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Gram Sneakers - From Sweden With Love

Date: September 17 2008

By: Sneaker Freaker

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Scandanavian design is renowned for its simple elegance and uncomplicated style. In that case, footwear brand Gram is true to form... their shoes offer surprising twists on age-old classics, fusing experimental principles into modern outcomes. Their new gramSE range is case in point. What looks like a classical hightop is actually a serious performer. We rescued Alexis and Anna from their annual fermented potato ritual to bring you this educational report, direct from Sweden with love! 

Hey guys, tell us a little about yourselves and Gram?
I’m Alexis, this is Anna. We’ve basically been working without rest for the past three years to bring to life a new take on the common sneaker. I do the design and production and Anna handles PR, planning and the organisation necessary to keep us afloat. Gram is based out of Stockholm, but I grew up in the suburbs, while Anna is from a little town called Borlänge which is further north.

How do you guys rate your own city for creativity? Is there a particular scene in Stockholm for fashion and sneakers?
Stockholm is the fashion capital of Sweden and in many ways also for the whole of Scandinavia. I wouldn’t rank it a ten on the creativity scale but we definitely put out a load of good brands with excellent international recognition. When it comes to sneakers though it’s a lot more scarce, basically it’s just us and Tretorn doing anything worth mentioning.

Did I miss the traditional summer/vodka party already?
You did, but then so did I, at least the vodka part. It’s a basic pre-Christian right for every woman and man to celebrate midsummer by drinking ice-cold fermented potatoes out of small glasses while dancing around a giant leaf-covered pole shoved into the ground singing ridiculous songs. Please come to Ljusterö in the Swedish archipelago for next summer and we will show you what it’s all about.

Er, maybe next year. Fermented potatoes reminds me of jail...  I was surprised to learn Gram has actually been around since 2005 – what pushed you to start the brand?

Not sure... maybe the need to express ourselves perhaps, to build something of our own that actually matters? There’s a depressing truth to the saying that when you are employed by someone else you don’t actually get paid at the end of the month, you’re simply compensated for lost time. I think we need to do this because there’s no other choice.

How do you describe your own aesthetic? Are they really sneakers? Does it even matter?
It matters. They are sneakers as such but with borrowed elements from every type of footwear ever conceived. You’ll find Derbys, Oxfords, hiking boots, desert boots, trainers and all manner of weird cuts if you look close enough. Overall, the aesthetic is very controlled, as is the way of Scandinavian design, and for me, the material is always the source. Thickness, composition, weave and texture, it decides the shape, sets the mood and even dictates what colours are allowed. Gram is about utilising and experimenting with the compromise and confines of classic footwear to find something novel. The aim is to create a shoe that imitates what you recognise, yet makes it impossible to remember what it reminds you of...

Anyone can make a tee shirt and graduate to more complicated garments, but can you explain how you actually went about developing the first shoes?
I guess that explains why we see many ugly tee shirts... Luckily people don’t have the same perception of making a shoe and thus we are spared for the most part. Shoe design and manufacturing is, above all, based on good teamwork between the designer and the technicians at the factory. Since it is more complicated than apparel it requires constant monitoring. If you try and make something special from the comfort of your desk it’s gonna end up backwards. We have basically picked up the skills as we’ve gone along.  I don’t believe in teachings, unless you’re actually planning to do exactly what you’re taught. Otherwise you might as well spend your tuition fee on a couple of limited editions instead.

My best tip though if you’re looking to start any kind of fashion brand is this – get production experience before you do anything. Which basically means, get a job as a buyer/merchandiser or product sourcer within an apparel or accessory business and do it for at least a year, take notes and learn the way the game is played. Secondly, don’t do more than one year of design study. The truth is that if you’re a talented designer then nothing is going to change, and if you suck at it, no four-year intensive super-course is going to make any difference. Stick to learning design methodology and fashion history, that’s it.

Thirdly, partner up with someone that complements you. If you do design or production then get someone that knows PR, because without it, who’s gonna know you even exist?

Your shoes are named after their weight which is a nice touch. Can you explain a little about your current models?The ‘SE’ models in particular are very stylish... It’s a simple but appreciated concept I think, and above all it saves us the chore of coming up with cool sounding names for all the different models. We are glad you like the SE, it’s absolutely the crown jewel in our current line-up and therefore carries the Special Edition mark.  To be completely honest, the SE is the shoe that we should never have been allowed to make. Somehow we charmed our way into the biggest sneaker manufacturer in the world and convinced them to develop this project with us. We are talking minimums of over 10,000 pairs per colour here normally, so they must have liked us because we managed to bring it down to just a few hundred per colour for final production.

The extensive expert knowledge in this factory made us confident, so our objective became to attempt the impossible by creating something totally new. SE is both AF-1, dress shoe, hiker and trainer all mixed into one.  It has so many conflicting conno-tations that if it were a human being it would surely be locked up in some mental institution. But as a shoe it manages to balance itself on the fine line between aesthetics and function without losing its mind, and to us at least, completes the objective.

So we decided not to compromise or cut corners in any way. The SE uses premium full grain leather, full mesh sock, EVA insole with silicone forefoot support and neoprene heel dampening. Reinforced lacing with triple stitching on all stress joints round off the top while the cushioning EVA midsole rests on three durable rubber outsole pieces that can be replaced when worn out. The shoebox in itself is a lesson in how to make something simple very complicated. Basically, we called a gift box manufacturer to hand-make the box out of heavy 800g paper and for the inside, we called up a separate supplier and produced a custom mould to make a recyclable two-piece polystyrene insert for the shoes to slide into so that they would be protected from shock and moisture.  To top it off, we designed a special gramSE drysack in tarpaulin, which allows you to carry around your kicks in style while keeping them dry - no matter what the weather. Throw in extra laces in a contrast colour and a fresh set of outsole pieces and you have the gramSE package. It was expensive and time consuming, but it is our gift to you.

Well, that pretty much answers my next question. There is a perception that most ‘fashion’ sneakers are usually flat and pretty harsh on the feet after a long day. Do Gram shoes have any technical features built into them to increase the level of comfort?
Gram shoes have within their genre way better support and cushioning than the competition, but then they also cost a little more. The gramSE on the other hand was designed with a focus on comfort and durability, so they are, of course, packed with materials and developments to keep that spring in your step!

Is distribution the major obstacle to developing an indie shoe brand?
Basically everything is a problem. But to narrow it down to a few culprits I would say the top three are – getting paid on time by your retailers/distributors (you know who you are), never going on vacation for more than two days, and satisfying different market tastes as well as handling reverse seasons within the same collection, for example Australia vs. Europe.

And the manufacturing? Where are your shoes made and how do you supervise the process?
Gram is produced in Guangzhou, which lies in the south of China about two hours by train from Hong Kong. Our factory is small with only about 50 employees. The management is Japanese and this ensures a high level of quality since the Japanese are the pickiest people in the world and would not hesitate to return a whole shipment if they found so much as a missed staple in one of the shoes. I handle all the supervising myself and spend most of my time in Hong Kong where I can be in constant contact with both the production office and factory. People ask us whether it’s fair trade? I just tell them it’s way better than some lousy certification... people have absolutely no perception of China. Sweatshops are history there, that was the nineties. Go to Bangladesh if you’d like to see some. gramSE is a completely different story, made in Vietnam, just outside of Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon if you prefer). That factory was the cleanest I’ve ever seen, they even had a pool for the workers, it was sick.

There’s no doubt that the indie kid who wants to look svelte and pretty conservative with colour and branding has really grown in numbers on a global scale... Do you agree? And do you feel this direction has been more influenced by the Japanese or by the European scene?
For sure, they are multiplying as we speak. It’s definitely a European phenomenon from where I’m standing. If I say Cheap Monday and Acne then most of you would know what I’m talking about. APC from France is also influencing a lot. We just provide the footwear to fit the style...

Tell us about the Toyota Estima you guys built recently? Why build a top-spec remote control car to promote your brand?It felt like it was the right thing to do. AutogramSE is the official mascot of the SE – fast, technical and uncompromising. Besides, I’ve been into the hobby since I was nine and jumped on the opportunity to build a sleek automobile of this calibre. I wasn’t allowed to keep it though... it was first prize in the race event we held during the release of gramSE in Sweden. Thomas, the guy that does our beautiful homepages, took it home after a gruelling final.

And finally... gaze into your crystal balls and tell us about the future. What do you see?
We see camouflage Woody, lots of it... on everything.  Oh, and elastic laces of course.

This article appeared in Issue 13 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here

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