LOS ANGELES, United States — When Frame released its first bag in February — a large structured leather tote named "Les Second" — co-founders Jens Grede and Erik Torstensson went with their signature marketing approach: Get the product in the hands of frequently photographed models, like Hailey Baldwin and Doutzen Kroes, and watch the press coverage and sales flow in.
The strategy paid off dividends when Frame launched as a denim brand in November 2012, back when Instagram had a tenth of its current users and the focus on celebrities’ “off duty” style was still ramping up. Frame’s “Le Skinny” jeans and lambskin leather pants were quickly ubiquitous among a fashion insider crowd eager for a simple but stylised 1970s aesthetic. Consumers followed.
But the approach fell flat with Les Second. Frame is now one of many brands playing the model-influencer game. Plus, it is harder to build buzz around a tote — handbags are higher-ticket items purchased with less frequency than a pair of jeans, and the market is just as competitive.
“It’s like we never made a bag,” Grede said.
The founders are prepared, however, to wait for sales to grow instead of anticipating the usual instant rush of orders for jeans. Frame is also tweaking its marketing approach by gifting different types of influencers and featuring them in its new print magazine, launched in February, and highlighting the tote in its stores.
Denim made Frame famous, but Grede and Torstensson see accessories, and other non-denim categories like shirts and knitwear, as key to the company’s future. While denim still accounts for 60 percent of sales on an annual basis, the brand shipped more units of ready-to-wear than jeans for the first time in February. With over 1,000 wholesale accounts and five brick-and-mortar locations in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Dallas and Aspen, Frame projects it will hit $120 million in sales in 2018 and $170 million in 2019.
The strategy is stick to your guns. Focus and longevity are more important than ever.
Six years in, Frame is reaching a point where many of its competitors fade away, turn to a buyer or shift down-market. Denim, in particular, is prone to boom and bust cycles. But the founders, who started Frame as a side business to their digital creative agency, have ambitions to turn their passion project into a globally recognised fashion brand.
“The strategy now is to stick to your guns,” said Torstensson. “It’s very similar to how you promote music these days." A product release is like a single that must be performed repeatedly for months in different markets. “Focus and longevity are more important than ever.”
The same can be said for Grede and Torstensson’s approach to Frame. In many ways, crossing the $100 million milestone marks a new chapter. For years the co-founders balanced running the Los Angeles-based Frame from their home base in London, while also managing a multitude of other businesses. They founded their agency in 2003 when they were in their mid-20s. They invested in or acquired other agencies, at their peak becoming an umbrella of 13 different companies dedicated to distribution, talent management and more.
Meanwhile, Grede and Torstensson became synonymous with a sleek, minimalist and slightly humorous sense of cool that pervaded so many fashion projects of the decade, particularly website launches. In January 2016, BBDO Worldwide acquired what was then known as the Wednesday Agency Group for an undisclosed sum. Now Grede and Torstensson remain material investors only in Good American, the Khloe Kardashian-fronted denim brand founded by Grede’s wife Emma, and Denim Hub, a production company. They also invest in fashion and tech start-ups through a private fund, Popular Culture.
“Frame was going through the roof and we were like, ‘We have to get serious,’” said Grede about selling the agency. Last summer, he moved to Los Angeles to focus on the brand, which employs about 160 people, half at the head office. The founders are betting that Frame is strong enough to keep pushing beyond the premium denim market into a full-range ready-to-wear brand that will one day rival multi-billion-dollar leaders such as Calvin Klein and G-Star.
“Some of the oldest and most successful apparel brands are rooted in denim,” said Grede.
But as the Les Second launch illustrates, making that transition won’t be easy. And from Grede and Torstensson’s perspective, the single biggest challenge for the Frame right now is growing in the public's consciousness, spreading their message online, in print, through influencers, in Frame stores and through third-party retailers.
“We are lucky to come from a previous chapter of our careers, which was helping make other brands famous,” said Grede.
But Frame needs to pick its battles. “We can’t fight the fight in all territories, we are just too small,” he said. Frame’s expansion plan turns now to more cities in the US and the UK. Each new store opening brings an average of about $2.5 million in sales and the company is planning to open six more by the end of 2019. Only 25 percent of sales come from outside of the US, which presents a “big opportunity.”
Grede said all their marketing efforts will be for nothing if Frame doesn’t have the fulfillment, delivery infrastructure and product to back it up.
“Marketing is not a self-fulfilling promise,” he said. Frame has two warehouses in the US and one in the UK and is looking for more locations in mainland Europe and Asia.
As for the product itself, Grede and Torstensson want to stay focused on their “pillar aesthetic” while expanding categories, which now include shirting, knitwear and outerwear.
The single biggest challenge for the Frame right now is growing in the public's consciousness.
“Frame deserves a lot of credit for their category focus,” said retail consultant Carol Spieckerman, describing their phased expansion — shirting, knitwear, outwear — as measured. She said denim can be challenging because even if customers become loyal to core styles and fits, and ready-to-wear is needed to keep shoppers coming back more often. “If you’re just relying on non-differentiated denim, it’s really difficult to build a business around that.”
Design-wise, the founders admit it has been a challenge to find talent for ready-to-wear in Los Angeles, a city known for its denim production. After previously employing designers throughout Europe, the entire design team is now concentrated at the headquarters in Los Angeles, with the exception of accessories designer Sara Battaglia in Milan.
Menswear has proven particularly challenging, Torstensson said, adding he and Gede “took a couple of wrong turns,” establishing the design aesthetic. “Part of it is talent here, part of it is insecurity,” he said. “You don’t want to screw it up and you second-guess yourself.”
Today, menswear represents under 10 percent of sales, though that is projected to rise to 15 percent by the end of next year. “We don’t feel that we have got a brand yet in the men’s space, that’s definitely a concern,” Gede said.
Direct sales are the priority. Grede said the brand was able to survive the recent department store slowdown by staying out of the off-price channel and not over-distributing. But wholesale isn’t a growth proposition anymore. Frame launched its own e-commerce channel in 2016 and now 10 percent of sales come through their website.
But first, Grede and Torstensson need to nail a compelling global retail concept — a store design that is identifiably unique, like what brands such as Tory Burch, Michael Kors and Moncler have developed in terms of consistent merchandising and atmosphere. Frame’s existing stores have not “matured into a concept that can be exported,” said Grede. They plan to use September’s Greenwich location opening as a test. “If you actually manage to get there … that really is the game changer,” he said.
Frame has enough capital to fund their expansion plans, though they “will have to take stock again in a year,” Grede said. In 2014, Theory founder Andrew Rosen and John Howard, the co-managing partner of Irving Place Capital, invested in the company and have become valued advisors.
"Obviously the trick is: how do you keep evolving and not get stuck in one place as the world and fashion moves beyond you?” Rosen said. “But I think these guys are right in the prime of their careers... I think that they have many years of runway ahead of them."
Rosen certainly has an eye for spotting talent, but can Frame actually reach the global levels its enthusiastic founders are gunning for?
“Arguably, the days of the mega-lifestyle brand are over,” said Spieckerman, but Frame can still own a “bigger piece of the pie,” she added. Their owned retail and e-commerce network is an advantage, as they will feel less pressure to race to the bottom on prices.
Grede and Torstensson, however, see it as a race to the top. “We want to take [the big brands] dollar for dollar, but it’s a long road,” said Grede, joking that his 2017 move to the West Coast has overshadowed his Swedish humility. “I live in LA now. Humble pie is out the window.”