Without a shadow of a doubt, Sneakersnstuff is one of the leading sneaker retailers today. While its two-decades-long history has helped shape our basic concept of what a modern sneaker store should be like, SNS has also expanded like no other. After their successful beginnings in Sweden, they took their business around the globe. After opening stores in Berlin, Paris and London, the two founders, Erik Fagerlind and Peter Jansson, have made a childhood dream come true by putting themselves on the map in NYC. While SNS has partnered up with a new investor this year in order to further expand the business, the history of the store’s early days is a textbook example of DIY passion – two friends establishing their business because they love what they do. And growth is not the only thing remarkable about Sneakersnstuff – just think of all the great collaborations. Not many stores have partnered with so many great brands at such a high level. They’ve been called “King of Collabs” numerous times, and for good reasons. As we’re approaching SNS’s 20th anniversary, we’re taking a deep dive into the history of the store while trying to discover the secret sauce that keeps them on top of the game.
Sneakersnstuff – THE PAST
“We had some kind of plan, but we beat our yearly budget within the first 2.5 months and kind of just improvised from there for the next 5 years or so.”
How did you guys meet in the first place and what made you decide to do business together? Why the two of you?
Me and Peter met in the 90s. We both worked at the same chain of sporting goods stores. Eventually we ended up in the same store and connected over sneakers. I’d say we knew each other for 3-5 years before we decided to start SNS.
You started with Sneakersnstuff at Åsögatan 124 in Stockholm. At the time the sneaker “infrastructure” was only in its baby shoes! What made you want to have a sneaker store, and did you have a proper “plan” for the years to come?
The original idea was to sell sport shoes based on looks rather than performance. Originally we wanted to do it just online, but as we are bred in retail, it was natural for us to open a store in the location we had found. And we had some kind of plan – but we beat our yearly budget within the first 2.5 months and kind of just improvised from there for the next 5 years or so.
Can you tell us about some of the biggest challenges in the early days? What was it like running SNS in the late 90s and early 2000s compared to running a sneaker store today?
It was very different from what it is now. This is pre-adidas Originals and pre-Nike Sportswear. Not really pre-Internet, but pre-Google, so the true sneakerhead had to put some real effort into getting knowledge.
So we had to travel a lot to find shoes that weren’t available in Europe. It was a lot of fun – but also a lot of work, and a lot of sacrifices being made. We didn’t really have any salary for the first two years. And it took a long time before we made any kind of money – and once we did, we used that money to expand further.
The History of Sneakersnstuff – NEW YORK
“We went to NYC to look for sneakers we couldn’t find here. Eventually we had to charge friends for the trouble of getting there. But the main objective was always to buy sneakers for ourselves.”
Haha – I guess that is where it starts, right? I mean, we went to NYC to look for sneakers we couldn’t find here. And friends knew we knew what was up, so they asked us to buy a pair for them too. The friends of friends and random people were coming into the store where we worked. So eventually we had to charge like 20 euros for the trouble. That all went to paying hotel or flights – but the main objective was always to buy sneakers for ourselves. Once we had accounts with the brands – and lifestyle started to develop – we picked up more than a few pairs over the years.
You were young, living your dream – drug addicts selling your own drugs. Can you share a crazy story from those early days? Hunting for product, hustling, storing, customers, crazy meetings? Anything really…
Man, we met so many fun people. And some not so fun. I always find it hard to reminisce and talk about “the good old days”. I guess I am clinging on to the future, as the best time is yet to come.
But I remember walking around in Brooklyn with 5000 USD in my pocket, trying to look casual – walking into every store on Fulton Street, trying to get the best deal. Trying to charm anyone willing to give us a few more dollars off, only to later find out that all those stores were owned by the same guy anyways. We actually met him a few years ago in New York, laughing about it. He now asked us for sneakers…
The History of Sneakersnstuff – THE PRESENT
“Our expansion may come from the fact that Stockholm is a small market. We couldn’t afford to give as bad a service as stores like Supreme or Clientele did in NYC.”
Most of the older sneaker stores have either stayed small or are no longer in the hands of the founders. How did you manage to grow in such a way and still remain involved and on top of the game? What’s the secret?
I don’t know. We always wanted to expand. I think it comes from the fact that Stockholm is a small market – we couldn’t afford to give as bad service as stores like Supreme or Clientele did in NYC. We bought out our neighbor within the first 2 years to make the store bigger, and opened up another store in Stockholm within 4. One in Malmö 5 years in, and we even started a separate chain of stores called Proof, where we managed to open two stores before reality caught up with us.
But I guess the main ingredient comes from realizing what you want to do, and what you miss or need to add to do that. We had a really rough period in the mid-2000s where we realized a lot of that. To me personally, I find myself thinking quite far ahead sometimes – but I am also very restless. We have to keep moving – if it is in repeat mode for too long, you will die.
In the last few years, you expanded SNS, with locations in Berlin, Paris, London and New York. Is it possible to keep on growing, or is there a danger of lacking appeal and losing soul once it gets too large?
I think that risk is there regardless of size. And that is something to keep in mind and focus on for sure. But the secret here is to get more people on board. It has been amazing to see all the great people we have been able to join to us for the past 10 years or so. Without them, it would be impossible to remain SNS.
With five different stores on two continents, what kind of philosophy would you say connects all of your locations? Is there something that instantly let’s you know you’re at SNS, no matter the particular store?
I think the atmosphere. And good and friendly service. That is very important to us. Of course, that is triggered in different ways for different times. But friendly and inclusive customer service will always be important.
Erik, about one-and-a-half years ago you took to your personal Instagram account to publicly speak out on the whole demand-and-supply imbalance at adidas YEEZY releases. Was that the first time that a step like this was necessary?
Haha, social media is weird. You can say 1000 positive things and nobody really says anything about it. But one bad thing will unite all the people that are in the same situation, and that can catch fire. To be honest, I wrote the post to aid our customer service team who was hammered by people that couldn’t get a pair. But I guess the irony is that it worked. Senior people from adi took us (me) by the ear and let us (me) know that was out of line.
They all agreed to what I said – it was more the way I said and where that bothered them. And I can agree that it is a little bit too easy to try to play the Robin Hood character in a world like that. They said that I should have gone to them directly instead. But I told them I had already done that but had seen no changes. My theory was that in a huge company, nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, so problems get stuck at middle management. The irony is that it gave us access to the right people, and they made changes for the better. Nike on the other hand was not happy, because I had called adidas “the brand of the future”. But in my defense, I had put this in quotation marks because that’s what they called themselves. I think they are both brands of the future. And I should probably stop here – I love politics.
As the number of limited releases has been steadily rising over the last couple of years, there are always a lot of people who will go away empty-handed. Do you feel that stores like yours are sometimes unfairly blamed for that?
People are frustrated – I get that. I don’t know about fair. But we can have 130,000 people signing up for one shoe. With today’s tools, we know they are all unique people. And we do get a lot of shoes, but still, about 99% come up empty-handed. So of course it will feel like we never even had any shoes for some people. But we work close to the brands to understand the new world together. I am not saying we will ever get 130,000 pairs, but we need more pairs for the overall impression to be positive.
You guys have always held the flag for independent retailers and brick-and-mortar stores as a contrast to the big sneaker chains. Now that SNS keeps expanding more and more, do you think that you could eventually end up being in that chain-type position – also with some of the characteristics that people criticize about big players?
I think unhappy people will always look for a scapegoat. But to be honest, this is what we do every day. This is what we talk about internally every day. How do we stay true to who we are and where we come from every single day? But again, it comes down to who you have on your team, and to enable them to do their thing locally and globally.
You have expanded quite a bit during recent times, with new shops all across Europe and now your latest store in NYC. How was the step to cross the pond and open up your first US location different from your previous ventures over here?
First steps are always a challenge. First store outside of London was hard work. Setting up structure, convincing brands to support and so on. New York wasn’t that much different, it just took a longer time, longer conversations. And the world has become a lot smaller the past 5 years. I think it would have been harder for us to open in NYC when we were the size we were 5 years ago.
Recently, media have reported that Sneakersnstuff was sold to an investor and you guys have basically cashed out. Can you clarify this a bit, Erik?
What happened was that the venture capital partner that we have had for the past three years was at the end of their term. We looked around for a new partner and found it in FSN Capital. So, we haven’t cashed out. We just have a new partner that better can support our ambition going forward. Me, Peter and our now 200 people deep SNS family will still be running SNS. There are still many years left on our journey, and we are still excited to be here.
Your first collaboration came in 2003, the Puma Basket Hemp. At the time, collaborations were still a fairly new concept, but you nailed it, from material choice to the individual numbering referencing your original location etc. What were your main inspirations at the time, and how did you manage to do it well?
Our first SMU was with adidas. It wasn’t really an SMU, but adi sold them to us as such. We had been asking adidas for exclusive colorways for quite some time, and they finally said, “If you buy 300 pairs of each of these Gazelle Hemp, we will not sell them to anyone else in Sweden”. We bought 312 pairs of each (to prove some kind of point, I guess) and sold out of them very fast.
So when Puma – who were the first to agree to a collab – came along, we actually referenced that same shoe – catering to a vegan customer, although none of us were (are) very vegan. But then we added details, such as numbered shoes: gold embroidery on the inside as tribute to the street address where we started but just moved out of at the time of this collab. We also wanted to have multiple laces, a special box tissue and so on, but Puma couldn’t do it – so we fixed all of that ourselves and repacked all of the shoes. Pretty forward-thinking in 2003.
Can you pinpoint three of your own Sneakersnstuff collabs that have the most memorable backstory to you personally?
I loved the spontaneous way the first rounds of New Balance came about. That was a lot of fun. We all tend to overthink and over-conceptualize these days – brands as well as ourselves. The same goes for the aZX shoe we did. It was groundbreaking in many ways in terms of backstories. But as usual I get excited looking ahead. I love to be part of new technology and not just being back in the past. So to have been part of the evolution of the Ultra Boost – and now being part of the adidas 4D launch this summer – is truly amazing.
This is a shortened version – the full story appeared in our July issue of Sneakers Magazine.