How I Love Ugly Shaped The Wardrobes Of Millennial Men, From Drop-Crotch Trousers To Printed Shirts

By Dan Ahwa
I Love Ugly founder Valentin Ozich at home. “Part of being a great designer is being in the know of what’s going on. The way to achieve that is by constantly living in that world.”

Reaching its peak in the late 2010s, I Love Ugly grew exponentially. The brand scaled back its operations to focus on redefining its core values and a direct-to-consumer model that pays close attention to a new generation of fluid dressers. Founder Valentin Ozich opens up to Dan Ahwa about the

When Valentin Ozich appears on my laptop screen for our scheduled Zoom call, his face — as I recall it from our last meeting in 2019 — is just how I remembered it: resting in serious, contemplative thought.

At 38, here is the face of a Millennial entrepreneur who by this point had already weathered every storm a fashion business could have experienced in the last 15 years, starting with its optimistic debut amid the global financial crisis of 2008 from his bedroom. Like many business owners from large Croatian families who have long contributed to the nation’s economy with an entrepreneurial spirit, Valentin’s heritage is one he also attributes to his personal and professional success.

“Dad was an immigrant and an entrepreneur. Along with his brother, they bought some land, planted grapes and started a little wine business. It’s in our DNA as Croatians to never give up.”

With no formal fashion or business training, Valentin’s gung-ho approach is typical of founder-led start-ups, launching the brand as an illustration and design collective with a focus on art and music, before evolving it into a menswear business that offered up the type of clothes that Valentin himself wanted to wear — sport- and street-influenced but with the slight polish by way of preppy textiles and artful prints.

An original pair of I Love Ugly Zespy trousers, 2013.
An original pair of I Love Ugly Zespy trousers, 2013.

Part of the brand’s success has been harnessing cult-like shopping via its staples — like its popular Zespy trousers — elasticated at the waist, with a roomy crotch that tapers into a narrow leg. A simple design that appealed to a diverse range of men and has since evolved in design over the years. Its cropped Kobe trousers and tapered track pants also lent a distinctive silhouette for the brand that has since made room for trousers with roomier leg space.

The brand’s signature printed button-down short-sleeved shirts have also quickly helped separate it from its contemporaries and gave I Love Ugly a certain sensibility and an easy uniform formula for its highly discerning male clientele: a printed short-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck (a styling trick synonymous with late 2010s menswear) teamed with a drop-crotch trouser, a pair of minimalist sneakers and a five-panel soft cap.

Early examples of some of the brand’s irreverent print work displayed a sophisticated understanding of pop culture and art references, including an illustration of baseball paraphernalia, floral prints as if plucked from a mid-century settee, or a line-up of flags of the world inspired in part by Valentin’s other love: football.

But creativity and building a community weren’t enough, and by 2012, Valentin opened his first store in Mt Eden, Auckland, housing the I Love Ugly mainline with a selection of complementary imports.

That same year, the business, which was at this point managed by Valentin and then business partner Barnaby Marshall, won a $10,000 DHL Fashion Export Scholarship. The win helped encourage a sense of confidence that accelerated its expansion goals beyond New Zealand and Australia.

In 2014 the business was the only fashion retailer included in the Deloitte Fast 50 index which helped establish it as a serious fashion retail player when it opened its first store in LA the following year.

In 2017, the store, along with its Sydney and Melbourne locations, all closed unceremoniously as a result of too much, too soon, an annus horribilis reinforced by the backlash the brand received when it launched a provocative campaign for its collection of men’s jewellery featuring naked women’s bodies used as props.

The experience was a pivotal turning point for Valentin who used the opportunity to learn and refocus his purpose both professionally and personally. While most entrepreneurial founders wear their disruption like a badge of honour, Valentin is humbled by the lessons learned along the way.

“Statistically, most businesses fail within the first couple of years,” he says in a measured voice. “There are a lot of new fashion businesses that don’t last the distance. So, I think to get to where we’ve got to in 15 years, it becomes about not just surviving, but seeing it ageing well. There’s something to be said for that. I’m proud of that. When I did hit those times where I wanted to quit, I had the courage to continue — because the most sane thing to do would be to quit.”

Given his unconventional route, has he ever grappled with imposter syndrome?

“If I just let my brain do whatever the hell it wants, it’s going to be negative,” he says. “It’s probably going to spook myself out of any big decision or risk-taking. So, I’ve made sure that I work with a select few people who believe in what we’re doing. I think what I’ve really learned in business is that it is 90 per cent psychology, 10 per cent skills and doing the work.

“It’s just like picking yourself up and doing the work when you don’t want to do it. I’m a massive promoter of personal development. If you come in with a strong and positive frame of mind, then you are going to do better work. But I think, ultimately, it comes down to great people.”

Marlon Williams wears an I Love Ugly T-shirt for Viva, 2018. Photo / Derek Henderson
Marlon Williams wears an I Love Ugly T-shirt for Viva, 2018. Photo / Derek Henderson

I’m curious to know more about how a brand that has contributed so much to the way New Zealand men dress has managed to pull itself out of some radical, hard and fast decision making in its earlier years to come out with a more sensible point of view.

Since 2020, sales have steadily doubled, which means its staffing has also had to increase from 20 to 70 across its three new stores (three in Auckland and two in Wellington) and its purpose-built warehouse office space in the sprawling commercial area of Westgate in Auckland.

Its recently launched loyalty programme has also helped contribute to the brand’s growth, with the flow-on effect of digital marketing and newsletters contributing to between 70-80 per cent of the company’s total revenue.

Despite being wooed by international wholesale accounts, Valentin’s response these days is pragmatic and purely focused on having a direct line with his consumers.

“We just stay in our lane now, focusing on our own stores so we can maintain the whole customer experience. When I first started the business up until say 2017, I used to focus a lot on vanity metrics — things that made us look really good externally but didn’t actually do much for the business. In fact, it made things worse. We’d spend far too much money on a store that didn’t necessarily convert to sales — in hindsight, LA was a bit like that.”

While a presence in California quickly catapulted the business into a cult brand, Valentin admits the experience of maintaining a level playing field on a global scale was unsustainable at the time. Yet despite shutting its store and eventually its US wholesale operations, the American consumer remains one of the brand’s largest e-commerce customer bases outside of Australia and New Zealand.

“We weren’t mature enough as a business to be able to do that,” he says. “Once we realised we spread ourselves too thin — despite having substantial top-line growth — we had to do a major restructure of the business.”

Aaron Smith wearing an I Love Ugly jacket at the Vodafone Music Awards, 2015. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Aaron Smith wearing an I Love Ugly jacket at the Vodafone Music Awards, 2015. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

Valentin’s ability to identify failure as an empowering part of the process has also helped shape his leadership style. Business partner Nick Edwards was promoted from operations manager to chairman of the board and has helped Valentin steer the business into a profitable one.

“Life is easier when you’ve got business partners by your side and you can make those decisions together. As a result, it actually made me a better creative. When I had to make creative decisions or decisions on what to invest in for the future of a brand, by that point I actually was able to understand the financial repercussions of making a decision. I could also say to myself, ‘If I make this decision and it does well, then I’ve moved the business forward.’ But if it failed, I would also know what risks were at stake. Then I’d always ask myself, ‘Are we comfortable with that?’”

Along with Nick, Valentin has a robust board in place to help the business progress from its current state of stabilisation. “Nick focuses on the bigger, strategic planning and we also have Paul Biddle, who started as our merchandise director and is now our general manager. He really focuses on our supply chain and our product and just making sure that the business is running and functioning well, and that we’re maintaining the profitability within the business.”

Adding to the mix is Alice Isles, former designer for linen brand Hej Hej who joined the business this year to take over the role of womenswear lead designer, a role that was launched in 2022 with its previous and first womenswear designer Amanda Wang. The womenswear category is another addition to the brand’s extensive forays into complementary categories including fragrance, eyewear, watches, and shoes.

“The cool thing about the brand is that the people behind it are the customers. Whenever we felt the need for something or we saw an opportunity in the market that aligned with the brand, we really acted seeing those ideas through. In some cases, whenever we saw a gap but felt like we weren’t particularly ready, we’d partner with someone who knew what they were doing, like eyewear with Bailey Nelson or sneakers with Onitsuka Tiger Shoes, or Jansport bags. We also wanted to be a convenient one-stop shop for our customers, so they can come in, they can get their socks, their fragrance, their underwear, outerwear, casual wear, whatever.”

Surprisingly, even before the dedicated womenswear line was launched, women made up 30 per cent of I Love Ugly’s customer base.

“We got a lot of requests for it,” says Valentin “and we just thought it was a natural progression. We’ve already got all these female customers into our doors engaging and shopping with us. Why not offer them the product?”

The challenge now is to offer something that is true to the brand without alienating its core customers, while appealing to a new generation of customers.

“Well, we’re still selling a copious amount of hoodies,” he laughs. “They’re into the more ‘hype’ pieces on say Reels and TikTok. What they see online, they’ll really buy into that and they won’t be afraid to pick up and purchase eccentric designs.”

A look from I Love Ugly's complementary womenswear collection.
A look from I Love Ugly's complementary womenswear collection.

Now just shy of 40, part of the brand’s long-term strategy is straddling those two key demographics — Millennials and Gen Z — transitioning some of its staples with fresh designs that focus on classic streetwear with a slightly preppy and versatile bent for its key demographic of 18-35-year-old men.

“I don’t want to be dressing like a 22-year-old,” he says, “but at the same time, we still have a constant influx of new customers coming through, young customers, and we’ve also got the aging customer as well. It’s not like we’re not really reinventing the wheel as such with fashion. We’re just making classic garments and adding our modern-day twist.”

Also integral to the brand’s longevity is encouraging a new generation of designers, including 22-year-old head menswear designer Judd Cargin, who has studied fashion in Christchurch.

“He lives and breathes it,” says Valentin. “I’m at a different stage of my life now. I’ve got children and responsibilities outside of the business. Part of being a great designer is being in the know of what’s going on. The way to achieve that is by constantly living in that world. I think with these young designers there is a sense of naivety to manage too, and this is where Paul and I can come in with our experience. I didn’t want to fall into the category of thinking that I’d stay young forever and I’d be relevant forever.”

That youthful bravado that helped steer Valentin through those formative years is still within him, but through a much more experienced lens which allows him to pass on his knowledge to up-and-coming talent for the sake of the business’s longevity.

“I was young once and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was just going for it. I like to be around people who remind me of a younger me as well. They’re fresh, they’re experimental, they know what’s going on. They tell me stuff that I don’t know — I like that. I like being wrong. I like being challenged and I think it’s very important to be around those people because they are the other ones that keep brands fresh and innovative.”

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