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Elegance in the elements
Words Konrad Olsson Photography Michael Angeles
When Alexander Eskeland tries to summarise the appeal of Scandinavia it quickly evolves into list of the creative industries. — Scandinavia has tremendous momentum right now. In everything from cuisine to architecture to music to fashion and design. Just our whole Scandinavian integrity is so fascinating to people all over the world. Look at Bernie Sanders. He is building his whole campaign on Scandinavian values.
Alexander is the energetic co-founder of SWIMS, the Norwegian footwear and apparel brand that has developed into a remarkable success story since launching their line of colourful galoshes a little over a decade ago. Today, the brand’s line of sneakers, loafers, hiker boots, raincoats, down vests, parkas and accessories can be bought all over the world, in everything from beach resorts to menswear shops. — I think the biggest shift that has happened since we started is in the mind of the consumer, Alex reflects. When I graduated, working for an investment bank was the way to be successful. Today, you have a new generation that demands more out of life. We want to live more flexibly and be more active — both in the city and in the nature.
In a way, he is describing the development of the brand he co-founded with designer Johan Ringdal in 2006. SWIMS aims to be a supplier of ”reinvented classics”, but most of all, everything they do has a functionality aspect to it. — Everything is based on utility and being water friendly. Weather you are at a beach resort or a winter resort, we deliver an elegance to the product, while at the same time being functional. The story of SWIMS starts in 2005. Back then, Alexander was working for premium water brand Voss when he was approached by Ringdal about starting a brand selling modern galoshes. — Johan was this old school type guy, who always wore galoshes over his Converse. He was the creative, I was the commercial guy. So I went from selling water to selling galoshes. Early on we decided to not sell them in shoe stores, because we would have been branded as a commodity. Instead we went into the classic menswear shops that sold suits. We were able to get the product in to some very high-end stores. The timing was perfect. It was just around the time that guys started to get more conscious about their style and buying more accessories. Upon the success of the galoshes, Johan and Alexander branched out into selling raincoats and umbrellas. And in 2011, they launched a new product that would propel the brand into a whole new season.
”I think it’s important to understand just how deep the Norwegian culture is embedded in the outdoor lifestyle”
— We were looking for a product to sell in the summer, and we really hit the nail on its head with the updated loafer. Here is this classic product that’s been worn by John F Kennedy and Gianni Agnelli. While the galoshes were limited to rainy regions, the loafer opened up distribution all over the world. The brand grew quickly during the 2010s. They launched big in US with Nordstrom and its 120 department stores. They launched collaborations with Hermes’ footwear brand John Lobb and Armani. And three years ago, they where acquired by an American investment firm and moved their head office to New York. With newfound muscles, SWIMS moved into a new phase. Johan left the brand, and a team of designers were hired to take the SWIMS ethos to the next level. — I think it’s important to understand just how deep the Norwegian culture is embedded in the outdoor lifestyle, says Dien Nguyen, Design Director for Footwear and Accessories, who joined the company in 2017.
Dien grew up in Long Beach, California, and cut his teeth in shoe design at Ralph Lauren, Alexander Wang, and Cole Haan in New York. It might seem odd for a Norwegian brand to hire a designer from the US west coast. But given the brand’s global reach, and the fact that its biggest growth market is North America, the choice makes sense. — SWIMS couldn’t be a better fit with who I am as a designer. I’m trained as an industrial designer, and since every SWIMS product has a functionality to it, the process is a lot about solving problems. My job has been to expand the collection to include all seasons. So now the SWIMS guy has something for his life year round. When Dien moved to Oslo and got acclimated with the weather conditions, he also learned to experience the origin of the brand. — It is striking how the Norwegians interact with the outdoors and the ever changing weather. This is manifested in the footwear. Shoes get eaten up here. The gravel, the soaking of the snow and rain, the rocks on the ground. You really had to experience it yourself to understand. Living here is market research, he says with a laughter, and points to their new City Hiker Boot as a perfect example.
”Before, when you thought about comfort and functionality, it was for an older demographic. Today, it’s bare minimum, it’s the base line.”
— I’m always looking for a fresh crispness when designing a new SWIMS product, he says. The city hiker is a good mix of modern hiking boot and sneaker. It’s technical, water proof, and insulated, while still using the soft compounds of a sneaker. You can get through the worst of it with this one.
This attitude of creating reinvented classics with a strong functional aspect is present in the apparel collection as well, headed up by Swedish designer Thomas Håkansson.
— Our ambition has been to define a new type of urban sportswear. And compared to a lot of other rainwear brands, we really pay attention to the detail. Even though the look might not be overtly functional, the fabrics and details are top-of-the-line. We have a very refined welding technique in our raincoats for example, ways Thomas. For Alexander Eskeland, the appeal of the full SWIMS collection is its versatility.
— Living in Norway, you can have really chilly mornings and warmer mid-days. It’s essential to be able to dress with layers, like our down vests or shirt jackets, that are cut like a denim jacket but insulated with primaloft, he says. For Dien Nguyen, the functionality aspect goes hand-in-hand with the development of menswear the past decade. — Before, when you thought about comfort and functionality, it was for an older demographic. Today, it’s bare minimum, it’s the base line. Guys are not going back to wearing uncomfortable shoes, that’s for sure.
The SWIMS office in Oslo sits atop its first flagship store.