Elin Kling and Karl Lindman

LONDON — Swedish label Totême has been forging ahead with growth, opening a shop-in-shop earlier this month and readying a number of accessories launches, including handbags and sunglasses, for later this year.

While the founders of Totême weren’t planning for a crisis like COVID-19, their slow-fashion strategy and timeless approach have buoyed the company in hard times.

Like any other business, Totême had to face the impact of the pandemic and was one of the first fashion labels to close its store in Stockholm, yet its healthy direct-to-consumer business and detachment from the fashion week calendar meant that it could stay afloat and keep moving forward with its plans.

Totême started as a digitally native brand driven by one of fashion’s most popular online personalities, Elin Kling, and the former art director Karl Lindman.

Kling, one of blogging’s biggest pioneers, has never chosen the easy or conventional route. When founding Totême more than six years ago, she shut down her own social media accounts, and instead of using her personal following to build buzz, she took a step back from the limelight and turned her time and attention to the fledgling label.

Totême's San Remo scarf

Totême’s San Remo scarf.  Courtesy Photo

Totême grew a loyal community of its own, attracting stylish minimalists across the globe who turn to the brand for its quality and timeless approach.

This community came together through word-of-mouth as much as it did on Instagram — and its flair for discretion and a slower approach to growth has helped the brand to maintain its relevance, irrespective of market trends.

Despite the duo’s digital know-how, the duo chose to also embrace some old-school values from the get-go — namely seasonless, slow fashion and offline engagement. They are now reaping the benefits: This month, the label opened a new shop-in-shop in Stockholm’s Nordiska Kompaniet department store, an institution in the Swedish capital.

Totême's store inside the Nordiska Kompaniet department store in Stockholm

Totême’s store inside the Nordiska Kompaniet department store in Stockholm.  Courtesy of Erik Undehn

The Nordiska Kompaniet opening presented an opportunity to keep experimenting with physical retail, following the brand’s successful flagship opening in Stockholm last year — and to inject a dose of its modernist vision into the historic store.

“It’s about bringing new vision to an old structure. We strongly believe that a brand like Totême can renew and create this value for iconic department stores, in this case Nordiska Kompaniet,” said Kling.

Lindman added that physical spaces act as a storytelling tool for the brand, to be enjoyed both by customers who visit the stores in person in Stockholm but also online by those looking at images of the quintessentially Scandinavian interior design for inspiration.

“We want to use physical spaces to communicate our aesthetic and brand values — we almost look at them as embassies rather than retail stores. As an experiment, we started with our first flagship store and that’s been a great project for us, because as much as it is physical in the sense that the customer could go in and look at our [collections] and aesthetic, it can also be translated to online stories or images. Even if you’ve never been to our flagship store, the space offers a way for us to communicate with you,” added Lindman.

In the case of the new space in Nordiska Komapniet, Lindman and Kling wanted to create a graphic, luxurious environment symbolic of the brand’s aesthetic.

Totême's store inside the Nordiska Kompaniet department store in Stockholm

Totême’s shop inside the Nordiska Kompaniet department store in Stockholm.  Courtesy of Erik Undehn

They partnered with the Swedish design studio Halleroed to create a space inspired by the Vienna Secession movement, that was the initial inspiration for the Totême monogram and also reflects the department store’s original branding.

“It was a challenge to build a store within a store, as it required a different rule box. We didn’t want to create the same home environment that we had built in our flagship store, but rather focus on certain values of the Vienna Secession movement and build a creative, pure environment that’s all about the details,” said Lindman, adding that physical retail will remain a priority for the brand.

“We’re quite small, but we have very dedicated followings around the world. Our goal is to engage with those communities and bring people together. One way of approaching that is building these physical embassies where people can meet us, experience our values and aesthetic vision, as a counterpart to the online business.”

Kling and Lindman are also readying a number of accessories launches, including handbags and sunglasses, for later this year.

“We’d like to offer a 360-degree solution to our customer. Since we’re talking about style, it’s impossible to dress a woman without thinking about her shoes or bag, where she goes out, what flowers she likes, and so on,” said Lindman. “We’re defining who she is and what she’s wearing step by step, then filter that down into products.”

But just like their highly successful footwear debut last year, the duo is keen on keeping it slow and highly edited with a single new style launching every second month on its own channels.

Mules by Totême

Mules by Totême.  Courtesy Photo

“I have more shoes than I have bags and that’s also the way we will be selling [the category]. We’re launching with one bag only, then the second one will drop a couple of months later, and that will be a different category within the bag range,” said Kling, adding that the utility is top of mind when it comes to making design decisions.

Her instinct has always been about looking at her own wardrobe and round-the-clock needs, be it a weekend with her children at the park or an evening cocktail event. From there the brand has made it its mission to create modern staples that respond to each occasion or need.

That’s why Totême loyalists are encouraged to buy into the brand with a longterm view, and each collection is designed to build on the previous ones, with items often coming back with small refinements or new color variations.

“It’s less about inspiration from a certain trip and it’s definitely all about a need for women’s modern-day lifestyle,” she added. “We’re thinking about dressing for an occasion, what we need [for that occasion] and how can we create new icons, new classics around that lifestyle. An icon to us is that item that lasts season after season, but can still have a modern outlook and be relevant today. How does a cable knit look like today? How do I make it feel modern but not too trendy? We’re not looking for trends, we’re looking for trans-seasonal style that lives for a long time. That’s where we score.”

Totême's Avignon leather jacket

Totême’s Avignon leather jacket.  Courtesy Photo

It’s an approach that resonates even deeper today, that consumers are reassessing their shopping habits and the industry is forced to slow down and grapple with the giant waste issues its relentless pace and thirst for newness has been generating.

“This new mentality that is dawning is very much aligned with our philosophy from the beginning. It’s less about new seasons, but twisting and reinventing the classics,” said Lindman. “Through this crisis, we’ve learnt that we can be even more specific, even more edited and focused on every single product. To us, that’s very sustainable: Having a point of view and an aesthetic approach, rather than trying to be everything for everyone.”

That’s why the duo have also chosen to keep their expansion into accessories limited to their own channels and a few see-now-buy-now products a year.

“I’m not looking to create five different pairs of Chelsea boots. We already have so many choices to make in our daily lives. I want to create the perfect Chelsea boot for me — and that’s enough. Then it’s up to the customer if she likes it or not, but at least she’ll know that for Toteme this is the perfect solution,” added Kling.

Totême's store inside the Nordiska Kompaniet department store in Stockholm

Totême’s store inside the Nordiska Kompaniet department store in Stockholm.  Courtesy of Erik Undehn

The company, which appointed former McKinsey executive Johanna Anderson as its new chief executive officer last January, has also been strengthening its direct-to-consumer business. E-commerce makes up 40 percent of its business and remains on track to grow to 50 percent by the end of the year.

“We still want to continue developing this collaboration with luxury [wholesale] partners which can carry our message. That’s why we’ve had four collections a year [to date] but we’re excited and interested in current discussions post-COVID-19 about slowing down the industry,” added Lindman.