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The three founders of start-up Polaire knew their business idea had the legs to become a reality when they saw one of their products come down the Berlin catwalk on the feet of a model in Dawid Tomaszewski-designed clothes.
In January, during the city’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, the design of Polaire’s digitally designed and 3D-printed shoes caught the attention of the watching trendsetters. Photographers shot the shoes as much as the clothes, fashion blogs took note and the people behind the Viennese fashion accessory start-up knew they were on to something.
Those black shoes sit on a shelf in Polaire’s workshop office in central Vienna, alongside a dozen other pairs of prototypes, design ideas and previous versions. Still wedged in the toe is a piece of the tissue that the model used to make the shoe fit more snugly.
“We are a very unusual start up because we are not in the shared economy, or in the internet of things,” says Anna-Maria Pankiewicz, co-founder and commercial director. “We are actually making things.”
Based in a trendy district populated by wine bars and boutiques, the company’s office is a collection of desks, cupboards and shelves in a converted factory, where Polaire shares the bright, airy floor with other fashion start-ups, designers and tailors. Describing themselves as “two architects and a business management student”, the team behind Polaire designs and makes exclusive 3D-printed products such as sunglasses, bracelets and rings sold directly from its website and in fashion boutiques.
The company’s small 3D printer, in which they make prototypes that are fine-tuned and ultimately produced using outside printers, sits pride of place at the centre of their operations.
“This is not just a job or a business. This is my hobby, too,” said Daniel Reist, chief executive and creative director. “People think that I am crazy that I spend every free minute here.”
Mr Reist and Horatio Valcu, the company’s other creative director and a friend from their design student days, collaborate on designing the products. Ms Pankiewicz’s job is to sell them.
“I switched from architecture to product design for a company working with [fashion house Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey] and then I thought, why not do this for myself?” Mr Reist says.
He designed and made his first pair of sunglasses while at high school. After training in a big design studio, he enjoys running his own shop. Of working in a fashion house, Mr Reist says: “They have suppliers, they have concepts, they have sourcing constraints . . . I like to have control over everything.”
Their products are sold through private channels while the first collection gets the necessary safety and compliance approvals needed for general retail, which are expected by the end of this year. But their designs are already generating a buzz in their city.
“We’re building a curated business,” says Ms Pankiewicz, a Polaire ring on her finger and bracelet on her wrist. People on the street take photographs of her sunglasses, while others ask where they can buy her jewellery.
“The design comes first. And that’s why the chief executive is a designer, not some grad school MBA guy or whatever,” she says.
Formally founded about 18 months ago, Polaire was granted €25,000 in first round funding from Departure, a division of the Vienna Business Agency, and received a second tranche of €45,000 funding from AWS Kreativwirtschaft, a federal Austrian government fund.
While Ms Pankiewicz grew up in Vienna and is half Austrian, Mr Valcu is Romanian and Mr Reist is Swiss-Austrian. What keeps them and the company in Vienna is the blend of generous financial support, mixed with the feeling of being part of a developing design and fashion scene and a strong sense of loyalty to the city.
“Vienna was the environment that gave us inspiration and the intellectual abilities and resources that have allowed us to build this,” says Mr Valcu.
“All we have is thanks to Vienna, and we want to give back,” agrees Mr Reist. “The city has been very good to us.”
Getting more start-ups like Polaire off the ground, and convincing them to stay and grow in Vienna, is the city authority’s new focus.
The Vienna Business Agency boasts of offering more than €160m in funding every year for developing businesses. It is working with federal business agencies to support start-ups with training, assistance in applying for patents and by giving one-off grants for individual projects.
Polaire is eyeing a potential third round of funding to invest in another, more advanced 3D printing machine, and to fund its distribution push.
“It is really cool that something like [the Departure state agency] exists, to get people like us going and it means we do not have an investor telling us what to do,” says Ms Pankiewicz, as a sewing machine chatters in the background. “We don’t have investors. We don’t have debt. We don’t have bankers.”