If founders Clemens and August were around today, what would they make of the business? The world has changed so much in the years since they started out as young entrepreneurs – no doubt there would be some surprises – but lots of it would feel familiar too.
The dynamism and ambition that initiated the story is the same force that continues to amaze customers and expand the business. The values that underpin everything are as strong today as they ever were. The past can be a source of pride and inspiration – from deep roots grow tall trees – but like any innovative company, COFRA looks forward.
The C&A that people know and recognise really began to take shape when a family owner called Bernhard Joseph had a very simple idea – sell an overcoat for the price of an average weekly wage. It may sound run-of-the-mill today, but at the turn of the 20th Century, when most shops catered for the very wealthy and the average family had to save for weeks and months for such an item, this was nothing short of revolutionary. The concept of making fashionable clothing available to all was born
C&A’s logo is simple, immediately recognisable and instantly associated by millions with the high-street fashion retailer. It has evolved over more than a century, but remains largely true to its original design. The characteristic oval first appeared in 1913, and continued to be used until 2020. In that year, the colour scheme reverted to a clean, simple red and white / black and white. What remains are the two iconic letters, a confident and authentic recognition of C&A’s heritage and its vision of the future.
In 1911, the youngest son of August (also named Clemens) and his nephew Richard opened the first store in Germany, on the old Königstrasse near today’s Alexanderplatz in Berlin. It was the company’s tenth store, and a natural move given the German roots of the family and the presence of many of their ready-to-wear apparel suppliers in Berlin. It was an overnight sensation thanks to its fixed price tags, cash-only purchasing and one-year guarantee, which was unheard of in the market at the time. After initial surprise, even disbelief, this new approach to retail became an unprecedented success.
In the Netherlands, C&A was one of the first retailers to recognise the power of advertising to attract customers. When C&A decided to open its first German store in Berlin in 1911, it launched an elaborate advertising campaign to win over the public. The campaign began two weeks before the opening, employing richly varied designs, imaginative ideas and humour, but also a kind of dramatic plot to create a sense of excitement. This was a refreshing novelty at a time of sober compositions and price lists, and gave C&A a recognisable and authentic voice. The campaign was an immediate hit, and in an advertisement placed after the grand opening on 18 March 1911 C&A proudly announced it had earned 3,600 marks in the first three hours.
With C&A sourcing a lot of its garments locally, especially in Germany, the upheavals of the First World War disrupted supply chains. C&A took the unusual step of establishing in-house production to keep its stores stocked. It built its own factories, first in the Netherlands in 1918 and then in Germany in 1921. In 1927 it did the same in the UK. By the 1920s, in-house production accounted for 20-30% of C&A’s sales. In 1933 C&A became the first clothing manufacturer in the UK to introduce assembly line technology in its factories, creating jobs beyond just its stores. By 1938 its London factory was the largest ladieswear factory in Britain. From the 1960s, in a development characteristic of the apparel manufacturing sector as a whole, production was increasingly outsourced, and finally discontinued in the UK.
Until the First World War, it was usual to have separate stores for menswear and ladieswear – for a man to set foot in a ladieswear store was considered inappropriate. After the war, C&A became the first Dutch textile retail chain to integrate its menswear stores into its ladieswear stores – another example of how C&A democratised Dutch fashion in the early twentieth century. The majority of its customers were women, so it made good sense. And the strategy proved successful, enabling each C&A store to serve the whole family. Before long, the idea had also been adopted by C&A in Germany, and by other retailers.
In Germany, right from the start, C&A used an advertising agency run by Kurt Lisser. It was for C&A Germany that he designed the famous C&A logo. And it was Lisser who in 1930 introduced a new advertising concept: the “C&A page” designed as a newspaper, an early form of “advertorial”. In Germany, C&A began to advertise in cinemas as early as 1931, and on the radio in 1933. C&A was one of the first companies to use colour advertisements. After the Second World War, C&A significantly expanded its advertising in printed media in both Germany and the UK. By the 1950s, C&A was the UK’s biggest advertiser, famous for its double-page spreads in the Friday evening papers.
The 60s, 70s and 80s were an age of optimism at C&A, with rapid international expansion and a host of trend-setting inventions helping to amaze customers and lead the way in fashion retail. Over a period of 20 years, stores opened in Belgium, France, Spain, Brazil, Switzerland, Japan, Luxembourg and Austria among others. As fashions like the bikini, miniskirt and Hawaiian shirt burst onto the scene, C&A was quick to offer them up to a mass market.
Perhaps the most exciting innovations came in the way C&A was changing retail. Spacious modern stores with escalators, multiple cash registers, standardised sizing and self-service turned shopping from a transaction into an experience. Partnerships with celebrity endorsers and designers like Twiggy, Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld were way ahead of their time and helped turn C&A into a household name, known and loved around the world.
Over the years, Redevco, one of Europe’s largest privately owned real estate investment managers, has developed innovative research strategies to identify those cities most likely to remain or evolve into vibrant urban centres. Centres that will attract and retain the consumer of the future. This helps Redevco find the right location for its tenants – just one way Redevco is supporting retailers in a fast-changing urban landscape.
Redevco seeks to make cities more sustainable and more interesting places in which to live, work and play. One way is by creating vibrant mixed-use urban spaces offering the right combination of residential, working, shopping and leisure activities. They have recognised opportunities of mixed-use and residential real estate as in One Tower Bridge (London, 2019) and, more recently, in Le 31 (Lille, 2021). Le 31 is a carefully curated iconic, multifunctional concept set to reinvigorate Lille’s city centre by creating a sustainable community.
Inspired by an idea among the family business owners and with an initial grant from founding partner Laudes Foundation (formerly C&A Foundation), Fashion for Good was established in 2017 - welcoming C&A as its first corporate partner. It believes fashion can be a force for good. Its aim is simple, but far reaching: to unite apparel producers, retailers, suppliers, non-profit organisations, innovators and funders to transform the apparel business into an industry that produces not just good fashion, but also fashion for good. By enabling the innovation and widespread adoption of good materials, good economy, good energy, good water and good lives. By sparking and scaling technologies and business models with the potential to change the sector. And by sharing what it learns with the whole apparel sector.
In 2017, C&A was the first retailer worldwide to launch Gold Level Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Certified™ T-shirts – designed to last, then be recycled and to help us all contribute to more sustainable fashion. Since then many more certified products have appeared in C&A stores around the world. In 2018, C&A became the first to offer jeans that are completely Cradle to Cradle Certified™ at the Gold level.
Pushing the boundaries of sustainability even further, in 2020, C&A launched the world’s most sustainable denim – Cradle to Cradle Certified™ at Platinum level, the first fabric ever to receive this rating. Another step in C&A’s journey towards circular fashion. Now fashion really can be cyclical. #wearthechange
Redevco, COFRA’s real estate investment management business, is supporting research into how circularity can be incorporated into the urban environment. Where possible, Redevco itself selects building materials according to cradle-to-cradle principles, as in the redevelopment of the Leaf retail park in Ternat, Belgium. Here, 50,000 tons of material from the old site were recycled for use in the new construction. Redevco has also made sure the new structure can be dismantled and its components relocated and reused. Through circularity in action, Redevco is aiming for a BREEAM “Excellent” certificate for the Leaf, the highest possible sustainability rating for a retail asset.
In 2020, COFRA and Redevco, its real estate investment management business, together launched a major renewable energy generation project using solar panels. The idea is simple and compelling: scaling up renewable energy by installing solar panels on the roofs and carparks of Redevco’s retail parks. That’s a lot of space. And a lot of clean energy. By the end of 2021, these panels will be generating enough solar power to supply the equivalent of around 2,500 homes. It’s all part of Redevco’s commitment to making its entire portfolio net zero carbon by 2040. And to reducing its impact on climate change.
C&A began in-house production in response to shortages during the First World War. It was also a way to ensure its high quality standards could be maintained. In the 1960s, fashion production throughout the industry moved overseas. Now, in 2021, almost 50 years later, C&A has announced plans to open a “Factory for Innovation in Textiles” (FIT) in Mönchengladbach, Germany. This is part of C&A’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint and leading the industry evolution to more sustainability. The CO2-neutral factory combines innovation with sustainability, relying solely on green energy, recycling materials and employing advanced technology to reduce waste. It’ll eventually produce over 800,000 pairs of jeans every year.
There’s a certain nostalgia to bringing garment production back to a city whose early history was shaped by the textile industry. More importantly, it’s a significant step in C&A’s commitment to sustainability as it innovates for the future, for our planet and for generations to come.