German entrepreneur and influencer Roberta Benteler is a front row stalwart and one of the most stylish women on the international fashion circuit. Launching her own game-changing business—the now-shuttered digital fashion destination Avenue 32—and managing a team of 45, from the outside she appeared to have self-assured success in hand. But the reality of extreme stress and eventual burn-out tells a very different story. Here she reveals her journey from finance to fashion, depression to determination and finally from losing herself in her business to a place closer to inner-equilibrium.
I grew up in Bielefeld, Westphalia in Germany, but even from a very young age I wanted to move to London. From around 12, I started to become really interested in fashion and music. I loved Kate Moss, Oasis and Portishead and just that whole idea of Brit-pop and the Trainspotting era. Where I grew up was just a tiny, little town and there was nothing for young people. The music was terrible, there was no fashion scene and no-one understood the way I dressed—in Dr Martens and tartan trousers—either.
I became obsessed with magazines and fell in love with McQueen & Galliano and started to beg my parents to let me move to England. After two years they finally gave in. My parents hadn’t wanted to send me away and they thought I was too young, but in the end my dad looked into a school in the U.K. and I’ve been here ever since. That was nearly 20 years ago! Even though I’ve still got my accent, I feel like a foreigner in Germany and every time I land in Heathrow it feels like coming home. After school, I studied business and then went on to do a Master’s in finance, mainly because I was confused about my next steps and also because my dad had advised me that getting a grasp of business would help me if I were to become a fashion designer—the only real job I knew about in fashion.
I ended up working in finance in New York, just before the crisis hit. You really felt it there because the extravagance had been so excessive leading up to the crash. People were flying in helicopters to the Hamptons for lunch meetings and the nightlife was crazy; you really didn’t have any choice but to join in the party. It was a really depressing environment, as you can imagine, and crisis or no crisis, I was generally miserable. I think I cried every day of my finance career. I can’t overstate how male-dominated the industry was and I got really bullied. My boss had an issue with Germans and I was the only woman on the team who wasn’t an assistant. Like a lot of Germans, I’m quite direct and would speak my mind and he hated it. Everyday, he would say, “Oh you should really be sitting with the secretaries over there,” and he’d shake everyone’s hand apart from mine. Every single day there would be something, so it just felt it was the right time to get out.
“I think I cried every day of my finance career. I can’t overstate how male-dominated the industry was and I got really bullied.”
I came back to London at 25 and decided that if I was going to ever get into fashion, now was the moment. But it was so difficult to know where to start. No-one would even give me an internship, because I had zero fashion qualifications or experience on my CV and my background looked super-corporate. Everyone said I was over-qualified for a job that entailed making coffee and photocopying. I just despaired, thinking, ‘What am I going to do? This is a catch-22.’ Luckily, I had a friend who had just started her own label so I called her and pleaded with her to let me help out—I just needed to understand the industry. After four months there, I felt so sure that it was where I wanted to be, even though I had seen first-hand what a struggle it is to build a business in fashion.
At that point, what I needed was an idea. I was walking down Portobello Road on my way to One of a Kind vintage shop and the concept for Avenue 32 just came to me. There wasn’t an e-commerce destination at the time specifically for emerging designers and I thought there was such an opportunity. I’d been really depressed since I’d left New York—mainly because I’d been in such a respectable job and suddenly I was here with nothing while all my friends were working. Ten years ago, it wasn’t so common to either change careers or set up your own thing, so I felt very much in the minority and that drove me to get on with the business.
My father was a great mentor and coming from an entrepreneurial family definitely helped. Before Avenue 32, I’d taken three business plans to him which he’d immediately rejected and you have to accept that’s part of the process. The perfect epiphany isn’t going to just appear, it will take a few tries before you land on a viable concept, and when you do come up with it, you can guarantee it’s going to evolve. Your business plan will never be set in stone—I re-wrote the original document many, many times–but it is so important to create that starting point. When I went to my dad with the idea for Avenue 32 he really liked it which gave me the confidence to take it forward.
“The perfect business epiphany isn’t going to just appear, it will take a few tries before you land on a viable idea, and when you do come up with it, you can guarantee it’s going to evolve.”
My boyfriend at the time was working in investment banking—at Lehman Brothers in Canary Wharf—and his hours were punishing. He was in the office until 5am and completely exhausted. Every time we wanted to do anything, he’d get a call from his office and we’d have to drop everything. That is so hard for a young couple, because you’ve planned a break, paid for the flights and accommodation only at the last moment for it all to be ruined. It just felt like torture. After I told him my idea, he said he was going to quit his job and come and work with me on the business, which was amazing—but it also came with a lot of responsibility. He was five years older than me and had a really well-paid job with a bonus structure, but two months later there we were in my sitting room figuring out how to make the business work.
Initially I’d decided that I needed a PR agency. I still didn’t know that much about the industry and I had presumed that PR agents would put you in touch with designers and help build a website–I was really clueless! I soon learnt that what I actually needed was a multi-brand buyer and that they were few and far between. I met with everyone I could, then heard on the grapevine that Erin Mullaney had just left Browns and because I loved her brand mix and we got on so well, she started working for us on a freelance basis. We then hired a project management company to help with the technical side of things, because we realised we just weren’t equipped to do it ourselves. Everything was self-funded at this point and we had wildly underestimated how much everything would cost. But if we hadn’t been so naïve and had realised how expensive it would be, we’d never have done it in the first place, so it actually ended up being a positive thing.
I definitely wanted to prove myself to my family. I think you have to be slightly on the crazy side to launch something like Avenue 32 at 26—or else have a certain drive that perhaps stems from some kind of insecurity. I’ve never been able to feel proud of myself, really ever. If you’re a balanced, confident and relaxed person, it’s not to say you don’t have the same drive, but it probably comes from a different place. I had all these insecurities about quitting finance and wanting to be really good at something, so my drive and determination felt more like a need. And it was relentless—so much so I never really stopped to reflect on what I had achieved and always thought I could have done this or that better.
“I think you have to be slightly on the crazy side to launch something like Avenue 32 at 26—or else have a certain drive that perhaps stems from some kind of insecurity.”
For six years of running the business I didn’t take a holiday. As in no days off. Pretty quickly my relationship broke down. The pressure was just immense and because I was always, always working, I had no social life at all. Truly I didn’t have a life outside the business. Last year I had a terrible burn-out and ended up in hospital. It started with a feeling that I couldn’t leave the house and sometimes I’d just sit on my staircase for an hour or more thinking I didn’t know how to do it. I’d made a rash decision to move to Islington [North East London] and had created a 2-hour commute for myself every day and the traffic just killed me. I’d started having asthma attacks and rashes so took a leave of absence. After a couple of weeks off, I had this feeling in my throat that I’d swallowed a fishbone. It turned out that a massive chunk of my oesophagus had collapsed and fallen off and I went into intensive care in Zurich for 2 weeks. I was tested for everything—auto-immune diseases, cancer, tropical diseases— but no one had an explanation, so no one could treat me. I just got 5-6 morphine injections every day and fentanyl patches, because it was so excruciating. Over those weeks I couldn’t eat anything.
Images taken from @robertabenteler
Incredibly after time I just started healing. It was so bizarre. There was a theory that it was a type of shingles, but still I had no concrete diagnosis. What was obvious is that my immune system was extremely low and my lifestyle was making me ill. After my hospital stay, I had another month of recovery, because I had to start eating again slowly. By the time I got back to London, I realised that my life needed to change. Aside from learning to generally chill out, I needed a whole new rhythm. I was obsessively exercising before I got sick because I thought it was my de-stresser and had been putting pressure on myself to get up at 5am to get to the gym. After having been forced to take more time out, I realised I needed to pause a lot of things in my life. Now I still exercise, but I do it when I feel like I want to. I don’t stress myself if I’m late to work. If I don’t start my day until 10am I don’t feel like I need to apologise to anyone anymore.
“It turned out that a massive chunk of my oesophagus had fallen off and I ended up in intensive care in Zurich for 2 weeks. I was tested for everything—auto-immune diseases, cancer, tropical diseases— but no one had an explanation, so no one could treat me.”
Looking back, there were definitely some things in my personal life which made me even more determined to work so hard; a few rejections that made me throw myself into it even harder. When I think back now and recall that I only had my out-of-office on once in six years, it just seems insane. Every time I would tell myself, ‘next holiday I’m not going to look at my phone’, or ‘next month I’ll take some more time out.’ But I would never do it. Then one year after the other slips away. It’s not a conscious thing, and that’s why it’s really important to stop and look at how you’re living your life. Now that I’ve started living much more consciously, everything goes much slower because I make more of my time.
While I was on my break, I stopped using and posting on social media. Previously, I’d been very disciplined about Instagram and had probably posted at least one, if not two, images a day. My social media following was going up quickly, which was great. But on the other hand, I was becoming a slave to it. If I didn’t get ‘x’ number of likes, I would think it wasn’t successful and I started getting really self-conscious about it. I had become much more critical, or much more aware of my appearance, which you already are in fashion anyway. The pressure piled on until I just couldn’t cope with it at that point. After my recovery, I haven’t taken it [social media] up like that again. I still feel the pressure if I haven’t posted anything for a week or 10 days—sometimes my mum will even remind me to! But I like to post now when there is an occasion to post. On a recent trip to Brazil, I was meant to do a travel style diary, but it was rained the whole time. I could have put on all these outfits and been photographed indoors and pretended that it was all sunny, but I didn’t want to. I ended up wearing trainers and tracksuits every day because that’s’ the only thing I had that was remotely appropriate for torrential rain. As for the style diary I just had to say, I’m so sorry but it didn’t work.
“For six years of running the business I didn’t take a holiday. As in no days off.”
I’ve been single since I broke up with my boyfriend six years ago. While I was living for the business, there was just no space for a relationship and I wasn’t attractive because I was so focused on work. I’d become so uptight I just didn’t know how to have fun anymore. Since my recovery, that’s really changed. Making a conscious decision to have a better work/life balance has meant I’ve reconnected with a lot of old friends who I’d fallen out or lost touch with. My family and I also have a better relationship than ever because of the time I now spend at home and if I go on holiday now, I set my own boundaries.
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When you run your own business, it’s incredibly tough not to lose yourself and your sense of perspective. The truth is, you do have to work hard and you do need an almost insatiable drive to make it work. I do think there is a certain personality type that can succeed in that—but the same type is perhaps less likely to be able to reassess the situation when it gets out of control. First things first, my advice is to learn to delegate. It can be incredibly challenging, but learning to rely on an incredible team is the only way to build a business in a healthy way. You can’t do it all yourself and micromanaging is never a good idea. You also need a certain level of distance. When I was so stressed, I wasn’t a good manager anymore. I wasn’t good at my job, because you have to be somewhat balanced to be able to do that. You can’t go into anything objectively, or be open with your employees in the same way when you’re so stressed, because you put too much importance on everything. Whatever they say, you take too personally. Conversely, if you have a good work/life balance, you realise that nothing is so dramatic and everything will pass. You can handle things.
As for finding the perfect balance in my work life is, I’d say, still a ‘work in progress’ as I realised that as my role changed at Avenue 32 I got further and further away from the creative side of things. With 45 employees, I focussed a lot of time on trying to be a better manager and introducing a positive culture, but what I really loved about my job was going out and finding new brands—that’s my passion. It’s so easy to get caught up in other things that you forget what it actually was that drew you to your career in the first place. There will be people who are better managers than me, but hunting talent and treasures is really what I’m good at—and what truly makes me happy.