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I Love Ugly founder Valentin Ozich on the power of brand collaborations

What’s a way to get noticed on the global stage when you’re from down under? Partner with some of the biggest in the business. I Love Ugly’s founder Valentin Ozich talks about the brand's recent collaborations with sneaker giant Onitsuka Tiger and Jansport.

After eight years spent dominating the New Zealand fashion scene’s spotlight, I Love Ugly kept a low profile the past year.

While some may have misjudged this as the brand laying low, in reality it was quite the opposite.

Behind the scenes, the I Love Ugly team have been busily working on a just-released collaboration with Onitsuka Tiger that was two years in the making.

Prior to that, it was Jansport that headhunted the Auckland-based brand to create some magic for a line of backpacks in 2015.

Founder Valentin Ozich says it’s I Love Ugly’s simplistic-but-sophisticated design ethos that has attracted these global brands to collaborate.

Simplicity is a core design principle the brand upholds, he says, whether it’s designing for I Love Ugly or for another company.

“Every time we do something, we ask ourselves why, for every little feature, nook and cranny, and make sure there’s a purpose for it,” he says.

There’s all these documentaries and ideas around minimalism and sophisticated simplicity. You don’t need a thousand features - people just want one or two features that serve a certain purpose.

Another advantage I Love Ugly can bring to the table is its independent, specialised style of designing products, he says.

“Our approach is an independently owned boutique brand and more of a design studio, than one that runs on mass production. That’s who we are at our foundation.”

New kicks

The limited edition sneaker range with Onitsuka was just released last month.

They’ve been rolled out online, in I Love Ugly’s two New Zealand stores, in Onitsuka flagship stores and in partner stores around the US.

For those unaware, Onitsuka Tiger is a heritage brand dating back to 1949, perhaps best known for the Mexico 66 shoe. It’s part of the wider Asics shoes corporation.

It also has ties to Nike’s co-founder, Phil Knight. Knight was so impressed by Onitsuka Tiger’s shoes when he visited Japan in 1963, he originally founded Nike to sell Onitsuka’s shoes in the US.

Later, he went back to Japan and headhunted engineers from Onitsuka who would go on to make the early iterations of Nike shoes.

Ozich says Onitsuka and I Love Ugly’s relationship began through its now-closed Los Angeles store, as representatives would come in and buy clothes from there all the time.

When the brand saw I Love Ugly’s work with backpack company Jansport, they invited Ozich to come take a look at its range of shoes and see if they wanted to work together on the design of them.

Ozich says in the streetwear market the brand is operating in, to collaborate on a sneaker puts a brand at the top of its game.

“It puts you on a pedestal. A lot of our brands and international competitors work with Puma and Nike,” he says.

Showing off the heritage

I Love Ugly was the first Australasian brand the Japanese giant has partnered with.

Ozich says I Love Ugly has never discussed where it’s from on the world stage, so when the collaboration with Onitsuka Tiger came about, it created the perfect way to subtly showcase it to the world through the sneaker’s aesthetic.

“It was about drawing in those geographical influences – volcanic rock, vast landscapes, open farmland, the big Southern Alps mountain ranges. It sounds a bit cheesy and off-brand, but I think we did a really good job of weaving it into our whole brand message and ethos,” Ozich says.

“It tells the customer base that we’re still thinking globally but we understand and want to connect with our local environment, and shows our New Zealand customers we are proud.”

The particular silhouette I Love Ugly chose to work with jumped out at Ozich because it had a sports and premium streetwear vibe.

From the concept stage, Ozich and his team didn’t alter the silhouette too much, but they played with the materials, the alloys, the look, the packaging and the marketing content surrounding the shoe’s release.

“We fully took control of it,” Ozich says. “It was like Jansport: ‘Here’s the framework or the skeleton of the idea – now add the meat to it.’ I think that’s the best way to do collaborations - working with an existing product, which that particular company does really well, and adding our flair or another layer on top of that.”

It’s in the bag

As mentioned before, I Love Ugly’s first foray into a global partnership was with backpack company Jansport in 2015.

Like its work with Onitsuka, Jansport gave I Love Ugly a silhouette to work with and let them take control of the rest of the creative process.

I Love Ugly did the materials, the lining, stripped features of the silhouette down and then created the marketing behind it.

The collaboration was a huge success, with 500 bags selling within the first 24 hours just on the online store. Another run of the product in August last year sold 5,000 bags.

What’s more, Ozich says I Love Ugly’s approach to design was instrumental at Jansport.

The [Jansport] president of design gave us a call and said we’d completely changed their whole design philosophy with the whole simplicity thing – everything you need, nothing you don’t. Minimalism is a core design principle we have, and they’re now applying it to their work.

Onwards and upwards

Collaborating with such globally well-known brands helps bring I Love Ugly’s work to fresh eyes across the world, Ozich says.

“Every time you work with a global partner like that, you get to exposed to hundreds of thousands more people,” he says.

Now that momentum is gaining, with the likes of Reebok knocking on I Love Ugly’s door, as well as a Canadian company called Frank and Oak that wants to work on facial products with the brand.

As well as this, Ozich says Supreme, a US-based streetwear brand, is looking at its partnership strategy and wanting to apply it to their own work.

He says in collaborations and also in a general business sense, taking a simplistic approach is key.

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.