Since 1948, the Dutch men’s wear brand Van Gils has presented precise, impeccable suit collections, tailored to the gentleman of its time. It believes in authenticity, confidence and dressing men in style. It is therefore logic that Van Gils is now the proud supplier of the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) and delivers a unique costume collection for the Dutch National team.
To symbolize this new relationship, Van Gils chose to shoot its new campaign against the backdrop of the African Savannah in Johannesburg, South Africa, with a man that has a profound relationship with lions: Kevin Richardson. AJANAKU had the unique opportunity to join the camera crew and Van Gils’ CEO Robert Meijer to Africa, for a behind the scenes look.
As a self-taught behaviorist, Richardson has broken every safety rule known to man when developing a personal bond with lions. Breaking with the misconception that sticks and chains is the best way to subdue a lion, he uses love, understanding and trust to get close to them. ‘Our credo No Stitch No Story’ is literally applicable to him,’ Meijer explains. ‘He’s a role model for our brand, because he is really a guy with stitches and stories all over his body. I’m reading his book right now, and what he does is not without risks. But he’s confident in what he does, and confident men dare to take decisions and risks. I believe a good suit that fits your taste and character, can make a man feel good and trigger confidence, which encourages him to take the next step.’
On a serene Sunday morning that only Mama Africa can provide, we sat down with Richardson to talk about his unique vocation. I had an inkling he must have done numerous animal films and nature shoots, but never a fashion shoot. So I started the interview with the obvious question:
Question: What made you agree to do this shoot with Van Gils?
Answer: ‘We are huge supporters of the Dutch national team here in South Africa, because our roots lie in the Netherlands’, he explained. ‘So when I got approached for this shoot, it made sense: the synergy of nature, and the lion being the Dutch representative, everything kind of fits. Fashion is something new to me. But being associated with the brand as Van Gils, that has been around for so long, that recognizes quality, is always an honor. If you bring that, and nature together, it’s a perfect opportunity. It’s a no-brainer.’
Question: How did you come about to work with lions?
Answer: ‘Coming from a precarious youth, in the back of my mind I knew what was right and wrong. I eventually found my passion. I try to inspire people to pursue their goals and reach out for their dreams. Passion comes from being inspired. For me, it were animals. I was always inspired by nature. I didn’t know it would be lions back then. But the lion is nature’s biggest predator. They are at the top. Lions require a lot of habitat. At the moment, the habitat is being distracted due to human encroachment – humans are in the increase. By protecting lions and habitat, you protect all other species that fall under that. In that respect, you’re protecting all animals. Six or seven years ago, I was asked by a journalist once, what is your legacy? Really my legacy will be to give back the habitat to the animals. Increasing the amount of lions in nature.’
Question: Van Gils believes that a suit gives a man confidence. What gives you confidence?
Answer: ‘The confidence comes in knowing the animals, and having relationships and having worked at that. That’s what counts in life; it’s about meeting people, and having and forming relationships. That’s how business works as well – forming good relations with your clients and keeping those, is important. There’s a synergy between a suit company and me as a guy that works with lions, believe it or not. Because, I also have to maintain my relationships with the lions and I have to work hard at them. Some individuals are tougher to work with then others. But that motivates me to work harder. So, the trick is to form a good relationship, that’s what gives you confidence. I always use the analogy of a father and a boy. Let’s say, there are two scenarios: one, is a father and his son. And the father is never there for his son, due to his work. The son knows his father, but the relationship is not there. One day, the son turns 16 and the dad has made his millions and wants to make time for his son. The son will not accept him that easily, because he was never there. As opposed to the father who has always been there for his son, who plays ball and goes to school concerts, etc. You can see that there is a good relationship.’
Question: You describe in your book that there are different kinds of relationships with different kinds of lions. Can you explain?
Answer: ‘There are more similarities between people and lions, than people believe. The relationships between colleagues, friends and families are all different. It’s the same as with a lion; just because our hand raised you as a lion cub, doesn’t mean I own you, it doesn’t mean our relationship is going to be good. It still takes work. To this day, not every lion I touch turns to magic. Some are quite tough – we don’t get each other. It doesn’t mean they will kill me, but it just doesn’t like to be hugged and jumped on. Out of all the lions, some I can work with intimately and with others it’s more hands on. To one lion I’m submissive and to others I’m dominant. And it can change. Sometimes relationships take a knock – you take a lesser role, and must build that relationship back up. The most important thing is that my presence is always positive. Anything a lion doesn’t know is seen as a threat. Therefore, we raise the lions from young age on our farm so they get used to us and know whom to trust. I cannot let you get close to one of the lions for example because he does not know you. If I do that, I can even bring my own life in jeopardy.’
Question: Do you often get ‘stitches and bruises’?
Answer: Yes, just this Thursday actually, by one of the lions who wanted to play. She sneaked up behind me and jumped on me, just to be playful. But now that I’m older I get stitched up less and less, because I know more and more. I’ve been injured and hospitalized more by hyena’s than I have by lions. You cross a hyena and it will bite you immediately, because they’re less tolerant. Lions have attacked me too. I’ve been bitten through the arm – there’s a tooth there, and one right there. But I haven’t been hospitalized by a lion, and I heal pretty quickly’.
Just an hour north east of Johannesburg lays Welgedacht Private Game, Kevin Richardson’s Wildlife Sanctuary. On Monday early morning, we leave our residence for Kevin’s lion farm to start the shoot before sunrise. On our way there we see herds of wild animals such as giraffe’s, zebra’s, and gazelle’s, arising for the day to come.
At the game reserve, Richardson gets dressed in the official ‘KNVB’ suit, which is a dark blue suit made out of sheer wool. The material is firm and slightly repellent, and therefore does not get dirty easily. With a white shirt and orange details to compliment (orange tie and handkerchief), Richardson wore the suit very well.
For the first scene, Richardson plays and walks around with one of his most favorite lions. He’s a calm lion with beautiful golden manes. You can see he loves having Richardson around.
The second scene is with a tougher lion with black and golden manes. With a typical luring sound (I guess each animal requires one) he calls the lion from a far to romp and play around with him as well.
In the third and last scene, Richardson gets to play some football with his lionesses.
It was impressive to see how the lions treat Richardson like his friend, master and even equal. I believe this campaign really represents the story of strong relationships, passion and confidence. It would be unreal to see the lion be extinct in a few decades. Therefore, Van Gils supports Kevin Richardson’s sanctuary by donating 50 euros of each sold suit. You can view and order the collection here.
We would like to thank Van Gils for the amazing experience and offering us a behind the scene look into their brand.
Below you can see the full film with Kevin Richardson.