Klaus Buchroithner and Michaela Geiseder
Klaus was twenty-two when he took over a skate wear store from his older brother that, when it opened years earlier, had been all the rage in the Austrian town of Eferding. But everyday shop business can be tedious, and standing behind the counter Klaus thought long and hard about his plans in life – and about sneakers. Was there a way to produce them fairly, economically and sustainably, without depleting the environment? And make them look insanely cool? Call it a young man’s dream. And yet, ten years later, Klaus owns two successful businesses. Joined by co-founder Michaela Geiseder in 2017, the two now produce fair and sustainable fashion at Vresh and Das Merch.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
[Klaus] When I was sixteen, my older brother opened his skate shop in Eferding. Naturally, when you open a skate store in a small place it’s a big deal. At some point, my brother wanted out and so I took over. Sadly, it got a little boring after a while, so I started to study business at university. To keep the store open and fulfill my credit requirements at uni, we closed the store on Monday and I crammed all my lectures into one day. My mom owns a store for women’s fashion, and three of my siblings founded their own companies, so I guess we all have a business gene running through our blood.
[Michaela] I started my "business" career in a different sector, although my dream has always been to become a carpenter. But at 15 I wasn’t brave or confident enough to follow this path, everyone had advised me against it. I started an apprenticeship as an office clerk in a large corporation. After 6 years in this company, I started studying design and product management in Salzburg with a focus on furniture and interiors. After completing my studies and internship in Stockholm at the advertising agency Jung von Matt, I joined Vresh and have been part of it ever since.
How did the idea of creating your sustainable fashion brand come about?
[Klaus] Through owning the store and learning more about the wholesale business I understood how messed up the fashion industry is. There is so much power concentrated in the hands of very few giant companies. That results in products sometimes being very expensive even though the quality is lacking. The losers are the small dealers and the producers. This power imbalance affected me as a small business owner in concrete ways. Small stores like ours got punished and were banned from the system of sellers because we didn’t sell enough in the prior season. At some point I was thinking: what if we produced our collections? Then we could oversee the whole process, from production to end customer. We could ensure that producers get paid fairly and the clothes are made ethically and sustainably. Today I’m proud to say we can pay up to 20 percent above average to our producers.
[Michaela] I never thought I would have a sustainable fashion brand. Through many coincidences, I came across Klaus, who founded Vresh. I had no idea about textiles but I'm very interested in learning new things and the best way to do this is in a small company. In the meantime, Vresh became my baby. Textiles and sustainability in the textile industry have become a passionate topic.
I’m proud to say we are able to pay up to 20 percent above average to our producers.
Is there one key moment you remember in your journey, from skate shop owner to label founder and producer of your collections?
[Klaus] Young labels often establish themselves just by being presented in stores in proximity to other well known brands. The big brands act as a kind of guarantee. I was dreaming of my sneaker brand, standing in between all the other big names. We didn’t end up producing shoes and I’m happy about that. Shoes are a complicated product. Instead, we started with t-shirts and hoodies, other apparel came later. A major change was that we decided to leave the board sports community. Sadly there still isn’t a high demand for sustainable and fair trade skate wear.
[Michaela] When we moved from Eferding to Linz and opened our store in the Tabakfabrik. I put a lot of energy and love into setting up this shop and am very happy every day when I come in here and can do what I enjoy and what I stand for with people I like.
How did you establish relations with the producers of your brand Vresh?
[Klaus] It’s again a family story. My girlfriend's uncle at the time was close friends with a man who had moved to Portugal to build a company that produced stockings. The friend from Portugal introduced me to potential producers. As it turned out, we were able to help each other out on many levels. In 2017, I went to Portugal as an Erasmus for young entrepreneurs. I tried to understand everything about production, going to the factories and learning about work processes. Today I can pay a fair price for the goods and the producers in turn have more agency in the process, too. There is a close relationship, the product doesn’t end up being so expensive and there is more emphasis on quality. Producing in Portugal guarantees that certain environmental standards are respected. Lastly, our footprint is smaller due to the relative proximity of the factories. The keyword is value, that’s what the V in Vresh stands for; to value the people who work with us.
Today I’m able to pay a fair price for the goods, and the producers in turn have more agency in the process.
What was your biggest challenge setting up the company?
[Klaus] Making the company profitable in sustainable ways was a struggle. We weren’t earning anything for five years, just putting everything into the company. At some point, we received 100,000 as an investment. It was a kind of crowd investing campaign without being a real campaign. Things started to look brighter. We could invest in a bigger collection. But to build a brand you need to employ people, and to have employees you need orders to come reliably. Getting the online business going was difficult. But more and more companies were asking for t-shirts and other goodies with their logo printed on, hats, t-shirts, tote bags and so forth. They wanted to have it sustainably. I started Das Merch in 2017, a kind of agency for merchandise, that’s when things slowly started to take off.
What kind of advice would you give to other people starting out?
[Klaus] Research a problem or a situation, talk to other people you trust and don’t be too proud to ask for advice. Stay focused on what you can do. Everyone has agency and there is always room to maneuver. When facing problems we get into a frenzy and this isn’t a good condition to solve anything. Also: taking a step back, talking to trusted people, not making the problem bigger than it is. Contemplating where you started and where you are now always helps me gain perspective.
[Michaela] Just try! Don't let yourself be unsettled and it doesn't matter if you don't have an apprenticeship, study or similar in the area. You can learn everything. If you have a passion for something, do it. If it doesn't work, you'll definitely learn a lot from it.
What was the best decision you ever made?
[Klaus] My best decision was to hire my designer and cofounder Michaela. She was my first full-time employee, from 2017 onwards. And in 2020 she got shares and now owns 10 percent of the company. Michi cares about Vresh and I about Das Merch. She is the best partner in crime. I’m so glad we are doing this together.
[Michaela] Quitting my stable job and finally doing something I enjoy and stand for.
What about mistakes and regrets? Any ghosts still haunting you?
[Klaus] Especially in the early days I tended to make the problems much bigger than they were. It took me time to understand that small steps also get you where you need to go. When we were running out of money I was set on the BIG thing instead of calculating the runway and telling myself to keep calm and carry on. I used to want to solve every crisis within one day. One big mistake was to rent a store in Vienna during Christmas time. The rent was ridiculous and the shop was too small. We didn’t even make enough to pay the rent. Every time I’m in Vienna and walk past that place my heart sinks.
[Michaela] Fortunately not. I believe everything in life has a reason and that everything you do and what happens is justified. Who knows what decision would have been made if some were left out?
Why is Linz a good city for your company?
[Klaus] We have a beautiful city center. Around town, you have huge industrial complexes. The Tabakfabrik is a wonderful hub of altogether 350 companies working here. I find that in Linz things are not as saturated as in bigger cities. There’s room to play, to develop ideas, to reach out to other companies, connect and build networks. It’s a place that is still very much in the making, which in turn is great for young companies that are just starting out. Plus, the countryside around is beautiful and Vienna is only a short train ride away. Moving our shop and offices into the Tabakfabrik was the biggest decision I ever made. But now we’re the cool young fashion company on the block. Before, we were just a small shop in Eferding that no one had ever heard of.
At what age did you found your company?
[Michaela] I joined when I was twenty-four.
Your work essentials:
[Klaus] I have come to appreciate a second screen. Plus wifi and my MacBook are non-negotiable.
[Michaela] Analog calendar for important information, to-dos and appointments.
Your most used app:
[Klaus] Apple Mail, and Trello is a big thing for us, too.
[Michaela] Pinterest and Instagram.
Your greatest skill:
[Klaus] Probably the enthusiasm and passion I feel for my company. Without it I couldn’t muster the energy that my job requires.
[Michaela] Versatility. It is a big advantage in a small company.
What’s the most valuable advice you’ve been given:
[Klaus] Try not to get lost in details, see the bigger picture. Not to lose focus on the thing that is most important right now. I have been given that advice and also passed it on many times.
[Michaela] Don't forget about yourself.
Main Photo by: Antje Wolm