Co-founder of Sandqvist
With its forests, rivers, and vast yet sparsely populated areas, the Nordic landscape is a huge source of inspiration for both design brands, long associated with the outdoors, and fashion brands, who draw upon the region’s knack for simple sophistication. Sandqvist is known for both. The bag and accessories company has built its reputation by crafting beautiful and functional bags that blend Nordic heritage with an aspirational, urban lifestyle.
Created by 3 friends from the Swedish countryside, Sandqvist’s vision has always been “to make long-lasting products, from high quality materials, in good working conditions.” Global expansion over the past 15 years has fueled the brand’s ambition to become a market leader while remaining committed to its values: sustainability, aesthetics, and quality products.
We sat down with Sebastian Westin, one of the company’s three co-founders, to talk about the brand’s success and plans for the future.
What’s the story behind Sandqvist?
Sandqvist was founded in 2004 by Anton Sandqvist. Before embarking on an entrepreneurial adventure, he worked at a large multinational where his creativity was stifled, but he liked building things in his spare time. One day, he stitched together a bag he could use for his computer and work, using an old industrial sewing machine in his basement. He’s a country boy, so he wanted something robust enough to survive his daily routine but stylish enough for the city. His friends ended up loving his bag, so he produced a limited series and distributed them in some hot shops in Stockholm.
At the time, Anton’s younger brother Daniel and I were working on a few fashion projects and a free lifestyle pop-culture magazine in Sweden. Anton approached us to rent a room in our office to grow his business. We’ve all known each other from our childhood, since we grew up in the middle of Sweden, despite the fact that Anton is 9 years older than me. So, naturally, Daniel and I started working with Anton on marketing and branding in 2006. If we wanted the brand to be successful, we knew what we had to do: attend trade shows, create lookbooks, run photoshoots. As the brand matured, our designs shifted, influenced by our interests in fashion and the Swedish countryside. For four years, we developed the brand in our spare time. It wasn’t until 2010 that we were able to start working full-time on the project. So we rented another office, which doubled as a shop. It would become the Sandqvist flagship store.
Sandqvist is first and foremost a family business, though we’re not so small anymore. Today, we produce more than 100,000 bags a year, have 53 employees, and have 5 shops in 4 locations: London, Berlin, Guttenberg and Stockholm. We’re currently exploring shop options in Paris and Amsterdam. And we’re distributed by over 500 retailers across the globe. A lot has happened these past 7 years. It’s been a really fun journey.
What is Sandqvist’s mission?
Since launching Sandqvist, Anton, Daniel and I have always shared similar values. We wanted to produce bags the way we wanted to produce them. Let me explain.
We’re from the countryside. Out there, you fix your bike when it breaks. You don’t just buy a new one! So first and foremost, we wanted to create durable bags. We also love the outdoors and have always been active hikers, fly fishers, and mushroom pickers. That’s why we wanted functional bags for our activities, and that’s fueled our mission.
Last, we want to be as sustainable as possible. When we started out, we didn’t have the design skills to design our own bags, so we created rough prototypes with very simple and pleasing designs that appealed to most people. Now we have more options for both function and sustainability thanks to eco-friendly fabrics such as vegetable tanned leather, recycled polyester, or organic cotton, for all our accessories and bags. We’re currently at 80% sustainability and our goal is to reach 100%. It’s taken us two years to reach that benchmark, and we’ve worked very hard to source the right fabrics and partners. But if we develop a new product, with a new fabric, you can be sure it’s a sustainable one.
By Autumn/Winter 2018, all the synthetic fabrics we use will contain recycled fibers. These are important steps towards our goal of become a world-leading example in sustainable fashion. Sandqvist is a member of the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) and committed to working only with suppliers who have implemented the
FWF Code of Labour Practices. The FWF code stipulates minimum requirements for working conditions based on International Labour Organization (ILO) and UN principles. We want to do this in a way that is fair for everyone involved, and with care for the environment. This means taking responsibility for the impact of our products throughout their life cycle, on both people and planet.
Sustainability is now a brand mandate. How has this changed since Sandqvist was founded?
When we started talking about sustainability 8 or 10 years ago, it felt much more difficult. It was a serious cost for the company. For example, it used to be that we needed to produce a huge quantity of bags to make using organic cotton profitable, but now it’s much easier. Organic cotton is farmed without chemical pesticides, artificial fertilizers, or genetically modified crops. Switching to organic cotton has a real positive effect on both the environment and people working in the cotton fields.
Today, being sustainable is not unique. What’s unique is to be 100% sustainable, which is our final goal. A lot of new brands aren’t doing anything to be sustainable and aren’t community on the new imperative and I find that really really wrong. Launching a company without thinking about sustainability is an error. In the next 5 years, people will expect products to be sustainable, they won’t wait around for them.
Nature and the outdoors are an integral part of Sandqvist’s identity. How do they influence the brand today?
Nature and the outdoors have always been our biggest influence. If you take a closer look at our photography, you can see Anton, Daniel, and I or our community members. We want to show the real Sandqvist, the way we live and the way we communicate. Sweden is one of the best countries in the world when it comes to nature because it’s a free-access playground, replete with wild forests, mountains, lakes, and a long coastline. Our bags reflect the way we play. We don’t make mountaineering bags, they’re built more for one- or two-day trips.
We recently realized that if nature is still a huge inspiration, we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and expand our brand identity. That’s why we launched our first women’s collection in 2015, in order to find a new target group. We also crafted a few collections influenced by sports and current trends. Even if that’s a slightly departure from the way we communicate, we always come back to nature when it comes down to it, because that’s pure Sandqvist.
Currently, we’re focusing on crafting more women’s bags, which already represents 50% of our sales. It’s a creative challenge to blend our brand DNA with more fashion elements, but we’re confident we can do so while remaining true to our heritage. For F/W 2018, we are going to show a lot of new outdoor bags, so don’t worry, we won’t be on the runway anytime soon!
The outdoors is a big trend today. How would you explain consumer’s desires to escape and bring nature into their lives through the brands they wear?
When we talk about luxury today, it’s not about gold or bling, it’s about having free time and fresh air to breathe. The same can be said of high-end vehicles, which are less functional and more aspirational, used to escape the city and go explore the countryside. But escaping doesn’t necessarily mean heading to the Himalayas. You can head to the countryside nearby, or the forest where your grandmother used to wander. It’s nice just to get outside. These days, luxury is about experience. That’s why we have a magazine, The Sandqvist Journey, to share our community stories and trips. It’s also a good way to bring our customer’s closer to Sandqvist’s journey and values.
What are the next steps for the brand?
Our ambition is to become the #1 sustainable bag brand in the world. We don’t want to be the biggest company, but we do want to be top-of-mind. That’s our goal within the next ten years. We will continue to focus on sustainability and pushing ourselves to reach our goals. We’re profitable, so the other goal is to open more shops in key markets while making new and better bags. We have just started our journey and there so much more to do, so many more bags to design. So excited!
Today you have 53 employees. How did you manage your growth internally?
We’re growing quite fast. We don’t want to grow too fast, but prefer to grow organically. It’s important for us to have a good atmosphere at the office. More importantly, we’re growing with our own money. We aren’t like a startup, we’ve never raised any money. This has allowed us to have fun, be fair, be inspiring, and care for the environment. Our organization is horizontal, so if we diverged and started doing stupid stuff, our staff would put their foot down.