Erik Torstensson has spent much of his adult life working with the world’s most famous luxury brands and hanging out with supermodels. Widely viewed as one of the best-connected people in fashion and among its most successful brand builders, he never envisioned himself as an apparel industry entrepreneur. But that changed when he and his business partner Jens Grede launched Frame in 2012.
The Los Angeles-based operation started with one pair of skinny jeans but has since grown into a profitable and successful lifestyle label for women and men that generated $170 million in sales in 2022. And although he’s got a lot of other side projects, Torstensson’s primary focus continues to be Frame as he works to create a global fashion brand.
Torstensson and Grede, both Swedish natives, met more than 20 years ago while working at Wallpaper, the interior design magazine and media agency based in London.
They hit it off and, in 2003, left to start their own agency, Saturday, a business later renamed Saturday Group that rapidly expanded into 12 separate companies spanning advertising, branding, public relations, e-commerce, entertainment and apparel distribution with offices in New York, London, Paris and Milan. Among their biggest successes were campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Moncler and Calvin Klein, including the #mycalvins concept and the Justin Bieber campaign for the Calvin Klein brand.
They eventually sold those businesses individually between 2015 and 2018 to Omnicom, Interpublic Group and Three Hills Capital.
“Jens and I have always had passion projects, or side projects that were not part of the agency,” he said, “but something that we loved. We consulted with Vogue China, then we launched ‘Man About Town’ and were the creative directors. We created Mr Porter for Natalie [Massenet, Torstensson’s long-time partner] and Industrie magazine that was all about the inside workings of the fashion industry. It was a loss-leading business but it was a tool for us to interact with the industry we loved and call up our heroes and do interviews with them.”
The magazine featured Marc Jacobs in drag and Rick Owens’ gym workouts, among other groundbreaking stories, but ran its course after Instagram came about, Torstensson said, when these fashion figures could tell their own stories.
At the same time, he and Grede were spending a lot of time in L.A. and started brainstorming. “You know, we advise all these amazing brands,” he recalled saying to Grede. “We should do something on our own. But we really don’t know anything about how to make product — and product is king.”
So they settled on trying their hand at making premium jeans, a market dominated at the time by Diesel and J Brand.
“We were not passionate designers and wouldn’t claim to be, but jeans are effectively driven by a lot of marketing and we thought we knew that. So we set out to launch a brand — and that was Frame.
“The idea was not very strategic or calculated,” he admitted. “It was mainly about being disruptive.”
Taking some pages from the books of the luxury brands they worked with at Saturday Group, they made the jeans “super chic with very nice branding. We behaved in the denim space like a luxury brand because that’s all we knew how to do. The first run of jeans came in individual boxes and all the original campaigns were with supermodels.”
Frame launched with one fit — skinny — in one wash — mid-blue — and Torstensson and Grede gifted their model friends, editors and celebrities with this new premium denim brand. Because so many of these friends had become public figures at this point, when they posted photos of themselves on social media in Frame’s jeans, the brand quickly established a following and became known as the supermodel jean.
“It was very good timing,” Torstensson said. “We didn’t have to pay people, we just sent stuff to our friends. I’m very grateful for everyone who participated at the time. I think brands always need a superpower and that became our positioning in the industry and our superpower.”
They expanded that superpower by collaborating with one of those models, Karlie Kloss, who had told Torstensson and Grede over dinner one night during Paris Fashion Week that Frame needed to create a jean for tall women. Enter Forever Karlie, a jean with a longer inseam and a flare bottom that “laid the foundation for our collaborative nature,” he said. That partnership has expanded into other fits and is still a core line for the company.
They also started hosting high-profile dinners during fashion week, which was “very new for a denim brand at the time,” he said, “But we didn’t know anything else. So we did it like we would a luxury brand.”
Torstensson described this era as Frame 1.0 — the inception of the brand and the proof that a business could be created by making, marketing and selling one product.
Within two years, Frame had expanded from that one skinny jean into a larger range of fits and core washes along with seasonal washes, establishing what he said are the brand’s “core” fits: Le High Straight, Le High Flare, Le Garcon, Le Original, Le Skinny de Jeanne and others.
Frame had now become popular enough to dream of bigger things. Calling it part and parcel of his “entrepreneurial spirit,” Torstensson said “the idea was always to create a complete lifestyle and fashion brand.” But although it was now making “a bunch of money,” it was still being run pretty much seat-of-the-pants. So it was time to “professionalize the company.”
Enter Frame 2.0.
First up was to expand into “simple ready-to-wear” such as shirts, cashmeres and leathers, he said, which “blew up very quickly” with the company’s wholesale partners, such as Nordstrom, Net-a-porter and Matchesfashion, among others. “We didn’t have e-commerce or anything like that at the time,” he recalled.
This was 2014, and it also marked the year that Grede made the decision to stay in Los Angeles, where he is now focusing on his other businesses, which include Kim Kardashian’s Skims shapewear, Khloé Kardashian’s Good American denim and most recently, Tom Brady’s Brady Brand. Torstensson, meanwhile, remained focused on Frame. “We decided to divide and conquer,” he said.
But he stressed that Grede remains on the board of Frame, is still a main shareholder and is involved in big-picture issues and projects.
“We sold our agency business, opened our first store on Melrose Place in L.A. and built a C-suite of people who knew better than us how to run an apparel business.”
Since then, Frame has opened 15 stores and continued to lean into its successful marketing strategy of collaborations with famous partners. The most successful to date has been a Frame x Ritz Paris, which launched in September 2021 and sold out. A second iteration dropped in September 2022.
“Frame has always loved collaborating with those that surround the brand including Karlie Kloss, Imaan Hammam, Claudia Schiffer, Jordan Barrett, Lara Stone and Ben Gorham, to name a few,” he said.
The business continued to grow, but Torstensson said it “got a little bit stuck in the old contemporary American fashion brand model.” So it was time for another reinvention where the brand needed to “focus more on creating an identity and a greater balance between wholesale, retail and direct” — Frame 3.0.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While the world was shut down, Torstensson continued to work on his grand plan to build Frame into a global fashion brand. In June 2020, he hired veteran fashion executive Nicolas Dreyfus, who had been global chief executive officer of the Kooples, as CEO of Frame. He was charged with launching new products, adding brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S. and overseas, and developing a more sustainable business model.
Torstensson said they worked together exclusively remotely for the first year but despite the challenges, Dreyfus has already proven his worth. “He’s an incredible partner,” Torstensson said. “He redid our whole website, came up with a new retail concept and completely relaunched men’s.” He also elevated the women’s offering and “put sustainability at the center of the conversation.”
Although menswear still represents only 10 percent of Frame’s overall sales, or around $20 million, sales have doubled over the past two years and the category is seen as a “tremendous opportunity” for the company in the future, he said.
While womenswear skews more toward fashion, men’s is focused more on form, fit, fabric and function, he said. “Nothing revolutionary, but what men actually wear.” It has become a favorite of some high-profile male celebrities and athletes, including Brad Pitt and Justin Bieber, and is frequently seen on display in the tunnel walks before NBA games. “We own the tunnel,” he said. It is also popular with artists, gallerists and other creatives, he said.
Today the company actually sells more ready-to-wear than denim — 55 percent to 45 percent, according to Dreyfus. “Our total business in the last three years has increased by 50 percent, and while the denim business has kept increasing, the ready-to-wear business has accelerated at a faster rate. Our wholesale business internationally is still heavily weighted on denim but we are seeing opportunities to grow our ready-to-wear business and duplicate the same success as we have seen in the domestic U.S. market.”
Currently, Dreyfus added, the most popular items include the Jetset jean, designed to be comfortable for travel, along with cashmere sweaters, leather trousers and outerwear and silk blouses.
As Frame prepared to celebrate its 10-year anniversary, last fall it reissued some of its bestsellers from the past decade, including the classic leather trench coat, denim flare jumpsuit, and Le Mix jean. All told, the collection consisted of 14 pieces.
In addition, Torstensson, who is also a photographer, has created a commemorative coffee-table-style book, “Women of Frame,” featuring the images of all the beautiful people he has shot for the brand over the years. “I’ve taken almost every photo myself since we started, so we have the rights to the images. We’re celebrating that and showing the work to our customers and fans.”
All proceeds from the sale of the book, which will be offered in the Frame stores and on its website, are being donated to Planned Parenthood.
There will be an event on Feb. 14 during New York Fashion Week with some surprise guests. “It’s a way to celebrate a beautiful end to this chapter” — and the start of the next, Torstensson said.
“We’ve had great growth every year but brands need to evolve,” he said. “You have to change the view on the way up because it’s almost impossible to change the view on the way down. Frame 4.0 will be different and will be a new chapter with new energy.”
Spearheading this new chapter is Dreyfus, who has big plans for the future. “Frame has all the foundations to become a much bigger brand. The structure, the strategy, the people and the product are now aligned to penetrate more markets. We are entering a new chapter where Frame can capitalize on its success so far and realize its full potential. We have the financial capacity to invest more in brand awareness to be more visible for the consumer. Now is the time for Frame to really showcase itself,” he said.
While the brand will continue to focus on womenswear, menswear is seen as becoming even larger. International sales now represent 25 percent of the overall business, he said, and revenue has more than doubled in the last three years. The U.K. is Frame’s second-biggest market outside the U.S., and Asia is also a priority. The brand posted sales of $8 million last year on Tmall alone, so the opportunities are boundless, he said.
“Frame is very proud to have grown almost 50 percent in comps between 2019 and 2022, considering one of the most challenging retail environments we have seen worldwide,” Dreyfus continued. “There is no doubt that Frame has proved its strength. We had great performance for January of a 39 percent increase in comps versus last year for retail which makes us very optimistic for the future.”
Torstensson believes Frame has carved out a niche for a variety of reasons. Although it’s known as the supermodel brand, Frame also has a following with people in a range of ages: from 60-year-old grandmothers to teenagers. Its marketing also sets it apart because the company follows the path laid down by luxury brands, which is to be “aspirational and elevated at all times,” he said.
But marketing aside, it’s the quality and style of any brand that are most important. Frame is not cheap, but the company hasn’t seen any resistance to the price points. “We believe the greatest way to sustainability is to create amazing fashion built on style so you can wear it as long as possible.”
“One of our bestsellers last season was a trench coat for $2,495,” he said. “Frame has the capacity to sell denim at $998 but at the same time offer the Jetset jean at $198.”
Going forward, the company is poised to announce a creative director for its womenswear. Torstensson declined to reveal the name, but said the person’s first collection will be released later this year.
“Our mission is to build Frame into a global brand that is highly regarded, and for that, you need top talent,” he said.
Beyond that, he recently added June-Mee Hong as chief revenue officer for Asia who will be “upping the ante” in that region. “And we’ve only scratched the surface in America,” he said.
Torstensson said that there are still no outside investors in Frame and the company has been profitable since its launch. But it has changed. Direct-to-consumer accounts for nearly 35 percent of the business now, Dreyfus said, up from 20 percent in 2019. Of the current 15 retail stores, 14 are in the U.S. and one is in London. In September 2023, the plan is to open two additional units: a second store in London at 94 Marlyebone High Street and another in Georgetown, on M Street.
Although he has been tempted over the years to take on partners, Torstensson doesn’t want to have to answer to anyone else. “I’m proud that we have built a very solid business which is set up for immense growth and opportunity. And that allows us to take a long-term view,” he said.
But he stressed that he’s not just drinking his own Kool-Aid. To continue to grow, “you have to create enormous desire through your product and your marketing. I’m not saying we’re not strong, but we have to become much stronger. I think we have an edge because we’re good at marketing and branding — that’s our history. And there will be more collaborations, books, billboard campaigns and other efforts to get us top-of-mind with the consumer.”
He said that although it’s hard to make predictions in this ever-changing climate, he does have some goals for Frame’s next 10 years.
“For a long time, we’ve been seen as a fashion brand, but we now need to become a fashion house out of Los Angeles,” he said. “But in true California spirit, we need to utilize the energy of an upstart tech company and use all the tools available in the modern world to build a world-class brand. And we need to enjoy doing it.”
It’s not just Frame that Torstensson enjoys. He also serves as chairman of General Idea, a branding and communications agency cofounded in 2019 by Ian Shatzberg and Semjon Doenhoff in which he has an investment. “They’re amazing,” he said. “They’re young and smart and cool.”
Beyond that, he also designs furniture that he has used in the Frame stores in the past but is hoping to expand — “I’m obsessed with it,” he said — continues to do photography and is involved in a new restaurant that is opening in Greenwich Village in the spring.
So with all these other interests, is a sale or public offering of Frame in his future?
Torstensson said there are “no plans right now whatsoever. The nice thing about not having a lot of investors involved is that you can take a long-term view. It takes a long time to build brands nowadays, so that’s a great luxury and a strength that we have. Everything is possible. But we have a very good foundation now and I think we’re really set up for success.
“It’s not going to be easy, but it shouldn’t be — it should be difficult, because if it’s easy, you’re not trying hard enough.”