This article is the second in our Rising Stars segment. This series is dedicated to in-depth interviews with up-and-coming labels, bringing you an insider's perspective to building a brand. If your label wants to be considered for an interview, then don't hesitate to get in touch. Meanwhile, for more emerging talent, check the Blog regularly to see new interviews in our Rising Stars series.
RIOT DIVISION - KYIV, UKRAINE
It was summer in Kyiv, but definitely not summery weather when I left for Riot Division’s shop-cum-headquarters. After speaking with Vlad earlier in the week, and arranging the timing with Andrey on the day, I happened to step out at precisely the same moment the heavens opened. The kind staff at Spotykach restaurant lent me an umbrella – despite having absolutely no guarantee that their tourist-customer would return it – and I found myself traipsing through flooded streets en route, but at least my T-shirt was dry.
I rolled up to the shop, drenched and dripping from the lower half, and proceeded to remove my footwear in a vain attempt to let them air-dry during my visit. My first impression was a soggy footprint on the shop floor and, one and a half hours later, it was also the last impression I left for my trio of hosts.
hs = HYPERSUPPLY – OM = Oleg – AT = Andrey – Vl = Vlad
hs: Thanks for having me here. To start off, can you tell me about how Riot Division started?
[Oleg drops his head, pretending to be focussed on his laptop, but I can see he is curious to hear Andrey’s explanation]
AT: Yeh, so it all started when Oleg was a football fan, of Dynamo [Kyiv]. But he didn’t actually like football; he liked to fight. This has its own problem: you’ve got to hide your face from the police. So Oleg decided to get a hoody with a mask. Unfortunately there was a zipper on the nose, and if somebody punched you there, it wasn’t exactly great for your face! So he then created his own version, and he had success among his team - among the football fans – and that encouraged him to continue making clothes.
hs: Is this how you guys know each other? Were you all fellow ultras?
[The shop erupts with laughter]
AT: [also laughing] Oh no!... Just Oleg! Actually both of us are philologists, we are not “designers”. I am a philologist of Russian language, and Oleg is a philologist of Japanese. We met some years ago. Oleg ran the brand by himself for four years. When we met, he was working as a DOP, shooting videos, and I worked in marketing, with an idea for a short movie. Our mutual friend is a creative director for an advertising agency; he introduced me to Oleg to shoot a video together.
After that we became friends, and would talk about this brand he had developed. Sometimes he would ask questions about marketing, and one day he said, “Why don’t we do it together? We have talked about this brand so many times, so let’s do it together”. He had the brand and design side, and I had the marketing background, and we started to work together 2 years ago. With Vlad, he has been our friend for many years. We needed someone with experience in sales, and he had worked in the biggest streetwear stores in Ukraine for many years. So Vlad joined recently, a few months ago, but we were friends for some years before. In December last year, we opened this store here, and this is our base: our office, our store, we’ve got the warehouse here [points through the door], so yeh, everything is happening here or somewhere near the store.
hs: Oh right! Well I asked because I noticed that there was a football connection with Riot Division. Another clothing brand that comes to mind when I think of football is Stone Island. Both brands also produce “technical” clothing. What do you think of this comparison?
AT: Yes there is a similarity in that regard, but we’re different, because we started from football and became a design brand, whereas they started from ordinary fashion, and some fans wearing it gave it an association with ‘ultras’. We don’t actively promote this image for ourselves, but it is our origin. However, our future lies in design. I remember speaking with one of our stockists in Germany. They were telling us that a good proportion of their customers for our products were football fans, but this isn’t the result of some marketing ploy by us – we make the clothes for everybody. Oleg once said himself that there is no “right” or “left” jacket; the jacket’s main attributes are its design and functionality. Yes, we have people from the football community who buy our stuff, and they are our friends, but our customer base is also quite diverse.
Also, we don’t regard ourselves as a “techwear” brand. We create pieces which involve an element of transformation, and some kind of modularity. You know, the way you can transform one of our jackets into a bag, and then back again into a jacket.
OM: The main idea for the brand is not technical fabrics, it’s all about design. It’s very easy to make expensive clothing. Other brands just buy expensive materials, membranes, zippers, locks, etc… and then end up assembling a €1,500 jacket. It’s easy to make a technical brand that is expensive, but it’s hard to make a brand with clever products that is also accessible.
hs: So then how would you describe your target customer?
AT: Our brand is for those engaging in a kind of social riot. Not necessarily demonstrators, but for those who don’t look at the city like a typical person – typical being someone who simply gets up in the morning, takes a bus or a metro to work, and just sits in the office. Our brand is for those who use the entire city landscape as their domain, and can work in different parts of it; for those who aren’t rooted to one location for the whole day. Those who are creative, and need clothes with maximum functionality, but which don’t also look touristy or “military-inspired”. That’s why our riot has a different meaning – we are about stepping away from the mundane routine, trying to do something interesting.
hs: Got you. So Oleg, when you first started, how did you gradually introduce other products to your range?
OM: I started off with hoodies that had masks on. At the time, there were several brands making t-shirts and some sweatshirts, and that was all they had to offer. For me it was important to do something more serious like jackets, because they’re cooler, right? With jackets, you can show more creativity because there are many more different features.
AT: Now we’re trying to make the whole line. We’re doing sneakers; we’re doing jackets; pants… No streetwear brand in Ukraine offers such a range of products.
Vl: This brand is flying the flag for Ukraine. There is no other brand in Ukraine doing something on this level. Here, there are a few Russian brands in the market, but that’s it.
What would you say are the core products behind your current success?
AT: Right now, our best sellers are the regular parka for the summer, and the 4-pocket pants. Normally, guys who buy our four-pockets pants don’t wear jeans or other pants afterwards. The alternatives are not as useful as ours. Our pants are slim, but have much more functionality and comfort. They look much better than standard cargo pants for example. It’s quite common for customers to first buy our pants, notice the difference, and then graduate up to our jackets as they become aware that our jackets will most likely be just as eye-opening. The journey with our brand generally begins with the pants.
hs: Do you feel like your range is now complete?
AT: We want to develop bags. We have one model of bag, and one backpack, but we want to develop the range further. We are also doing accessories, and started to make belts which use fidlocks, and allow you carry and attach your gadgets; it’s all about modularity.
hs: Are there any influences of the direction you are trying to lead this company in?
OM: At first I tried to make some stuff similar to Stone Island but later, when I would visit exhibitions, I realised that there were a lot of brands all doing the same thing. I would see the same wind jacket or parka, maybe in a different fabric or colour, maybe with some minor detail variations, but in general it was all the same - so I wanted to make something different.
Massimo Osti [the late founder and designer for Stone Island] in the beginning tried to make one piece, let’s say a vest, to which you could then add sleeves, to get a jacket. Then, you could add a shell and arrive at a parka. Now, they no longer make such items, but I feel that this system is actually the way forward. With our clothing, you can take one item and transform it into another. For example, you can take our bag, turn it into a jacket, and then finally make it into a winter parka. Or with our multi-pocket jacket, you can reconfigure where the pockets are positioned on the front. We see ourselves eventually innovating a totally modular system, where our customers can buy one piece, add an element using another piece from our range, and create their own unique item.
hs: How do you even think of a way to design your clothing with all of these transformation capabilities?
OM: At first we made a jacket with a sleeve that incorporated finger and thumb holes like a glove. Then I was thinking, “Why can’t we use this transformation concept for the whole jacket?” It all started with just a cuff on a sleeve.
hs: But it’s quite a jump from designing a sleeve system, to designing a system for the whole jacket. Vlad showed me earlier how one jacket transforms into a bag and back again. How do you decide where features like the zips should be placed in order to make it work?
OM: It’s like you just see something and think, “Why can’t we do something like this with our clothing?” Once I was thinking, “Why can’t I make some kind of wrapping to make a jacket longer or shorter?” Now, we have such a product: and when you make the jacket longer, it becomes a parka.
The design process is like user experience testing: you make the jacket and test it, and then if something is wrong, you make adjustments and try again.
hs: Would you ever look to try and do any kind of transformation with trousers? Is that even possible?
OM: I have a few ideas. Now we have pants where you can adjust the length of the pants. It’s for the next season. It has zippers, and you can adjust the length if you need to with the cord. This way, it can accommodate people with slimmer or wider than normal proportions. We don’t make trousers like jeans, where you have a variety different waist and length combinations, so we decided to make one piece with a novel solution to achieving a better fit.
hs: With all of these features, how easy (or not) is it to manufacture your products?
AT: For about four years, we have been teaching our suppliers how to produce our goods. We are developing our own style of sewing items. In Ukraine, we don’t have big facilities and perhaps not as many interesting technologies as in elsewhere, so they don’t know how to sew jackets with the materials and membranes that we use. I remember the first time, receiving a jacket which had dots around the seams, revealing all the struggles they suffered while trying to sew our product for first time. With pants, they knew how to make those correctly from the start, but we had to teach them how to make the jackets to the right quality.
hs: So there were teething problems earlier on, but apart from that it’s been quite smooth sailing then?
AT: Hmm, not quite… We have started to build distribution to other countries in Europe and Asia but it’s been tricky because our country’s bank sector is not really connected to the world banking system. For example, we don’t have PayPal in Ukraine. So receiving payments from German stores was shit, a super challenge. We had to use so many brokers to help us receive money, and the first time we did it, it was hell for us. We thought maybe it would be easier when we do it more regularly, but that wasn’t really the case. It’s not impossible to receive payments, but it’s hard. Now we’ve found a bank that can help us, so will be able to sell online, and gradually expand our international distribution more smoothly. We are now starting to see our goods sold in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and will be available in Japan from next season.
hs: Ok, so your expansion is now starting to take shape. What’s next in the pipeline for the team?
AT: A new generation parka with drawstrings, pockets, and fidlocks inside, so you don’t need to take the jacket off to change the length, you can simply change it by pulling. There is also a multi-pocket system that allows you to arrange them in a configuration that suits you. Kickstarter supporters tend to like these kind of pocket features. Just like with our pants, you can adjust the length of your sleeves. The jacket has a nice profile, and can adjust to your body’s proportions, for example if you have slightly long or short arms.
It means that we don’t have to make so many sizes, and saves a bit of the shipping headache, as it is unrealistic to expect everyone on Kickstarter to be able to accurately measure themselves. For people who make projects on Kickstarter, there is a big issue when you ship the product, and people complain that it doesn’t fit, and there are loads of returns. It costs a lot of money, and it’s hard to estimate return volumes, so you can never be too sure how many jackets you should make beyond the ordered amount. This fitting system also reduces that problem, as lengths can be adjusted to suit the customer.
OM: This system makes our jackets both very comfortable, and very beautiful!
AT: You see, when you wear our clothing, you may look “normal” to the average bystander, but you know that your jacket has some power!... It’s just a matter of time before more and more people discover us!
To find out more information about Riot Division's Kickstarter project, visit: https://www.riotdivision.tech/kickstarter