Rebooting a Brand for a Post-Pandemic World

For Scandi brand Filippa K, the new year brings a new identity.

The minimalist label, founded by Filippa Knutsson in 1993, is in the midst of a reboot, recruiting Liisa Kessler, formerly a senior designer at Saint Laurent, to lead the brand as creative director into its next chapter.

The designer joins the label at a pivotal moment in its near-30 year history. Back in 2019, founder Knutsson stepped away from the creative director post just before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which hammered the business financially. (Knutsson remains a shareholder.) Now, recently appointed chief executive Rikard Frost is embarking on a broader turnaround plan to take the label more upmarket and expand its international presence. Kessler, who also did stints at Lanvin, Y/Project and Chloé, is an important piece of this puzzle.

“Her background at the houses in Paris has been very important for what we want to achieve,” said Frost, who joined the Stockholm-based company in March 2021. “We want to create products that have a point of view with a strong focus on quality.”

The brand’s transition is happening amid a landscape in flux. The pandemic sent sales plunging, with full year revenues falling from $72.4 million in 2019 to $58 million in 2020, a near 20 percent drop. In practice this meant staff layoffs, retail store closures and exiting wholesale partnerships when retailers were unable to pay. Budgets were reduced to a bare minimum across the company, said Frost.

The brand has since stabilised sales, and company cash flow remained positive throughout the crisis, said Frost, meaning that, now, Filippa K is in a position to rebuild. If 2020 was the year of crisis, 2022 could be its year of opportunity.

“When I walked into the company last year, it was a very lean operation, everything was really slimmed down and in survival mode,” he said. “You could almost see the pandemic as a reset. We’ve consolidated, and what’s left has been a very productive company; smaller in size, but more productive and set up for a better long-term future.”

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As the rapid spread of the Omicron variant shows, the crisis is far from over and today’s unpredictable retail environment is still here with it. Meanwhile, the apparel market remains fiercely competitive and crowded.

In the case of Filippa K, success will hinge on being able to deliver on crafting a unique identity, said Frost. He sees an opportunity to garner a high level of loyalty among a distinct customer base in doubling down on the brand’s unfussy, quietly sensual minimalism. Later this year, Filippa K will roll out new branding, complete with a new logo, to coincide with the debut of Kessler’s first collection in June.

“We’re a niche brand. We need to be a niche brand in order to be able to reach out and pierce through the noise,” said Frost. “With the resources that we have as a medium-sized brand, we won’t be able to compete for every customer out there, we need to have a very specific identity and stand for something that is unique to us.”

We’re a niche brand. We need to be a niche brand in order to be able to reach out and pierce through the noise.

The Next Chapter

Keeping Filippa K’s core DNA rooted in the functional, minimalist design it is known for also plays into the brand’s sustainability agenda — creating clothes that are seasonless and, from a trend perspective, will stand the test of time.

“[Filippa Knutsson] was one of the pioneers in establishing the now iconic look for Scandinavian minimalism,” said Kessler. “Her original vision of a desirable and sustainable wardrobe is as relevant today as when the brand was founded.”

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Now, the brand will introduce more high-end products and play in a more expensive price category. For example, the brand expects prices for coats to sit between the $1,000 to $2,100 mark within the next three or so years; currently, most of its outerwear pieces are priced between $500 and $1,100. It will also expand its assortment to bolster currently underdeveloped categories, namely denim, bags and other accessories like eyewear.

Going further upmarket could work in the brand’s favour. Currently, Filippa K sits firmly in the contemporary fashion market, below pricier “designer” labels but above fast fashion and high street brands. The crowded and competitive space is easily squeezed during times of economic uncertainty, as affluent shoppers gravitate towards luxury purchases, while middle class shoppers cut back on spending or focus on more value-driven offerings.

“In general, it has suffered quite badly [over the pandemic],” Nina Marston, senior analyst at Euromonitor, said of the contemporary fashion market.

Although the broader womenswear apparel market recovered from the pandemic more quickly than the luxury segment, this year, women’s designer clothing is set to boom, with growth expected to outstrip that of the broader market over the next two years, according to Euromonitor data. This year, the market research firm forecasts sales will surpass pre-pandemic levels to reach $57.2 billion, a 13 percent increase from 2021.

Looking Beyond Europe

To capture market growth, international expansion is a strategic priority for Filippa K. Frost noted that since the pandemic, the brand suffered because of under-exposure in global markets, especially the US and Asia, where retail’s recovery was much more buoyant than in Northern Europe. Currently, over 90 percent of sales come from Europe — just 1 percent from the US. And while the brand had as many as 60 stores five years ago, they were concentrated across Scandinavia and other European countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.

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“Because of the niche nature of what we do, we can’t grow to a meaningful size in a small part of Northern Europe, for example,” he said. “There is someone in every country who may like what you do, and you need to reach that person and have a global approach to how you communicate that.”

There is someone in every country who may like what you do, and you need to reach that person and have a global approach to how you communicate that.

The brand is currently reviewing its wholesale stockists, seeking to ink partnerships with top-tier international retailers. Ssense, for example, is set to begin stocking the brand for the first time this month. Currently, wholesale accounts for 40 percent of sales, with the remaining 60 percent split evenly between direct e-commerce and retail operations.

The brand will also begin to build up its store network again, growing its footprint from 19 stores today to about 35 by 2025. The longer term goal is to have “fewer but better stores” in key luxury shopping hubs that act as billboards for the brand and help build relationships with customers. In the more immediate term is expansion into the China market, which is on the agenda for the second half of this year.

Frost, however, says his roadmap for success doesn’t need to happen overnight.

“My ambition is to double the size of the company. If that’s going to take me two years, three years, four years, I don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t want to build a brand that its sole goal is to grow as fast as possible. I want to build something for the long-term.”

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