is our prime focus.
RH: Essentially, our marketing has always been just “us.” As Eat Dust is an extension, a result of both our existence and interests, whatever we do then serves as a natural source of marketing. We don’t participate in events that we would not have gone to if we didn’t have a brand. The connections, friendships and ideas are a result of what we are into, not of a set-forth plan to utilize a scene. As much as we are Eat Dust, it is Keith and Rob as individuals. We are not here to explore and exploit a scene or trend, we are who we are and what comes out of us is Eat Dust.
So what is your five-year plan now that you have one?
RH: Ideally, we would like to make a living with and from Eat Dust. That’s the plan in a nutshell. If we can live the way we are living now, and achieve that by just doing Eat Dust, well, I couldn’t think of a better five-year plan to be honest.
KH: It’s not just us that we want to support with Eat Dust obviously — there are and have been a lot of people that have supported us and the brand for the past five years and our goal is to be able to repay that in kind with Eat Dust.
RH: We are also working on opening our own showroom/garage/office in Antwerp, which is more of a short-term goal that we are working towards. We have run Eat Dust out of Keith’s garage these last five years and it is time to move forward. Not only to professionalize the business but also to give the brand a representative physical space.
Would that space then also be utilized as a store?
KH: That could be an option, but at this stage it is not. We struggled with the decision to open our own online store, let alone our own brick-and-mortar space. It’s not that we couldn’t do it physically, but it is not how we choose to run our business at this stage or the foreseeable future. Eat Dust is run on a traditional wholesale model, that’s what we know and how we want to run this brand.
RH: Exactly, we both grew up with the traditional wholesale model in mind and that’s how we approach Eat Dust as well. Our own store in Antwerp would only be in competition with one of our most loyal customers, so why do that? Essentially, we look at what cities we think we can best sell Eat Dust and then look at who does it best in that city. Occasionally, there will be two stores in a city that we can work with but that is more the exception to the rule at this stage. We aim for a slow, smart and healthy growth, not the other nonsense.
Can you elaborate on your decision to stay away from the larger online stores and focused on actual physical stores?
KH: We always felt more comfortable in actual stores rather than shopping online. I need to feel, see and try on clothes before I buy them, so when it came to Eat Dust, I knew that our customers would be the same. There is so much detail that goes into our product, we carefully craft our fits and I don’t think you can translate that into a number of pictures. Don’t get me wrong, we are fully aware of what the future holds and online retail is something we will need to address at some stage, but for the time being we try our best to stick to actual stores that are run by people that are just as passionate about what we do as we are.
RH: Also, that decision is somewhat based on the fact that we aren’t in our early 20s, on the contrary, we are in our mid-40s. That business model is what we know, it is what we grew up with and with that, it is what we feel comfortable with. Right or wrong, it feels right to us, so that’s why we do it. We like talking to people; we prefer that to a cyber chat. Again, it’s not a marketing plot, but just something that feels right.