The Axel Arigato brand launched online in July 2014. A little over two years later, after a phenomenal response driven largely by a major social media push – and a growing following for its desirable sneakers – it opened its first shop in London’s Soho, at 19-23 Broadwick Street. Co-founder and CEO Albin Johansson tells Tom Bottomley the secret behind its rapid success.
Tom Bottomley: Where does the Axel Arigato name come from?
Albin Johansson: Axel is the Swedish term for ‘axis’. The globe is turning on its own axis and that’s pretty much the same with our brand. Arigato means ‘thank you’ in Japanese. We take a lot of inspiration from Japan. In the past 15-20 years Sweden and Denmark in particular have been famous for the minimalist look, but the way we see it, minimalism has existed in Japan for centuries. You see it everywhere, in their architecture, fashion and in their whole society. Hence we are saying ‘thank you’ in this way with our brand name.
TB: Who owns the brand?
AJ: I am one of two owners, my partner being Max Svärdh, who is also the creative director who designs all the shoes and lays the guidelines for the brand. I am more on the business building and strategy side. That’s where my experience and background derive from. We’d never worked together before this, but we were friends. We had both been working with e-commerce and fashion, so there was a common thread.
TB: What made you decide to launch your own brand and why footwear?
AJ: We had always liked footwear a lot and, since working in e-commerce on the fashion side, we saw some brands that had started in the US that were direct-to-consumer brands. They were performing very well, but no one really seemed to be doing that with footwear, so that’s where we saw an opportunity. Neither of us come from a shoe background in particular, not even on the design side. We’re quite naive in that sense, but our approach was ‘if someone else can do it, why can’t we?’ We hadn’t worked with a mono brand before, or on the production side either, so everything has been a sharp learning curve. However, in my previous role, I met with and worked with hundreds of brands, as did Max, so we had accumulated a lot of know-how. And we were now coming at it from a consumer perspective as well, asking ourselves ‘what would we want?’ All our shoes are handmade in Portugal, with materials from Italy.
TB: Is the way you look at the market different to other footwear brands?
AJ: We’re taking more of a consumer orientated marketing philosophy, as opposed to traditional methods of planning ranges for forward ordering in advance for different seasons. It’s more about creating desire for the here and now. Trends are happening much faster these days as people around the world are more connected and there are so many different elements vying for our attention every day. From a UK perspective, you could look at what ASOS or Mr Porter are doing well right now. Instead of working with seasons, we introduced ‘drop of the week’ on the website to draw people in, and every week we release at least one new style. The same goes for the new shop, as no one wants to see exactly the same as what they saw the last time they came in within the same season, there needs to be continuous newness. Our customers and followers know, through email, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and so on, that there is always something new going on. It’s also a good marketing tool, and great for press, because there is always something fresh to write about. Social media has played a very important role to our rapid success. We have focused a lot on our visual imagery, but fortunately people have also really liked our products.
TB: So when and how did you launch the brand online?
AJ: We launched in July 2014. Launching online meant the target audience was global. We started doing some branding and marketing before the launch and, by the third day of trading, we had already sold to people in 14 different countries on three different continents. It gave us confidence that it was not only us who liked the products, and not only people in our native Sweden. Actually, since day one, the US has been our largest market. We wanted to open the first shop in either New York or London, the cities where we see ourselves, where we want to be, big fashion orientated cities with big crowds, a lot of tourists and so on. It just felt better to open in London as opposed to in Sweden, and we also only wanted to be in Soho particularly. There is continuous progress being made in the area, and it has such a good mix of brands now, like A.P.C., Our Legacy, Aesop, Supreme and Palace. It just feels so right for us. It’s a good fit for our brand.
TB: Do you have a specific target customer?
AJ: We have quite a broad customer base. Although we sell a lot to the 17 to 25 age group, we try not to limit our product to that. One of the core values of Axel Arigato is that if we make an amazing product, it will have its own following. We are very product driven and never want to work with target customers as such.
TB: How has the new shop in Soho, which opened in October, been received?
AJ: So far we are very pleased with the outcome of our store on Broadwick street, which is 1,650 square feet and stands out on the street. We have had more than 1,000 visitors and have received a great response from customers as well as press. Branding-wise it’s been amazing. The store shows that Axel Arigato is more than just our products, it’s a brand, with its own aesthetic, DNA and visual environment. I think people really get what Axel Arigato is all about now.
TB: What other designers, brands and artists have used the additional space in the shop?
AJ: We are currently displaying Matthew Miller and UK brand ADYN in the shop, plus customised rings from Swedish jeweller Göran Kling. We also have Office magazine, 032c magazine and Japanese art books such as Praise of Bondage by Nobuyoshi Araki. We are also working with other brands and will offer bespoke collections as in-store exclusives, and we are finalising many different projects, so hopefully we can offer a great event schedule in-store for spring 2017.
TB: What can we expect from the brand that will be new for 2017?
AJ: Even though sneakers remain as the core product, and there will certainly be some new developments in that category, we are also exploring and expanding the product offering. In January, we will release the second drop of bags for men, followed by the first bag collection for women. This is an important category where we see potential to drive sales as well as introduce the brand to new customers. During s/s 17 we will also introduce our first capsule clothing collection, which we are very excited about. We see the potential to grow this new category through different options offered throughout the season. It keeps things interesting and gives people a reason to keep coming back in to the store, while also widening our appeal.
TB: Is there going to be a major wholesale push in the UK in 2017?
AJ: We have always said that we are not a brand that needs to be on every street corner in every city. That’s not what we’re about. At the moment we are pleased with our current distribution. We are focusing on our own retail channels as well as current retailers within UK such as Harvey Nichols – in-store and online – and Net-A-Porter. We are not actively seeking for any further wholesale accounts, but we aren’t closing any doors either. If there is a store that feels right for the brand we will of course consider it.
TB: What shows will Axel Arigato be showing at in January and February?
AJ: We will be a part of the RAVEN Projects at CIFF in Copenhagen at the beginning of February, which will be the first trade show we have shown at. We are also doing our own showroom in Paris in January.