How a pro footballer became a furniture designer

Dedon's Robert Dekeyser (top) wants his products to work well outdoors (above).
Robert Dekeyser.PHOTO: DEDON
Dedon's Robert Dekeyser (top) wants his products to work well outdoors (above).
Dedon's Robert Dekeyser wants his products to work well outdoors (above).PHOTO: DEDON

Former footballer Robert Dekeyser's Dedon label, known for its weather-resistant pieces, has opened a new resort too

The secret ingredient to Belgian luxury furniture brand Dedon, which is known for its outdoor furniture, is the special plastic fibres it uses.

Woven by a technique inspired by indigenous crafts in the Philippines, the material is durable and resistant to the elements.

It has fans among celebrities such as Colombian pop star Shakira and Bono of Irish band U2 as well as Brazilian footballer Neymar. Movie stars such as Jet Li and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin are regular customers.

In Singapore, Dedon furniture is sold at multi-brand store Xtra Furniture in Park Mall. The brand also has a pop-up store till the end of the year at the same location, showing its 2015 collection. Prices start from $5,499 for a two-seater swing to $12,899 for a loveseat.

To inaugurate the store, Dedon's co-founder and Belgian Robert Dekeyser, 50, is in town. He is a retired professional footballer who once played for FC Bayern Munich, a top German club, but was forced into early retirement because of an injury.

Dedon's goal is to create outdoor furniture, or as he puts it, "an outdoor living room". He was unhappy with how most outdoor furniture at the time was made of rattan and broke easily after several uses.

Dedon's furniture is weather- resistant. Even its cushions are specially made to allow water to flow quickly out of them and dry faster in the sun.

The father of three says: "If you put so much effort into decorating your living room, why not put just as much effort into your patio and garden as well? It's the first thing people see when they visit your house."

On what the brand's celebrity fans have bought, he says of Shakira who has a customised swingrest from the 2015 collection. "It's pink because she really likes the colour and she's the only one that has it."

With its headquarters based in Germany and a factory in the Philippines, Dedon now has 2,200 employees.

It also recently expanded into the resort business. Dedon Island Resort is located in Siargao, the Philippines, a 45-minute plane ride away from Cebu. Filled with Dedon furniture, the luxury resort allows guests to do anything on the island for a one-off fee starting at $760 a person a night, from fishing with the local fishermen in the morning to receiving massages.

Given Mr Dekeyser's success in the furniture industry, one would assume he has always been interested in the business.

But he was a restless kid, transferring schools nine times and declaring that he would become a professional footballer at the age of 15. In four years, he was signed on as goalkeeper to FC Bayern Munich.

He played football for 10 years till 1990, when someone accidentally struck his face with an elbow on the pitch. He was hospitalised and temporarily blinded for six months.

During that time, his future brother-in-law approached him to start a business. With his football career hanging on the line and a yearning to do something new, Mr Dekeyser dropped everything and formed Dedon, even though he had no clue what the company would actually be doing.

After a failed stint at selling hand-painted skis, Dedon shifted to selling its own line of furniture instead. Although the business was tough, the company was saved by a bunch of raffia giraffes Dedon imported from Africa, which became a sleeper hit when they were displayed behind Dedon furniture during a trade show.

The company ended up selling about 15,000 giraffes and made enough profit to keep it afloat and to continue expanding.

Looking back, Mr Dekeyser says he has no regrets about leaving football.

"Football is great, but when you have it as a career, the pressure to continually keep fit and perform well really gets to you. I played football for a good 10 years of my life and it was time to move on to something new."

His life has had its fair share of setbacks. His wife of more than 20 years, who was involved in the marketing aspects of Dedon, died in 2010 after falling into a coma.

Despite the tragedy, he remains positive and has been dating American actress Gina Gershon, 53, for four years. His three children aged 26, 24 and 18 are also a source of comfort and joy.

"Even if I'm busy with work, I still value any chance I get to spend with my family," he says.

The company's next milestone is its 25th anniversary next year.

Mr Dekeyser says he once met Brazilian striker Pele when he was younger and asked the football legend how to become a successful player. "His reply was, 'Follow your dreams.' That's good advice and I wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't done that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline 'Scoring with outdoor furniture'. Print Edition | Subscribe