“I’m a thinker! When a new request comes in, I start with a lot of thinking. Then I overthink, end up frustrated and start making things.”

Meet Milou Neelen, a talented Illustrator from Amsterdam. Milou’s clients include Elle Magazine, Anna & Nina, Love Stories Intimates, Tommy Hilfiger and more. We met on a rainy afternoon at the Hoxton hotel in Amsterdam and talked about creativity, new projects and her love for Hotel Magique.

Hi Milou… We’d love to hear your Urban Tale!
So, I was born in Hoorn, in a family that celebrated creativity. My parents always motivated me to follow my heart, for which – looking back – I am very thankful! At the time I quit high school, I moved to Amsterdam and started a graphic design course. I just really wanted to do something that I loved. After that I tried another creative study, but that wasn’t my cup of tea. I basically started to paint a lot and besides that worked in a few different bars around Amsterdam. At some point I worked in a bar in the west, of which the owner said I should display some of my work on the walls – really cool! It caught the eye of a gallery owner, who asked me for an exhibition. Shortly after that I made some work for the hallway of club Panama and from that moment onwards I started to paint and exhibit more and more.

We heard that ELLE magazine called you on your 25th birthday?
Yes! So on my 25th birthday I was called by Elle magazine, they asked me if they could use one of my paintings as an illustration for an article. Of course I answered yes – I mean, best birthday present ever! I always knew I wanted to do something in fashion, but I wasn’t sure what exactly, this really brought my passion for illustration and fashion together perfectly. After that, I worked for them on a regular basis and also began working as a print designer for Maison Scotch, they were really exciting times! In the evenings I would come home from my job and continue working on projects for Elle. I once worked on their big year horoscope, which was quite nerve-wracking because it had to turn out awesome of course! It was a big project and my nights were long, but it was all worth it as the reactions were really great. After working for Maison Scotch for about three years, I started freelancing full-time. That really worked out great from day one and soon after I became a permanent freelancer for Love Stories. Marloes, the founder of this Amsterdam based lingerie brand approached me and from that moment on we’ve always worked great together. We have a really good click and without exchanging too many words, we always figure out quickly what direction we want to head for with the new collections. I’ve worked on their logo, made the paintings in the store, designed their all-over prints and much more. It’s really a mix of everything.

Did you have any doubts when taking that first step to full-time freelancing?
Not really, It was the right time for me and I know I’ve been quite lucky. In the time I worked for Elle Magazine and Maison Scotch I already got asked for freelance jobs on a regular basis. Besides that I managed to build up quite a bit of savings, which took the pressure off me to be successful from the start. That’s actually a good tip for when you’d like to get into freelancing, build up a bit of a buffer – it really does help! From day one though a lot of work started coming in for me and that only increased more and more. People also started finding me via social media and magazines such as Glamour and Elle… That’s how the ball started rolling.

Where do you start when a new assignment comes in?
I’m a thinker! When a new request comes in, I start with a lot of thinking. Then I overthink, end up frustrated and start making things. I work well under pressure! I’ll often make a few different things and then see what idea works best. I draw everything by hand and then continue editing it in Photoshop. I always work with brushes and ink as it really works for me, I love the way the brushes flow smoothly over the paper. Also, I use a calligraphy pen sometimes, depending on the types of strokes I’m planning to make.

Then there’s Hotel Magique, your own creative brand selling greeting cards, art prints and more. How did you come up with this idea?
Yes, so exciting! I love having different projects to work on for clients, it teaches me a lot and also forces me to approach every project from a different perspective; how much of my own style can I add to it and how much commercial input is needed? However, last year I really felt an urge to start something for myself. I have a lot of cool ideas, but sometimes find it a shame to give them away to a customer. I started Hotel Magique in December last year and so far, really love everything about it. It feels completely different to work for yourself, compared to working on projects for others.

For everyone that doesn’t know your style, how would you describe it?
Ah, that’s a tricky one. Many people do say that they recognize my style when seeing work that I’ve done. For me though, I really find it difficult to see. I guess that you do see the ‘fashion influence’ in my work, but I just really follow my own emotions and don’t overthink it. With Hotel Magique, I aim for the higher-end labels when approaching new potential clients. I think this is a good way to distinguish myself and make sure that my brand gets identified as more exclusive, rather then main stream.

What’s been your most exciting project so far?
It’s great to have been part of Love Stories and see all of that develop and progress, but besides that of course, Hotel Magique. Currently I’m in touch with the Hyatt hotel in Nice for a new collaboration; these are the types of projects I’d like to do more – it really gives me energy. We also started a new collaboration with a shop in San Fransisco and there might be some things in New York coming up soon… Really exciting! It’s cool to see that my work is attracting an international audience, this is definitely the way forward for me.

Does Amsterdam influence you and your work in any way?
Unawarely it does I think. I love looking at the architecture, hotels and interiors. This is what really inspires me and what I like about cities in general. The disadvantage on the other hand of living in a city, is too much stimulation! Wherever I walk I’ll see new things, cool interiors, you name it. I really like going on strolls through the Vondelpark with my sweet dog Laika. She forces me to get out of the house and take a moment to empty my mind.

What’s your main sources of inspiration?
Like I said, I really love looking at interiors. I can also be inspired by funny new shapes, that all of a sudden seem to pop up in all types of interior objects.

Can you find a good creative flow with new projects coming up constantly?
Sometimes I do think, “how am I going to do all of this?” I have somebody that packs all my orders which is super helpful. Also I will have somebody starting from January to help me with sending everything. It’s an investment, but it enables me to grow and focus on the creative part. I have to be careful sometimes not to be switched on all the time, I love working in the evenings and at night when the city is asleep. It’s great, but there are boundaries!

Any future plans?
I’m moving to Bali in January! Initially for 6 months and after that I’ll have to make my mind up and decide whether we’re really going to take on the adventure and move for good. My boyfriend comes from Indonesia and I have wanted to leave Holland for a long time already, so the decision was easily made. I want to settle in Bali, rather then somewhere else in Indonesia. Being quite westernised, I like the idea of going for a coffee somewhere and working with other people around me; that’s possible in Bali.

Do you have a tip for all the creatives out there?
Somebody once said to me, you shouldn’t just see yourself as somebody that can illustrate nicely, see yourself as a business – you deliver a service that someone else can’t deliver. This way you are able to see the work more separately from ‘who you are’ and will be able to approach things more from a business point of view. This is what I also do with Hotel Magique, I’m not hotel Magique, but I have Hotel Magique… it’s my company. Your work is not by definition good or bad, it’s a style and that’s what people will approach you for.

UT Final Five…

Most inspiring person?
Andy Warhol, I love the way he often thought outside the box.

Best coffee table book?
Andy Warhol also! And there is another super-cool book… I forgot the name, it’s massive and contains beautiful photography of different tribes… Before They Pass Away?

Favourite travel destination?
Many! Portland is a favourite, make sure to sleep at the Airbnb of Emily Katz and her boyfriend. A really nice and cool, creative couple.

Best coffee spot in Amsterdam?
Toki on the Binnen Dommersstraat, Super cool interior and great people… best coffee in Amsterdam!

Best insiders tip for Amsterdam?
Zoku, in summer with the amazing terraces on the roof of the hotel building. Also the palm gardens in the Hortus… They make me feel like I’m already in Indonesia!

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