Growing Up Camper

Spain’s family-run shoe manufacturer confronts the pains—and perks—of being a truly global brand.

For a brand of footwear built on heritage, Camper has shown a remarkable willingness to innovate and even, in a recent series of counterintuitive moves, to challenge its original business paradigm. The company’s roots date all the way back to 1877, when Antonio Fluxá, a businessman on the island of Majorca, in Spain’s Catalonia, remade himself as a cobbler and opened a shoe factory. Working with leather became a family tradition, but so did reinvention. In 1975 his grandson Lorenzo modernized the way shoes were designed and created a company named Camper, which derives from “peasant” in Catalan. His brand philosophy reflected the rural values of his forefathers: frugality, pragmatism, conviviality—and a respect for natural resources.

Today, Lorenzo’s son Miguel is in charge of making sure that Camper, which numbers more than 240 stores worldwide from Australia to Turkey, keeps the spirit of reinvention alive. While Camper is known for its out-of-the-shoe-box thinking—a recently launched ad campaign features people whose heads are open shoe boxes brimming with quirky images—some of its latest ventures are outright puzzling. Now a global brand that finds itself at a turning point, it has chosen to fly in the face of conventional marketing wisdom, almost to the point of changing its identity. In the last few years Camper has launched a hotel chain and embarked in the restaurant business. Granted, one could argue that there is a certain logic to a shoe company known for comfort offering healthy food and sustainable shelter, but what about its newest initiative? The high-end Camper Together stores, featuring the work of contemporary furniture designers and avant-garde artists, look like trendy galleries.

“My job is to take chances,” 32-year-old Miguel Fluxá says. “I am not sure what my title is.” He operates from the family’s beautifully restored country estate in Majorca, which he has turned into a laboratory for testing new ideas, from eco-conscious packaging to microfarming. There he teams up with some of the most original creative minds in the design world to come up with novel shoe concepts and retail environments. “At Camper we are not very fond of focus groups or marketing experts,” he says. “We do things just because they feel right.”

One of the things that feels right is associating with up-and-coming talents. Best described as a co-branding venture between the company and designers with a strong authorial voice, the new Camper Together outlets are each distinctive and represent a major departure from the earlier, less flamboyant stores. “The business world tells us that all Camper stores should look alike,” Fluxá says. “We are not confident that it’s the best strategy for us.” His only concession to consistency is the five in-house architects who work full-time to help guest designers execute their ideas.

More important than clinging to its rustic roots, according to brand strategist Brian Collins, former CCO at Ogilvy Worldwide, is that Camper is able to remain culturally relevant. “Today people don’t have time for insincerity,” he warns. “Advertising campaigns make them suspicious. The most powerful way for a brand to tell its story is its retail environment. If you want to be talked about, open a great store! Good design equals media attention.” Collins characterizes the company’s slick new campaign as a success. “The latest Camper stores are fantastic,” he says. “These people use their heritage as an engine—they are not paralyzed by their past.”

One of the Camper Together stores can be found on the chic Paseo de Gracia shopping boulevard in Barcelona. By maverick Spanish furniture designer/toy maker/graphic artist Jaime Hayon, it is an excellent example of how the brand has managed to share the marquee without undermining its own name. The 800-square-foot corner boutique, which opened in 2006, departs radically from the well-known Soho, New York, shop designed seven years ago by Spanish conceptual artist Martí Guixé. Contrasting with the sparse Prince Street showroom, the brightly lit red-and-white Paseo de Gracia store is self-congratulatory. Glossy surfaces, shiny lacquered floors, and wall-size mirrors are the backdrop for Hayon’s own ironic furniture line. More than shoes, the place seems to be set up to display key pieces from Hayon’s BD Showtime collection, including the spectacular quilted red wing chair and the white multilegged table with quirky mismatched appendages. Over­size gold lamp shades recall the candelabra that the prolific designer unveiled at the 2007 Milan Furniture Fair. Also a Hayon trademark are the decals on the store windows, black silhouettes of mischievous characters that have escaped from his own Onion toy line.

“We like Hayon’s sense of humour, his wit, his irony,” Fluxá says. “Like him, we tend not to take ourselves seriously. It’s a very Mediterranean thing. Gentle satire is the most enduring aspect of our identity.” Under close inspection, the Hayon stores (there are three so far, in Barcelona, Majorca, and London, and two more to come in Paris and Milan) can be construed as parodies of the Soho emporium. The most popular of their shops until now, it suddenly feels stale with its somber rows of shoes lined up ceremoniously on a long bench beneath monolithic Ingo Mauer hanging lamps. In the up­-dated version, it is as if Hayon touched the Guixé store with a magic wand, threw fairy dust around, transformed its austere furniture into funny-looking creatures, and substituted festive lanterns for the forbidding lights. Resembling Cinderella slippers, the shoes in this glittering environment look like pretty debutants waiting for Prince Charming to invite them onto the dance floor.

Guixé’s self-deprecating antidesign approach matches what Fluxá describes as the “humble” style of Camper’s footwear. With round toes and squishy soles, the shoes have captured the imagination of streetwise urbanites by making a tongue-in-cheek antifashion statement. Always the provocateur, Guixé was seminal in helping the company define an early retail philosophy as antiestablishment as its shoes. Beginning in a London store in 1998, he affixed shoes to the walls with bands of Velcro, clearing the floor of all furniture except large inflated exercise balls. An art installation as much as a store, it ushered in a long line of innovative “metaprotocols” that did not monumentalize the experience of consumption but drew attention to the shoes themselves. Driven by a conviction that his job was to expand the social dimension of the commercial environment, Guixé designed more than a dozen Camper stores between 1998 and 2006, in the process developing such novel concepts as “info-shops,” where information about organic gardening, Majorcan donkeys, or contemporary design was treated as decoration.

The most radical of all Guixé’s projects, called Foodball, intended to be a growing fast-food chain, was discontinued after the first two restaurants proved to be underperformers. Three years ago Camper opened a couple of small outlets—the first in Barcelona, the second in Berlin—serving macrobiotic-inspired rice balls in biodegradable packaging. According to Guixé, the idea was ill-fated right from the start because it became the object of a power struggle between design director Guillem Ferrer, who had a social and ideological agenda, and other corporate executives, who were hoping to mainstream the company away from some of its more esoteric initiatives. “In my opinion, Foodball should have been considered a way to communicate the values of the brand,” Guixé says. “It could have survived financially if the goal had simply been to serve healthy food fast. Unfortunately, they didn’t see it that way. They are now a multinational company that wants to make money.” By 2003 Ferrer had left the company, and a brand director, Phil McAveety, was hired away from Nike in January 2007—a move that reveals a lot about the scope of Camper’s ambition.

Guixé is no longer under contract with Camper, but his approach still serves as the basic template for new design projects. Most popular was his “Walk in Progress” idea, which made it possible to quickly open a temporary shop furnished with recycled material—primarily stacks of shoe boxes—on the site of a future store. Capitalizing on the success of this work-in-progress concept, an updated version of the makeshift outlets opened in Berlin in October 2006. It was created by Brazil’s most celebrated contemporary designers, brothers Fer­nando and Humberto Campana, who did a brilliant job covering the walls with bound layers of discarded printer proofs that were then torn into artistically abstract patterns. Known for their predilection for revealing the beauty of impoverished materials, the Campana brothers have a sensibility that is a perfect match with Camper’s irreverent frugality, so, not surprisingly, more Camper/Campana brothers stores will open in London and Bar­celona.

Another of the Camper Together stores is Alfredo Häberli’s refined Paris offering, which opened last fall. The Zurich-based designer was given only the mandate to cram a lot of shoes into a tiny space on one of the most exclusive shopping streets in the world, rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. Like Hayon, he retained the main elements of the Soho store—the long table and the hanging lamps—but he reinterpreted them with witty elegance. “I didn’t want to use Camper’s bright colors because I was afraid a garish boutique would look cheap in this posh environment,” he says. Ignoring red, the distinctive brand color, he chose an all-white scheme. The shoes rest beneath heavily starched white cotton pants and skirts that double as lamp shades glowing above atolls of glass, wood, and stone. This buoyant decor is supposed to allude to the fact that the shoes come from an island. But the irony is that they do not—not anymore. For the past three years, all Camper shoes have been made in China.

“We would be crazy not to make our shoes in China,” Miguel says. “The Chinese manufacturing skills are amazing. The quality of their work is far superior to that of Spanish shoemakers.” In light of the recent massive recalls of defective made-in-China products, his claim sounds a little defensive. But he is dealing with a sensitive issue: Camper’s brand imagery is deeply rooted in the local folklore of the island. The first Camper shoe, called Camaléon, was inspired by the traditional canvas-and-leather footwear worn by Majorcan peasants. The brand’s longstanding concern for sustainability—Camper received the first “eco” label for shoes in the EU—is fostered by a native love of the land. Last but not least, its trademark comfortable shoes are best suited for walking because walking used to be the best way for Majorcan peasants to get around.

For an earnest homespun brand like Camper, being confronted with the harsh realities of a global economy has meant a lot of painful soul-searching. In this, their native sense of humor has served them well. But Richard Benson, cultural commentator and former editorial director of the Face, takes a dim view of the way an increasing number of brands today embrace self-mockery. “I miss the days when brands like Camper didn’t have to be ironic in order to preserve their credibility. In my opinion, making fun of oneself is nothing but a short-term marketing strategy.”

In Camper’s case, though, self-derision is not incompatible with integrity. The family’s core values still inform corporate decisions. The young Fluxá continues to work with his father’s old friend Fernando Amat, who designed the first Camper store, in Barcelona, in 1981. Founder of the Vinçon home- furnishing emporiums—the Spanish equivalent of Conran stores—Amat introduced Lorenzo to a number of designers and graphic artists who have contributed their talents and ideas to shape the personality of the brand, among them the Memphis team, Javier Mariscal, Neville Brody, Guixé, and dozens more who went on to become famous.

Amat is the author of the most ambitious Camper project to date, a hotel called Casa Camper, apparently deemed a better business fit for a shoe manufacturer than fast food. The six-story, $300-a-night boutique destination opened its doors two years ago in a nineteenth-century building in El Raval, a trendy pedestrian maze in old Barcelona. A second Casa Camper, this one in Berlin and also designed by Amat (in collaboration with others yet to be announced), will be ready to welcome guests in the coming months. “Opening a hotel all by ourselves, without the help of an hotelier, was a challenge,” Fluxá admits. “But it was the only way we could be sure the venture would add value to our brand and be truly different. Strolling tourists sometimes wander into the hotel lobby assuming that it is a small design museum.”

Casa Camper combines the austerity of a youth hostel with the kind of liberal amenities found in Paradors, state-run Spanish luxury palaces turned guesthouses. At Casa Camper, visitors get two separate rooms across the hall from each other, one for sleeping at night, the other for napping and noshing during the midday Iberian siesta. The bedrooms are dark sanctuaries, sparsely appointed with Vinçon accessories, while the natural-light-flooded bathrooms are fitted with Hansgrohe fixtures. There is a free self-service cafeteria in the lobby with salads and finger sandwiches for around-the-clock snacking, Amat’s formula for replacing the vexing minibar institution.

Casa Camper is a sanctum where guests are given a chance to experience firsthand what it’s like to relax in smart surroundings while not wasting resources. There are solar panels on the roof and a comprehensive gray-water recycling system, something no hotel has ever done before. Near the elevators, friendly looking signs in Catalan and English encourage you to take the stairs. Here and there other signs direct you to recycle, stop smoking, slow down, conserve water, use condoms, or just go for a walk.

Strangely enough you comply out of a sense of solidarity with the spirit of a brand that, like its charmingly mismatched Twins shoes (which have different motifs on the left and the right), ben­efits from contradiction. Wholesome yet idiosyncratic, Camper seems to be achieving a tricky balance between self-righteousness and self-deprecation.

Find out more facts about this subject on the Reference Page: October 2007

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