Interview with – exposing the guts, wits and kicks of startups in CEE

Wanderlust Meets Slow Fashion in Vienna

Founder of and traveller at heart and soul

2. Apr 2013

Silvia Gattin (30) opens the door to her office-cum-showroom in Vienna’s first district and ushers me in with a smile. The small space is one big burst of colour, artfully displaying the mostly limited edition product line. The bestselling Abdillah boots are stacked in neat rows alongside the equally popular kilim bags. A woven basket contains the new Maasai jewelry collection. What moves this Viennese-born fashion entrepreneur of Croatian descent to design and sell ethno-inspired, one-of-a-kind pieces? met up with Silvia to talk about the ideas behind launching her eponymous brand and what it’s like to ditch the corporate career route in favour of doing something you love.

Silvia Gattin on one of her travels. Photo: privateFashion to Finance and Back Again

Silvia Gattin and her bestselling Abdillah boots. Photo: private

Whether it’s an antique Moroccan kilim rug, Indian silk, or Thai cashmere, Silvia knows about textiles. Though choosing to major in business at university, she always kept her passion for design and fabrics alive. Her first encounters with the fashion industry were during a semester-abroad in Milan where she interned for Condé Nast’s Women’s Wear Daily, followed by a brief retail stint at Rena Lange in Munich. The romance was not to last, however. Fashion got dumped for finance. At 24, Silvia embarked on a two-year trial run of the financial services recruitment industry in Zurich. Disheartened by the sector’s focus on short terms and big wins, she quit and went on her first trip to India, leaving behind the world of Key Performance Indicators and 60-hour weeks: “I don’t like the expression ‘burn out’. That means something more; I was just tired.”

Moroccan Abdillah boots. Copyright: Silvia Gattin, photo credit: Szymon Olszowski.

In India, Silvia rediscovered her love for colour and bright fabrics. From then on it wasn’t long before she took over her family’s dormant company (Bomex GmbH) and turned it into a fashion business centred on slow retail, sustainable production, and traditional craftsmanship. “In all of this, I was very lucky; I didn’t actually have to start up a business by myself,” says Silvia when asked about the role of family support. Launched in 2010, her online shop is soon turning three and running profitably. Moreover, it has been featured in numerous fashion and interior design magazines.

Saris in Rajasthan and Web 2.0

Silvia Gattin hunting for fabrics in India. Photo: private

While browsing for a tailor-made dress in Rajasthan in 2007, Silvia first began to think about new ways to market Indian garments and homeware in Europe. “It came to me while looking at all these Saris, the traditional Indian dress. I was actually making one for myself, and the idea came up from within the whole Web 2.0 thing, to build up an online shop selling clothes.” Driven by a dislike of what she perceived as mass production and cheapification in the fashion industry, Silvia gradually evolved the concept choose one country as an inspiration source, find local artisans and producers willing to collaborate on a collection, and sell the authentic products online with a shared profit.

Bracelets from the “Masai Jewels” collection. Copyright: Silvia Gattin, photo credit: Szymon Olszowski.

“New project, new country. It sounds simple but it isn’t,” says Silvia, describing the logistical challenges brought through distance, delays in production and cultural differences in communication – but none of it gets her down. “What I love most about the whole [creative] process is taking the time to get to know people. With all my producers I have a friendly relationship,” she confides. So far, Silvia has worked with communities in India, Mexico, Thailand, Tanzania and Morocco. Like many before, Silvia started out as a novice in online retail: “A big, big topic is learning by doing. I’m an autodidact with the online shop; I have no experience in this field.” When it comes to being smart about import regulations, Silvia tries to take advantage of special trade relations: “the good thing about Morocco is that there is an Association Agreement with Austria, which means there are almost no customs. This is why I focus a lot on doing business with Morocco.”

A Regular Work Day and Variations in Pattern

Silvia Gattin buying rugs. Photo: private

“I need structure and regularity on the one hand, but then I also need this being away from Vienna, just to travel and live the day as it comes”, says Silvia when asked about her work routine. When not travelling, on a typical day she’ll process orders in the morning, and receive customers who wish to visit the showroom by appointment in the afternoon. She’s normally out of the office by 7 p.m. “I really believe the most important thing is to do what you want. When you do what you want, working a lot of hours is not a problem.” But when it comes to actually running the business, Silvia admits she is rather risk-averse and likes to keep things lean: “I don’t like to have a lot of stock here. If I see that something will sell out, I only then re-order. I email my producer with the sizes, and he sends it all back to Vienna.” She is always in close contact with her producers, and keeps a regular blog documenting her travels and the whole design/production process. “It’s very important to me that each product tells its story, so that the customer knows where it comes from and how it is made,” says Silvia with regard to the importance of verifiable authenticity. The product descriptions on her site attest to this, and contain disclaimers on unique variations in pattern and other qualities associated to re-used materials.

Social Media and the “Hidden Sale”

“When I launched my website I wanted to organise a little sales event,” Silvia explains when asked about the “Hidden Sale” initiative she and a group of designer friends (including fellow fashion entrepreneurs Sophie Burian of,  Verena Berlisg of Unique Allure and Marie-Therese Demblin de Ville of MDDV Jewels) first organised in 2010. The “little event” was held in Vienna at the small slow-food eatery Hidden Kitchen (hence the name) but ended up attracting over 500 visitors, and is now held bi-annually on a larger scale. “It was such a success”, recounts Silvia about the group effort: “We used our synergy effects and from then on we are organising it twice a year. We moved to [Hotel] Le Meridien, and started a cooperation with [local Israeli restaurant] Neni.” In spite of its name, the Hidden Sale is an open event and is pre-announced online. Somewhat bashfully, Silvia admits to being a late bloomer when it comes to using social media to further business and drive customer engagement: “I just now started with Instagram and Pinterest. I have to admit I’m very bad with all these social media things. Facebook is fine, I’ve figured out how it works, but it all just takes up so much time. When you’re in it, it’s fine, but yes, I’m very late.” What about microblogging? “No, Twitter I don’t want to use at all,” she states resolutely. Taking things slow is not incongruous to Silvia’s business philosophy, after all. Three years into the adventure, her brand and the underlying concept seem to have matured nicely together nonetheless: “I would say it’s not only a shop; it’s a whole lifestyle.”

The “Kilim Bags” collection. Copyright: Silvia Gattin, photo credit: Szymon Olszowski

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