Geoff van Sonsbeeck is the co-founder of House of Baukjen, which he set up with his wife, Baukjen. The company designs and sells responsible womenswear under the brands Baukjen and Isabella Oliver. “We believe fashion 2.0 is the only way forward for fashion,” says Geoff, who has been a member of the Helm community for over 10 years. In 2021, at COP26 summit in Glasgow, House of Baukjen became the first fashion brand to be awarded the United Nations Global Climate Action Award.
Geoff describes himself as both a disrupter and an educator. “When we set out to do what we are doing today, it was all about disruption. It was about systemically changing a sector and being an example for others. I was willing to literally burn the past and start again. Disruption is one of the key words I use to describe our business. But education is also important. If you disrupt, you need to educate people as to why you’re doing it and why it's important.”
He recognises this is not the easiest route to take. “If you're the first at anything, it's always hard. You need to tell people why you're doing it and why it makes more sense this way. Leading in an area is hard because you're creating a new market. We were creating a new concept in consumers’ eyes of what responsible fashion is and the choices they need to make. You always have an obstacle to start with, but it doesn't scare us.Entrepreneurs are incredibly resilient and ambitious, so they keep going.”
So, what motivates Geoff to do it? He says it's about having purpose. “The motivator is the ability to change your surrounding and the world, for good. That's an incredible motivator. For me, I was about 50 and this idea of fashion 2.0 gave me a second life rethinking the business and doing business with a purpose, doing something that is right. To have the courage to see everything through this very simple radar of “what’s right?” is what motivates me.”
There is no question who Geoff's biggest supporters have been. “My wife, Baukjen, is my co-founder and we named the brand after her. She is my business partner. After that it has been my children. They were babies when we started the business and they don't know anything different other than having a father and mother running a business. It's hard work. They're very committed and motivated, driven to do the right things. Beyond that friends and family and the whole team. Beyond that, suppliers, customers and other stakeholders also champion the cause.”
And support matters, because Geoff is clear you can’t do this on your own. "You can’t sit in an ivory tower and think about how to tackle problems. You build up experience through both failure and success. The ability to share that with others and learn from their lessons is tremendously powerful. I have been part of Helm for over 10 years now, and it has been the most profound experience all the way through. And in the really pivotal moments in business, when the going gets tough or you are changing things or the opportunities are particularly large, to have access to a network like Helm and have the friendly advice of peers willing to share their experience without self-interest, is incredibly powerful.”
You can’t do this on your own. I have been part of Helm for over 10 years. It is very powerful at pivotal moments to have access to a network like Helm and the advice of peers willing to share experience without self-interest
One pivotal moment occurred five years ago, with Geoff and his wife rethinking their business. “We had a eureka moment five years ago. The business was always meant to be good for people and planet, even though we didn't call it that. We were ethical and set out to be slow fashion although no one knew that term then. Then five years ago, I learned that every second a truckload of garments is going to landfill or incineration. For me and my wife, that was a soul-searching, crisis of conscience moment. We had to decide whether to just drop it and get out of the sector or to take leadership and seek systemic change for good across the sector. That was a quick decision between us. We knew immediately in that moment we had made the right decision. And that moment gave us a second lease and purpose and drove us forward.
Now people and planet, social values and sustainability are business critical. And, says Geoff, they should be vital to everyone. “And it's not a market play. Sooner or later every business will realise these things are ingrained in what they stand for. If it's not the consumer, it may be your staff or regulators who will catch up. We can only do what is right by the planet and people. That is what every business is about. It's essential for long-term success. That can only be achieved if you take people and planet as seriously as you possibly can. It has always been part of our DNA to do right, to be good for people and be good for the planet. But when you realise how bad a sector is and the impact it has on the world, you have to rethink how to cope with it. in that eureka moment I had two choices. It was simple. In fashion there is too much noise, too much greenwashing. We asked how can we help explain it to customers to help them cut through that noise and find out what matters and what doesn't? What questions do they need to ask brands? What do they need to do about it?
And Geoff says that it’s inevitable the rest of the industry will catch up. “There is there's no doubt that there is only one way forward. We call it Fashion 2.0. We see consumers clocking into it and brands jumping into the segment, like us. In our view, the old, very linear model - the fast-fashion model - is dead. It's a matter of time and change will only accelerate as consumers make the switch, and as employees want to work for companies with purpose. And regulators are catching up whether that’s in Europe, Canada or even the U.K. Regulations coming through will make bad behaviour harder. It's the beginning of something that will grow exponentially.
I was born… in Bogota, Colombia.
My first job was… as a secondary school student working in Holland at a deli department of a supermarket. I was 16 or 17 and leading a team of six. Bizarre.
One word that sums up founders is… resilience.
The real satisfaction I get from being a founder is… I get the chance to change things and inspire people and touch people’s lives. It's that ability not to be limited by constraints or convention and to sail your own course.
In five years, I… hope to have proved that fashion 2.0 is the way forward. I hope to have stepped up to become executive chairman to allow younger blood to drive us to the next stage. In my plan that's as a listed company. Hopefully, we’ll create “an ethical empire”. We have two brands now, but in five years’ we’ll hopefully have created a platform in public markets that allows us to finance, grow and nurture other great ethical companies.
My proudest moment so far… was getting the recognition for our good work in trying to change the sector, by being awarded the United Nations Global Climate Action Award at COP26 in Glasgow. It was the first time ever for a fashion company.
I'm a founder because… I couldn't find anywhere to do what I wanted in an established business. I've always been someone who doesn't like convention and prefers to set my destiny myself. I love the autonomous thinking, the ability to pull around me people, product and market combinations that inspire me.
The advice I give to would-be founders… is that life is not for everyone. But if you are entrepreneurial at heart and make the jump, do it with purpose. You need to be clear about the why. It’s the most profound question. And you want to inspire those around you, because that makes you a better founder and means you have abetter business, better product and better market fit. But there are no shortcuts. It is bloody hard work.