High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

The Man Who Dresses George Clooney
© Pat Verbruggen
© Pat Verbruggen © Pat Verbruggen

The Man Who Dresses George Clooney

Quartermaster Inspector has Europe’s largest stock of militaria.

Peter De Brabander from the East Flanders village of Denderbelle is the Quartermaster Inspector, alias the QMI. For laymen, that is a reference to the corps that supplied all the logistics for the army during WOII. From uniforms to weapons, vehicles, parachutes, drink bottles and many, many other items, Peter has them all in his warehouse. And his business is thriving.

It was a struggle not to gape in astonishment as Peter led me through the warehouse. Endless rows were stuffed with green army uniforms, parachutes, you name it – stacked metres high. I didn’t know where to look first, although the weapons soon caught my attention. ‘Made of rubber’, Peter De Brabander reassures me, ‘You won’t kill anyone with them. Unless you use them to hit really hard, of course (laughs). About 95% of the weapons you see in films are made of rubber. Only the main characters have real arms – and they’ve been disabled. You can’t put bullets in them anymore.’

From hobby to job

‘Yes, it’s a hobby that got out of hand. As a little boy I was fascinated by war and the paraphernalia of war, in particular. The uniforms, the weapons, the vehicles... By the time I was twelve I’d decided that my first vehicle would be a Willys Jeep. And it was, too. Later on, I joined a re-enactors club [for people who dress up and re-enact historic events, ed.] and, to put it crudely, we played at being soldiers. Meeting in full uniform, putting up our tents, eating and drinking together – as you would with friends. It’s fun, you know! But I don’t have time for that anymore, unfortunately.’

‘At the time it wasn’t possible to get hold of imitation uniforms. You had to buy the real thing. In other words, they were rare and expensive. “You can do it better, if you do it yourself”, I thought, so I took an original pullover to a knitwear factory in Zottegem. A few weeks later I had a whole stock of imitation pullovers. That was my first article. Then I did the same with jeep drivers’ hats. To my great surprise I sold everything really fast. At the time I just did it for fun, but then it began to dawn on me that there could be more in it. And Quartermaster Inspector was born.’

You get a real kick out of it

‘In 2000 I founded a company. I went to all the fairs that had anything to do with militaria, looking for new products and hoping to run into the right customers. Although you need luck for that, more than anything else. While I was training for my parachuting licence, I met the people responsible for buying the uniforms for Band of Brothers, a well-known American war series. That one moment, at that one course, was my lucky break. Because once you’ve got a name like Band of Brothers on your list of customers, you’re launched.’

‘Then came film projects like Hart’s War, with Bruce Willis, and soon after that Red Tails. The film The Monuments Men, with George Clooney, is another one I won’t forget. Not only because you get a real kick out of it when you see top actors parading round in your uniforms, but because they didn’t give me back everything they’d rented either (laughs). Instead of war-time stretchers I got back postwar hospital beds. That’s a difference of 90 euros a piece. And sometimes they tell you, “We can only give you this much, because the money’s finished. Take it or leave it.” Fortunately, that doesn’t happen often.'

Bullet wound

‘What does happen regularly is that I get a uniform back with a bullet wound in it. If George Clooney gets shot in the arm, they have to make a hole in the sleeve, of course, and let some blood seep through it. If they tell me who wore the uniform, I don’t mind too much. Fans will pay thousands of euros for it, whereas a sweater usually costs 55 euros and a uniform round 300 to 400 euros. There’s a new war series, Catch 22 (aired this year in the U.S. on Hulu only, TLC). It’s with George Clooney, too, and they’ve involved me in it again – so look out for the uniforms in the series!’

Stock, stock, stock

‘The “famous customers” I keep talking about are actually the minority. On the whole it’s fans and re-enactors that come to Quartermaster Inspector. How do they find me? Mainly through word-of-mouth advertising. And the names of film projects on my website don’t do any harm either. Quartermaster is among the five biggest sellers of militaria in the world, and I’ve got the largest stock in Europe. There are about sixty thousand items here in the warehouse: around a thousand belts, the same number of braces and just as many water bottle covers; American, English and Belgian uniforms, flags, weapons – fake, it’s true - and parachutes… I’ve got German uniforms as well, but without the swastikas and flags. I don’t sell them.’

‘The stock is my greatest advantage. If somebody phones me for three hundred Second World War uniforms and two hundred – let’s say – food trays, I can deliver them. Sometimes people say I’m crazy, because I buy all that stuff and maybe no one will ask for it, but so far it’s all worked really well.’

Strong network

‘If I don’t have something in stock, I can count on my network. That’s my second strength. Because I go to all the fairs and re-enactors’ meetings, I’ve usually spoken to someone who has trays like that, for example. One or two phone calls later and it’s sorted. On the other hand, the stock is also my biggest challenge. Financially, I mean. Stock is expensive. I have to keep the balance between selling products and buying others – and guaranteeing my cash flow.’

‘Is my house full of stuff too? It used to be, but not anymore. I still have one cupboardful, but I’ve moved the rest here to the warehouse.’

Call of Duty helps

‘Where do I find it all? At fairs and meetings, but I get most of the products made. Some at a big clothing factory in Belgium, the rest in China, India, Thailand and Pakistan. I have to be honest, that costs me less than half as much, especially as I don’t have to pay import taxes on the products from Pakistan. That makes a huge difference on five hundred or a thousand sweaters. It’s the difference between affordable and unaffordable. Production in Belgium is almost impossible for a small sole trader. That should change.’

‘I’m active in a niche market, yet QMI is still more than profitable. You might not think so at first glance, but it’s a stable and even popular market. Army gear is trendy. All the war games that are in circulation these days help, like Call of Duty, for example. Thanks to games like that I can tap into a new market – young people. If a new war film comes out, demand rises again. The various commemorations in recent years have caused peaks in sales too. This year it’s the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Normandy, the commemoration of the liberation of Europe, and in December it’s Bastogne. 2018 was a good year because the end of the First World War was being commemorated, 2014 was even better. People seem to prefer to celebrate the beginning of the war (laughs).’

‘Obviously I hope that sales keep on rising, so bring on the video games and war films. One of my big dreams was to see Matt Damon and Bruce Willis in my uniforms. That dream’s come true, so I’m a happy man.’

This article first appeared in Z.O., the trade journal of the Belgian Union of Self-Employed Entrepreneurs.

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