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Luxury Grime: How Rotterdam’s Clan de Banlieue is fusing street and fashion

By Weixin Zha

Sept 3, 2021

Fashion |Feature

Luxury Grime, the FW21 collection by Clan de Banlieue. Picture: Clan de Banlieue

Clan de Banlieue, from the Dutch port city of Rotterdam, has set its sights on a more fashion-oriented approach to streetwear as it looks to expand into the rest of Europe. Founded in 2014 by Sinan Karaca, Levie Merckens and Richard Lopes Mendes, what began as a humble school project quickly became a popular label. Now the brand, once inspired by sportswear of the past, is looking ahead with a shift to a more subtle form of streetwear.

On a sunny August afternoon, deep purple banners featuring models in tracksuits and hoodies are greeting visitors at the entrance to Slot Zeist, a castle in the heart of the Netherlands. Mannequins in varsity jackets and jog pants have already made their way into the wood-panelled, chandelier-adorned rooms of the 17th-century Dutch castle. Clan de Banlieue chose the grand location to mark its departure and expansion from bold-logo hoodies and t-shirts, adding a hint of luxury for fall/winter 2021. Its Luxury Grime collection was inspired by the style of the 90’s subculture associated with the underground music genre Grime.

“The collection is called Luxury Grime because we see that streetwear is defined by luxury now,” said Richard Lopes Mendes, one of three founders of the brand, in an interview. Starting the brand as a school project in 2014, Clan de Banlieue quickly gained loyal local followers, thanks in no small part to its links with football, such as its jerseys for local club Sparta Rotterdam. Two years ago, the label also started to sell via sportswear giants such as Footlocker and JD Sports.

The three founders Levie Merckens, Richard Lopes Mendes, Sinan Karaca. Picture: Clan de Banlieue

Now the label is looking to expand its customer base by diversifying from sportswear-inspired styles, like its bestselling tracksuits. While many opulent baroque-style rooms on the ground floor of the castle exhibited logo pieces with stark contrasts, other rooms were hinting at the future of the brand.

Forever 22

“The different rooms also define us as a brand. We are not just one type of brand, we are a brand that’s evolving with different types of clothing,” explained Lopes Mendes. Sitting on a baroque armchair, in a green-white tracksuit, he seems the embodiment of the label’s bold yet humble attitude to life and fashion. “We do what we think is best to do. We also try to be honest with ourselves, we don’t do things we can’t,” he answers when asked about the reason for the brand’s success in past years.

In a room down a wooden-floored corridor, head designer David de Ruiter offers a glimpse at the brand’s future take on streetwear in a 150-piece SS22 collection, including a number of colourways. The brand’s logo has disappeared from a white terry cloth shirt with fleur-de-lis patterns. It is instead replaced by the name ‘Banlieue’ subtly imprinted on a small bronze plaque on the back of the shirt. The brand’s first denim pieces, inspired by a vintage Wrangler jacket from the designer’s personal archive and a 60’s Levi’s 501 jean, are made from jacquard with fleur-de-lis patterns, a symbol that was used by French royalty.

The title of the SS22 collection, Forever 22, is also a nod to the label’s adopted French heritage. Clan de Banlieue borrowed its name from the French word for ‘suburb’ or ‘ghetto’ and wants to free the words from its additional negative connotations. “Paris has 21 banlieues. We claimed the 22nd. We wanted to be a voice for the real world where different cultures that come together,” explained de Ruiter, who joined the label in March 2020.

Head designer David de Ruiter explains the SS22 collection. Picture: FashionUnited

The transition of the brand also comes as sportswear retailers are looking into more fashion-forward items, de Ruiter says: “A lot of brands can sell a tracksuit but it is the magic that brands need to sell more than a tracksuit.”

Early success and current expansion

The early success of the brand was rooted in the community it built, with the help of sports and some famous players such as Chelsea footballer Hakim Ziyech wearing Banlieue. However, co-founder Lopes Mendes insists that despite many connections being formed while he played football in the past, the brand doesn’t use those connections to advertise.

“I had the luxury to know soccer players, who became big but we never used one picture of them,” he says. The label remains close to its community, with its own football club FC Banlieue. “Football is the language we speak and the sport we love. I don’t think it’s our strategy to use soccer, it’s the way we are.”

Its authentic and somewhat humble approach adds to the appeal of Clan de Banlieue. In the past two years, the streetwear label’s sales have grown by as much as 30 percent. There is also more than 100 sale points worldwide, including two own stores, Dutch premium department store chain De Bijenkorf, JD Sports and Footlocker. The Netherlands is the brand’s most important market and, now, Banlieue wants to expand in Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom with new and current partners.

Luxury Grime, the FW21 campaign of Clan de Banlieue shot at Slot Zeist. Picture: Clan de Banlieue

“With Footlocker, we first focused on the key markets in Europe, now we’re going to expand to smaller stores. With every collection we’re expanding; it has just started and I think will still be busy in the next two years, maybe reaching 500 stores,” Lopes Mendes said. He is responsible for design and marketing, while the other founders Sinan Karaca and Levie Merckens focus on finance and logistics respectively.

From us to you

Similar to some of its fellow Dutch streetwear brands, Clan de Banlieue has maintained accessible price points starting from 45 euros for a t-shirt or 75 euros for a hoodie. The back of the label inside its garments also carries a hidden message of affection: “From us to you.”

“We always try to be a brand that is fairly priced. We want to make it accessible for everyone,” de Ruiter says. Even the silk-lined tracksuit from the SS22 collection will cost around 180 euros, with the matching pants at 120 euros.

Take a tour through the FW21 launch date of Clan de Banlieue at Slot Zeist. Pictures by FashionUnited.

Trends and collaborations are featured in the drops, which the brand releases on the 22nd of every month exclusively in its own stores. Recent examples included a capsule collection with the US sportswear brand Champion and the release of body-hugging womenswear in August. With Motion 6, or M6, the brand is adding even more newness on top of its usual collections in the last six weeks of the year.

Upcoming M6 projects will feature a vegan leather jacket or the first sneaker that Banlieue developed over the past three years, with a sole inspired by the shape of the streets leading to the Arc the Triomphe.

The brand takes its inspiration from France and the suburbs worldwide and also keeps in touch with events at least twice a year, in a ‘banlieue’ in France or another country. Last year, the label hosted a rap battle where it gave away tracksuits to 150 people.

“Not only do we use the name Banlieue, but we’re also giving back to the community. […] This is how we return some love to the people and places where we get our inspiration from. But we don’t want to mention it too obviously, then it feels like a marketing stunt and we don’t want to do that,” said David de Ruiter, who knows the founder Richard Lopes Mendes from school.

“I have a story with most of the people that work with us, be it family, a classmate, or a friend from a former football team,” said Lopes Mendes while pointing to the castle’s entrance where his sister is helping with the reception of the press event. Its informal working culture is likely also the reason why Clan de Banlieue estimates it has around 30 to 50 employees.

“We all have the idea that we’re not just doing it for us but also to show people that there is not only Nike or Adidas,” Mendes said. “It can also be done in the Netherlands and in Rotterdam.”

Matching hoodie and jog pants with chain shirt in Clan de Banlieue's AW21 collection. Picture: Banlieue

This article has been edited by Rachel Douglass.

Clan de Banlieue