The Interview: Sebastian Dollinger, Chief Creative Officer, Eton
With a name like “Eton” it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a brand synonymous with rowing boats, black tail-coats and Boris Johnson. It is in fact Swedish.
“We originally had a different name - Syfabriken Special (The Special Sewing Factory), but it wasn’t the easiest name to pronounce, especially as we started expanding globally,” says Sebastian Dollinger, Chief Creative Officer, Eton.
“We changed the name to Eton back in the 1950s. It all started when the sons of our founders were traveling around the world in search of new fabrics. They ended up in England and passed through the town, Eton. The trip resulted in the launch of a new shirt – the Eton shirt,” he says.
The original company was founded in 1928 by David and Annie Pettersson. Annie began sewing dresses from their kitchen for family and neighbours. Her husband soon joined her and together they launched Skjortfabriken Special and focused their primary attention on the creation of men’s shirts. It was their two sons Rune and Arne Davidson who changed the company’s name to Eton after the success of the shirt they designed from their travels.
Last year, Eton sold an incredible 1.2 million shirts. The company is still based in Gånghester, Sweden, while the majority of production is overseas. It has been owned by the Swedish private equity company, EQT since 2015, and has 1,300 points of sale across more than 50 countries.
Dollinger has been with Eton his entire career and it is something of a family affair with his father, Jan Borghardt, being credited with producing Eton’s famous crease-resistant shirt – the world’s first in 100% cotton – in the 1990s. Named the Eton Etastar, the first retailer to carry the product was then Harrods which sold 600 shirts in the first week alone, quickly becoming their best selling shirt at the time.
“My journey at Eton began a long time ago – 20 years to be exact,” says Dollinger. “My father, Jan Borghardt, our Sales and Marketing Director back then, got me a job in the stockroom when I was 15 years old. At age 18, I moved to London for an opportunity to represent Eton as a sales associate at Harrods. Two years later, I came back to Sweden to continue my career with Eton.
“In the next couple of years, I had several different roles with the company – I was a Sales Manager for two territories in the northern and middle part of Sweden and I was also responsible for our Eton shop at the Swedish department store NK. After a year or two in various roles, I had lots of feedback that I wanted to implement when it came to our design. This was really what started my transition into Eton’s design department. The design team back then only consisted of three people. At 25, I was appointed Head of Design, and later Creative Director, at age 28.
Now, 36, Dollinger, born in Borås, Sweden, is based between Stockholm and Milan and is in charge of design and creative concepts. "Creatively, we work like any other large fashion house – we don’t just do great basics, but also master contemporary cool,” he says. “We work with style concepts that change every third month so there is always something new and interesting coming from us.
“In our latest collection, Autumn/Winter 2019, we have paid homage to ancient Egypt, and you can see the theme in everything from the prints to some of the more basic shirts – sometimes it’s only visible in the small details of the shirt. I always want a real story behind every collection and every shirt. That’s what makes my job interesting.
“The hardest thing to reinvent, though, are the staples. I spend about 80% of my time on this part of the collection. I always try to get men to find fashion more fun by just changing a small detail each season on a white or blue shirt,” says Dollinger.
Eton could easily be dismissed as yet another boring business shirt brand, but behind the pale blue and white there are always quirky prints or details showing a company that is interested in pushing their customer into a more fashion or individual direction.
“I want people from all walks of life to find something in our collections. That’s part of what it means to be a shirt making specialist today.” he says.
“The fact that we are a true specialist that know our product category better than anyone else is what makes us standout.
“By focusing on a narrow product assortment, we can really be best in class. If you work on more or less the same product for such a long time you would be a fool if you didn’t work on perfecting it – and we’ve done exactly that. We have a very loyal customer base and I think they can feel the difference. It’s the combination of fit, feel of the fabric and the details - there’s not a single seam of the shirt that hasn’t been carefully thought through,” says Dollinger.
You won’t find Eton shirts in the lower end of Jermyn Street offering 4 for £100. They are premium with a basic business shirt retailing for around £130. The quality, fit and the fact they say you don’t need to iron them justifies this expense for many men.
“Our latest AW19 collection is probably our most diverse one to date. In this collection we launch, among other things, a new shirt jacket, a crease-resistant flannel – the world’s first – a new long-sleeved polo piqué and a more sustainable shirt option – the cotton-Tencel shirt,” he says.
Today, Eton has stores in New York, London and Stockholm with wholesale accounts in the majority of the world’s premium department stores. So, what is the future for Eton?
“To develop into a solid luxury brand and enrich our own retail, both online and offline,” says Dollinger. “We will continue working with the best wholesalers in the world and become even better in casual goods whilst having lots of fun doing it. If we can create a work environment where people are happy, while having a great product, success is generally always the result.”