The city of Malmö, cozily tucked in the southern coast of Sweden with a population just tipping the scales at 300,000, is home to clothing store Très Bien and approximately 0.000001 percent of its customers.
“The store doesn’t really fit in the city and area,” admits co-founder Jakob Törnberg. “It’s kind of weird to sell some of our brands where things are cheap and many young people with not much money hang out. But that’s what makes the store stand out, I think. It clashes quite well with all that.”
If Très Bien is a bit of a maladapt in Malmö, the store is the big man on campus around the Web. Here is where the other 99.999999 percent of sales are made by what journalist Emma Holmqvist describes as “an achingly cool and slightly younger customer-base that descend on the site to snap up pieces by emerging labels and established cult names such as Comme des Garçons, Maison Martin Margiela, Gloverall, Adam Kimmel, and Acne”.
Back up ten years, and the founders couldn’t even get a return call. Jakob and friend Bjorn Linden had just opened a store in the small town of Lund, and starting up was the hazy experience you’d expect for the two first-time entrepreneurs who just wanted “to get away from the nine-to-five and do [their] own thing”.
“We didn’t have a clear vision and were literally living on macaroni and microwaveable Swedish meatballs with ketchup for a while,” recalls Jakob. Then two things happened: They met brothers and likeminded storeowners Hannes and Simon Hogeman, and the four of them set up online shop www.tresbienshop.net.
“Selling online was more of a survival tactic rather than something we wanted to do,“ says Jakob, who describes the opening process as simply posting products from both stores. “All of a sudden, things started to happen and we got customers from all over. So we thought, ‘Let’s do everything we wanted to do in the store, but on the Web.’”
My life before was quite unfocused. I had dropped out of school a couple of years and didn’t know what I wanted to do. My friend and I started a company, and after some months, we said, ‘Okay, this is not that fun, let’s open a fashion store.’”
A move that, by today’s standards, is nothing out of sorts. But in 2003 (pre-Facebook, Youtube, and city-wide WiFi), many brands were still unsure about going online, and even more refused or flat-out didn’t respond to anyone outside their radar. “I think we started off with some Scandinavian brands. We also had Nike and a couple of others, but no prestigious fashion houses—don’t think they were too interested back then,” laughs Jakob.
Très Bien’s big break came in the high fashion form of Comme des Garçons in Paris, which had heard of the store from the proverbial friend of a friend. “As soon as we got our foot in the door with them, the people at Margiela wanted to speak with us, then the guys from Dries Van Noten… that’s just the way it works. You have to show them you are serious, keep a high standard, and of course that you can pay your bills.”
Pretty posh labels for four guys who would willingly swap the fashion for the sports section any day of the week. “We have always felt a bit alienated and within the margins of the fashion world,” shares Jakob, who regards their outsider status as something to highlight rather than cover up.
It’s from these margins they were able to carve a natural, almost artless, aesthetic founded on “buying stuff they like”. This “stuff”, in general, are garments of good craftsmanship and quality, and in particular, are brands like Our Legacy, APC, Visvim, Martin Margiela, and Comme des Garçons.
To Möllevångstorget to eat some cheap falafels or drink a beer or two, then maybe a soccer game with my favorite team Malmö FF [Fotbollförening]. Also to the newly-built area by the ocean called Västra Hamnen [The West Harbour].
—Where Jakob would take someone in Malmö
An approachable store that’s neither Harrod’s nor Target, Très Bien has certainly struck a chord with its customers. “We’re the same as them, ordinary guys interested in clothes,” points out Jakob, who himself was always more into how things looked, rather than fashion itself, and grew up wearing Snoop Dogg merchandise, Levi’s 501, and “other 90s stuff”.
“Hannes and Simon do the buying, but each season is new and you never know exactly what we feel will be right to take our product mix further. It’s all a mess without too much of a formula.” Gut feel plays a big part in how Très Bien does business: The shop has been involved in five different brick-and-mortar stores to date. It has done collaborations with top names from Mark McNairy to Tricker’s. And a quick Google of “Très Bien Shop” reveals pages of behind-the-scenes videos, feature interviews, and a doggedly-updated blog with hundreds of hiphop references (a recent favorite being “Another day, another struggle, another pyjama to juggle”, dated 2012 March 26). “It’s been a long trip, working all the time for ten years, thousands of meetings, thousands of hours,” Jakob trails off. “But it’s been fun and definitely worth it. I love to work!”
So with four friends and a growing staff count, we’re guessing a lot of non-work distraction go on in the office? “Less and less I would say. We’re getting older and wiser! But yeah, we’re friends so we definitely go out together when the day is over. But we try to work hard when at the office—until someone plays a Youtube clip and everything gets a bit crazy for a while.”
WORDS BY KATRINA TAN.