The world-renowned textiles brand, Jakob Schlaepfer, was incorporated into the St Gallen-based Forster Rohner Group almost four years ago. With a focus on creative teamwork, the company is now opening the next chapter in its more than a hundred years of existence.
For the past 115 years, Jakob Schlaepfer has been supplying the fashion world from its premises in St Gallen with highly creative and striking materials for the haute couture and up-market ready-to-wear segments. Its product range is characterised by exclusive creations that break new ground in terms of both design and production. This product mix has made Jakob Schlaepfer an absolute world leader. Each year, around 1,200 new ideas leave the ateliers in St Gallen. The clientele includes global brands such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton, avant-gardists like Comme des Garçons and Vivienne Westwood, classic brands such as Ralph & Russo, and newcomers such as Talbot Runhof.
The history of Jakob Schlaepfer has been characterised by periods of turbulence and turning points, the last of which occurred almost four years ago when Filtex Group (St Gallen) sold the brand to embroidery specialist Forster Rohner. Jakob Schlaepfer was integrated into Filtex in 1997. Following its sale to Forster Rohner, it not only became an integral part of a much larger group of companies, but also moved from the west to the east side of St Gallen, where it is now operated as an autonomous PLC under the umbrella of Forster Rohner.
In the view of Emanuel Forster, who since 2007 has been responsible for the activities of Forster Rohner together with his sister Caroline, the option of acquiring Jakob Schlaepfer was a stroke of luck: “Jakob Schlaepfer fits in perfectly with our corporate strategy of uniting several brands under a single roof that complement one another ideally.” This applies to the market segment served by Jakob Schlaepfer, as well as the latter’s creativity and the materials that are typical of the brand. The group’s portfolio also includes Forster Willi, Interspitzen and Forster Rohner.
The aim behind the takeover of Jakob Schlaepfer was not only to integrate the world-renowned brand into the Forster Rohner group, but also to benefit from a generation change in its creative studio: shortly after the move, creative director Martin Leuthold retired after 44 years of service at Jakob Schlaepfer. Emanuel Forster: “Martin Leuthold is an important part of the company’s history. He was its figurehead and role model.” His retirement meant the loss of an indispensable colleague. For many people, he was the creative body and soul of the brand.
Instead of looking for a replacement, the Forster Rohner Group decided to focus on team performance, which ultimately represents the decisive moment in every textiles company, as the new driving force behind the Jakob Schlaepfer brand. “We no longer wanted to focus on a single employee. Instead, we decided to represent the creative output of the company as what it truly is, namely the accomplishment of a collective,” explains Emanuel Forster. Thus the responsibilities that had been in the hands of one person for so long are now shared by the members of a team. “This is beneficial for the stability of the company, and also enhances the self-assurance of the creative team,” he adds.
Grace Lomas, who studied textile design at the renowned Central St Martins College in London, is now head of the embroidery and sequinned products section. Long-term employees Rahel Flury and Yvonne Gradl are jointly in charge of the handicrafts and special machinery section on a job sharing basis. Eva Günter, who until a year ago was the personal assistant of world-famous fashion designer Mary Katrantzou in London, is responsible for the printing department. As before, Bernhard Duss is responsible for the décor section of Jakob Schlaepfer. Claudia Schreiber’s task is to ensure that the collection receives a uniform and powerful colour definition.
Moritz Ahrens is responsible for coordinating the administration of the design studio, which functions as the interface between the parent company, the production section and the creative division. He studied fashion design in Hamburg, obtained a Master’s in multichannel trade management and subsequently worked for Hussein Chalayan in London. As a “creative person with a business streak” he understands the needs of designers as well of the company. “My task is to find a balance between creative restlessness and entrepreneurial composure,” explains the man from North Germany. Creativity not only calls for teamwork, it is also always the result of cooperation between the production department, clients and external suppliers.
Jakob Schlaepfer works on a seasonal basis with four themes that represent contemporary impulses and worlds of colour. “Under our label we have to constantly come up with outstanding creations,” says Emanuel Forster, “and for this purpose we have to meet three main criteria: a design idea, the right material and the necessary technology. For example, this cannot simply be an embroidered sequin. It has to be three dimensional, printed on or otherwise manipulated.” This results in the development of highly intensive and striking materials which are already works of art in their own right, before a fashion designer has even made a single cut in them.
It is not only its own collections that have made Jakob Schlaepfer so successful, but also the customised products that are created in St Gallen. Anyone visiting the studios and production halls comes across world-famous brand names every few metres. The creative team draws inspiration from these brands and themes, and develops textile solutions, sometimes within just a few days or weeks.
As is so often the case in the textiles industry, this concerns not only the development of a new product, but also the associated technologies and machines. Here, parent company Forster Rohner possesses the necessary experience as well as a global network of production sites. “Thanks to its integration into our group, Jakob Schlaepfer is able to do a lot more internally and thus attain greater value-added,” says Emanuel Forster. As the CEO explains, in-house production has increased considerably: “We now produce more and more internally, and this is essentially in line with our philosophy.”
Jakob Schlaepfer is able to enrich the parent house not only in entrepreneurial and strategic terms, but also as a creative force. The integration of the 50 employees has resulted in a wind of change at the premises in Flurhofstrasse. And designers looking for ideas at Forster Rohner now have a variety of collections of samples at their disposal. For example, in one outfit in the current autumn/winter collection of Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons there are materials created by both Jakob Schlaepfer and Forster Rohner. A distinction can only be made by an insider. In the view of Emanuel Forster, this is how it should be: “It is in the nature of our industry to exercise restraint. After all, we are suppliers of materials.” During a Chanel show the focus is entirely on the products presented by Chanel, “not on the question as to which materials were produced by Jakob Schlaepfer or Forster Rohner.”
We do more and more in-house, that is our philosophy in general.
JAKOB SCHLAEPFER AG
The story of Jakob Schlaepfer AG begins in 1904 with the establishment of Stickerei Rudolf Vogel, into which Jakob Schläpfer was incorporated four years later. The company was subsequently renamed Vogel & Séquin. In 1934, Jakob Schläpfer took over the company in its entirety and gave it his own name, though now using the internationally recognisable form “ae” (instead of the German “ä”). His son Robert joined the company in 1945, and in 1950 the first ready-to-wear collection was shown. In 1957 the company was given its unmistakeable logo – a stylised peacock. In 1953 it purchased a worldwide patent for industrial sequin embroidery on shuttle embroidery machines. From now on, sequins would be the trademark of Jakob Schlaepfer, who increasingly focused on customising specialities to meet the requirements of haute couture. In the mid-1990s, Jakob Schlaepfer won numerous design awards throughout the world, was sold to Meiss & Bolte, and just two years later to Filtex textiles group. In 2004, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the company, the Swiss National Museum in Zurich held an exhibition called “Bling Bling – Dream Materials from St Gallen”. In 2013, long-serving creative director Martin Leuthold was awarded the Swiss Design Grand Prix for his lifetime work. In 2016, Forster Rohner acquired the Jakob Schlaepfer brand and now operates it as an autonomous PLC. Following the retirement of Martin Leuthold, the studio was placed in the hands of a team of specialists. In September 2019, the Jakob Schlaepfer team was awarded the Premier Vision Award Imagination Prize 2019, the world’s most renowned award in the field of textile design.