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How the 22-year-old footwear brand is finding new life giving consumers exactly what they want — customisation
Eduan R. Maggo
In an age of cookie-cutter fashion that personifies sameness, customisation holds the key to self expression. This in itself isn’t new to the world of luxury, where we’ve become accustomed to having everything from shirts, suits and shoes tailor made, to infusing individual identity into objects as diverse as cars and houses. But while mass-market brands such as Nike and Converse have offered customisation options for years, luxury brands have been reluctant to bite. And none have offered full customisation. Until now.
Enter Swear. Yes, the brand has been around since 1997 as a response to the ’90s music and culture scenes, where it quickly became popular for its counterculture offering. But fast-forward to 2017, and José Neves — the Portuguese retail mogul who perfected the art of reaching a digitally savvy consumer through the fashion e-tailer Farfetch — repositions the footwear brand to bring the bespoke experience to luxury sneakers. Now, it’s a unisex sneaker label unbound by fashion’s seasonal carousel. Its USP ups even that ante: Swear allows consumers to create fully customisable products.
As Neves told The Business of Fashion, “I really believe that customisation will be the next revolution in luxury. The customer is less and less engaged with products and more and more engaged with experiences.
“I think customisation is a very powerful movement.”
The makeover allows sneakerheads to stand out from the crowd with two customisation offerings, Just Dropped and Customise 360. The former takes a more low-key approach, where you can pick your style, change the colours and materials, and add your initials. The company promises to add a new style every month.
Born out the shapeshifting ’90s music and culture scenes, the sneaker brand’s hybrid footwear has been continually appropriated by those yearning for individuality.
Customise 360 does exactly what it says — it lets you build your shoe completely from scratch with the use of state-of-the-art 3D modelling technology. Colours, materials, linings — the works. Providing 15 base shapes, the brand’s premium materials include nappa, suede, vegetable-tanned leather, hairy calf, ostrich, python, crocodile and metallic, available in a range of colours. The shoes are then handcrafted in Portugal, in keeping with the luxury philosophy.
“I’m a huge, huge fan of tech and fashion,” says managing director Mario Muttenthaler, who’s been with the brand for just over a year after more than a decade in senior sales and marketing gigs at popular e-commerce sites, and most recently at the British accessories start-up The Cambridge Satchel Company. “This is where I learnt all about building a brand, but also manufacturing. Because if you’re working in digital, you deal with marketing and operations and service — that’s what makes it work.”
Going from overseeing some 300 brands to being intimately involved in the manufacturing for one trained him in the complexities on the production side. This fits perfectly with his new role, which marries the two.
“Swear was always about personal expression and being who you want to be,” he tells Debonair at Swear’s pop-up store in Level Shoes. “It’s always been a little rebellious as a brand.”
He says the fully customised sneakers are “really special”.
“It’s yours — it’s your design. And today’s customers — especially Millennials, Gen Z — they want that.”
Colours, materials, linings — the works. Providing 15 base shapes, the brand’s premium materials include nappa, suede, vegetable-tanned leather, hairy calf, ostrich, python, crocodile and metallic, available in a range of colours.
Prices range from about Dh1,000 for the entry-level models to around Dh35,000 for fully personalised top-end models in exotic skins. “That would be for a fully bespoke crocodile high-top,” he says.
The light-touch customisation can be done online or in store, a process that delivers the finished product within minutes. Their in-store presence comes with iPads where you creations come to life through 3D technology. Recognising that process can be daunting for some, the brand also allows customers to reimagine existing models. “We work with curators — people who design their idea of what Swear is,” Muttenthaler explains. They include industry insider Vivian Frank, the man behind SneakerheadUK, Kuwaiti style influencer and sneaker collector KicksTQ, London-based DJ Siobhan Bell, model and activist Leomie Anderson and Ginney Noa. You’ll also find household names such as will.i.am pop up, and collaborations with the likes of Vetements. “Yes, they are celebrities or influencers, but they all have a point of view and they all have something to say. That’s really important to us.”
Furthermore, the brand provides themes that can act as a starting point.
Acknowledging the challenge of creating a cohesive identity for a brand focused on individual identity, Muttenthaler says Swear creates shapes and soles that stand out and to ensure that the base sneaker is iconic in itself. “You build a brand with a few key looks, and customise around it.”
Unlike with the seasonal collection model that’s de rigeur in fashion, Swear drops a new style every six to eight weeks. Small stock levels also mean the company can keep the prices stable. The bespoke experience also has a sustainability advantage. “There’s no waste; it’s made to order.
“It’s really important to us to produce something sustainable, in an industry that’s the second-biggest polluter.”
On the materials used in the sneakers, the brand says it only works with responsible and verified tanneries. “We are committed to the sustainable sourcing of natural materials and working with suppliers who adhere to CITES certification.”
In another example of old meeting new, the team behind Swear’s 3D technology come from 3D film animation backgrounds, while four family-run businesses craft the shoes using traditional techniques.
“Swear fits the expectations of this new generation that doesn’t want mainstream,” Muttenthaler says.
“It’s the antidote to fast fashion,” which has become the norm. It’s going back to something that’s a little bit slower, a little bit more considered, and a little bit more special.
“We’re democratising what haute couture did for many years and it was only accessible to a very few people. This links back to the old days of Swear when it was all about pushing boundaries.”
So it’s a chip off the old block then, if you will. Think of it as Swear 2.0.