Fjällräven's Kånken, a Swedish classic
Donna Bruns, the Global Product Manager of Fjällräven, meets with Mr. Wolf. The two sat down to talk in a quite corner of outdoor-wear store Naturkompaniet,on Kungsgatan in central Stockholm.
The interviewer owns a Kånken in black, Ms. Bruns had just stepped out of her office and was not carrying a bag.
The Kånken backpack, a humble feature of Swedish childhood is currently an international sensation with stockists from New York to Seoul. Donna Bruns tells of the Kånken’s beauty and the rationale behind its appeal.
Donna: Swedish and Scandinavian design is seen around the world for being this super simplistic design that in some way just makes sense, while everything else is left off. I think that’s quite attractive, especially in our society today where everything is so over the top that people are attracted to the very basics of it.
In Sweden there’s no pressure, because everyone is OK with looking exactly the same there’s no pressureto be different and look different, which has its goods and bads. But there is a solace in just really liking what you have. There’s a Swedish saying, “I know what I have but I don’t know what I’m going to get, so I stick to what I have.” It’s the epitome of the Swedish culture.
As a society, Sweden is not over feminine and not over masculine. There is equality in daily roles, household and child rearing. The same in design, an androgynous aesthetic exists and it doesn’t go to the extremes very often.
It’s the case with the Kånken, I see as many guys carrying it as girls because it is so simple and does not lend toone or another. It is itself and anyone can identify withit without feeling insecure in anyway. It’s just square!
Fjällräven’s Kånken was introduced in 1978 in responseto newspaper reports of Swedish children suffering back problems from carrying shoulder bags to school. The Kånken was developed as a practical solution and its design hasnot changed since. Uncomplicated and utilitarian, it was an instant success and soon became a cultural icon. Whether you like the bag or not there is a sense of nostalgia that has seen the bag past down from one generation to the next.
It’s simplistic and it served a purpose.
For Fjällräven, we rely on a certain subtlety in the brand. A subtlety that I think is very Swedish. If you like it - you’re going to find it. And we like that. We hope that by seeing the fox, people identify with the brand without having to market aggressively.
If we wanted to we could sell hundreds and thousands of Kånkens but I think it would be a negative throw back onthe brand if we seem to be just about the money. When it comes to the Kånken, we know it’s an icon and we know it’s going to be around for another 50 years, so what’s the rush?
The Kånken’s fabric is a really special fabric and it’sonly made in one special 200 year old factory in Japan, outside Osaka. We can only make so much; usually the fabric is used for fish nets and big yacht sails. It’s a super lightweight fibre and has got this great ability to swell. It’s one of the very few non-natural fibres that when it gets wet, it doesn’t repel the moisture, it actually pullsin the moisture, which makes it naturally waterproof.
To love Kånken is to understand the fabric. It starts off so crisp and crunchy and then it goes through a hairy state when the fibres stand up. Then it becomes soft, and then to a really cool shine, even like a gloss, which is kind of its resting stage. We get a lot of 30-40 year old Kånkens sent back to us in that beautiful shiny stage. You can even wax it, if you want to wax the bottom: no problem.
The stages of the fabric is another part of the charm. We don’t blow the Kånken up in advertisement, that’s not really our style. Sometimes it’s better to hold yourself back a little bit. Organic growth in the long run is a much healthier growth; it’s patience, it’s not just about turnover, it’s more important to protect the quality of the brand.
I think Scandinavia is honestly the last one to catch onto the Kånken wave because here it never left, so Swedes don’t really see it as really trendy right now. In fact if you ask a Swede, they probably wouldn’t know what you were talking about, about the really big trend at Kånken, they’d be surprised and say, “Really? I have 5 at home, my children have them.”
I think the success lends itself to the aesthetic which is around now and it goes together accidently. People see it and they may see it associates with a certain trend, but I think when that trend leaves, Kånken will still be there in Scandinavia. And of course, anything that is cool tends to skip a generation.
Backpacks are universal and not limited to climate. There are lots of colours so everyone can identify with it. Kånken sells really well in Japan. Weirdly enough people in Israel are crazy about it, while Korea is a black hole the demand is so high.
We’ve had requests from designers all around the world for collaborations and so far we’ve said no to all of them. After all, what’s in it for us? It would have to be right for us, be a good match and it has to make sense for both of us.
It’s the beautiful thing about the bag, we don’t have to take anything off and we don’t have to add anything - it’s square. The squareness of the bag is by far more practical than anything rounded or organic in shape, everything fits. The shape is amazingly practical. The front pocket is just what you need, you don’t need more. The zip padis really useful, if you’re in the city or out in the country it’s always wet or dusty to sit down, so really, why not? The webbing band is all a continuous one piece. You can carry the bag in your hand, you can put it on your back.
Take any other bag next to the Kånken and you’d be amazed just how much you can fit in it. Why change it? Its simplicity is its beauty.
Swedish style is so popular, I think that’s because it’s not really out there, everyone can identify with it even if you’re not Swedish. And Swedes are practical, I mean we wear rubber on our shoes! Even if you buy leather shoes you have to go out and put rubber on the bottom of them, you can’t survive in Sweden with just leather shoes, you’d kill yourself. Short jackets that don’t go down past your backside? It’s just not practical. Swedes always try to make things make sense - there’s an underlining practicality to everything.
Everything in Sweden works and at first that kind of freaked me out. There’s an underlying responsibility to everything we do, even fashion. We don’t make fake pockets, we make a pocket, because why would you make a fake pocket?
The Kånken is so easy to understand because it’s not complicated. You see someone walking down the street wearing one and you shrugand say, “makes sense.” There’s no secret to working out why it’s popular. It’s not pretty, there’s nothing beautiful about it, but that’s what makes it so cool, it’s not trying to be pretty.
The Kånken speaks to everyone. Obama’s children have them. Madonna’s children have them; it’snot an exclusive product. And that’s the charm of Swedish brands and Swedish simplicity, there’s such an inclusive style about it. The Kånken epitomises Swedish style and how democratic it is.
Interview: P. Randles