Saturday, December 15, 2007
DENIMS THE WAY YOU WANT IT
By Regina G. Posadas
Photos by Shaira Luna
Ino Caluza, the young, cutting-edge creator of Viktor jeans, continues to captivate the meticulous, the famous, and the fashion-conscious by offering them the jeans of their dreams.
“I don’t know. I just give what my clients want and make them happy,” candidly confesses the innovative Ino Caluza when asked about marketing strategies for his phenomenal, personalized Viktor Jeans. Considering his enviable clientele (of celebrities, fashionistas and clothing connoisseurs) and their devotion to the brand (1 or 2 Viktors won’t do; they have to have multiple pairs), this straightforward and practical approach appears to be all he needs.
But then Victorino “Ino” Caluza, Jr. has always showed good sense. He started selling at an early age – things like ice candy, toys, and cartoon drawings. While in college, he had a side project retailing t-shirts and boxer shorts. “I guess I got my entrepreneurial streak from my mom. When I was a kid, I remember my mom doing small business selling food items in our place. That eventually led me to selling ice candy and other stuff.”
Ino, whose mom is a housewife and dad a Navy retiree, always knew that he’d have his own business someday. “Something in fashion was not in my plans though. I used to think it would be a graphic design business,” he discloses. He did get into graphic design after graduation, working for several local firms and as an art director of a record company overseas. But it was his obsession for jeans, along with his ingenuity, that spawned Viktor in 2003.
“At that time, I just wanted to save some money by not buying all these expensive brands that I’ve been collecting,” he recalls. Partial then to designer jeans like Diesel, Ino would shell out thousands of pesos for every purchase. He decided to end the madness by having his own jeans made. “I started small, with only P1000, by buying jeans fabric in Divisoria.” Creative by nature, and as an artist who had done several exhibits, Ino had no trouble conceptualizing what he wanted. He went to a tailor and asked him to replicate his designs. Friends were impressed with the finished product and Ino’s made-to-order enterprise was born.
To better understand the needs and inclinations of denim lovers, as well as contemporary trends, Ino researched online, seriously studied his jeans collection – their fit, style and fabric quality, and consulted his clotheshorse pals about their preferences. He discovered that when it comes to jeans, finding the perfect fit was paramount to most people, and that it overrode brand, style and price in importance.
He labeled his denims “Viktor”, from his real name Victorino, but with a “k” since “Victor” was already a registered brand, and because nearly all reputable and conquering brands carry the designers’ moniker. A distinctive “V” logo, resembling an upturned pair of pants, completed the picture.
Ino also absorbed as much as he could about fabric making, apprenticing for Litton Mills, then Asia’s biggest jeans manufacturer and fabric supplier for denim heavyweights such as Guess, Levi’s, Armani and Calvin Klein. He furthered his tailoring know-how with the help of renowned designer Rajo Laurel. Together with his original designs, all of this wisdom was applied to his first batch of jeans, which sold out immediately.
Four years after its inception, Viktor jeans are still very much revered and coveted, easily commanding around P5000 a pair. “I would say my prices are higher than mass-marketed jeans such as Levi’s and Lee, but cheaper than designer jeans like Diesel, Seven, Evisu or GStar,” Ino points out. But then a Viktor is meant to be “the best fitting jeans in your closet.”
Every pair of Viktor embodies uniqueness, custom-made to an individual’s specifications and harmonized with Ino’s signature and specialized details. It hides flaws as well, while accentuating the positive, attest regulars of the brand. “Exclusivity and a good fit,” says Ino, are what make his label stand out.
The opening of Viktor stores in two malls – The Podium in April 2006 and Trinoma in May 2007 – has intensified brand recognition and appreciation even more. Ino describes his first year at the mall as an auspicious start. “I got a lot of free marketing from my TV interviews and magazine pictorials, and there was a lot of positive response to the store. The Podium opening was a great success because I opened it after two years of doing business in my condo unit. People are excited that I am finally more accessible and open seven days a week,” he explains. Being a high end mall with a good, low traffic, The Podium was also ideal for Viktor’s sophisticated clients. Business was even better on his second year, says Ino, “since a lot of people are already familiar with the brand.”
Nevertheless, Viktor’s integration into the mall scene wasn’t totally seamless. A BS Mathematics, major in Computer Science graduate of the University of Sto. Tomas, Ino admits he is “still learning the business side of it, particularly the accounting part.” He claims he isn’t financially savvy. “I don’t have a business background and I still have to formalize my accounting process.” He’s had to deal with a few “evil clients” too in the past two years, especially when he opened his Podium shop. “I’ve had my share...but I guess it comes with the business. Three designer friends told me that it’s the norm [for them]. I guess I’m still lucky though. So far, only 2 clients dared to warn us that they will sue us for not getting their jeans on time or getting the right fit!” He laughingly shares.
There are other challenges. He mentions the off-putting Filipino crab mentality he has encountered firsthand as the recipient of nasty comments from people who want to put the brand down. Another problem is sourcing out new materials. Big companies, for example, prefer bulk purchases and aren’t willing to sell low volume of materials.
These difficulties however have not deterred Viktor’s genius from harnessing his expertise and professionalism to the hilt, and from giving customers the best fitting jeans they could ever have. Ino means to keep on improving customer relations and satisfying his clients’ needs. To spice things up, his stores now offer a variety of other denim wear like jackets, skirts and shorts. Included in his emergent plans are the releases of the younger, less pricey diffusion line called Vik, and the higher end, more mature Lord Viktor, which will supply suits and slacks, plus the kids’ line he tagged Viktorino.
There’s no question about it – Ino relishes his trade, although he rues the loss of his anonymity. He is hands-on and totally involved in his business – from choosing the fabrics to designing all the jeans – and thorough too, “because I believe God is in the details. I get easily upset if my customer isn’t fully satisfied with us.” He jokes about the fact that three of his family members work for him. “There are a lot of advantages and disadvantages [of having them in your business], but...you just have to work it out so you can make the best of it. Trust is a great factor in hiring them...but you can’t fire them as much as you would wish sometimes!” he jests.
What makes him successful? “I guess I just love what I’m doing, and partly it’s because of my creative side and good aesthetics. These help a lot in convincing our clients that we know what we are doing and we are good at that,” he says. He lists several things about his business and being an entrepreneur that give him a kick: “Meeting all these different personalities and having a good relationship with them; seeing all your jeans being worn by the local fashionistas, celebrities and socialites; getting good comments from clients who had their first share of the Viktor experience; knowing [that idea] that no matter what size you are in, we can make you a good fitting and decent pair [of jeans].”
Virtually anyone desiring an original, perfect-fitting pair of denims and who isn’t monetarily-challenged can have a Viktor. The actual target market, however, are “fashionable people who are always on the lookout for new trends.” Viktor also has in mind individuals who have a hard time buying jeans owing to size constraints, and therefore need bespoke ones. “It’s kind of niche marketing but it really pays off because we are known for great fitting jeans and being into trends,” says Ino, who has crafted and engineered pants for all types and shapes, and for clients as diverse as a 300-pound biggie to a 90+-pound featherweight.
Scoring a one-of-a-kind, made-just-for-you pair of Viktors requires a personal visit to the store. Come as a walk-in customer or arrange for an appointment in advance. The client gets fitted, his measurements taken, and he receives advice on the type of jeans that is most flattering for his body. Next, he chooses the style, the fabric and the flourishes. “The client and the denim specialist will decide on a lot of details that will go with the jeans such as color of stitches, rivets and buttons, leathers, etc.,” says Ino. Depending on the current productions, it usually takes his 12-man, Antipolo-based atelier seven to ten days to create a new pair. Rush job orders need three to five days. When the jeans are ready, the customer is informed and he can try on his Viktors.
Some of the most prominent and recognizable faces in our country already don Viktors yet Ino still has a few dream clients – “hotshot A-list Hollywood celebrities, or those lousy politicians wearing baggy jeans,” he reveals. For now, he intends to sustain his buyers’ allegiance by offering new designs every month, and devising attractive promos like his existing 10 + 1, which rewards a loyal client a free pair of Viktors worth P6000 for every ten pairs of jeans he buys. And despite the accolades, it’s a given that Viktor will continue to evolve and enthrall, for complacent is something its mastermind isn’t and will never be.
In closing, über designer Ino imparts some wise words to wannabe entrepreneurs. “Make sure that the kind of business you are dealing with is something that you will enjoy for the rest of your life. Improve and innovate. It’s not enough that you have a good product. Love your job, love your clients no matter how demanding they are because it’s the only way you can make your product more covetable. Remember that fashion is about exclusivity...and exclusivity has a higher price tag attached to it.”
PRICE IS RELATIVE
People’s needs, priorities and tastes vary; what is vital to one could be trivial to another, and what is costly to some may be a bargain to others. That’s why Viktor’s Ino Caluza remains unaffected by remarks that his jeans are too expensive. “That’s their opinion. If they deem my denims too pricey, [then I just think] they probably are not my market. There are a good number of people who would pay for designer jeans that cost 15k to 20k, and we only charge an average of 5k. Price is relative. If you can’t afford it, then try another brand,” he suggests.
Customers order from all over the world. Should you expand and open stores abroad?
Not so fast. Build the brand first in your home turf. Although Ino Caluza has clients in Singapore, New York, Paris and Hong Kong ordering by mail or phone, he believes a strong Asian presence should come first before an international invasion.
Sometimes the customer isn’t right
If your client’s initial purchase choice makes you cringe, suggest another one that may be more suited for him. Ino Caluza doesn’t think twice about giving his honest opinion to a customer, particularly one whose feel for fashion does not befit him or her at all. So Ino and his team give a lot of advice to their fashion-clueless clients, and “surprisingly, they do listen to us.” And clients love him more for it.