To say that minimalist trainers are a ‘thing’ is to do disservice to things, which, by comparison, are positive wallflowers. Rare is the man who doesn’t own a pair of Common Projects, or one of the myriad Common Projects knockoffs. Who doesn’t have at least one spin on the Stan Smith in his sneaker rotation. But do the arithmetic and you’ll soon encounter a sartorial issue: minimalist design x maximum iterations = a lot of shoes that all look the damn same.
Which is what makes Sweden’s Axel Arigato so interesting. The brand was founded by two friends, Albin Johansson and Max Svärdh, whose experience in sneakers was limited to loving and wearing. But that fan-first approach means that their shoes, though grasping tight to Scandinavian ideas about how much more less can be, look like nothing else.
They’ve also eschewed traditional releases, opting instead to release a new shoe every Tuesday, for the past two-and-change years. That entire range is now available in the brand’s first store, on Soho’s Broadwick Street. It’s a glass-and-marble ode to minimalism, designed by fellow Swede Christian Halleröd, whose previously created spaces for compatriots Acne Studios and Byredo.
It’s a design that leans on Japanese ideas of what a retail space should be – clean, clear, with clothes not overawed by their surrounds. Unsurprising, perhaps, considering that the pair’s love of the country’s design ethos materialised in its name: Arigato is Japanese for ‘thank you’. “There’s a lot of similarity between Japanese and Scandinavian design,” says Svärdh. “So it seemed a natural fit.”
FashionBeans: After your success online, why do you decide to open a physical store?
Albin Johansson: We have had a strong online presence since creating the brand; in our first two years we have sold to more than 100 countries solely through our e-commerce. Selling strictly online and marketing through social media was our entry to the market, a way for us to begin our story. But having our own flagship store has always been on our minds. To be able to engage even more people and receive larger brand awareness.
Now we are able to offer a brand new platform where we can express our DNA and the values we stand for in a different setting and perspective – while staying true to the same philosophy.
AJ: Soho made sense for us. Some of London’s most interesting shops can be found in there. It’s a great mix of people, brands, restaurants, combined with a rich heritage. There’s no doubting the drawing power of Soho.
The space is really unique as well and I think our customers will get another understanding of what Axel Arigato is when walking into our store.
How does the physical space link to what the brand does?
AJ: We have been looking for retail spaces since day one. We knew it was a great opportunity to present Axel Arigato the way we want it to be presented. We always wanted it to be an interesting space for people to walk into. A space not only customised to display products but for people to feel and see the inspirations and the references behind the brand.
Max Svärdh: The store is very much an extension of our ethos. Besides being a retail space, it will serve as a curated gallery with carefully selected brands, items and events – as a way to invite people into our world and show them what we respond to aesthetically.
Reaching 100 countries in two years is impressive growth. What do you think you do differently that’s driven that success?
AJ: Well, we have managed to position ourselves in that perfect middle between luxury and accessibility pretty quickly. It’s quite obvious that we fill up a gap in the market. I think we have a pretty honest approach to what we do and people like that.
MS: Also, I believe the way we work with collections and the concept of drop of the week is really interesting. We have a very product-focused approach and we don’t work with traditional collections, concepts or seasonal stories. We try to always adapt to the fast changing and growing digital world. The way we work is not traditional and that’s one of the reasons why I think people are engaging with our brand.
AJ: We can’t ignore the fact that word of mouth has played a huge role in our success so far. Social media makes it possible for people to find alternative brands that speak to them, and they are able to share them with their friends. We have the luxury of not having to wait for a publication to introduce our products to the right people through their channels. We can spread the message ourselves.
How have you differentiated yourselves when there’s so many minimal kicks about?
MS: You can’t find our sneakers everywhere. In comparison to other sneaker brands, we are very selective about our distribution and handpicking the stores we want to be in. We are not a brand that needs to be everywhere. We try to offer things people can relate to, but can’t always find anywhere else.
The range of styles that we offer is also unheard of. Today people are more into having an individual approach and they want to be different from other people. By launching a new style every week, we can create more personalised designs.
What is it with Swedes and minimalism?
MS: Its just in our backbone, it’s an approach, a way of looking at things. Where you try to do more with less.
AJ: I think it goes back to how our society is structured. Minimalism captures the spirit of our time very well.
What was the first pair of trainers you remember being obsessed with?
MS: Etnies low top
AJ: Nike Air Force 1
What’s next for Axel Arigato?
AJ: We are aiming to open two-to-four stores in the next two years. New York is on the map. But the plan is never to open six shops in one country.
MS: Axel Arigato isn’t like some other brands, that have a concept that is so all encompassing. We have been doing sneakers for the last one-and-a-half years and we recently launched our first collection of ankle boots, which was a quite unexpected move. But also a bag collection and more product categories will be introduced.
Whatever we feel like doing at that moment, we can take left or right. We are driven by constant change and we try to always keep the brand alive.