As it opens its latest and largest store in Copenhagen, Drapers steps inside Swedish brand Axel Arigato to learn why change is at its core.
Axel Arigato is not afraid of change. The Swedish brand was launched in 2014 by creative director Max Svärdh and CEO Albin Johansson with men’s footwear, focusing on minimalist styles and simple shapes.
After establishing its first store in London in 2016 – and branches in Gothenburg and Stockholm in the past year – last month it opened its largest to date, a 2,900 sq ft space in Copenhagen.
It now has a prestigious selection of stockists, a content-rich website, and almost 500,000 Instagram followers.
A willingness to change by opening new retail channels and expanding its offer beyond its original slimline sneakers has led the brand to evolved from being a strictly direct-to-consumer men’s shoe label into a fully rounded footwear and clothing brand.
“We always come back to change,” says Svärdh. “[In the beginning] we felt that [being direct to consumer] was an incredible opportunity to talk to the customer directly and build the brand. The plan was to have zero retailers.”
Eventually, after much interest from prospective stockists, the brand opened distribution a year later, but in a very measured way. It selected just one stockist each in key territories, and launched into Harvey Nichols in the UK for autumn 15.
“The brand is a reflection of the world,” says Johansson. “And the landscape has changed. When we launched, direct to consumer suited us better, but we realised in some ways its easier for people to understand us when we’re next to other brands. The consumer understands the brand better in that retail context.”
Finger on the pulse
Axel Arigato now has 20 UK stockists, including Harrods, Browns, Selfridges and End, and more than 120 worldwide for spring 20, although it is still selective.
“The product has a great price point for its quality and the modern aesthetic is easy to style. It keeps its finger on the pulse,” says Simon Longland, head of menswear at Harrods, which has stocked the brand since spring 18. “It has an amazing design team and strong permanent selection, complemented by exciting seasonal [newness].
“Additionally, it has developed into an important partner [to Harrods] with its collaborative efforts on worldwide exclusive capsule collections, such as the autumn 19 men’s “Gold Pack” and the imminent spring 20 women’s capsule.”
In September 2016, Axel Arigato opened its debut store at 19-23 Broadwick Street in London’s Soho. It worked with architect Christian Halleröd, who has designed stores for brands such as Acne, Byredo and Frame, to create the first location to bring the brand to life.
A store in Gothenburg opened in November 2018, directly opposite the brand’s headquarters, while a second Swedish store opened in Stockholm in June this year.
Each store features a starkly minimalist, design-led interior, deliberately evoking the look of a luxury retail space thanks to high-quality materials, fixtures and fittings, while unusual structures, sculptures and artwork reflect the feeling of an art gallery.
The new Copenhagen store opened last month. It features expanses of raw concrete juxtaposed with striking display units made of jesmonite dipped in high-gloss lacquer that could pass for futuristic art installations.
“From day one we were very online focused,” explains Johansson on the move into bricks and mortar. “It’s how we built the brand. But we wanted to open a space to show the true DNA of the brand via the product, the space, the design, and talk to the customer and hear from them. Axel Arigato is so much more than just the product. It’s the world around it: music, art, culture, events. The store brings that to life in a living space.”
Each store has a full calendar of events and pop-ups throughout the year – including other fashion brands’ parties, book launches and music events – to bring together cultural elements relevant to the Axel Arigato customer.
“We love and believe in retail, but we’re doing it our way,” says Svärdh. “[Bricks-and-mortar stores are] not just about transactions any more. It’s about so much more. Customers get to experience our universe.”
Having grown to a team of 70, the brand opened an office on London’s Carnaby Street in May 2018 to reflect the importance of the UK as its biggest market, followed by Scandinavia, the US, France and Germany. The brand reports that sales have grown 4,000% between 2015 and 2018, but declines to reveal further details.
Women’s footwear was added to the offering a year after launch, although men’s still accounts for two-thirds of sales. Clothing was launched in 2017 and includes printed T-shirts, jumpers and shirts.
The brand’s footwear offer has also evolved. The minimalist, smart-meets-casual sneaker styles that it launched with remain at its core, and the pared-back Clean 90, Cap-toe and Platform styles are bestsellers. Recent launches include the successful Marathon Runner and Catfish styles, which embrace the trend for oversized “ugly” sneakers with chunky soles and a retro sports style.
“We love the balance of core and newness,” says Svärdh. “What makes our brand interesting to us is the variety of product. We want to offer something to almost everyone: people that appreciate fashion, but also someone that works in a bank and isn’t as into fashion.”
This appeal to different shoppers is paired with a careful positioning. Although it is pitched as a premium brand, keen price points balance the look and feel of a more luxurious label with its contemporary outlook. Footwear retails from £140 for a Cap-toe sneaker to £205 for a Marathon Runner. Accessories range from £17 for socks £380 for leather backpacks. Clothing retails from £40 for a T-shirt to £580 for a winter parka. Wholesale prices range from at £24 for a T-shirt to £97 for a jacket.
“It’s about creating and giving our customer the feeling of exclusivity,” says Svärdh. “From the material of the box and the dust bag [the shoes come in] to the lining of the shoes and the feel of the floor in the store, it’s all these details. We’re trying to give our customer the luxury feeling and added value. Always more value than you pay.”
One thing that has not changed is the brand’s “drop of the week” strategy, a constant flow of new product that arrives online and in store every Wednesday, mostly via new colourways.
“We want to give the customers a reason to always go [onto our website or in store] and see new things,” says Svärdh.
“It reflects the times,” adds Johansson, referring to the wider retail trend for regular product “drops”. “People don’t want to wait for six months for the next collection. They want new things all the time. Social media has changed all that. Attention spans are different. They always want new things.”
Admitting they see a lot of “potential” in the brand, the pair hint at yet more fresh product directions and further stores, revealing that they are “looking a lot” in the UK, Germany and France. It has a concession in Swedish luxury department store NK’s Gothenburg branch, and another will open in NK Stockholm this autumn.
“Retail has never been so challenging and evolving,” says Johansson. “If you aren’t up to date on a daily basis, it can go wrong very fast.”
“But with all of these changes come a lot of opportunities for brands like us,” adds Svärdh. “There are two sides to the coin. These changes in the industry have also been our opportunities. We love change.”
This open-minded attitude, along with a deep understanding of its consumer and consistent product innovation, have served Axel Arigato well, and could serve as a template for other brands as they attempt to adapt to today’s changing market.
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