The Heineken E.Africa Fashion Design Challenge – Interview With Mark Iterson, Global Head of Design Heineken


The Africa Inspired Fashion Challenge opened entry to an exciting global design project that invited emerging designers from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to become part of a creative journey to collaborate on, conceive and produce a Heineken fashion collection, truly Africa inspired.  10 designers were chosen to participate and this week they have been involved in a workshop,  with the winners going to Amsterdam and they will be showcasing their designs at the Lagos Fashion week later on this month.  The “Africa Inspired Fashion Challenge” is Heineken’s first design initiative in the region extending the brand’s commitment to design and innovation by enriching the consumer experience in bars and at events.

Tell us a bit about Heineken and fashion? Why decide to sponsor a fashion challenge? What does fashion have to do with beer?

First, of course, we sell beer, that’s our expertise. From the old days Mr Heineken, the original founder had a vision for the beer. He was so proud of the quality of beer, and he wanted it to stand out, to make it into a brand. He decided to put the beer into a green bottle when all the other bottles were brown, which was an early form of branding core to stand out. It made the beer to stand out, the bottle was easy to recognize, people could show it off that they could afford it and that they were connoisseurs. Even back then It was a premium beer and he took it to France and Amsterdam.

His Grandson said, “we don’t sell beer we sell enjoyment”. The Heineken experience is about having a beer together, a great night out and making new friends. It is about having a beer together with family and friends. It is about the enjoyment that happens when you have a beer together.

Today the way we position the brand it is about building the experience. It is partly designed, starting with the bottle and glass, ice buckets, trays, bars, the fashion of the bar staff and hospitality appeal. If it is about events, we do a lot of sponsorships. We put up a whole experience. We want people to go home and have a memory of an amazing night out.  Of course, a good beer is part of that. It’s about more, we are in business and it is about creating added value. If we would only have been at the level of only talking about the fantastic ingredients of the beer only, we would never have been the iconic, aspirational brand that we are.

It is our strategy of thinking beyond the beer, and creating the added value of the experience that’s good for the consumer and good for the business as well. Fashion is part of that.  It could be bar staff uniform and hospitality etc. In the bigger picture, we are always looking for creativity or people with ideas and designs that innovate, ideas that are progressive.

Heineken sets itself apart by being always progressive, forward looking and innovative. While the world of beer is quite traditional, in the sense that it is usually looking backwards, it is about heritage and tradition, copper kettles, craftsmanship and provenance (where does it come from.)   We have all that, we have the brewing process, heritage and we keep that alive because it is important in beer to have that authenticity but it is not what sets us apart. What sets us apart is our progressive, innovative drive. That is what all the other beer brands don’t have. Fashion design is close to that, with design you are always trying to come up with innovative ideas.

So, you are the Apple of the beer market?

That’s a nice flattering but right way to say it. At a creative festival, earlier this year the creative director told me “you are the NIKE of beers.” NIKE is more than sports shoes, it is a lifestyle and it is a complete mindset. Apple is a very similar, fantastic example. That’s what we try to be. That’s why we say it’s beyond beer, we keep pushing boundaries.

In designing all the  stuff we do, it’s important to get inspiration from everywhere. We try to make sure we understand what’s going on in society to understand trends, but also to be connected to the diverse cultures around the world. One of the ways to do that is organizing such programs, open design innovation competitions where we invite young talents to collaborate with us. Out of practicality, we must appoint 2 winners but we would love to take everybody to Amsterdam. It gives us the opportunity to see what these creative people from East Africa can do, what keeps them busy, how they approach the brand and what their cultures can offer. We can get inspiration and for consumers, they can be happy that there is a local element in Heineken. Yes, we are global, and we are universal, but with great sensitivity for what is locally going on, we try to be rooted in local culture.

Now that you have talked about apparel, how bar staff are dressed when doing events, is there a possibility of using what is designed here for different occasions?

Yes. But it depends on the exact usage of the apparel or objective for the occasion. Let me give an extreme example, In the supermarket, for a Heineken promo with promo boys/girls apparel needs to be something simple, simpler than what we will be designing here, something that is easily brand recognizable.

This will be more experimental, more infused with local culture and roots from here. The usage will be different.  It is more of a creative statement. This program will end at the Lagos fashion week, where it will be a fashion show, so it must have a fashion component.

I am sure it will then inspire us to use the results of this at other occasions where we think it is appropriate, and it might not necessarily be here. For example, for the UEFA Champions League Finals, we usually have a big hospitality event and we throw a big party for more than 1000 guests. We can use what we are creating now at that event to do something special, something that will make our guests say this is spectacular, something that only Heineken could do.

We have briefed the designers that what are creating should be inspired by Heineken. We have explained our values, about what “open your world “means, what the brand stands for, and the progressiveness. Open your world is open your mind, being curious about people and cultures. We have explained about the green colour and the star. We have explained that they shouldn’t have a big logo but they can use it subtly or in a subliminal way.

Are you doing this elsewhere? Or it’s an experimental thing that’s just here.

We do these sorts of programs on a regular basis. We did a series on bar design, fashion design, and graphic design. This time we are focusing on fashion design. We have chosen this region because we have a feeling there is so much emerging creativity, energy and a sort of new creative class arising here. We as the design team from Amsterdam are not familiar with them so we want to come here and meet the people and see what they do. So, we want to meet them. We have done this before in Brazil, Mexico, Tokyo, Eastern Europe and Singapore. In Africa, this is new for us and we choose East Africa because we saw there is something happening here. Our colleagues here have embraced the idea and so it is a collaborate effort. They said it is a fantastic opportunity for this region, the brand has great momentum and this is a cool opportunity to connect with the creative class, which is the sort of natural target group for Heineken. It could be that next year we are in West Africa, there is no reason why not. We are interested and open to get inspiration from all countries.


Mark Iterson with some of the participants of the Heineken Fashion Challenge

How many participants do you have?

There are 10 designers, 6 are Kenyans, 2 are Tanzanians and there are 2 Ugandans.  6 of the designers are women and 4 are men. All are between the ages of 22-29. They are all starting their businesses in the industry.

We wanted young emerging creatives. That is an age that is on the top of trends not just in fashion, but in music and other creative industries. We want to make it a two-way inspiration. We provide them with the program, a platform where they can kick start their careers and give them opportunities young designers don’t normally get, to work with brands like Heineken and get to go to Amsterdam for a week. Here and in Amsterdam, they will be working with experienced fashion designers who have been designing with Heineken fashion for many years and mentoring people in these kinds of programs.

Who are some of the top designers the finalists will be working with?

LEW is a fashion duo who are here right now. They are 2 ladies from Amsterdam who have their own fashion brand and studio and who worked for years with Heineken. In Amsterdam, they will also be able to work with graphic designers and industrial designers we work with, designers from different nationalities that we work with. They will be able to get cross pollination, not just in fashion but in other areas.

Diana  Opoti who is a fashion publicist will support them and they will be exposed to new networks. In the fashion world, the networks are important and they will be able to create new networks.

When we start something like this we will never know where it will go and what it will deliver. We don’t know who will join, but we are open and comfortable with that because you will find one or 2 great designers and a few average ones. So far, I am impressed by the quality of the people. Now they are sketching so I haven’t seen what they are making.  I am very confident in them, so it confirmed the idea that there is something bubbling in this region, something vibrant and interesting for us to get connected to.

How many applicants did you have? What were you looking for?

There were more than 200 applications. We only had a week but we used social media to spread the information. We didn’t have a long time because of the issue of the Lagos Fashion week. We were targeting young designers.  The contestants were chosen based on their portfolio, and not because they had attended fashion school. We were looking at what they have produced to gauge their potential. We really wanted to give a chance to young, talented people so it wasn’t about the papers. Many of them are in fashion school

What are you looking for in the finalists? What is it that will make somebody to go to Amsterdam.

That’s a difficult question. It’s always difficult to start comparing. In the end, it all comes down to originality. We are looking for something truly original, and in an unexpected new way that combines both East African values and Heineken values. It doesn’t have to be traditional, it could have elements and we challenge them that they don’t have to use traditional Kitenge but they can reinvent it. You have to somehow know that it comes from here.  It must have a wow effect. This is such an innovative idea I wish I had thought of it but I hadn’t. the jury consists fashion experts from here who are trained in fashion concepts and judging it and know what to look for, so we leave it in their hands. Fashion experts- watching fashion concepts.

Are you doing any other creative projects in the region?

This is the only project we are doing right now. It is quite labour intensive, it is not a marketing trick that can be replicated and it is tailor made. We wouldn’t be able to do this everywhere. But there are other things going on elsewhere.

What’s the likelihood that you will repeat this program here? Or do another

We have a history in it, so we are likely to do it again in a unique way. Fashion all around the world is a leading creative industry. I have a feeling that it is where the design statements are being made. Two hundred years ago it was in painted art like Rembrandt or Picasso. I say nowadays its fashion. Fashion is close to people, it expresses your individuality, and it is accessible to everybody, you can make your own stuff. It is so democratic, human thing. If it works well I will consider it very soon doing it somewhere else, because we are global and we are all about opening our world. The more places we get inspiration from, the more interesting the collection will become.

You have done these programs before. Are there any truly global designers who have emerged? Designers who started with Heineken.

We have continued working with some of the designers. For example, Lee is a product interior designer from New York. He designed a large part of the concept club that we developed for the Milan Fashion week as a sort of innovation showcase and trying new concepts. 3 months later my colleagues in Singapore called about a new bar which they had an opportunity to design called Altitude One, the highest rooftop bar in Singapore.  I told them Lee understands bar design because he was so good and the brand and I recommended him. Lee was hired, spent a month there designing it for them. That’s one example.

There was also a Fashion designer from Brazil who designs shoes. Immediately after he designed for us some spectacular shoes. He was hired by Havayansa to be the lead designer. That was his dream job and he is always emailing me about what he is doing, showing me new shoes.

There was an open design challenge about envisioning the future bottle of Heineken for the 140th anniversary. The brief was simple – over the last 140 years we have brought people together over a beer. Show us how you would envision us doing it for the next 140 years. There was a design student from Mexico who was still in university. He designed a star, but it was not just a star but it was all the continents of the world pushed together in the shape of a star, symbolizing uniting the world over a Heineken. It was so symbolic, that until today we are still using it. We use it for the festive season packaging, use it in the annual report, this year it was the special bottle design for the UK this summer and it also appeared in Worlds Apart (people with different points of view brought together to build a bar) and it was the graphic representation of that program. He was hired by the design agency who do most of the design work for us in Mexico, they were opening a branch in Mexico.

Are you planning to have a similar competition next year?

I am currently not planning to, but it’s up to the team here. They will have to evaluate how it worked. They could decide to do something similar or something totally different.  Part of how we work is that we never repeat ourselves because of progress and innovation, then it becomes less interesting and less exciting. We can do a different concept, then that is original. We do not repeat something, we might do something in a unique way. We like to innovate, we can do something like bar furniture.

You are taking the winners to Amsterdam and then to Lagos? Are you planning to have a showing here because that is important?

There is a lot of media who will cover it here. But I think that’s valid. I don’t know yet but that is such an easy good win that was has been designed here and showcased in Lagos can be shown here. The team is thinking about it but it is hard to know because we don’t know what we will end up with.  We have to wait for the process to end in order to know how to use the designs for the Heineken experience.

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