Tracking the Brilliant (and Unscalable) John Sterner Pre-launch Process.
Over the last year, Alexander Stutterheim of Stutterheim Raincoats fame has given us a behind-the-scenes look at his new top-end knitwear brand John Sterner. But in a market stuffed with cashmere competition, can he win?
For the last twelve months, Alexander Stutterheim has been working — both in full view of an audience, and behind closed doors — tweaking, stitching, perfecting, and Tweeting. He’s modified prototypes, and has turned friends, family, and doting followers into human guinea pigs. He’s traveled from Stockholm to New York to London and back on several occasions, purchased a flock of sheep, brought on a seasoned Swedish knitwear specialist, and built a cozy bungalow in the middle of a pasture on the idyllic island of Öland, Sweden. All of this has been carried out — and documented on Instagram and Twitter — to give the world a behind-the-scenes view of his pursuit in creating what he believes to be the perfect sweater.
The first product of his new knitwear upstart, John Sterner, the sweater, appropriately called “The Antidote”, is a statement by Mr. Stutterheim against the throwaway, fast fashion wave. It’s brash, confident, and descriptive of the item itself. It’s made to order and knitted by hand; it’s produced using the wool from the company’s own flock of sheep; and at a price of $1,000 is truly meant to make shoppers think hard about the purchase — and plan on keeping (and repairing) it for years. Since the fall, Mr. Stutterheim has expanded the product line, cashmere caps, a scarf, socks, and a new batch-produced sweater, limited in production to 100 per month and priced at $800. Given recent moves, then, the Antidote was the first step towards creating something more profound than just the perfect Swedish sweater. Indeed, its development process and availability to a select few close to Mr. Stutterheim ultimately served as the gateway for something much bigger — to develop John Sterner into the best modern luxury knitwear enterprise on the market.
The brand, named after Mr. Stutterheim’s paternal grandfather, is officially scheduled to be unveiled as a full-fledged line on January 18th in Paris. But the trail that’s been left during its cultivation serves as an excellent case study. It is a modern, behind-the-scenes take on product and brand development, and we’ve noticed several pillars that make this company compelling.
The first involves Mr. Stutterheim himself. With Stutterheim raincoats now an undisputed success (reported to reach more than $10 million in sales last year), it appears as though he’s starting to develop a Stutterheim signature formula for the brands he creates. Like a well-written novel, there are several recurring themes and between both Stutterheim Raincoats and John Sterner. Both, for instance, debuted with a singular core product that was hand-touched — Stutterheim’s first raincoat was sewn by hand and numbered by the seamstress who made it; ditto, John Sterner’s Antidote sweater — and both initially emphasized their made-in-Sweden bonafides. They were also both inspired by the sentimental memory of Mr. Stutterheim’s grandfather, who himself was a fisherman, and who wore hearty traditional garments as part of the job. Sterner and Stutterheim are also fueled by a deep philosophical stance: Stutterheim — reframing the melancholy that arrives with rain as a joyous part of life; and Sterner — an antidote, as it were, to digital culture, and a bold argument for human scale over mass market.
The second compelling pillar for John Sterner is in its closed loop model. By keeping all aspects of sourcing and production in Sweden, Mr. Stutterheim has created a small knitwear ecosystem, a rarity for a brand so early in its life cycle. This is evident from the sheep that its cashmere is sourced from, to having everything made and Sweden, to having everything touched by hand (either made-to-order or in batches). There’s a clear sense of quality control, of ownership, that’s unmistakable, and there’s an ease and grace to it all that other brands strive to mimic — often to tacky results that feel forced. John Sterner doesn’t have that problem.
Third is the transparent development process. In the age of Kickstarter and social media, Mr. Stutterheim’s frequent updates on Twitter and Instagram offer a window into the day-to-day milestones, and invites followers to come along for the ride. His behind-the-scenes posts provide an unfiltered view of the product development process for each individual product, the refinement of that product (and the brand more generally), the tweaking, the prototyping. To many, this process is a fascinating one and does well to lock consumers in.
Though John Sterner is off to a fine start, the challenges it faces are very real. As it begins its wholesale courting process in Paris on the 18th, it will need to be cautious about expanding the brand without losing its soul. How will it please wholesalers but also retain a sense of specialness, and keep things personal and batch in feel? This is not an easy feat. But Mr. Stutterheim has demonstrated a knack for building a niche brand on the basis of cool and riding that wave to expansion in a manner that feels natural (or at least putting the right team in place to carry that mission out).
The most immediate concern is more basic: The knitwear market is extremely competitive and jam packed. There’s a losing argument, generally speaking today, for bringing a new sweater brand to market. Quite simply, there’s enough options at every price segment, from Brunello Cucinelli (more in John Sterner’s range) to Naadam (more of an accessible price range). Knitwear has been one of most active categories in the modern luxury era, but in 2017 with the market starting to settle, questions remain over how successful Sterner can be. Still, the optics do hold promise for Mr. Stutterheim: He’s giving Cucinelli some quality competition from a young independent, whether that’s his (unspoken) motive or not. And in the upper crust of the market, might be space for a brand that brings a more personal touch and a contemporary narrative. At that altitude, price is less of an issue as much as differentiation and alignment.
Some modern luxury upstarts feel as if they were borne from a business school case study, launched by MBA type with grand ambitions to exit for a huge sum. They welcome “tech” features to quickly scale up, and take on VC money to get there faster. Frankly, this is how things are frequently done in modern luxury today, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But a Stutterheim project is far removed from that world. Very early, Alexander is establishing a track record of creating philosophical modern luxury brands that have a real message to communicate and an outstanding product to push. For better or for worse, an Alexander Stutterheim project has a soul, which is far more than a great deal of fancy, lab-grown brands can claim.