By her own admission, Vilnius-born Rasa Šakmanė took a massive risk when she decided to quit her agency job with Leo Burnett in Moscow and move back to Lithuania’s capital to take over V2 Concept Store. It was on the verge of bankruptcy, and with no previous fashion experience, it was hardly an ideal match. Despite this, after six months she was running the store by herself, having split from the original founders. “I went it alone and then I was able to make my changes,” she explains. “Fashion has always been a hobby for me but then I had this incredible, accidental start in the industry, and I took the chance.”
Clearly, Šakmanė has a natural flair for the industry, and quickly went about implementing radical changes in order to save the failing business. “I thought, I will die slowly with the existing setup, but if I change I will either die quickly or thrive.” She adapted the brand portfolio, bringing a “more playful, bold and artistic approach, keeping it contemporary but less safe.” She also renegotiated the terms with brands and diversified product categories to include artwork and lifestyle pieces. “I started to look for partners, not investors… V2 House Concept is about working together to expand categories with brands like Tom Dixon or My Cup of Tea — it means wider options from the customer.”
While competition comes from the likes of Europa Shopping Mall or luxury retailer Du Broliai (selling Prada, Gucci and Moncler), Šakmanė’s edgy, eclectic buy assures that V2 Concept Store stands out. Lines include Shrimps alongside Hope Stockholm (“one of our best-sellers”), Nanushka, Wood Wood and Henrik Vibskov. It also carries jewellery brands such as Alighieri. Šakmanė has recently been looking to Korea for new talent, ordering the likes of Push Button and Youser. Where possible, she works with designers exclusively. Šakmanė says this is a market necessity: “We do have some overlap in Lithuania and the Baltic’s, but it’s important we try to have exclusivity with our brands in the region… you simply can’t survive otherwise.”
According to the Retail Market For Clothing in the Baltic States report from the Flanders State of the Art, Flanders Investment and Trade (2015), the three Baltic countries — Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, with a combined population of 6 million inhabitants at the time — represents a small but interesting market for fashion retailers. The report claims the number of shopping malls is: “quite high and often more modern than in Western Europe.” In addition, Milda Savickienė, director of Vilnius Fashion Week, agrees that although the market is small, people in the Baltics are generally open-minded. “Baltic countries don’t stick to traditions too much, and this is probably because of so many occupations during the last centuries and cultural chaos — we have a really open mindset for new things.”
Savickienė believes that the reason why V2 Concept Store is successful comes down to its direct and strong contact with clients by: “Taking personal notes, doing personalised orders, constantly searching for and offering emerging demanded items,” she says. Indeed, the recent strategy change — including a re-jig of the in-store atmosphere and a focus on clients — has essentially made the retail store salvageable, thanks to a host of new consumers. “V2 Concept Store is a really nice small boutique with a beautiful selection of conceptual fashion items which has its own clients circle,” Savickienė continues. “Events and presentations for their clients are important — they have to build their unique identity and their community by communicating in their own specific way.”
“Baltic countries don’t stick to traditions too much, we have a really open mindset for new things”
Currently, 20 to 30% of sales come from loyal customers: “It’s an important part of the business — not the main part — but they keep coming back,” says Šakmanė. “I really know my customer and often place orders knowing who will buy what… I will buy with a customer in mind.” Her market is the well-traveled, sophisticated women over 40 who are (on the whole) conservative – preferring light shades or black. “Sadly we don’t have rich cool kids here, or if we do it’s a very tiny number — you won’t see any grandmas in a Shrimps coat in the Baltics,” she jokes.
The store also stocks a number of local Lithuanian designers – namely June Nineteen and Užupio 14. “I really believe in these brands so it’s important for me to stock them alongside international lines,” she says. “June Nineteen is real luxury for every day, it’s kind of timeless.” Martyn Roberts, director of Fashion Scout and Graduate Fashion Week, has a global eye for talent and agrees, suggesting: “The Baltic countries, like Lithuania, are definitely an interesting source of new talent,” he says. “They have a growing retail scene which can support local designers whilst they reach out to larger international markets.”
Roberts concedes it is always a challenge to get the mix right between international brands and local brands. “By supporting local designers, retailers can offer a unique mix of styles and brands that attract new customers — both regionally and internationally.” He goes on to add, “The desire to offer something different versus commercial realities can be harsh. But if retailers and local designers work closely together to create an exciting experience and offering, then they can create something truly desirable.”
This progressive mix of local and international is obviously working for V2 Concept Store, and Šakmanė is content with her in-store mission: to entice conservative Lithuanians away from safe buys towards her version of street-inspired luxury. “No one is selling this kind of product in the Baltics, and customers are changing slowly. A brand like Shrimps really shouldn't work as it’s so colourful and artistic — but everyone loves it. We sell fur coats during August in 30-degree heat…to everyone… just not the grannies,” she laughs.