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I Love Ugly founder Valentin Ozich on the good, the bad and the ugly

It’s been nine years since mens clothing label I Love Ugly shook up the fashion scene in New Zealand and since then, there’s been highs and lows along the way. After keeping a low profile for the past year, the brand is back with a vengeance – and a collaboration with global sneaker giant Onitsuka Tiger. 

Last year was a quiet year for men’s streetwear label I Love Ugly, if previous years are anything to go by.

The brand begun in 2008, with founder Valentine Ozich originally envisioning illustration and design collective that would profile musicians and artists around the world.

Clothing became the choice of creative outlet instead, and the minimalistic, on-trend menswear catapulted into the consciousness of young Kiwi males.

Its first store opened in Mount Eden in 2012, while that same year, I Love Ugly bet out Kowtow Clothing and Ingrid Starnes to win a $10,000 DHL Express Fashion Export Scholarship.

In 2014, it was one of the only fashion retailers amongst a sea of tech companies to make the Deloitte Fast 50.

Riding on a wave of success and great press, it seemed I Love Ugly could do no wrong. It expanded rapidly into the US and Australian markets with its bricks-and-mortar stores in 2015, snapping up prime real estate in Los Angeles and Melbourne.

But later that year, I Love Ugly hit a snag when its men’s jewellery campaign imagery came under heavy criticism due to the explicit nature of the photographs, which featured naked women.

Consumer backlash was swift, with an official ASA complaint was lodged. After initially responding with an identical campaign with the gender roles reversed, I Love Ugly withdrew the advertisements and offered forward an apology.

Speaking candidly in a sit-down interview, Ozich says the brand made the mistake of buying into its own hype a bit.

“Something within our culture is constant, never-ending improvement and looking at what we did wrong, but also what we did right. It’s being humble enough to know when we made a mistake,” he says.

“We became a lot humbler [after the ring incident] and we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Reflecting on the experience two years later, Ozich describes it as a catalyst for change within the company.

“The ring campaign was real controversial. The fact we stuck our neck and got really cut - it scared us a little bit. We almost used it as an opportunity to reset, as this project [Onitsuka Tiger collaboration] has been nearly two years in the making,” he says.

“For any artist, brand, company or musician, every six years or so you almost come to the end of your life cycle and you have to reflect and look at everything you’re doing and have to go in with a fresh perspective and re-approach everything with a different way of thinking.”

Valentin Ozich.

A renaissance of sorts

The brand’s quiet past year has drawn speculation from media outlets and consumers that something is amiss at the company.

Ozich says a reduced number of advertising campaigns last year gave the impression that the company was laying low.

But while I Love Ugly wasn’t as active as previously in the public eye, a lot of changes were going on behind the scenes.

After the lease on its LA and Melbourne stores increased, the decision was made to pull out of the international marketplace and lean down the business.

“The leases grew exponentially and it was a chance to ask ourselves, ‘Okay, what is the actual purpose here?’ The original purpose was to have presence in those markets. I think we achieved that and we probably would’ve without that expenditure,” Ozich says.

We spent over $1.5 million on it and we lost all that money. If we had more governance within our business we could’ve avoided that mistake, but at the same time, with how we work and our personalities, we always go out and give stuff a go, if it doesn’t work we’ll quickly recover and scale back.

I Love Ugly’s team was also restructured internally to adjust to the losses. Head office now has seven staff, while including staff in its Auckland and Wellington stores brings the total number to around 14. 

Digital first

Since the bricks-and-mortar closures, there’s been no decline on its US online sales, Ozich says.

The US is still its fastest growing online region, as well as the number one country it ships to online.

This reflects the brand’s new strategy going forward, which is a strong digital presence with just a few physical stores.

Ozich says I Love Ugly got caught up in the traditional way of doing retail business, but the old model doesn’t work for them.

“What we understand now is majority of our customers don’t shop at bricks and mortar. There’s still going to be a portion of people enjoy that experience, but we look at those two stores not as mistakes, but as opportunities to reflect on our business model and change it.

People will continue to open expensive real estate. Our counter-argument is, is it actually needed? Or are you much better off to think of something cleverer digitally and reach 100 times more people for less effort and less risk?

Ozich says the decision to focus more on online and pull back from its international bricks-and-mortar stores, as well as some suppliers, was not an easy decision by any means.

“We cut all these stores and all this distribution – it’s still money, and still dropping our topline revenue by about $3 million, which is a lot, but we had the balls to think ‘Okay, this isn’t getting us closer to our goal, this is taking us further away from our goal.’

“We believe that by doing this, what we do do is only going to be better. There’s a lot to be said for that - a lot of companies don’t have the courage to make those bold calls but we do.”

I Love Ugly is now heading back to basics with what it was doing in the beginning: Less distribution to suppliers and more exclusivity via its own channels, with limited quantities of stock and a first in, first served type strategy.

It also won’t release stock season by season, but regularly every couple of months.

“We’re keeping it simple: A few stores, focusing on online, working with amazing brands and doing amazing collaborations with a clear marketing message – it’s not that difficult,” Ozich says.

“People try to layer things with complications thinking its going to lead to success, but what we’ve realised is simplicity is best in product and also in business.”

The new beautiful

It’s clear that right from the beginning, I Love Ugly has always set itself challenging goals.

Ozich says when he was starting out, he wanted New Zealand to be famous for four things: The All Blacks, Lord of The Rings, Air New Zealand and I Love Ugly.

“That was our audacious goal in the beginning, but I think it’s those big audacious goals that keep you on track, when you do have those moments like, ‘What the fuck is the point?’ They realign you and put you back on the path where you want to go.”

I Love Ugly may not have the same global profile as the Lord Of The Rings yet, but the brand does have a large international following, boasting the most Instagram followers out of any New Zealand menswear brand (260,000).

Stars like Justin Bieber or Jared Leto would stroll in and buy a pair of pants from the Los Angeles store, Ozich says, while Hollywood stylists were regular customers.

The shop was also regularly frequented by Onisuku Tiger representatives, which led to I Love Ugly’s collaboration with them (part two on this coming soon).

Now, its remaining New Zealand stores act as a ‘public showroom’ to tourists for the brand, while Showroom 22 PR manager Amanda Nakarmi says I Love Ugly clothes are always hotly requested by visiting stars.

For the business’ plan going forward, Ozich says I Love Ugly isn’t limiting itself to one particular category, like fashion.

Instead, it’s taking a more innovative approach like what he envisioned in the very beginning, with anything from grooming products to ‘I Love Ugly TV’ potentially on the horizon.

“Whether it’s an actual product or whether it’s a label for musicians or a creative agency, with the ideas we have, with the values we have and the way we look at different things, there’s a whole lot of scope for new ideas in the future,” he says.

We look at ourselves as a marketing company that makes great products. We’re not a wholesale, distribution, old-school clothing company – that’s almost secondary.