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A sustainable mind
With cutting edge sustainability initiatives and world-class collaborations, Fredrik Ekström is taking Tretorn to new heights. Meet the creative director transforming the Swedish heritage brand from the inside.
Text Konrad Olsson Photography Kimberly Ihre
Fredrik Ekström is the eco-minded creative director for Tretorn.
Tretorn is one of Sweden’s oldest and most iconic outdoor and utility brands. The 128 year old company are for many people synonymous with the quintessential rain boot, but it’s less known that they also produced one of the world’s first ever sneakers, back in the year 1900. The brand has been worn by royalties and athletes and celebrities, from the king of Sweden to Björn Borg and Andre 3000.
Lately, the brand has been spearheading their work towards a more sustainable production. A work that has been lead by Fredrik Ekström, who joined the brand 2014. Fredrik founded the brand’s Eco Essentials Initiative and has run all their collaborations, including the latest one for Autumn/Winter 2020 with British designer Nigel Cabourn.
We sat down with the recently appointed creative director to discuss why Sarek is the most beautiful place in Sweden, their upcoming partnership with SEA LIFE Trust, and the new collections unveiling at this week’s Pitti Uomo 97 in Florence, Italy.
Why has it been so important for you to focus on sustainability?
— Sustainability is close to our heart. When Tretorn was going to celebrate 125 years [in 2016] we were going through the archives and looking at what the generations before us had done with the brand. We found a lot of stuff. In 1911, we started one of the first private daycares for the workers’ children. In the '30s and '40s we started to recycle rubber because of the lack of rubber during the war. We saw this and wondered, “in 125 years, when that generation will go through the archives and look back, what will they see?”. Also, we are an outdoor brand. If the nature is changing and the climate is changing, and if we don't take responsibility now, the generations after us won't have anywhere to be outdoor. We have been protecting against the Scandinavian weather since 1911. If we want to be part of that and protect that for the future, we need to do something now. That’s an ambitious undertaking, to be on the right side of history, rather than going for the next season.
— It was important that it wasn’t only a clothing line, or that we took one product and said, “how can we make this a bit more responsible”. Instead, we founded an initiative that we call Eco Essentials, that would be essential products, no more expensive just because they are eco-friendly. Then we used that as a platform to challenge ourselves, how we think and work and innovate for the future. And slowly, transforming everything, step by step, starting with what we could do immediately. Where did you start?
— The first thing we did was a collab with Naturkompaniet [a famous outdoor retailer in Sweden]. We contacted our factories because we knew that there's a lot of leftover materials in the sample rooms. We asked if we could buy small batches of leftovers from other companies’ sample productions. We did that and made a small limited edition collection of leftover rain jackets. From idea to the store it took about four-five months. We sold out in about 13 days. It went really fast. We liked it, the retailers liked it, and the consumers liked it. It made it easier to get an understanding in the organization.
How was the reception internally?
— In the beginning, everyone is a bit scared. We are a rubber company. We do rain jackets from plastics and polyester with PU coatings. That our core business. When someone says that we are going to transform this into something eco‑friendly and sustainable, the first response is "Can we handle this? What happens if something goes wrong?” That's a good response because you need to think about all that. Eco Essentials is not a fixed goal, it is a direction that we all work towards. It influences all the choices that our designers and product developers make. Our lead designer for apparel, Johanna Wikstrand Gartmyr, has been very instrumental in sourcing the right materials and innovating construction. I wouldn’t make it without her.
”Consumers know that you as a brand can produce things in a better way. If you don’t do that, it means that you’ve screwed them over.”
Looking at the raw material, and I'm sure the first thing you realise is, "OK, let's try to produce as little new material as possible.”
— Yes. Our raw materials are often nylon and polyester. Now, that is not something that grows on a bush. We can’t find an organic version of it. But we started thinking, where can we find our golden bush? We started to do research about nylon and where it ends up after being used. We came across the fishing industry and found that they change their nets efter two years, but somehow the old nets ”magically” disappear, because it costs money to put them into the garbage bins.
Meaning they are let out into the ocean?
— Yes. We found that about 650,000 tons of fishing nets are floating around in the oceans as debris. When they float, they start to attract small fish, and the small fish attracts larger fish, and then it comes to mammals, and when they get entangled in the net it starts to sink. If that lands on the reef, it could destroy entire ecosystems. All because someone dumped the net. We where wondering from our end, "Where's all the nylon? We want the nylon into our jackets!”
How did you find this, did you read an article somewhere?
— I've been working as a diving instructor and running dive centers in Asia. Back then, I could see the nets floating on the reefs. But that's 20 years ago, a lot happened since then. Johanna was doing research and met other passionate people. They started talking about how this could be rescued from the oceans, upcycled, and brought back into new life. We found a brand called Ecoalf and another called Econyl. Then we built a system to do new weavings and fabrics for our functional jackets so they would be rainproof.
How was the reception?
— The first season we did was called the Ghost Net Project, where we used the collection to communicate to the consumer about the problems in the ocean. It was highlighted at the UN World Ocean Conference when they had the opening ceremony in New York. Also our Crown Princess Victoria has been using it for when she does opinion work for the Water Days and during the Alpine Ski World Cup in Åre.
Tretorn is launching its collaboration with SEA LIFE Trust at the London Aquarium on January 30.
By now, you have done several collections with these materials. What’s the next step?
— We are partnering up with a UK based organisation called SEA LIFE Trust. They have marine sanctuaries all around the world. They are protecting turtle sanctuaries, seal sanctuaries, do ghost net removal projects. They run the global beach cleaning day on the World Ocean Day. It's a big organisation that inspire and educate people around the world about the situation in the oceans. For us, it is a way of contributing back. We’ve built a programme with products from which we’ll give 10 percent to the SEA LIFE Trust, so that they can invest in ghost net removal projects and beach cleanups, and start removing the plastics and the nylons again. We launch this at the SEA LIFE London Aquarium on January 30.
During the three or four years that you have been working on the Eco Essentials initiative, there's been a major shift in the public opinion around sustainability. Is this something that you sense, as a consumer brand, that your consumers are requesting this more?
— Definitely. It's growing a lot. When we started in 2016, it was something that was talked about in smaller groups. There was dedicated doers that was into it. Now we notice that it's more of a mass market thing. Consumers know that you as a brand can produce things in a better way. If you don’t do that, it means that you’ve screwed them over.
”The footwear industry is way behind the apparel industry in terms of sustainability.”
What does innovation mean to you?
— Innovation means to solve a problem that you didn't really knew that you had before. To be innovative you need to think outside of the box, but you shouldn't think too much outside of the box, because it also needs to be commercialised. A lot of innovations are nice to have, but some innovations, genuinely good innovations, you can drive up to scale to do a lot of good. One of the most fascinating things about Tretorn is that you are actually the world’s second sneaker brand?
— Yes, as far as we know. The first one was Keds, which was owned by the American Rubber Company. Then we launched one in the year 1900. Everything at Tretorn comes from the rubber. We started with galoshes, then we did rubber boots, tennis balls, and sneakers.
The first model was somewhat like a classic tennis shoe. White, clean. Not unsimilar to what's on the market right now.
— Not so much has happened for 120 years. Haha! The style from that sneaker has been an iconic style for 120 years. That’s why we are relaunching it now, on the first of may 2020, as a 120‑year anniversary.
Mexico 68 is a relaunch of the official shoe for the Swedish team at the summer olympics in Mexico City 1968.
Did you always produce sneakers?
— Yes, all the time. There has been classic summer shoes and stuff like that. We didn’t always carry the sport sneakers, and that why we’re now bringing back from our archives. We call it the Number series. Sneakers from ’55, ’61… The Nylite, one of the big icons, is from ’67. And now we are relaunching the Olympic sneaker from ’68, that was the official shoe for the Swedish team at the summer olympics in Mexico City 1968. We're launching that in time for Summer Olympics in Tokyo 2020.
How do you make these decisions, of relaunching old styles?
— Well, the Nylite has never gone out. It's been one of those styles that not many people in Scandinavia know about. But it is actually our most commercial sneaker around the world. It is big in Japan, UK, Philippines, and US. Also, it’s been worn by Björn Borg, Elvis Presley in Hawaii, Irvin Kershner on the set of the original Star Wars movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Billy Joel on the cover of the "52nd Street" album…. everyone! Aretha Franklin was an ambassador to Nylite.
When you bring them back, what do you add from present day?
— We have transformed all of them into the Eco Essentials initiative. The footwear industry is way behind the apparel industry in terms of sustainability. Not many people know that even if you buy a sneaker that looks like it has a rubber sole. When we made the decision for SS19 to relaunch our sneakers, we partnered up with a new factory in Vietnam that has an eco mindset. We started to eliminate as much plastics from the outsole as we could, and built a program with 30—60 percent natural rubber in the soles. We have a no‑spill policy. The leftovers from the outsoles becomes new foam for the insoles. We only use locally‑sourced canvases from around the factories. We are building the entire line of sneakers in the new Eco Essentials construction. The contemporary part is the eco‑mindset and some design features to have fit and comfort.
You started your career in skateboarding. Have you brought anything from your background in skate and snowboarding to Tretorn?
— Definitely. You grow a street‑smart way of thinking, because you come from an industry grown out of no money, driven by young kids with a passion that just wanted to have fun and do their thing. It helps to have that kind of mindset, because you find new ways of doing stuff.
The Tretorn x Nigel Cabourn collection for AW20.
Collaborations has become more and more important, both for the industry and for you as a brand. You recently did one with finish brand Makia. Why do collaborations work so well for Tretorn?
— We've always had these movements around Tretorn. We’ve also been connected to the world through the tennis industry, the horse industry, the riding community, the hunting community, the hiking community, and also the music community. Different verticals, but the same kind of lifestyles. And we started early. In 1976, we did a collaboration with ABBA, launching the ABBA clogs for their US tour. Since we launched the Eco Essentials initiative, we have a saying that we need to collaborate rather than compete. The climate issue is not something that one country can solve. All the nations needs to do it, and all the brands needs to do it. If we do collaborations, we can inspire other brands to do a bit more.
How did the collaboration with Nigel Cabourn start?
— We started talking to him because we were working with his daughter, Sophie. We met during Pitti Uomo, and we immediately fell in love with what his brand stands for. Designing long‑lasting products with timeless design — the same sayings that we have. We both have a retro style and a heritage in military and hiking. We thought that if we could merge that together, and create some eco stories within the products, it would be a fun thing to do. We introduced him to Sarek, and the styles up there and the inspirations from there. We started creating these 70s‑inspired hiking jackets made out of regenerated nylons from the fishing nets.
It’s the first time he’s done a collection with this range of products?
— Yes. Usually he goes in and do a line of jackets or a line of boots or something like that. This is the first when you talk about a uniform. He did jackets, shoes, and a bag. It was a challenge for him to parcel everything in, because it's three different factories, three different lead times, you have three different development processes. But it looks nice together. The background of Sarek is an interesting one. You have a whole line of products inspired by this region.
— It’s amazing. Sarek is the largest untouched wilderness in Europe. You don't have marked trails. You usually don't have cell phone connection, and you are pretty much on your own. It's a beautiful and unique fauna. You have a river delta that is wide in the Rapa Valley. Since you have so much rivers to go through, you need rubber boots. We started producing boots for hiking in Sarek back in 1972, and we were so associated with the region that we were allowed to trademark it. When we decided to bring back the original 1972 hiking boot, with wooden insole and everything, we felt that the strength of Sarek could be so much more. So we started to bring back '70s‑inspired hiking jackets. Everything in the Sarek collection is also part of Eco Essentials. On top of that, we brought Nigel Cabourn into the Sarek collection, to make it a bit more high end. He does products that are inspired from the area, but have a bit wilder take on the designs.
”We’re an outdoor brand. If we don't take responsibility now, the generations after us won't have anywhere to be outdoor.”
How important is it for you to define yourself as a Swedish brand?
— It's a part of our DNA, it's where we come from. People look at us as a Scandinavian brand, and that comes with a few responsibilities, I would say. The Scandinavian value system is pretty progressive on equality, sustainability, and how we look at the world. That’s where the Eco Essentials values comes in.
What's your take on Scandinavian brand in the world right now?
— I would say that it’s under threat. Scandinavia is strong, what we stand for, the values of mainly sustainability and equality. But what we take for granted is looked at as extreme values for a lot of countries. That’s why we need to push them more, we need to talk about it more. We need to drive the Scandinavian values out in the world, since they is good values. They are humanistic values, of taking care of each other, taking care of the planet.