When starting a clothing brand the most diligent of designers might spend months, sometimes years, scouring the globe for the finest textile-makers to bring their creations to life. Alexander Stutterheim? He bought a sheep farm. “I wanted to know exactly where the wool I used was coming from,” says the towering blue-eyed Swede. In the lead-up to launching his knitwear label, John Sterner, he purchased a picturesque tract of land on the Swedish island of Öland and filled it with 100 Gotland sheep, a breed known for its thick and silvery coat. “I’m an ideas junkie. When I have an idea I need to make it true. I had this thought that I need to have a farm. And then,” he clicks his fingers, “I buy one.” He smiles wryly. “I think I have a disorder.”
Whatever you call it – possibly an obsessive disorder or unbounded commitment – Stutterheim has a knack for taking a simple concept and turning it into something sellable. He is known for his self-titled raincoat brand that, each winter, dresses urbanites from Stockholm to New York in clean-lined waterproofs with pops of colour. Now his new baby is a knitwear collection of jumpers and scarves that are ribbed and so luxuriously chunky that they can shield wearers from the iciest of Nordic winters. Today, on a chilly Stockholm morning, Stutterheim is bundled up in a merino scarf and a crewneck sweater, both in ink-black.
“I must suffer from some kind of self-hatred to go through this once again because launching a brand is like a kamikaze project,” says Stutterheim. Self-deprecation – of the drolly amusing variety – is his forte. “Financially it’s a suicide mission. The first two years are like throwing money out the window – or, I should say, investing it in something you believe in. But you put so much into developing the brand and don’t get anything back until two years later when you launch in stores.” With a John Sterner shop just opened in Stockholm, and orders shipping to premises in Tokyo and San Francisco, Stutterheim is now reaping the benefits of his efforts. Or, as he puts it, “The controlled explosion is beginning.”
The first stirrings of John Sterner (named after his grandfather) came in 2015: the designer looked into adding knitwear pieces to his raincoat brand but decided it was better to create a separate label. He has always loved knitwear – “When I was growing up every Swedish teenager owned a Lyle & Scott sweater” – and he spied a gap in the market. “There are some niche knitwear brands but I didn’t think any of them were modern or took a stand with their communication tools.”
We are sitting at a vast white table in the new headquarters shared by his two brands (he is still the creative director of Stutterheim raincoats). A former apartment in a well-heeled inner-city neighbourhood, it boasts arched floor-to-ceiling windows, bleached wooden floors and simple wooden furniture. A totem of Scandinavian chicness, the space has the same hallmarks as the designer’s clothing lines. There’s no denying that Stutterheim has a flawless eye.
More than this, though, he is a master at building a brand. “I’m not interested in just selling good-looking stuff: I need the brand to be something,” he says. Such shrewdness is unsurprising: he worked as an advertising copywriter for 15 years before launching his raincoat label. “The product is only 50 per cent, the rest is packaging and communication,” he says, before recounting an anecdote to make his point. “When we showed John Sterner for the first time, in Paris, there was a knitwear label from Belgium next to us. They had beautiful pieces but they just hung them up with no fuss.” Stutterheim, by contrast, conjured a whole universe: his stand was decorated with fluffy wool samples, bundles of yarn and customised “JS” sheep tags in canary yellow, while a video of sheep on Öland played in the background. While the Belgian’s stand remained empty, Stutterheim’s was rammed. “At the end of the fair the Belgian said, ‘It took me a while to understand why your stand was so much busier but now I do. I have nice sweaters but you – you have a brand.’”
Stutterheim’s first trick in creating a distinctive brand is to home in on a specific product. “I like it when labels are niche and do one thing; people can grab your vision more easily.” He then builds a world around this item. The hem of each John Sterner jumper is stamped with a sheep tag; the neckline has a label bearing an illustration of a ram wearing a crown. So while it may be an unassuming charcoal rollneck or camel cardigan, these appendages ensure it will stand out on a bulging rack.
But the most striking thing about John Sterner is the transparency of its supply chain. About half of the products are made of wool from the Öland farm (the rest comes from Italy). Stutterheim is working on a mobile app that will enable customers to trace their sweater’s origins – from the individual sheep to the shearing and dyeing of its wool to the knitter who shapes its final form. “I don’t think you can start a company today without thinking how the world is turning in the wrong direction when it comes to environmental stuff; knowing where something comes from is important.”
This tracking app will appeal to the fast-increasing pool of shoppers concerned with provenance. To say it’s a potential game-changer for the industry is not an overstatement. But in addition to his commercial savviness, Stutterheim has an altruistic agenda. Most of his products are made in a family-run factory in Estonia but he has also recruited five female Syrian refugees to handknit scarves in workshops in Stockholm and Nybro (a city in south Sweden). This part is a non-profit operation, with all the money made from the scarves going towards the women’s wages and workshop rents.
“Sweden has welcomed a lot of refugees, and that’s a really good thing, but many are waiting on the government to decide if they can stay,” says Stutterheim. “They are not feeling well in their camps. Working is a fundamental thing for a human being; being passive in a camp for two years is horrifying.” Working with these women, each of whom has considerable knitting experience, also enables Stutterheim to manufacture in Sweden – a notion that would otherwise be impossible to carry out. “As entrepreneurs I think we have a responsibility to see how we can not only help refugees but also how we can get help from them. I couldn’t make these scarves in Sweden if it wasn’t for them because the skill is gone and no one wants to do the labour.”
Manufacturing right under his nose appeals to Stutterheim’s exacting nature: “I’m a control freak, I like to oversee everything.” The same goes for procuring the wool from his own farm. Stutterheim based himself on Öland for much of the summer and he expects the property will become more important in the future: there are plans to open a workshop in an old barn, where Stutterheim raincoats and John Sterner knits will be made.
“It’s my second home,” he says. “The calmness, serenity and quietness is good for me; I like to create things there, it’s too stressful in Stockholm.” Designing clothes from a remote farm may well help Stutterheim with his creative process but the arrangement also sets an example. A handful of luxury houses own estates (Zegna has a sheep station in Australia; Hermès an alligator farm in Louisiana) but this degree of control over production is groundbreaking for a tiny independent label. Could this daring set-up be the blueprint for future upstarts?