Conversation with Léa Stein, fashion designer and founder of APA Intemporal.
POV: It’s autumn in Berlin and you’re convinced it may never stop raining. You gather your belongings to brave the sopping streets, and face a (rather catastrophic) dilemma: what to wear?
You want to feel good about our outfit. Yet, your chic and stylish trench coat will be soaked in minutes. You settle for a sporty parka and get on with your day. Fashion must wait in the name of inclement weather, right?
Not according to Léa Stein, fashion designer and founder of APA Intemporal. Léa is a firm believer in having the best of both worlds - her worlds being luxury fashion and cutting-edge technology. She feels fashion shouldn’t be compromised for anything… even a torrential downpour. We spoke with Léa one (fittingly) rainy evening in November, and learned a great deal. For starters, you can’t change the weather, but your coat can change temperature. We’ll let Léa take it from here…
So, tell us about your brand. What makes you unique?
APA Intemporal is a fashion tech brand, aiming to reinvent pieces of our wardrobe to make them adapt to the changing weather. Our first product is a raincoat that adapts to your body temperature and is extremely waterproof with nanotechnologies developed for Olympic athletes. For the first time, these technologies are available to everyone for city life. We also have a new collection where we upcycle leftover fabrics from coat production and give them a new purpose to remain circular. From this fabric, we’ve created really cool travel pouches with little pockets inside. They are very versatile and made with the same technologies as the coats themselves.
Wow, so let’s hear the background story. How did you get started with this work?
I always knew I wanted to be a fashion designer, so I studied in Paris and Central Saint Martin's school in London during summers - I didn’t want to waste any time. I began working as a fashion designer in Paris and New York and soon realized I was missing a key element. I was limited by not knowing the business side of fashion, so I headed to Milano for a masters program at the Bocconi. Here I learned marketing, merchandising and other essential business aspects. This gave me the confidence to think about what I wanted the future of fashion to look like - and I knew I wanted to help make it more sustainable. Eventually, I moved to Berlin and recognized a similar issue I faced during my time in New York - it rained quite a lot and I had no idea what to wear. I wanted to look fashionable as I'm a designer, but I would get drenched because my nice coats weren't waterproof. So I started researching new technologies and design innovations in the field.
I spent the next two years developing my brand and trying to find the perfect balance of fabric, technology and style. After the initial development, I launched a Kickstarter campaign and started crowdfunding. It was very successful and allowed me to gather lots of information on what people wanted. During my Kickstarter campaign, I held events in different cities to talk to clients. I traveled to Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco and Toronto. It was incredible. We discovered that most people we met were looking for lightweight coats. Additionally, we learned that many leading fashion companies didn’t have the customer’s best interest in mind and didn’t spend sufficient amounts of time on market research. So, this is what APA was built on and how it began. Shortly after, I opened the store in Brussels and things really picked up. I was awarded Company of the Year in 2019 and was a finalist in the fashion tech talks in Antwerp. We ended up closing the store after COVID, but I'm really happy to be selling the coats online and through The Canvas.
And where do you get your inspiration from?
I get inspiration from trying to solve my own problems and coming up with solutions in a creative way. And I try to put a touch of luxury on everything - I focus on minimalistic designs and strive to make the inside just as beautiful as the outside. Each product is very thought out, from the vibrant colors to excellent craftsmanship. The pieces are all made in Europe, but I’ve traveled all over the continent to find the best specialties in each country. It's essentially a Pan European collaboration - the technology is Swiss, the lining is French and Italian, the hardware is German, and the zippers are Spanish. The final production is between France and Poland. Poland has one of the few factories in Europe that offers seams bonding technology, which ensures that water cannot get through even the smallest holes in the stitching. We want to make sure the product is truly the best quality possible.
What is the main challenge you’ve faced in your journey as an entrepreneur and how have you overcome it?
I would say my own expectations. The reason production took so long was that I wanted to create a perfect product. And that took many rounds of prototyping. For example, a fast fashion brand might have two prototypes and be done. In my case, we had almost ten, as lots of trial and error went into the technology component. We had to make sure the outside fabric was high-tech and the inside was super breathable and comfortable. This was a big challenge, and I hadn’t planned ahead for all the different rounds. And then as an entrepreneur, self-motivation has been challenging. It was easier for me to get work done once I started in a co-working space. The socialization factor was great as I could ask for opinions and share my concept. When I first started, people told me not to share my idea as others might steal it. However, I feel you need to talk to people to gain an understanding if the concept is actually realistic in the market. This was an important realization for me.
What is your best advice on how to live a more sustainable life?
Follow your gut. If something doesn't feel right or if you're buying something that seems too cheap, someone was probably exploited in production or you’re risking your own health with the product. It really comes down to instinct.
What is you Canvas?
The future? Yeah, the future is my canvas. I'm thinking ahead to what we'll need later and how we can fulfill this need - how to make a positive impact on the world.
Speaking of the future... it's 2030. What does the fashion world look like?
I think we will still have leading fast fashion brands, yet I have a feeling that more and more people will be aware of sustainability. You will always have people who want to buy things for little money, and with the rise of TikTok and Instagram, people will also feel the need to look new and different all the time.
I still think we're going to feel stuck in the fashion industry, with companies bringing prices down and devaluing people who actually want to be ethical and pay people well. So honestly, I don't think it's going to look much different but I do hope there will be more technology involved. I don't think there are many companies like mine that focus on using the newest technologies to create high-quality products. Not in a flashy way with neon lights and such, but in a way that improves your everyday life. I hope we will have more companies like mine that work with invisible technologies, so to speak - fabrics that actually adapt to your body or act as a second skin. When you bridge fashion with technology, a whole new world opens up.