The 2015 edition of the pan-European startup contest Idea Challenge sees an increase in variety and internationality. The series of events re…
Mike Lanner and Moriz Piffl - brothers wrestling in arms. Photo: Patrizia Gapp
They may call themselves brothers but Moriz Piffl and Mike Lanner are not siblings, let alone those “from another mother”. They fight, they tease each other and have extended discussions. Yet, they share a common vision: optimising their business model of manufacturing organic custom jeans with social impact and fun. A family portrait of Vienna’s feistiest fashion duo.
Mike (left): "People will be able to tell the photo is staged, how could Moriz compete against me?" Photo: Patrizia Gapp“Mike and I didn’t really get along when we first met.” - “I didn’t think a great deal of Moriz. Or rather, I was indifferent towards him.” Those are not exactly the kind of statements you would expect from two men, who, some four years ago, decided to leave behind their old lives to travel the world and learn the jeans-making trade from scratch. Perhaps that is because Moriz Piffl and Mike Lanner are not your average fashion guys, either.
Slightly rough in style as well as in manners, the two founders of Gebrüder Stitch (the “Brothers Stitch”) sport a sense of humour that you would rather encounter at a Viennese sausage stand than backstage at a runway show. In fact, it was a Würstelstand, where their somewhat unconventional idea of manufacturing bespoke jeans straight in Austria’s capital was born on a Saturday night in 2009. But before entering this crucial stage of male bonding – sharing a greasy sausage after a night of drinking – the two thirty-somethings went through a phase of mutual scrutiny.
A portrait of the entrepreneur as a young man. Photo: Patrizia Gapp“When we met some eight years ago, Mike was a dressed up ‘suit’, a tie wearer,” Moriz confides to me as we sit amidst the nostalgic living room set up of their “butt lab,” which is how the “brothers” have appropriately named their jeans workshop. During the Christmas season, the atelier hidden in a backyard off Vienna’s main shopping street doubled as a cross-generational café – the Vollpension (read more about it here). Looking at Mike, whose childhood self smiles down on me from a photo on the wall, it’s hard to imagine him wearing anything other than his signature jeans and hoodie – or Lederhosen. But as Moriz assures me – with a hint of malevolence – Mike, who like his co-founder made a decent living as a marketing bod back in the day, wasn’t always as laid back as he is now. Having met through a former colleague, their initial working experience got “pretty emotional" and had “limited success.”
Thoughtful kaffeeklatsch in the Stitch family salon. Photo: Patrizia GappNevertheless, that fateful Saturday afternoon, the two decided to meet up for coffee and found out that they had something in common. “As we got talking, we discovered we were both fed up with the way we were working and that we didn’t like what we were doing,” Mike recalls. Several hours and drinks later, they decided to change this. Disillusioned with the world of marketing and enthused with the idea of producing organic custom-made jeans in Vienna, they got started right away.
Harmonious times at the butt lab. Photo: Patrizia GappTo finance their project, Moriz and Mike, who had already been self-employed at the time, put together their savings and freed themselves from all fixed expenses, including rents, cars, mobile phone contracts – and expensive suits. Sleeping on friends’ couches and keeping their costs at a minimum gave them a limited amount of "venture capital", and most importantly, time to focus on their endeavour. The following six months saw Moriz and Mike take sewing courses and travel the world. Visiting fashion fairs as well as sweatshop factories in China, they realised how they didn’t want their product to be made. It became clear that having a positive social impact with their company – through fair and local production and by using organic materials – should become a central part of the Gebrüder Stitch’s business model.
A customer gets her measurements taken at the beta store. Photo: Oliver CapuderBack in Vienna, they tried out the concept in their “beta store” – a pop up shop in a gallery that operated from May to July 2010. With parties, discussion rounds and exhibitions – the full marketing programme – the place was a crowd puller on the Viennese scene. There was only one problem: “We sold too many jeans. Our initial plan was to test the market and then see which direction we wanted to head with our business. But there simply was no time to do that. The market had spoken and we had to follow its orders – and make jeans.”
Vouchers were selling quickly in the Christmas season. Photo: kidizin.comFast forward three years and the situation doesn’t seem to have improved. Now a production team of five fashion school graduates (not including Moriz and Mike), Gebrüder Stitch still have a hard time processing the amount of orders. At Christmas, they had record voucher sales for jeans (ranging from 240 to around 500 euros), t-shirts and accessories but also for services as irresistible as the Stitchndale package (in which clients get a pair of denims as well as a personal strip performance by the two founders for the paltry sum of 1,550 euros). Currently customers have to wait for several weeks just to get a fitting session at the butt lab.
Mike and Moriz doing the opposite of outsourcing. These days, professionals take care of jeans production. Photo: Oliver Capuder“People have been telling us ‘Why don’t you just outsource your production to Slovakia, so you can process your orders faster and cheaper? But we don’t want to do that.” Mike elaborates, “Entrepreneurs will usually follow the dictate of profit, money and efficiency. It’s different for us. We are not driven primarily by profit but by social impact – and fun. So, we try to optimise our business model with just that. Moreover, we want to get to know our customers, we want direct feedback. This is what makes our project exciting,” he explains their decision for staying local. Thus, to the Gebrüder Stitch, success is about “being able to do whatever the hell we feel like doing.”
Like Siegfried and Roy
"Siegfried and Roy, seriously?" Photo: Patrizia GappPerhaps not surprisingly for former marketing professionals, what also works well for them is their brand image. “Lots of times when I turn up at an event by myself people ask me ‘So, where’s Mike?’”, Moriz describes their recognition value. “You could say we’re like Siegfried and Roy or [German cheesy folk couple] Marianne und Michael,” Mike laughs (note: neither of the two could be described as particularly effeminate – or fond of tigers). Moriz adds, “Laurel and Hardy, I’d rather say.”
Of course, this is not by chance. Moriz, who is the founding duo’s marketing and communications mastermind explains that they have picked the epithet of “brothers” to pay homage to traditional craftsmanship as well as to emphasise their personal connection to their product and customers. But there is something inarguably fraternal about the two that goes beyond their clever brand image. Perhaps it’s the fact that in their matching outfits, they almost come across like a pair of non-identical twins – or that they constantly tease one another.
Coffee, wrestling and extended discussions. Photo: Patrizia GappWhen our photographer suggests the two hold hands for a photo, they protest and agree that arm wrestling would be more appropriate to represent their relationship. “We have to learn to compromise more, to give each other enough space for our own ideas,” Moriz offers a more mature perspective. “Probably we should also rid of some of our bullishness and alpha male behaviour,” a suddenly self-reflective Mike admits.
As fellow inmates at co-working space HUB Vienna, where Moriz and Mike spend a big part of their work time, the inventures.eu team knows their extended discussions on details, that to others may appear minuscule, just too well. Yet, the Gebrüder Stitch are aware that their differences – Moriz is an intuitive “guts person” while Mike, who is in charge of finances and production, is more of a rational decision maker with “a love for details” – are not necessarily a disadvantage. “When we discuss things over and over again, we're usually very happy with the outcome. The only problem is, we don’t have enough time to discuss everything.”
Read more on our Founders Family Portraits:
Love Thy Co-founders
Founders Family Portrait: Finderly - Sixteen Years and Going Strong
The Academia + Business association (AplusB) has elected its new chair and spokesperson. Karin Ibovnik, also the CEO of build! Gründerzentrum in Klagenfurt/Carinthia, took over the position of Markus Costabiei at the beginning of March. Her deputy is going to be Michael Moll, CEO of the accent incubator in Lower Austria.
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