Far from Odd

It took a cup of coffee and two euros to launch Sweden’s latest retail phenomenon. An advertising copywriter at the time, Per Holknekt had made an appointment with designer friend Karin Jimfelt-Ghatan to discuss an advertising concept.

They got talking, discovered a mutual understanding so strong they set aside the initial project in favour of creating their own designer fashion label instead. Less than 30 minutes from that first sip of coffee, Odd Molly was born.

That was in March 2002. Today Odd Molly can be found in 1400 stores worldwide (about 30 in Australia). The first of its five company owned stores, a flagship in downtown Stockholm, opened two years ago and has been voted one of the world’s 100 best fashion boutiques – no mean achievement for a small company up against some of the biggest fashion brands in the world with multi-billion dollar budgets.

Per Holknekt is an astonishing character. His life experience includes time as a professional skateboarder in California, riches and success followed by financial ruin.

“In 2000 I was homeless. Everything crashed. It’s a painful memory but it looks like it’s going to have a happy ending,” he reflects during a presentation at a luxury hotel on Stockholm’s waterfront.

“I ended up in a rehabilitation program in 2000. When I came out a clean, better man, my therapist told me to get an ordinary job. So I applied for a job in an ad agency called Ogilvy as a copywriter.

“Sixty five people applied. I was the only one without experience. All the others were the same, but I was individual.” So he got the job.

Then followed the most important cup of coffee in his life with Jimfelt-Ghatan. It turned out to be the perfect business match because Holknekt was full of design ideas but had no way of putting them onto paper. “I’m creative – but only down to my elbow.”

Jimfelt-Ghatan could take Holknekt’s verbal description and convert it into something visual. But with hardly a euro between them it was a hard slog converting the creative into clothing and getting them into stores.

The pair registered a company and went hunting for an investor to make the idea real. The first round of meetings failed to attract any interest. “I realised we were not selling the energy, but selling the business idea,” he recalls. So they changed their attack and tried again, immediately getting a bite from one of Odd Molly’s long term shareholders.

“A year ago our company was valued at $1.2 billion Swedish Kronor. (A$180 million). So he got a good deal for his Kr300,000 (A$45,000) when he started the company.” (Odd Molly was listed three years ago).

From the first idea to first paid shipment to a retailer it took 15 months. The financier gave the entrepreneurial couple 20 Kronor a day to buy coffee and use the coffee shop as an office.

“I’m good at detecting a gap in the market,” Holknekt says, explaining how the company grew so far.

“The fashion industry is a cold industry that pretty much talks about the insufficiency of individuals. We wanted to create a warm-hearted brand, a loving brand. A brand about celebrating her superiority.”

“Karin had been a freelance designer for 25 years but only illustrated what others told her to do. When I realised what her pencil could do I saw that she could design clothing that would not only sell, but it added value.

“We could design blue jeans or black jackets and put ourselves in a place where retailers would perhaps sell our clothing, but we wanted to do better… so that the retailer could take better quality food home for his family at the end of the week.”

Once the designs were in train, Holknekt and Jimfelt-Ghatan had to find stores willing to stock the clothes.

“I’ve learned over the years that limited budgets bring better creativity. Big budgets don’t have the high demands for creativity.

“With 8000 Kronor (A$1200) we decided to not go digital. Every time I get a sales letter over email my guard goes up… I wanted to create something that would drop my guard,” explains Holknekt, pictured below.

  

They came up with a clever idea for a series of personalised postcards. They bought paper, scissors, stamps with the Swedish king’s picture on them and drew pictures of birds on the cards. The first card said nothing other than ‘Today I caught a salmon weighing 2kg’ (which Holknekt had, by the way). And that was all.

After four similarly mysterious postcards from a stranger people were starting to talk about it. No-one knew who it was from. They used the card to subtly build the mood of the brand. On the fifth postcard they included a contact – “a super corporate email address at hotmail.com” jokes Holknekt.

The pair had sent the cards to 85 stores. All but one wrote to the email address asking ‘who are you? What do you want?’. “We wrote orders with all but one. I don’t like marketing which answers the questions you ask.”

The first product was delivered by car. Holknekt was at the third store on the schedule when he received a phone call from the first, seeking more product. And so the legend of Odd Molly was born.

Oh, and the name?

Back in 1985 when he was skateboarding for a living in Los Angeles, he was in a group where “all these girls were trying to impress the guys”. Except one, “who was just herself”. Her name was odd: Molly.

And that tale also explains why Los Angeles was chosen as the first overseas site for an Odd Molly company owned store – a long way from Stockholm. “In that way the cradle of Odd Molly was in Los Angeles,” says Holknekt.

In choosing a brand ambassador, the pair decided to go for a woman who makes her own decisions and has great appetite for life, who has moved from home and asserted herself. The core of the brand itself.

“Terrified” at making the call, Holknekt phoned Danish fashion model Helena Christensen, a mother and a businesswoman in her own right. Over another significant cup of coffee, Christensen said yes. “I love your clothing,” she told him.

Savvy marketing, attention to detail and a constant focus on preserving the integrity of the style and design have seen Odd Molly grow rapidly over just nine years. For the last seven it has doubled sales with every new collection – even when Sweden was in the midst of the GFC.

But Holknekt maintains a grounded attitude. “I doubt myself all the time, I keep asking myself are we really this good?”

This, despite winning Exporter of the Year and Designer of the Year awards in his home country, Best New Fashion Boutique in Los Angeles for its first overseas foray, and a long list of others which can be found on the company’s website.

Deciding to open their own retail store was a challenge, “a different and difficult venture” he recalls. “Some companies open concept stores for marketing. We do it to make money.” But the stunning Stockholm store has proven an enormous success – and Holknekt says he enjoys the instant response from customers to new designs that having company owned stores allows.

In nine years Odd Molly has become a truly international fashion success – but it clearly has a long growth potential ahead if it sticks to its roots.

As its website says: “Odd Molly is highly loved by multi-generations and the love runs all the way from the women of small Greek villages to the pickiest celebrity actresses of Hollywood.”

Besides pursuing sustainable international growth, Odd Molly’s founders are now taking the brand into new categories. Skin care and eyewear lines will soon be followed by other initiatives yet to be revealed.

“The core idea of the company was to let uninhibited design intuition lead the way, bringing forward a fabulous and positive message to women,” Holknekt explains on the Odd Molly website.

“Key ingredients were to not only make women look great, but to make women feel great, using the cornerstones of love, courage and integrity.

“Ever since that day the product development has evolved in the most tremendous ways, and still those key ingredients have remained the same.”

* This feature was the result of a presentation and store visits during the Westfield World Retail Study Tour

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