An Interview with Desiree Kleinen of Ree Projects

When I featured a two-part series on Black-owned handbag brands to support, one of the brands that I was drawn most personally to was Ree Projects. The structural design elements paired with the almost geometric-like lines combine to form a nearly sculpture-like perfection in each design.

Ree Projects was founded by Amsterdam based designer Desiree Kleinen in 2016 and in 2019, the brand launched globally. Kleinen came from a long fashion design background, working at different international fashion houses before deciding to start her own label. While many skills were learned in her two decades of experience at these luxury labels, Kleinen long had a penchant for creating and making soap baskets at the age of 8. Ree Projects bags can be described as distinctive, as each fuses architectural lines with functional elegance. While some offer more of an on trend element, like fringe, majority stick to a clean and sleek aesthetic.

Ree Projects is a new brand to watch, with more etailers picking up the line to expand the reach to a wider audience. We wanted to see some of the bags in person and chat with Desiree Kleinen to learn more about her and her brand. Shop Ree Projects bag at Farfetch, Luisaviaroma and at ReeProjects.com.

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Tell us how you got started
I made my first bag at the age of 8. My grandmother taught me how to make soap baskets. I was making them and selling them door to door in our neighborhood.

I wanted a creative job – working in fashion was always what I wanted to do and so I did. Being creative is how I want to express myself and I use it as a way to share my soul with the world, without it I am not okay. It is my own unique contribution to make the world a bit more beautiful and I love it!

After 2 decades of industry experience, honing my skills as a design consultant at fashion houses like Karl Lagerfeld, Balmain and Faith Connexion, I wanted to follow my own path. It was a longtime dream to have my own brand. With all the experience I gained at these fashion houses, it was time to do it myself. I wanted to connect and be more close to my product and the process. Focus on design and quality rather than quantity.

You spent time at other labels before starting your own. What did you notice was missing in the market?
I was missing well-thought design: unique, wearable and quality product for accessible price points.

Describe the design elements you use in each bag
I create bags with pure shapes and distinctive constructions. Effortless with a focus on quality and functional elegance. The design elements in my bags are the use of folds, like the folded gussets as a kind of organic movement in the bag. Interior parts that become part of the exterior and hardware that is part of the construction of a bag like the iconic piece Tess. The use of contrast colored linings. These are the elements that I repeatedly use in my bags and are recognizable for a Ree Projects bag.

Walk us through conception to final product in one of your designs
It often starts with a gut feel or a sense for a certain shape or movement in a bag like the Helene tote for example. This bag derived from the bag Tess’s construction. Tess was very constructed, so I felt the need to make a softer and lighter construction with the same movement of the gusset. It can also start with a certain texture, color or proportion. I question myself what kind of bag I would need at that moment. From there I start doing my research and make a form and material study. After that I’ll make sketches and prototypes in-house and with my development team in Italy. Making the prototypes is where the magic happens, the moment when the idea and sketch turns in an actual shape. It always takes a few prototypes to fine tune every detail. Sometimes unexpected things or problems in the process will lead to another idea or solution. The process from conception to final product is important for me. It doesn’t feel right to make a sketch and turn it in to a finished product straight away. I need that process to develop my design ideas and to put my soul into my work.

How was lockdown for you personally and for your business
The Lockdown was an opportunity to reflect and rethink what I was doing – how and why. For my business it was a challenge but at the same time I managed to grow my business with my team. This period of time requires us to slow down and I don’t mind at all. My business is growing rapidly so it’s good to have a moment to breathe.

What’s your typical workday look like?
I wake up around 6am, start with some online reading on Business of Fashion. Check insta, email and my planning. Then some yoga or pilates practice followed by a meditation. A quick breakfast and some hugs with the kids. Around nine I arrive at my Amsterdam based studio after a walk through the city. I love it when a city wakes up in the morning.

How has the recent rise in social awareness for racial equality impacted your business – and Dutch society as a whole?
Ree Projects is also a purpose driven brand. Since the very beginning sustainability, inclusivity and female empowerment are part of the core values. The recent rise in social awareness for racial equality encouraged me to speak up, be more clear about these values and where I come from as a woman and Black-owned business. The impact on the Dutch society as a whole is difficult to describe, Dutchies have a down to earth mentality. In general I experience a lot of ignorance but also a willingness to be part of the conversation at the same time. New anti-racist initiatives are arising which is great.

Words you live by
Stay true to yourself, follow your own path, be genuine, respectful and chase your dreams regardless of your colour, your age or where you come from. Anything you want is possible.

What does luxury mean to you?
Luxury means time and dedication. Time is the most luxurious thing in the world, it takes time to develop a beautiful and qualitative product

What’s next for Ree Projects?
First thing is focussing on growth and strengthening Ree Projects’ market position in a healthy way that is aligned with our values. Next for Ree Projects’ would be expanding into other categories in a very focussed and curated way.

What items are always in your bag?
Susanne Kaufmann ‘Purif-i’ handspray, sunglasses, AirPods, iPhone, Notebook, Pencil, Rosebud Lip balm, Red Lipstick which I actually don’t use that much anymore with wearing the facemarks all the time.

What bag are you carrying today?
Helene Large in Crisp White and the Julie Mini in black.

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