When we first heard about Axel Arigato back in 2015, we have to admit, we were a little skeptical about one of their claims. The underground Swedish footwear label headed by Albin Johansson and creative director Max Svärdh claimed to be releasing a new shoe design every week. For one of the big dogs in the business, obviously, that's more than plausible. But for a brand that started out just the year before in summer 2014 (and with a team of just two), you'll forgive us if we did a double-take.
To produce that many sneakers, your creative team needs to be solid – confident in its approach and abilities, and with one eye locked on the future. Your income also needs to hold fast, which is where Axel Arigato separates itself from the competition. It is a label born in the transient, online world of the 21st-century fashion game. With a unique business model that prioritizes the building of strong relationships through social media with fans and professionals across the world, and through a mix of word-of-mouth and social marketing, the label now sells in over 100 countries and boasts a following of well over 300,000.
Now, on the eve of its first small leather goods and bag collection's release, we sat with the creative director, Max Svärdh, to discuss his underground label's rapid rise, its innovative sales model, the developing aesthetic, as well as how you start a sneaker label even when you haven't had any formal fashion education.
Hey Max, so to kick off, what were the biggest challenges in starting a brand even though you've never been to fashion school? Was anything simpler because of it?
It’s been a process through trial and error. But I have always found my lack of technical training quite liberating, everything I do is free of any restrictions or traditional frameworks. And it all started by just believing in my own ideas and making stuff. With time, I’ve built up my own methodology.
What was the brand's first big breakthrough? How did it happen?
Well for us the response was immediate – selling to over 14 countries within 3 days and 100 countries during the first year, as well as gaining a lot of traction on social media. But recently we had our first ever offline activity which was a sample sale. We had this 150-meter long queue, people were standing in the rain for five hours just to get their hands on a pair of sneakers. That’s the biggest compliment for me, to see someone buy and wear your designs. That’s how I measure our success.
How important was word-of-mouth in generating this interest?
Word-of-mouth has played a huge role in our success so far. Social media makes it possible for young kids to find alternative brands that speak to them, and they are able to share them with their friends. We don’t have to wait for a publication to introduce our products to the right people through their channels. We can spread the message ourselves.
You're about to launch a line of small leather goods and a bag collection. How can the brand's footwear philosophy translate into clothing?
We have a very product-focused approach and I work with the materials rather than working with traditional collections, concepts or seasonal stories. I try to create products that aren't too abstract or conceptual. It needs to be functional and it needs to be worn by someone real. Then it makes sense to me.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
Every morning I start with going through my own emails to my three email accounts. I'm always thinking in my head and I love developing ideas. So I constantly email myself to remember them. I do also travel frequently, but it’s nothing I enjoy doing too often. I like to be busy creating.
Outside of other footwear brands, which art movements, musicians, cultural artifacts, designers, and ideas influence the design and ethos of Axel Arigato?
When we started, we used Japan’s architectural minimalism and growing youth culture quite frequently as a reference. And today the most things we do is injected with counter-cultural references. Music is one of them. Roy Woods, Majid Jordan - I’m really into Canadians at the moment. But most importantly, what we do is working with what we know and personally can relate to.
How does Axel Arigato's "see-now-buy-now" model work and what are the benefits?
The idea of Axel Arigato started with us just questioning the whole structure of the business and how and why you make things. The way we work is not traditional and that’s one of the reasons why I think people enter our brand. The whole concept around ”drop of the week” was about building a new system with shorter production and delivery lead times so that demand for new designs can be fulfilled more quickly and efficiently.
People within the industry and especially press always told us we are doing it the wrong way and that we need to start working with seasonal collections. But for us, it never made sense that something is instantly viewable online, but still unavailable for immediate purchase.
How does Axel Arigato fit into the current streetwear landscape? What sets it apart from other luxury sneaker brands (like Filling Pieces, Common Projects, and ETQAmsterdam)?
I think there are many aspects that set us apart. First, when we started we never said we wanted to be a streetwear brand or a luxury sneaker brand. The way we work with luxury is first and foremost within the use of premium materials in all of our products. But also, in comparison to other sneaker brands, we are very selective about our distribution and handpicking the stores we want to be at. We have turned down so many retailers just because of the fact that we are not a brand that needs to be everywhere. We try to offer things people can relate to, but can't always find anywhere else. For me that’s luxury. There are also aspects of street culture that have influenced me, but it’s not streetwear in terms of something that is very graphic and has this huge logo on it. It’s more the cultural aspect of it. To address how these kids think and how they want to consume fashion today. Which is also visible in the wide range of styles in the sneakers that we offer. I like to think of Axel Arigato as a destination for people to shop new ideas.