Colorful with children’s clothing, hard on business and with fans all over the world

Willem Olsthoorn in 2003
Photo Merlin Doomernik

“Close to the soul of Oilily,” said Willem Olsthoorn a few weeks ago about the new children’s collection of the brand that he had set up with his wife Marieke in the 1960s and which he had always owned for six years. According to Olsthoorn, Oilily stood for cheerful and colorful. “So no boring black rags, as he called it,” said Stephan van Kruisselberge, the current CEO of Oilily, who showed him the images.

Olsthoorn died in the early morning of July 1 at the age of 81 from complications that arose after he got shingles in February. In recent years, he had a relationship with Marieke’s sister, who passed away in 2013.

“Willem was a sweet, charming man,” says fashion designer Nico Verhey, who worked for him for ten years and then remained friends with him. “Except when it came to business. Then he was rock hard. ” “My father’s winged saying for us was always: the sky is the limit”Says his daughter Brecht, one of his four children. “And of course he put that into practice himself. He saw no obstacles. ”

William, Harry, Madonna

Oilily, which is best known for children’s clothing, is one of the greatest Dutch fashion successes. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was located in thousands of outlets around the world, including dozens of Oilily stores, and had an international fan club with 55,000 members. The English princes William and Harry walked in, the children of Madonna and Michael Jackson, the youngest daughter of the Huxtables in The Cosby Show, the youthful singers of Children for Children; Oilily sponsored the song program.

One of Oilily’s biggest hits was a flared jacket with knitted cuffs that stayed in the collection for twelve years. In the 1980s, a teacher called the headquarters in Alkmaar: as many as fifteen of those coats were hanging in front of her class in the hallway, she had no idea who was who. Couldn’t they find a solution to that?

Willem Olsthoorn was born in Velsen in 1938, where his parents sold dust coats. He was the oldest of nine, “more of a father to the youngest than their own father,” says Brecht Olsthoorn. “He was a real pater familias, also for his employees.”

Higher Textile School in Tilburg

After graduating from the Hogere Textielschool in Tilburg, Olsthoorn started trading hairdressing aprons and nylon baby jackets in 1963. In 1966, together with Marieke, who was trained as a drawing and textile teacher, he started a children’s brand, initially called Olly, Olsthoorn’s nickname. She was responsible for the design, he was responsible for the business side.

Olly stood out for its colors derived from international folklore – fuchsia, red, purple blue – and designs, and because, unlike other brands, it did not make mini versions of adult fashion, but clothes designed especially for children, with corresponding proportions and comfort. The fact that the brand started producing women’s fashion in the late 1980s was because adult women began to squeeze into children’s sizes.

Sales declined in the late 1990s. In 2003 Olsthoorn sold a majority share to ABN Amro and a venture capital group. Marieke Olsthoorn had already withdrawn before that. When Oilily went bankrupt in 2009, despite the success of licensed flowered bags, Olsthoorn bought back his shares. In 2016, the company had a debt of four million euros with him. During a remediation round, his daughter Sophie (part of the management team) and her husband Gijs de Kogel (marketing manager) were also fired. Sophie Olsthoorn and De Kogel filed a lawsuit, which they lost. The lawsuit was painful for Olsthoorn, Verhey says. “When I said how sorry I was, he said he didn’t want to talk about it.” According to Brecht Olsthoorn, who still works at Oilily like her husband, Willem Olsthoorn made attempts to make amends until the end.

Two weeks ago, Van Kruisselberge still drank coffee at Olsthoorn’s home. They talked about good food and Italy, two things Olsthoorns loved.


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