SUITE702: I’m in bed with Shirley and Olaf – and yes, so could you!
Let’s face it – most of us sleep better at hotels. And if you’ve ever had the luxury of staying in an actual hotel suite, you’re a) one lucky bastard and b) you *know* you’ve slept even better than you would at home. If you’re like me and you like nothing better than recreating the ‘suite life’ in your bedroom, I have just the thing for you: SUITE702. Named after the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono suite at the Amsterdam Hilton, SUITE702 sells everything you need to turn your bedroom into a luxury hotel experience.
A while ago, I met up with founders Shirley Muijrers and Olaf Arkauer, a wonderful couple with just the right combination of business savvy, creative vision and a deep knowledge of textiles. Oh, and do I even have to say it? I tried out SUITE702 and it’s amazing. In fact, I can’t wait to turn in.
SUITE702: In bed with Shirley and Olaf
First things first: how did you two meet?
Shirley: “It’s a funny story, actually. I was working for interior architect Evelyne Merkx and then fell in love with her son. In other words, I knew my mother-in-law before I met my husband.”
I bet some people wish they could have done things in that particular order!
Olaf: “I grew up with my mother in Amsterdam and learned a lot about interior design from her. Still, I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do after I had finished secondary school. All I knew was that I definitely didn’t want to go in the army. The only way to avoid – or at least, delay – compulsory military service at the time was to go to university. God knows why I chose Economics, I’d never taken an interest in the subject. After I had graduated, I figured I could finally do something I liked. I landed a job in advertising – more or less by accident. And although I can’t deny I enjoyed it, my heart wasn’t in it in retrospect. I worked really hard for other brands, but secretly dreamed of starting my own.
At one point I started asking myself, do I really care how many cookies are sold as a result of an ad campaign I’d masterminded? I needed to get out of my gilded cage and decided to do a two-year MBA. I’m so glad I did. Not only did I learn about all the ins and outs of business administration, it also taught me to reflect upon myself. When I got near the end, I did a lot of research about which type of products and services people tend to buy online. Books, tickets and fashion were already very popular, I learned, but home products hadn’t taken off yet.”
So why do you think we’re only now starting to buy interior design items online?
Ask an average consumer which brands of sofas they know and I bet they can only name Ikea or maybe Habitat. For bedding, it’s the same. When you think of it, there are very few good products on the market. Bedding products are either really expensive or low-quality. And let’s face it, many duvet covers have awful prints.”
Which is where Shirley comes in! Can you first tell a little bit about yourself?
Shirley: “Sure! I have a background in textile design – fabrics, colors, patterns, you name it. I studied at the ‘Man and Identity’ department of the Eindhoven Design Academy, which means I learned everything about how fabrics influence the body or an interior. Actually, I’m a teacher there now, which is something I thoroughly enjoy doing. As a former Design Academy student, I know exactly what every student in my class is going through. Believe me, things can get pretty intense at times. As a teacher, you have to give a lot. As a designer, however, I work alone a lot of the time. I’ve worked for dozens of clients. In fact, I just started consulting rug manufacturer Brink & Campman.”
Can you remember the moment you first talked about working together for SUITE702?
Shirley: “I was working in my studio, which is part of our home in Amsterdam. One day, Olaf walked in. And I distinctly remember him looking at my sideways and asking, Shirley…why don’t we start a bedding company together? My first thought was that it wasn’t actually a bad idea. I mean, with my background I knew everything on the market, but was never able to find anything nice.”
Still, starting a business is something a lot of people dream about but never actually do!
Olaf: “Well, we didn’t just start overnight. In fact, we did tons of research. The name SUITE702 alone is something we spent months coming up with. Shirley and I wanted a name that would suggest more than just bedding. Also, finding a company that could produce our designs was not as easy as we thought it would be. We wanted our products to be sustainable and socially responsible. After we had emailed a few manufacturers, we fully expected them to get in touch with us straightaway.
But you’d be amazed how difficult it is just to be able to talk to a manufacturer on the phone when you’re just starting out. At one point, we decided to take our kids, get in the car and drive to Portugal ourselves. That way, we could visit a few factories who were hopefully crazy enough to meet with us and have a summer vacation at the same time. We ended up finding an agent when we were sitting outside a tapas bar. She really helped us out.”
Okay, so you have the brand, you have the manufacturer. Then what?
Olaf: “Colors! Through my research, I had learned that for bedding, there were basically only three colors that mattered commercially: white, light grey or light blue. But when I told Shirley, she wanted none of it. In fact, she proposed well over ten different colors. We met halfway and decided to start out with nine – which was total madness when you think of all the different sizes of duvet covers and fitted sheets we’d have to keep in stock. It drove us nuts!
Shirley also insisted we’d include one particular color that I thought no one would buy. Looking back, I’m glad I listened to her. Khaki gold has been our best-selling color for three years in a row now. At the moment, we sell twelve different shades of satin and thirteen different shades of linen. And the best thing is, they all go together.”
Now comes the fun part – at least, I always think it is. How do you determine which colors to use?
Shirley: “Sometimes it’s simply the color of a blouse or a pair of vintage pants I happen to be wearing that day. Mind you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every color works as a duvet cover. Sometimes I have to tone things down a bit. For instance, I’d never pick that pink you have in your living room for a duvet cover – it’s way too outspoken. I guess it’s a feeling.”
No, no no! I’ve done enough interviews where a designer tells me that color is just a feeling. Can you please be a bit more specific?
Shirley: “For SUITE702, I look very carefully at what’s going on in the fashion industry. Green is definitely in right now. So is brown by the way, even though it’s probably a color that is a bit ahead of its time in the world of home deco. In general, trends in interior design tend to follow what’s going on in fashion. Which makes sense, because you don’t buy bedding for just one season. Mind you, people shouldn’t buy clothes for one season either, but that’s a different story. As soon as we can, we’re going to add five pastel colors.”
I’m already looking forward to combining my chocolate brown duvet covers with lilac pillows cases!
Olaf: “As you can see, we don’t always take the easy road. Although it is cool to see that up until now, we’ve always hit the targets of the three-year business plan I’d written. Our success didn’t come overnight, though. I remember early on going on a family weekend in an area where we didn’t have cellphone coverage. When we arrived home, we switched our phones back on and were shocked to find out we only had one order. Right now, we’re at the point where it has become a challenge to include a hand-written card with every order we get.”
To be honest, I’m not surprised. Your products are surprisingly affordable if you consider the quality.
Shirley: “It depends on who you ask, I suppose. Personally, I’d never spend 400 euros on a duvet cover. That being said, we do pay a lot of attention to the little details. We have to, because our products don’t have flashy prints or logo’s. It’s all very distinguished in an understated way. You don’t want to know how much time I spent getting the position of the buttons at the bottom just right. I hate it when you see even a tiny bit of white duvet peeking out of the cover.”
What is the most unexpected thing that has happened to you yet?
Olaf: “One of our customers loved us so much, she hung an engraved SUITE702 sign on her bedroom door to get that hotel room feeling we’re aiming for. Amazing stuff! Mind you, we’ve also made our fair share of mistakes. When our first order of towels and bathrobes arrived from Turkey, it turned out the truck was too wide for our narrow Amsterdam street. We ended up storing everything in my mother’s studio and then had to drive our car back and forth to get all three-hundred boxes home.”
And what’s next on the horizon?
Olaf: “With SUITE702, we’re aiming for something we call ‘the suite life’, which means we want to offer everything you’d find in a hotel suite. At the moment, we’re thinking of adding a room divider to our collection, an item that might come in particularly handy for people who live in a one-room apartment.”
Do you have any practical tips for first-time buyers of SUITE702 products?
Shirley: “A lot of people try to buy duvet covers in the same color as their bed. But you know what? You’ll never get it exactly right. Just give it up and go for a totally different color. It’s also a good idea to think of what kind of sleeper you are. Percale tends to be a bit more crisp and stiff. Satin flows more softly and slithers over your body, which is perfect if you’re someone who is always cold in bed. Linen is rougher and more suited for a hotter climate. And then finally, always wash your duvet covers and pillowcases inside out to preserve the color. It’s okay to put our products in the dryer, but they will last so much longer if you just hang them out to dry.”