FRAME's Erik Torstensson on brand building, clean design and store openings
FRAME co-founder Erik Torstensson insists there was no grand plan when he and his business partner Jens Grede launched FRAME nearly 10 years ago and on paper the brand does seem like something of a curiosity. It was founded out of LA at a time when Swedes Torstensson and Grede were UK-based, with branding so subtle it was practically non-existent and product names inspired by French style icons of the 1970s. And yet, it worked. Very quickly too.
“People often think we have a big strategy and a cunning plan, maybe now we do so more, but at the time it was more that we spend a lot of time in LA and everything here is counter-productive, but we shouldn’t have done it his way. We met someone who is a partner in Frame called Nico [Peyrache] who is very good at making jeans. We were spending a lot of time in LA doing shoots and we figured out that jeans had a lot do with marketing which was what we knew; we were not fashion designers so maybe this could work? And the idea was to make one pair of jeans and see if we could give it away to our friends and do a cool picture.
“There was no immediate strategy in the beginning and I was obsessed with jeans and the perfect colour of jeans, which is mid-blue, and we talked a lot to the people who were around us, who were fashion editors, models, stylists or whatever, and asked them what they liked, what they missed and they wanted a mid-rise, because they didn’t want their butt to hand out when they were working and so forth," Torstensson tells TheIndustry.fashion's In Conversation podcast, produced in partnership with Klarna for Business.
Torstensson and Grede were brand building experts at the time and led the Saturday Group, a group of marketing, PR and branding businesses, that counted names such as H&M and LVMH among its clients. Setting up a denim brand was something of a passion project and the pair were "naive in a good way" when it came to launching a brand of their own.
But there was some rhyme and reason to it, he explains. "The strategic part was, we invested in a very good fabric and took less of a margin to be competitive so the fabric wouldn't 'bag out' and that was a key reason for success and the other key reason was completely co-incidental. We came from a world where you package things like a fashion house. We worked in Paris and Milan and London and I was like 'the jeans need to come in a box like they would if they were from Chanel', and what we learned later was that was not how the premium denim industry worked. We knew nothing about the premium denim industry. We never even saw ourselves as a denim brand. We thought we would make this one product and see how it goes.”
How it went was extremely well. The first product "Le Skinny de Jeanne" (which remains the bestseller today) was a hit, as it landed at a time when denim brands had gone crazy trying to encourage consumers to buy yet more skinny jeans by adding embellishment, colour, zips, patterns, you name it. FRAME jeans came along with their perfect shade of blue, zero branding and the endorsement of Torstensson cool group of friends, such as supermodel Karlie Kloss, and everything else just seemed so wrong.
All the cool set started to wear FRAME and “suddenly we were on the Daily Mail and on Instagram every day without paying for it. So it was kind of Zeitgeist meets luck meets culture. And the other thing is our position in the fashion industry, it wasn’t so usual. We had deep connections even with wholesalers and PR and magazines and so forth. And we had some favours to call in and that definitely helped to get on the map," Torstensson says, admitting, "We couldn’t do it that way now, it would be too expensive."
As the brand approaches its 10th birthday this autumn, it is in fact as much of a ready-to-wear brand, as it is a denim brand and also has a strong menswear offer. “Since a couple of years back, we sell more ready to wear than we sell denim. Not in wholesale but in our direct channels," says Torstensson who says that cotton and cashmere are strong categories, along with leather. Prices range from £66 for a cotton tank to £1,600 for a leather trench coat with jeans retailing from around £150 to £300. As such, it's a brand that some customers invest in to pair with mainstream brands and others buy to sit in their luxury wardrobes
“We should be like best supporting actress, by that I mean there are superbrands who win the Oscars that you can’t touch. Frame is not cheap, remember, and we are aware of that. Our customer will buy like a handbag and shoes from Balenciaga, Chanel and Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent and so forth. Our job is to dress her with a wardrobing that makes everyday more beautiful, easy and comfortable and chic. And really think about an empathetic aesthetic.
“We learned that from a lot of the people we worked with. I remember being in a meeting with [LVMH chief] Monsieur Arnault and we wanted to do something crazy for Louis Vuitton and he said ‘are we allowed to do that?’ and I said ‘you can do anything, you’re you’ and he said ‘we’re not, we have to be allowed to do it’. And I apply that a lot to Frame. I don’t do evening gala dresses, it’s not my job.”
As chief creative officer it is Torstensson's job to set the entire vision for the brand from products to stores, and this year two new stores will be opening in London, the first of which will open this month in Draycott Avenue in Chelsea where near neighbours include the Joseph flagship and Chanel. The Chelsea store will employ Torstensson's "neighbourhood flagship" retail concept. The other concept the brand uses is for pop-ups which take on many of the characteristics of the surrounding area.
Shoppers in Chelsea can expect a luxury experience. “The store on Draycott is not huge but therefore I can execute it at a very high level. That will be a luxury experience, effectively. I always like to punch above my weight. Even if the price point is not luxury, the experience should be," he says.
A recent pop-up store in Aspen, for instance, took on a very different character with mushroom wood on the wall as a "crazy chrome mountain structure" in the centre. “[For pop-ups] I don’t want to feel like a ‘roll-out’ brand, it’s not modern, I don’t agree with this concept that some contemporary brands in America often have, where they just roll it out in the most cost-effective way and it feels like a mall."
As well as developing the direct sales channel to complement its wholesale base that includes pretty much every desirable multi-brand retailer across the globe, FRAME is also concentrating efforts on improving its sustainability credentials. This month is has launched the PURE collection, which uses barely any water in the manufacturing process. It's the latest in a line of sustainability efforts by FRAME and will remain a focus for the brand.
"I always say you have to lead with your own consciousness and your own moral standard. Our brands can be like we are. I’ll try to be your friend but if I say ‘I’m perfect’, I’d be lying. And I think our brand is like that as well. I will try my best at all times and there will be mistakes and there will be stuff that we could have done better. But I think if you’re honest about that, you’re doing the best you can," he explains.
FRAME is also a brand that speaks naturally to the conscious consumption movement since its styles are timeless. Best-selling jeans "Le Skinny" and "Le Garcon" have been in the collection, and in customers' wardrobes, since the beginning. There are plenty of other options to suit all shapes and tastes from flares to bootcut and straight to slouchy styles but what you won't find are one-season wonders.
Apart from the physical waste involved in people switching clothes each season, Torstensson says the waste of "creative IP" also bothers him. Good design endures and that's what Torstensson has always striven to create – and he believes that's what the customer wants too. "Trends ebb and flow of course but that’s usually not more than 15% – 20% of what’s happening," he says. This would explain why the best efforts of brands and trend forecasters to kill off the skinny jean have been in vain. They're just too useful and if you make them as well as FRAME does people keep buying them, and will continue to do so for many years to come.