Eton has big plans for the future as it looks back at 85 years of luxury shirtmaking.
This story first appeared in the September 5, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
To commemorate the anniversary, the Swedish brand will host parties at its stores in New York, London and Stockholm today. The events will also serve to introduce a limited-edition collection, DnA, which is named for the company’s founders, David and Annie Petersson.
In typical Swedish fashion, the anniversary celebration will be low-key, according to Erik Wilkinson, global sales director. The New York party, for example, will feature Champagne and Swedish hors d’oeuvres from Aquavit chef Marcus Jernmark and a preview of the new DnA collection.
Later this month, the company will host a more extensive celebration when it brings 24 retailers from North America to its headquarters in Gånghester for an event it is calling the Eton College Trip. Department and specialty store customers will be wined and dined and given a tour of the company’s factories in its hometown, followed by a trip to Stockholm, where they will visit the Eton store, showroom and design studio.
“They’ll see how the shirts are made — the whole process, from cotton balls to finished shirts,” Wilkinson said.
The goal, he added, is to hold this event every year in the spring or early fall when the weather is most temperate. “We look at it like we’re inviting people to our home and asking them to stay for dinner,” he said.
The factory in Gånghester is also the place where the DnA collection will be produced. “We were using our original factory for creating samples [and a small made-to-measure program], but we weren’t utilizing it as much as we could,” Wilkinson said. In anticipation of the line, Eton scoured the area and “hired every sewer and cutter within 50 kilometers.” The factory was retrofitted and is now producing the DnA offering.
“DnA is our uberway of doing what we do,” he said. DnA shirts use the finest fabrics and the design features a curve on the bottom of the front placket. “In the Thirties and Forties,” Wilkinson explained, “wealthier men were heavier and the fact that the bottom circumference of the shirt is wider meant that the shirts would stay tucked into their trousers. It’s not easy to do today.”
The newly renovated factory has perfected the process and produced more than 2,000 shirts for the first season. “Our goal was 1,500 shirts, but we were able to produce 2,500,” he said. The shirts will retail for $395, a premium over the core product, which averages $255. “It’s about 50 percent more expensive, mainly due to the fabrics.”
The DnA collection will be offered in about a dozen stores in North America, including Eton’s own branded retail units. “We plan on continuing with it,” he said. “It will always be limited distribution, but it will grow.”
Another initiative for the brand is a new emphasis on made-to-measure. Wilkinson said the company is now “a good made-to-measure company with a goal to be a great made-to-measure company. We’ve been growing so much over the past four years, so capacity is an issue. So we needed to expand our factory to keep up, so we couldn’t focus on it like we wanted to.”
But the company knows that “customization is a huge trend in our business — people love it. So we’re going to dedicate a couple of lines in the factory to made-to-measure right now and eventually open an entire factory for it.”
Made-to-measure is now only 5 percent of the brand’s business, but Eton is hoping to double that percentage over the next several years. The shirts are being produced in Eton factories in Romania and Estonia.
Eton produces nearly 750,000 shirts a year and has revenue of more than 400 million Swedish krona, or $60.5 million at current exchange. Its shirts are carried at more than 1,200 points of sale in 40 markets around the world.
The primary impetus to Eton’s growth has been a decision it made in May 2012 to sell a majority stake in the business to Litorina IV, a private-equity firm that specializes in acquiring and developing Swedish companies. Under the terms of the deal, the descendants of the Petersson family, which founded Eton in 1928, retained a 35 percent ownership interest and remain on board to help strategically expand the business. Nils Vinberg, the former chief executive officer of Björn Borg, was named chairman of Eton, but Hans Davidson, the grandson of Annie and David Petersson, stayed on to run the day-to-day operations as chief executive officer.
Davidson said the family decided to bring in an investor because it “saw a lot of potential and growth opportunities. To make sure we could grow Eton into a strong, international fashion brand, we needed more capital.” He said over the past year, the association has been beneficial. “Litorina is a very good partner — very supportive,” he said. “They really don’t interfere. It’s more like they’re an advisory board.”
With the additional funding, Davidson said the company was able to increase its presence in the U.K. and Denmark, invest in its management team, start an e-commerce business and open additional stores and shops-in-shop. Eton operates nine freestanding units around the world, including one in the U.S. at 625 Madison Avenue. There are also 50 shops-in-shop around the world.
The plan, he said, is to grow about 15 percent a year, a figure the company reached last year.
Wilkinson said although a few final documents need to be signed, Eton will expand its presence in the U.S. with a store in Santa Monica. “It’s a fabulous location on the first floor of the Santa Monica Mall,” he said, noting that the store also has its own street-level entrance.
He said adding a West Coast beachhead is important for the company’s future. “Madison Avenue is our experimental laboratory, but for customers on the West Coast, they had to go to a specialty store to see our product. This will give us a real footprint and we’ll have anchors on both coasts.”
Beyond that, he said there are no plans to add more freestanding stores in the U.S. Instead, Eton has been “aggressive” about adding shops-in-shop. “We opened 30 in North America in the last six seasons,” Wilkinson said. “Then we’ll add another dozen before the end of the year.”
Wilkinson said the U.S. is now one of Eton’s top growth markets. “Five years ago, it was not a significant market for us,” he admitted. Including Canada, which is “strong and growing,” North America now represents around 22 percent of the company’s total sales and business here has tripled since 2008. The U.K., Sweden and Germany remain the company’s largest markets.
Although the company is best known for its dress shirts, Wilkinson said the sport shirt category “has been growing like mad,” led by the Green Ribbon collection of washed styles and the Red Ribbon easy-care cottons. “This will become a real focus for us,” he said.
Other growth categories for the company include accessories. Wilkinson said Eton had dabbled in ties and pocket squares over the years, but “hit the reset button” in 2010. “We said that if we were going to do accessories, we wanted to be to accessories what we are to shirts. So we relaunched it and it has grown by a factor of seven since then.” He said the company will continue to “step on the gas with that category” for spring, which will also see the “intensification of the formal accessories business” with the addition of formal braces, bow ties, pocket squares and scarves targeted to that end of the business.
Jewelry and other categories of accessories are also in the cards for the future, he said, but the focus will always remain on shirts. “We’re shirt specialists and we’ve spent 85 years refining that business,” Wilkinson said.
Like Davidson, Wilkinson views the addition of Litorina as a positive for the company. “We now have a board of directors with outside expertise,” he said. “It’s great that Hans has some partners on board to help guide us.”
Davidson, who is 55, said he plans to stay in place as ceo for the foreseeable future and he has three children who may one day opt to step into the family business.
And to what does he attribute the company’s staying power? “From the beginning, we’ve been focused on the details,” he said. “We strive to make the best possible shirt — that’s a keystone of the company. You can see it in everything that we do.”