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The seeds of growth through generations

Photographs of Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer


Hallmarks of an entrepreneurial spirit

C&A Brenninkmeijer poster, Summer 1902 (Draiflessen Collection)


Journeying to new frontiers

C&A Brenninkmeijer Store On Nieuwendijk In Amsterdam, The Netherlands 1893 (Draiflessen Collection)


Entrepreneurial endurance

Warehouse Filled With Ready To Wear Clothing By C&A (Draiflessen Collection)


Part of something bigger

An Early Ledger Belonging To Clemens And August



Entrepreneurial endurance

1841 onwards

Values-based success

One step back, many steps forward

Inevitably, there have been setbacks along the way. That’s part of doing business, of being entrepreneurial. At COFRA, we know that every venture is an opportunity – either to succeed, or to learn for the future. Over 180 years, there have been many such opportunities. Responding to them, the family owners grew the business in ways that Clemens and August, C&A’s founders, would never have recognised. New countries, new continents and new activities have transformed it from what was once a local fashion retailer in a small town in the Dutch province of Friesland into a global, diversified, multi-sector operation that today directly employs over 74,000 people.

What Clemens and August would have recognised though are the shared values that continue to drive COFRA’s approach to doing business even today: the courage to think long term, the commitment to doing good and the importance of preserving and growing the business for future generations.

Zug Office

COFRA Head Office, Zug, Switzerland

1880s onwards

Surviving crisis

The importance of the long term

The business has been responding to the challenges and opportunities of history for over 180 years – a period that includes the economic crises of the 1880s, 1929, the early 1980s, 2008 and two world wars. The agricultural depression that hit the Dutch rural province of Friesland in the 1880s led C&A to expand beyond local markets. Post-1918 political and economic instability in Germany was one reason C&A opened in the UK in 1922. The Great Depression of 1929 showed the importance of having the courage to take a long-term vision, to hold a steady course by controlling costs, and offer even more value for money. Within a few years, C&A was again opening new stores in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany. More recently, C&A was able to navigate the high inflation and record unemployment of the early 1980s. By the middle of the decade, it was market leader in Germany and expanding into more and more new countries.

Survival was never a given. Looking back, it helped that the business owners took a long-term view, seeing beyond the immediate challenges of a crisis to the opportunities ahead. That they had a shared mission, shared values and a shared commitment to pass on the business to future generations in the spirit of good stewardship. And that they could draw on a centuries’ old tradition of being in business.

C&A Store In Newcastle, UK, Opened 1932 (Draiflessen Collection)

C&A store in Newcastle, UK, opened 1932 (Draiflessen Collection)


The First World War

And post-war expansion

On the eve of the First World War, C&A had eight branches in the Netherlands and five in Germany. Initially, the war had little effect on business. The Netherlands remained neutral. However, the Dutch stores soon ran into problems sourcing supplies from Germany. C&A’s novel answer was to start manufacturing its own garments. In Germany, C&A sold only ladieswear and children’s clothing – for which demand remained fairly steady during the war. As the military and economic situation became increasingly desperate, clothing was regulated. With sales down, no new branches opened in either Germany or the Netherlands. Within a few years of the war ending, C&A was again planning for long-term expansion, opening new stores in both countries. In 1922, C&A opened its first store in the UK.

C&A Advertisement Letting Customers Know They Don't Need A Ration Card To Buy Garments Already In Stock

C&A advertisement letting customers know they don't need a ration card to buy garments already in stock (Draiflessen Collection)



Troubled times in World War II

The Second World War wrought divisions in the family and the businesses in the Netherlands, the UK and Germany. Differences arose in particular with how to respond to the regime of the Third Reich. Decades later, it’s difficult to comprehend the pressures and context in which decisions were taken, but it’s clear that some of the actions of the business leaders in Germany fell well below acceptable standards of morality and decency.

To understand this period of company history better, and to establish the facts, the family owners enlisted the help of Professor Mark Spoerer from the University of Regensburg. His work unearthed some distressing evidence of cooperation with the Nazi Party which went beyond normal compliance with a domineering regime into opportunism. The family owners feel great shock and remorse at this failure to live by the values at the heart of the enterprise.

Warehouse Filled With Ready To Wear Clothing By C&A (Draiflessen Collection)

Warehouse filled with ready-to-wear clothing by C&A (Draiflessen Collection)


Land of opportunity?

Expansion into America

More than a third of C&A’s 56 stores in Europe were destroyed by air raids in the Second World War. Production limits, rationing and price regulation during and after the conflict combined with a slow economic recovery throughout Europe meant the business faced an uphill struggle and had to look elsewhere for opportunities to grow.

The United States was an obvious candidate for expansion, and in 1948 the family rolled out its first C&A store in Brooklyn, New York. This was followed two years later by a flagship store on Fifth Avenue. The formula didn’t work. Fierce competition and established differences in the local retail industry proved insurmountable. After several attempts to crack the code, the two remaining C&A stores in the US closed in 1964.

C&A Brenninkmeijer Store In New York, USA 1948 (Draiflessen Collection)

C&A Brenninkmeijer store in New York, USA 1948 (Draiflessen Collection)


Maastricht and the Single Market

Advantages of scale

The 1990s were a watershed in the history of European integration and globalisation. The creation of a single European market of over 400 million consumers brought significant challenges and opportunities to all businesses. Anticipating this, in 1990 C&A set up a single European buying company. Convinced that C&A’s mission to serve its customers could now best be achieved by moving from an autonomous country-based organisation, the individual C&A countries united in transferring to it responsibility for all C&A buying. The result: advantages of scale across the new single market created by the Treaty of Maastricht. This process of rationalisation, simplification and centralisation continued in 1995 with the birth of C&A Europe to coordinate the activities of the separate C&A countries. One market, one C&A.

Eu Flag


One door closes, others open

C&A pulls out of the UK

One of the hardest decisions at the turn of the new millennium was to close C&A in the UK – one of the oldest markets. People made significant personal sacrifices during this period of consolidation, but the business emerged stronger and more professional. The UK remains an important market for COFRA’s businesses – for example, retail destinations acquired there still form an important part of Redevco’s property portfolio.

T Shirt Commemorating The Closing Of C&A In The UK In 2001

T-shirt commemorating the closing of C&A in the UK in 2001

env name: Production