Gosha Rubchinskiy

Balenciaga Crocs. Rick Owens Birks. And just this March, Vetements x Church’s.

In footwear, headline-baiting one-offs (“kitsch collabs,” if you will) are certainly enjoying their moment.

Under a tide of “buzz x bland” crossovers, a refreshing announcement such as the upcoming Kiko Kostadinov x Camper boot risks being drowned out.

Camper — the sustainable shoe brand your hippie aunt loves — has flirted with art and design throughout its history. With a catalog ranging from vegan leather walking boots to a 2014 Gosha Rubchinskiy collaboration (which debuted a full season before the designer’s Paris Fashion Week debut, FYI), the brand occupies a unique place in the culture.

On the one hand, collaborations by their nature require some element of tension between forces. On the other, so do mood disorders. Is Camper — comfy, mallcore Camper — going through an identity crisis?

Or perhaps, is there something more?

To understand Camper’s wild streetwear collabs, one must first go back to the beginning.

Setting up Camper

In 1975, Lorenzo Fluxa founded Camper on the island of Majorca, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands. Fluxa, the third generation in a family of shoemakers, named his company after the Catalan word for “peasant” (camperol). Camper’s first shoe, the Camaleón, reflected these roots. It was a mixed-media low-top inspired by local farming shoes, right down to the recycled scraps used to make it. The entire concoction was then plunked on a crepe sole for maximum comfort, a must when trekking rural roads.

“Camper has a very specific history,” Camper global creative director Romain Kremer tells Highsnobiety. “It’s a family business, and I love the singularity of it. It’s not about doing what’s cool in the market, it’s about trying to smell what’s coming.”

Camper

The Camaleón didn’t just reflect its environment; it established the archetype of a Camper shoe. Campers would, first and foremost, be casual wear. They would also be more comfortable than rival shoes. Beyond that, the shoes should reflect the spontaneity, naturalism, and design focus inherent to Mediterranean culture. But in their soul of soles, Campers would be made for plushy pacing. To quote the title of Camper’s own retrospective, they would be shoes for “the walking society.”

By the ’80s, Camper had crystallized around these traits. Both its shoes and ads reflected the sort of nostalgic lightness from which Wes Anderson movies are made: humor, curiosity, passion, and expression, all tied into postcard visions of a disappearing rural Europe. Under this banner, Camper grew at home and abroad, producing both its first sneaker (1982’s Runner high-top) and its first mismatched pair.

In 1988, Camper introduced Twins. According to the brand, the shoes represented a challenge to “the idea that shoes must be identical.” Put simply, every Twins model featured two shoes, each with a different design.

It takes some getting used to, trust us.

Twins’ creation seems to mark a split for Camper as a whole. Twins was a hit. To this day, the line refreshes at least once a year. However, it was the two conservative, even dowdy models that came after Twins that truly took Camper worldwide.

Powered by the Brothers (1992) and the Pelotas (1995), Camper expanded to France, the UK, Germany, and Italy, before starting distribution to Japan in 1996. Brand revenues grew approximately 250% between 1997 and 2001, due mostly to a boom in sales of the Pelotas. This sustainable, puffy, hybridized “dress sneaker” has sold more than 11 million pairs to date, more than any other Camper shoe.

It didn’t really matter that showstoppers such as the Wabi (2000) were dropping in the background. By mass, the Camper brand was represented by comfortable, casual walking shoes — the sort worn by dudes who grow their own kale.

From walking to limping

In 2000, Camper was named “brand of the year” by Footwear News. Both its sales and its story led to a flurry of press coverage around that time. The “walking society,” it would appear, captivated society as a whole. Camper shoes were actually cool. A modern comparison is perhaps Filling Pieces — buzzy, architectural, reasonably priced, and for the time quite new.

Unfortunately, with the benefit of hindsight, the FN award seems to have been more of a curse than a blessing.

The next year, the Pelotas trend peaked. Camper’s process hadn’t changed, but the same macro trends that had lifted its mainstream shoes were beginning to shift. The mid-to-late aughts diverged to two extremes. At one pole was the suits and ties of #menswear, an entire generation of wannabe dandies who now shunned anything “street,” especially hybridized dress shoes. At the other was Scandinavian-style minimalism — Uniqlo, Common Projects, and A.P.C. jeans left little room for bulbous leathers.

Despite taking its first formal steps towards designer collaborations (Camper To&ether, launched in 2006), the brand cooled off. By 2007, even magazine features described the brand as a “tongue-in-cheek antifashion statement” — far from great in the years before normcore. Along with Swatch watches (and, presumably, black turtlenecks), Camper’s comfy, eco-friendly shoes even become an in-joke among creatives: “If you wear Camper shoes, do you become a better architect?” asked a user on an architecture forum that same year.

Camper To&ether launched the first of many collaborations with German designer Bernhard Willhelm in 2008, but due to the success of its casual products and the changing trend-scape, the damage was done. While its methods hadn’t changed (Twins shoes were still pushing boundaries year after year), Camper appeared to have gone the way of fellow Footwear News “brands of the year,” UGG (2003) and Crocs (2005).

“Besides the collaborations, it was not really a product for the people in my environment,” Kremer recollects. “In France, there was this image of the shoes linked to ecology and preservation. Back then, Camper was not really a ‘fashion’ brand.”

Its humorous, curious, passionate shoes were now, in the mind of millions — gulp — mallcore.

Camper, newer

In 2012, Camper’s founder passed the reins to his son, current CEO Miguel Fluxa Orti. Miguel, the fourth generation of a family built on shoes, had quite literally grown up with the Camper legacy. When he took over, the brand neither shifted its process nor chased trends. Instead, Camper doubled down.

Under Fluxa Orti’s direction, Camper adapted its history to modernity. The ads started to change, from old-school wacky to downright abstract and finally a 2016 Creative Review award for ad photography. Next, the shoes started to change. While the best-selling classics had to stick around, in 2013 the brand launched the Portol, a high-contrast boot ripped straight out of the movie TRON.

Even the brand’s creative heritage changed. That same year, Kremer left his position at MUGLER to join the brand as a creative consultant. One year later, he — a fashion designer from outside the Fluxa family — was appointed to his current role as the brand’s first global creative director.

So what if half the world still knew the brand for its “dress sneakers?” The same legacy of irreverence that had created Twins was now plugged into the zeitgeist. In 2016, Camper drew a line in the sand with the launch of its CamperLab stores in Paris and London. These retail concepts didn’t stock Pelotas. Instead, their shelves stocked the sorts of curvaceous, architectural shoes one expects from Raf Simons or Y-3.

“My favorite shoe we’ve ever done is the Kobarah,” says Kremer. “It’s almost impossible to go more into abstraction, but it’s very wearable and comfortable. For me, it’s what Camper is all about today.”

Through this lens, Camper’s recent cutting-edge collabs are not so much a surprise as merely another expression of the brand’s burgeoning creative confidence.

On paper, Camper’s values — comfort, sustainability, casualness by design — read like a manifesto for the new millennium. Its design characteristics — humor, curiosity, passion, expression — could be the show notes for many a postmodern runway show. With these traits as filters over present sensibilities, collaborations with emerging design talent such as Rubchinskiy, Kostadinov, and Eckhaus Latta suddenly seem like natural fits. Their collab shoes are head-turning heat.

Funny enough, so are the Dub (2016), Drift (2017), and this year’s Helix, all of which came out on general release.

“I started working with Camper as a collaborator, and was always trying to bring my own sensibility and touch to their world,” Kremer explains. “It’s important for me now to create more dimensions, to integrate more into the collection. Sometimes we meet people and it just turns into a collaboration.”

For a brand that often channels humor, one has to wonder if anyone at Camper sees the irony. To millions, they are the Pelotas — casual, sensible, but really rather stale. Yet, to a small but growing part of shoe culture, they are the Twins — wild, experimental, harnessing a dual identity to create something more.

And that’s not an identity crisis. It’s a reincarnation.

Kiko Kostadinov’s TIEX sneaker collaboration with Camper drops later this year. Originally a trekking boot that launched in 1997, Kostadinov’s re-worked versions feature GORE-TEX for the upper, in both low-top ($285) and high-top ($340) versions. The chunky style showcases Kostadinov’s penchant for workwear and embraces the spirit of what he calls the “new outdoors.” Availability begins June 8 at CamperLab stores in NY, London and Paris, plus Camper.com and selected concept stores worldwide.

The interview above has been edited for clarity.

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Alex Rakestraw is a writer, strategist, and creative based in New York. He covers fashion, footwear, sustainability, and tech.

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