When Valentin Ozich talks about chucking himself in at the deep end, you believe him. You know from the world-weariness in his eyes and the wisdom in his words that he’s been there, in the deep water—not just once but many times.
And you know from his sense of optimism and hope that he’s always found his way out again, and been able to reinvent himself and press on with his dreams, even when it’s been against the flow of conventional wisdom.
Valentin, a first generation Kiwi whose parents emigrated from Croatia, is the creative visionary behind the men’s fashion brand I Love Ugly, which, quite literally, began in Valentin’s bedroom, from where he produced T-shirts featuring original art that he sold on TradeMe.
‘The next thing was friends started wearing them, then it expanded beyond friends, and a couple of small boutiques started picking them up, and the next minute I had eight or so small boutiques scattered around NZ wearing them.’
The I Love Ugly name goes back even further. The original idea was for an art magazine for which Valentin would interview artists from around the world that he found on MySpace. He realised quickly that wasn’t a viable business model so scrapped the idea and switched to clothing. But the name stuck.
‘I Love Ugly created that sense of wonder and intrigue. It drew people in. It was an unusual name for a fashion brand. In fashion everyone tries to be beautiful.’
The branding worked. I remember the first time I walked into the I Love Ugly store in Eden Terrace, being struck by the discordance of the name and the T-shirt designs and the existing idea of what a men’s fashion store should be.
That store, and the others that sprung up, in Newmarket, for example, and even LA, were a far cry from where Valentin started. At the beginning, he didn’t have two cents to rub together.
‘Although I did manage to save up $20,000. I was at this crossroads in my life where I was picking T-shirts for AS Colour, and I could continue there and get a mortgage and take the safe route. Or I could use the $20,000, open up a shop, and chuck myself in at the deep end. Get a few other brands that I Love Ugly could sit alongside of. That was the quickest way to establish myself in the market—by putting myself next to really good brands.’
Valentin took the road less travelled. But things didn’t quite work out. It was a tough first year and Valentin hit rock bottom. ‘I figured there’s got to be a better way. So I started taking care of my health, put away all the bad stuff. I felt maybe everyone that told me not to do this was right. But there’s that voice that pops up in your head again, which I heard in the early days, that says you can do this—you are creating something global, fulfil your vision, don’t be the average—continue.’
Valentin cut the shop and focused solely on the brand. He found a business partner to work with and the rest, as he says, is history. Though not plain sailing. The I Love Ugly we know and love today just happened to be launched in 2008 on the cusp of the GFC—not a smart time to begin a fashion business.
‘I was 22 years old and when you have nothing to lose you take bold risks and big gambles and not having anything to lose is an amazing advantage. But when you get big you kinda look back and think, wow, that’s amazing, I pulled that off.’
An expansion into retail spaces globally was ill-fated and once again the business was forced to reinvent itself, ultimately putting much more focus on online sales. And through it all, Valentin kept reinventing himself as well, putting as much effort into personal and professional development as he put into the business.
‘I think the worst part of business is the loneliness,’ he says. ’Sometimes you go through stuff that your employees just won’t understand. It’s about making those tough calls and taking financial risks, fighting the internal demons, quieting the voices that aren’t going to do you any good. And trying to elevate the voices that are going to do good.’
In the process of its recent reinvention, I Love Ugly shifted to new premises in the hood. Valentin says I Love Ugly is benefiting from the buzz around Morningside like many local businesses.
‘I think Morningside is an amazing place. I think Crave has been very instrumental in that change. It’s not really a cafe, it’s a place to meet and for creative hubs to come together and do their work, have meetings, chill out, be inspired.
‘The cool thing about Morningside is that it’s not pretentious like Ponsonby, it’s not grungy like K Road. People are a little bit more down to earth and it’s almost effortless. It’s a great community, a great feel, and I feel like it will just continue to blossom.’