Portrait - Willa Stoutenbeek
#CWCMUSE - interview by Linda Roos | cover photo by barbara de hosson
"Learning by doing"
“What did I want to be when I grew up? A fashion designer.” Willa laughs. That’s no surprise: both of Willa’s parents worked in the fashion industry. “My parents actually met when they were both very young and working at a luxury department store.” Willa Stoutenbeek is the founder of W.Green agency, a branding and communication agency with a focus on sustainable fashion and lifestyle.
However, Willa’s career didn’t start with W.Green. The ambitious fashion lover worked at different fashion stores before she eventually started working at SpicePR at the age of 21. “I knew the ins and outs of the fashion world. It came naturally to me.” Instead of studying, Willa began working at a very young age. “Eventually, even though I hadn’t studied marketing, one thing led to another.”
all photography by Oboshie Oduro
Trial and error
Willa began at SpicePR and after a few years, she found a job at Blue Blood. How did she become a fashion marketeer? “Learning by doing,” Willa explains. It’s a recurring theme in her career.
“I understood most of the concepts but I still had to learn the tricks of the trade. Nowadays, I see a lot of young people who study, graduate and eventually find themselves missing the practical experience they need in order to get a job. All of this theoretical knowledge is very useful but it is also essential to know how to put this knowledge into practice. This transition can be difficult.”
In the end, it’s all about doing. Just start somewhere. “Trial and error,” Willa laughs.
Unfortunately, during the crisis, many companies went through hard times, including Blue Blood. On top of that, the situation for Willa led to a burnout. “It was a turbulent period where many impactful things happened all at once. Blue Blood suffered from the crisis. To me, the Blue Blood team was like a family. Everyone at the brand was putting their heart and soul into their work. Maybe I was doing this even more myself because of a certain insecure feeling lingering underneath the surface.”
“Generally, I’m not a very insecure person but every now and again it dawned on me: ‘Wow, I’m really lucky that I got the opportunity to work here.’ because on paper it felt as if I didn’t deserve it. I think this thought was always somewhere in the back of my head. Especially if you’re more sensitive to these kinds of things. From the outside, I may come across as a tough cookie. However, I think the impact of the situation was bigger than I could have imagined.” It was the final straw.
Even though it was a tough time, Willa believes it also was a blessing in disguise because it led her to taking the step towards starting her own business. “I always thought that starting my own business just wasn’t for me. My parents were both business owners and I know how hard they always had to work. But, I also found out that having a ‘steady’ job isn’t always as steady and secure as it seems.”
Before Willa stepped into the world of entrepreneurship, she had interviews with several big fashion brands. “After a certain point, I realized that my ideas and beliefs didn’t really fit in anywhere. I could have worked there but only after I completely adjusted myself.” Willa knew in her heart that this wasn’t what she was supposed to do.
“When I look back, I understand how I have always adjusted myself to certain situations. I loved my job and my colleagues, but I was always the odd one, the ‘weirdo’ who insisted on having an organic lunch at the office, vegetarian options, talking about sustainability and leftwing politics. Things I believed to be very important, but the people around me didn’t always understand.”
“I always thought I had to choose between either fashion or sustainability—but couldn’t choose both.” Then, Willa discovered sustainable initiatives such as Studio JUX, Ranka brand and Charlie + Mary. “[Because of brands like these] I realized that there was a potential market for this combination.”
However, Willa discovered a pattern in the branding and visual communication of sustainable brands — they didn’t quite know how to market themselves in a visually strong manner. “There are so many interesting and awesome sustainable initiatives with beautiful stories, but they don’t know how to get the message behind their stories across.” During this time, Willa already knew how to develop a strong brand. This, in combination with her love for both fashion and sustainability, led her to founding W.Green agency.
“My mission is twofold—first of all, I want to provide a platform for brands that have more than a commercial interest and want to contribute something positive to the world.
Second of all, Willa explains she wants to inspire other brands to integrate sustainability as an important part of their business. “We provide them with the necessary information in order to trigger the mentality change they need.”
Having your own business also means making mistakes and dealing with setbacks. “I always try to move on, no matter what happens,” Willa says. Putting things into perspective is also an important part of this. “I ask myself, ‘What is the worst thing that could happen?’ This makes it easier to understand the context and discover the real issue.” Willa points out that while it might be tempting to ignore what’s really going on, “It’s always more important to face the facts and do something about it.”
No matter your expertise, making mistakes and accepting imperfections are an essential part of being an entrepreneur. “Sometimes it’s better to completely fail and get some repair work done, instead of waiting for, and wanting something to be perfect first.”
As an entrepreneur, it can be difficult to be true to yourself. Willa mentions that, “Someone recently told me that what makes me really me, is the fact that I’m always true to myself. For me, this is the only solution. No matter the circumstance, stay true to yourself.” Willa admits that from time to time, this can be a challenge. “Throughout the years I have therefore surrounded myself with people who help me go through these things. Most of the time, they tell me what I already know deep down on the inside.”
In situations where things don’t feel quite right, Willa is always honest. “Being honest and confronting other people might not be your favorite thing to do, but it is extremely important. Of course, sometimes people might get offended, upset or take the ‘criticism’ personally. Therefore, I try to explain that my statements aren’t anything personal. ”Challenging or confronting people has a function. You can only grow if you dare to step out of your comfort zone. Willa believes that being honest is the only way to figure out whether something has a future, whether it’s a collaboration, or a career opportunity.
“I could easily tell people what they want to hear, but in the end, this doesn’t serve me or the other person. I’d rather be honest and make sure the new relationship is a perfect match.”