In this edition of The Sybarite's Women Who Launch series, The Sybarite sits down with KAAI co-founders Ine Verhaert and Helga Meersman.
We discuss KAAI’s scale-up journey, celebrating the brand’s 4th anniversary, its recent Paris pop-up store, and what’s next for the Antwerp-based handbag label.
Since its 2017 launch, the business has charmed a growing fan-base of women with its ever-evolving range of high quality work-life bags. A KAAI bag will never compromise on style or substance and its “Carry your life” ethos holds true thanks to its “By women, for women” design strategy.
Interviews with successful modern women have helped the team identify exactly what their needs are when it comes to bags and the gripes are universal; dependable work bags pack too masculine a punch and the more stylish models are impractical and amplify chaos.
As for the name KAAI, meaning “The Quay” in Dutch, which was chosen to reflect Antwerp’s vibrant energy and the ever-moving waters of the River Scheldt, it also captures the fluidity of the modern woman’s day-to-day life.
Congratulations, you recently celebrated KAAI’s 4th anniversary with a pop-up store in Paris! What was that like?
Helga: It is quite a milestone to have been able to open up our very own pop-up store in the heart of Paris during Fashion Week. Being able to walk into your own ‘pop-up’ store in Paris is an achievement we’re proud of, especially given the fact that we just celebrated our 4th anniversary. That pop-up actually took place just before our birthday weekend which we celebrated with our community worldwide!
The pop-up in Paris was a great way to discover the needs of the active Parisian woman and to explore the market further. In the scope of our international expansion plans, we’re excited to see what the coming year will bring.
But one thing is for sure, Paris remains the key city for fashion. It’s always a pleasure to be there during fashion week and to get inspired by the latest developments and trends in the industry.
Do you have plans for any more pop-ups and events in the near future?
Helga: Having the possibility [for customers] to really interact with our bags and experience the quality in real life remains an important touchpoint, one that is highly valued. More and more we receive messages from brand enthusiasts all over the world asking about a point of sale in their area.
So yes, we are planning to open up more pop-ups to serve these clients and offer them an in-person KAAI experience. Paris, London or even New York… at the moment we’re busy exploring the possibilities in each of these vibrant cities. And of course there are also many events in the pipeline.
We may just have celebrated our 4th Anniversary, but we’re already busy planning a special edition for ‘5 years KAAI’. What exactly that will be and where it will take place is still a secret. Stay tuned, I’d say!
What do you each enjoy most about running the business and why? Has this changed over time?
Ine: Running a scale-up business comes with new challenges all the time. Where initially it was just us two, the co-founders, we’re now expanding the team rapidly. We’ve been in managing/CEO positions before we started our KAAI adventure. Jumping into a start-up story also meant an entire new set of skills we had to learn ourselves again since it was us doing the operational day-to-day business in the beginning.
The fact that we can now brainstorm together and rely on our team to tackle all those challenges is a big change. KAAI was founded out of our own experience and frustrations. There just wasn’t a bag on the market that was practical and elegant at the same time and made to carry a laptop. Being able to offer a thoughtfully designed bag that takes away these frustrations and that allows women to go from one meeting to the next in style is very fulfilling.
“Fast fashion is not true fashion”; Tell us more about that KAAI mantra.
Ine: A KAAI bag is designed with a timeless character that allows you to wear it everyday, season after season. We believe that style is not expressed through items you only wear occasionally. What defines identity are the key pieces in your wardrobe that last a long time and have endless combination possibilities. In our designs, we take a lot of inspiration from the elegant minimalist lines and warm colors of Art Deco style.
Furthermore, we deeply care about the quality and finishing of our bags to ensure a long life. We source for the best materials and innovations to achieve these high standards. Our leather, for example, comes from a single tannery in Italy and is treated with an innovative coating that protects the bag against scratches, water and UV.
Our view on longevity, sustainability and true fashion is the starting point for design, manufacturing and communication.
Since starting KAAI, have you had any new learnings about women’s needs when it comes to their bags?
Helga: Women start to increasingly value functionality in their wardrobes. They go more and more for practical pieces which facilitate daily life. It’s all about adding convenience where possible. And this need for convenience starts to play a bigger role. That is exactly what a KAAI bag does, letting you move from A to B in an organised way. It’s super frustrating not to find anything inside of your purse.
With the inner compartments inside a KAAI bag, you can really dedicate a pocket to each of your essentials. In other words, your bag doesn’t become a battlefield as quickly as before, and gives you peace of mind by giving a good overview on what’s inside of it at all times.
Do you each have a favourite bag from the collection?
Helga: Of course we have a favourite! Mine is the Large Bowler in Aubergine! Why? I use it to go to work everyday, so for me it is a must to be able to safely tuck away my laptop while I am on my way to the KAAI headquarters in Antwerp. Besides, I love to be active too. I often bike to the office… and therefore the bowler is just perfect because you can wear that one crossbody, too.
Ine: Mine is the Helix in Moss Green. It’s actually our latest newest workbag model in the collection. I just love it since it really fits a lot. And that’s not an understatement. However, at the same time, I am not that tall, so wearing a spacious bag is not always easy for me to pull off. When I wear the Helix I just don’t feel like it's out of proportion, it works. To top it off, it’s a lightweight bag, which makes it my favourite one this season.
Moving forward, how would you like KAAI to evolve as a brand?
Ine: Moving forward, we really want to further expand KAAI internationally. Today we already have customers from all over the world, from Antwerp, to London, Tokyo, Amsterdam and many cities in the US. But next is to really deepen our KAAIwomen communities in these different countries.
In Belgium, we achieved this strong community sense of business women toting around and closing deals with their KAAI bags. This is what we’re aiming for internationally, to really connect our KAAIwomen locally and globally with each other. We strive to become the number 1, go-to brand for all women in business that are seeking a beautiful but practical bag that gets the job done.
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