Spalwart's Christoffer Brattin and Fredrik Johansson had no intention of setting out to create their own brand when they stumbled across an old Slovakian factory. Having worked in the shoe design industry for 20 years, collectively, the pair thought that the time was right, so in 2010 they launched the first model, the Special, under the name of Spalwart, and the rest is history. We paid the boys a visit at their Stockholm studio and went over the highs and lows of the business and the importance of finding the right partners.
Images: Kristian Loveborg/Selectism
Tell us the story of discovering the factory…
CB: We do design and product development for various fashion brands and often do sourcing for production which involves visiting factories around Europe. One day I received an email from a Slovakian factory, inviting me to come by and check out what they had to offer. I thought, ‘Okay, sounds interesting. I’ll take the chance.’ So I went over to Bratislava and was picked up at the airport by a guy who didn’t speak a word of English. He drove me two and a half hours to the factory in a tiny town. It was one of the biggest shoe factories I had ever seen. The owner showed me around, and by chance I caught a peek of this old warehouse where he was storing dusty old molds and machinery. I thought, ‘This is a treasure. Here we can find some good stuff.’
Were you planning on starting your own brand when you found the factory?
CB: No. But I became very interested in these old molds. I ended up making a pair with the molds there and then and brought them back with me to Sweden. I showed the pair to Fredrik but he wasn’t so keen at the time. We did end up using that factory for production with the other brands we were hired by, so we kept in contact with them. Then, later, we were moving out of our office and found the pair in a box while unpacking. I showed it to Fredrik again and he was impressed, so we decided to do something with it. Within a couple of weeks we came up with a name, wrote down our story and so on.
The first pair we made was called the Special. It was a mold from the fifties. We decided to do everything our own way, almost from scratch. We tried out Paris, and presented the shoes at Capsule. We were kind of expecting to get in with the French, or the Germans or other European countries, but that didn’t really happen. But we did find a lot of success with the Japanese buyers, and other Asian countries. That is where we seemed to work well.
Your stockists are so carefully selected, what made you choose this route as opposed to aiming towards the larger market?
CB: We didn’t approach people, or shops. We thought that, if we make good product then good people will find us. It will take more time, of course, but in the end, I think that we can grow in a healthy way, instead of being forced to fulfil the needs of distributors and agents. So instead of giving them the control, we wanted to keep the control ourselves, so we can grow as fast as we want. That was the idea.
FJ: When we exhibited by ourselves, and actually took the time it needed, slowly the shops who had the right end consumer found the ground. Their customers also like to search and find new brands and don’t want to be fed with a spoon all day long.
CB: Exactly. For example, we try to upgrade the lining and materials we use, and an average consumer doesn’t see that. They think the product is not worth it, but the person who is really into these details can understand it. They see it immediately. That’s why I think it’s so important for us to be in the right stores where you meet these people who get what you're about.
Why do you think you’ve done so well on the Asian market?
CB: I think that what we offer is different to the other sport shoes out there. It’s also made in Europe, I think that’s important, as well as not being mass-produced and branded with logos.
Can you tell us a bit more about the unique production style behind the original models?
CB: To vulcanize the sole on the upper, it takes seven minutes and you can only vulcanize one pair at a time on each machine. And since we are using all this old machinery, the soles are not perfect. I mean, here you have the edges that are a bit uneven, everything has a bit more character. The molds are really old and have been used for so many years so you can see that they’re not perfect anymore, which also gives interesting characteristics to all of our shoes.
FJ: I think that in combination with the materials we choose, it gives the shoe a special feel. We want really high standards for the materials, as we want the shoes to last and not just to break down after a week of wearing them. Basically, when you combine top quality leather and high tech nylons, and combine that with these old techniques then you get a unique shoe. It’s like a combination of two different worlds somehow.
CB: For instance, when it comes to laces, we were searching like crazy for the best laces we could find. Even though we know the industry and know where to find laces, there are just so many crappy laces everywhere. We wanted to find the good quality, cotton laces. In the end we found an old factory who still made them.
FJ: They have been producing those laces for 120 years, so of course we had to have them.
You’ve created a more formal, leather shoe for the upcoming season. What was the inspiration for Fall/Winter 2014?
CB: Since we are working with all kinds of shoes, we want to make shoes that we personally want to wear. There is a factory in Italy, a small cobbler family that make shoes by hand and they’ve been doing that for generations. We got together with them to do some product development for Spalwart, which last fall ended with Goodyear welted shoes. We wanted to use the same techniques they were using back in the day and apply it to our design. It is very rare to find factories that are still able to do it in the correct way.
Since we are interested in the craft we want to do all different types of constructions, so we’re doing everything from goodyear welted shoes to stitch-downs with welt, which is also something that barely anyone can make today. As well as normal blake stitched shoes, which originally was the economical way of making this kind of production.
So was it just a natural progression to start doing leather shoes, moving away from the trainers?
CB: The trainers are something that we will definitely continue working with and we will definitely continue to design new sport shoes. We just added more types of shoes to the brand.
FJ: It is very easy to get labelled as a sneaker company or a fashion company. What we do is footwear. We are not exclusively doing sneakers. We love shoes as long as they are done in an authentic way.
CB: And maybe it won’t end with just footwear, we may do clothes one day, or bags because that is also something that I have worked with before, so who knows?
Do you think you’ll stick with the steady pace you’ve been going?
FJ: Definitely. It’s more attractive to us to build a relationship with the shops and customers we've started working with, instead of just jumping from shop to shop and go wild, we want to build long-lasting relationships. If you find the right stores it’s better to stick with them. At the same time, we are a young brand, so we are always open to entering new markets.
What are your plans for future seasons?
CB: New colors, lots of new colors. New materials. New combinations. New styles. I think it’s going to be colorful.
FJ: But it also feels like a neverending product development. It feels like the product development is going on in the background or parallel to everything else all the time. Instead of forcing new products into the collection, we want to give the product a chance to grow and find the timing to find its place. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't and in that case we keep what we have instead of doing what’s expected of us.