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Business in the Time of COVID: Stenströms

Undisputed champions of understated elegance, Stenströms, talk us through running a business in the midst of a global pandemic

Stenströms celebrated 120 years as a brand in 2019 last year. It was well on the road to achieving the best turnover results in its history this year.  Then COVID-19 came along and turned everything upside down. We sit down with  Marketing Director Marie Ramberg to discuss the fine art of riding the storm.

How has Stenströms coped generally with the pandemic?
It has been extremely tough. Our immediate replenishment order volume has gone down drastically and of the 20 countries we distribute to, 19 have been closed for 8-12 weeks. We have of course been staying in close contact with all our suppliers that have been closed and also the retail stores and so far most of them have made it. A few closed down though which is both upsetting and worrying. Within the company itself, everyone has been furloughed and we have had to cancel marketing activities and the full cost control for everything needed/ordered.

Has the impact of COVID-19 been a surprise to you? Did you ever think it would become something of this magnitude?
As a brand and company founded 1899, we’ve been through a lot. Two World Wars; financial crisis, but we’ve never seen anything like this. Honestly, we could never have imagined how strong and negative the impact was going to be on our industry. Looking back at the first week in March: we were looking at a growth rate of 17%; we had a perfectly balanced and reduced stock level; we’d just just celebrated 120th anniversary in 2019; and we were performing our best-ever year in terms of turnover. We had new markets and partners in the pipeline. We had a long list of positive things happening, then it abruptly stopped.

You are a global business, how hard have you been hit as a business?
Sweden never really shut down as completely as most other markets. As we speak, the UK market is only just starting to open up again. North America remains fairly closed down. Regions like Germany and Benelux are very quiet, too. It is still too early to say how bad this has hit us to be perfectly honest.

In terms of what we’re selling, we’re seeing a drop in dress shirts and an increase in casual wear. With people now working from home and occasions like weddings and parties cancelled, it makes a lot of sense. Our collection has actually naturally become a lot more casual in recent years anyway, with new washed cotton qualities, an extensive linen program, polo jerseys in exclusive qualities and – for SS21 – we are also introducing cotton and linen T-shirts as well as sweatshirts with hoodies, track pants and shorts. Obviously, our dress programme is still there, as it will always be a big part of Stenströms’ total offer.

Regarding production we have reliable, long-term business partners and we were lucky to have control over our production when everything started to lockdown. That means that we are able to deliver most of the Autumn 2020 collections, which is great.

In terms of your distribution channels and manufacturers, have things started to pick up?
Markets and stores are opening up gradually, but sales are not up to the level we are used to. Factories are struggling both with regards to fabric mills and sewing facilities. So far, we have not been hit with closures, and we try to stay in very close contact with our manufacturing partners. 

Northern Europe has started to open up in a better way than other parts of the world, which is good for us and as I said before, we will deliver most of our collections. The work for the next collection has started a little slower than normal, due to the manufacturers being closed for three months. That said, we are positive that with a few tweeks to the way we do things we can work with our Italian suppliers from right here in Sweden.

Pitti Uomo show has been cancelled this year. How do things like this affect the business?
Pitti is the natural meeting point for all international exhibitors and buyers. It’s a very important opportunity for a growing company like us. But we have agents, sales staff and showrooms around the world, meaning we’re in a position to sell and show our collections regardless. We are very happy to have complete sales collections for SS21 in all our showrooms, as well as a digital platform to show the collections if needed. We know that there are other brands that haven’t managed that, so we feel very fortunate.

Pausing for one season should be fine, but long-term for us as a wholesale-driven brand on an international expansion journey, we need platforms like Pitti to network, meet potential agents, and show the collection to potential customers.

From a design perspective, how has the pandemic impacted the normal process of designing collections?
Being a shirt and knitwear specialist means that quality, fabrics and fit are absolute priorities. We’ve not lost sight of that. The spring 2021 collection hasn’t been affected much as we were very early with the collection. Beyond that, looking towards AW21, it becomes more of a challenge. Our designers will have a challenge on their hands as research trips, fabric fairs and visits to the mills are put on hold.

Modern technology lets us stay in touch, but of course it is not the same as seeing and feeling the fabrics up close. The personal meeting is also very important for the relationship side of things. We are lucky to have our own factory that can help out with samples etc. when needed.

What have been the positive elements to the pandemic, have you seen anything good come of the crisis?
Stenströms is a brand with a core based out of quality and craftsmanship, so we have never really been into the fast-fashion segment or online volume discount segment, where the clean-up might be harder during the coming season. 

The pandemic can lead to a restrained consumption where quality products are premiered instead of mass consumption. We think that we all have started to think about our lives, the environment, friends and family and not taking things for granted anymore. A lot of the principles we’ve always worked with feel all the more more right now: Good production; long term relationships with both suppliers and customers: and a focus on good material with as little chemicals involved as possible to get quality products that we are proud of.