The next Step

Spanish footwear company Camper has built an international brand based on its origins, but its forward-thinking philosophy aims to keep it one step ahead. Hannah Booth reports

Picture a company: it has little hierarchy, its carrier bags urge people not to buy its products ‘if they don’t want to’, it’s socially and politically aware, has been a family-run business since 1877 and is based in rural Majorca.

Spanish footwear company Camper, which has just opened its third London, and 13th international, store in Westbourne Grove, is probably not the first company that springs to mind. ‘From our rural position we can step back, view urban life in a detached way and ask if certain things really matter,’ explains Dalia Saliamonas, Camper’s passionate expansions and communications director. She pauses to remember her new title. ‘What am I called now? We’re not really a company for titles,’ she explains.

It doesn’t take long to work out to what ‘certain things’ Saliamonas is referring: fast product turnaround, irrelevant brand extensions, aggressive growth and identical stores the world over.

Camper, which means ‘peasant’ in the Spanish Catalan dialect, claims to be different. ‘As a family business, we are tied to our roots and our origin,’ says founder Lorenzo Fluxá. ‘We design real products that are useful, and we communicate real messages that are inspiring.’

But despite the pastoral location and hippy values, Camper is pioneering quirky approaches to store design, marketing and shoe design, as well as collaborating with some of the hippest names in photography and design.

Take its stores. Rather than waste time and money refurbishing closed outlets for six months prior to opening, Camper moves in, adds a lick of white paint, heaps its shoes on cardboard boxes and invites customers to, well, customise the walls. A few stores have adopted this process, nicknamed ‘walk-in progress’, including London’s Westbourne Grove shop, designed in collaboration with Martí Guixé.

‘Retail can be so boring,’ says Camper creative director Shubankhar Ray. ‘Look at Gap, it’s the same everywhere you go. That’s ridiculous, cities are completely different.’

The Barcelona store, for example, which opened in 1981 (Camper’s first store) designed by Fernando Amat and Ole Armengol, now features moving image projected on to the street outside. ‘This works for Barcelona because it’s located in an area with lots of people traffic. It wouldn’t work elsewhere,’ he says. Amat, from Barcelona design consultancy Vincon, also e e designed the UK’s first Camper store in London’s Floral Street in 1995.

Stores open next month in Chicago and Boston, and at Christmas in Los Angeles. There are plans for shops in Amsterdam and more in Germany. ‘We like to seek out characterful areas within cultural cities,’ says Saliamonas.

To discover Camper’s roots, you have to go back to 1870, when Antonio Fluxá brought together a group of footwear craftsmen from Inca. With machinery from England, he started a shoe company on which Camper, founded in 1975 by Fluxá’s grandson Lorenzo, is built.

The backbone of the company is, of course, its shoes. Well-made, leather and fashionably anti-fashion (certain styles don’t match left and right), they are inspired by the footwear worn by Majorcan land workers. The products are designed today by Camper’s 30-strong in-house team in Inca with one factor in mind – comfort. ‘The design philosophy behind our shoes is the same as, say, a Charles Eames chair,’ Ray says, which was designed to be ‘better for sitting’.

Whether or not Camper’s shoes will ever enjoy the same iconic status achieved by an Eames chair is debatable, but there’s no denying the appeal of Camper’s most popular, and most copied, shoe, the Pelota. The round-toed, rubber-soled, bowling-style shoe with stitching on the outside remains a core part of Camper’s collection. Like Clark’s desert boot, Saliamonas hopes Pelota will become a classic.

Later efforts, notably last year’s Wabi – a strange looking in-sole/ natural rubber slipper hybrid designed to mould to the shape of the owner’s foot – have met with less enthusiasm, but it’s early days, Saliamonas explains.

‘Only the elite few understand Wabi [at the moment]. Its life cycle will probably be similar to Pelota’s – love/ hate at first, then people will accept it. It’s more of a philosophical statement, about urging people to spend less time indoors,’ she says. Philosophical statement or not, it’s still a shoe and perhaps a design for which the public is not quite ready.

The structure of Camper’s design team is difficult to fathom. ‘Design is everything to Camper,’ claims Fluxá, and perhaps this all-pervasiveness is the reason why no individual is singled out as a design director. According to Saliamonas, Fluxá junior leads Camper’s design direction, yet in press cuttings, Guillermo Ferrer is referred to as design director. When they say there’s little structure, they mean it.

The company’s collaborations with out-of-house designers are decreasing, says Saliamonas, but there is a core of external contributors with whom Ray, in particular, works regularly. A communications whizz, he was hired two-and-a-half years ago after working for five years apiece at Levi’s and Caterpillar. He is in charge of Camper’s brand image.

Surprisingly for a company steeped in so much history, Camper’s visual language system is forward-thinking, verging on experimental. Ray has pioneered The Walking Society, a bilingual, hybrid magazine/ catalogue – a magalogue – featuring articles on social, environmental and ethical issues as well as ‘ad hoc’ collaborations with artists ‘outside the normal circuits’ such as New York photographer Stefan Ruiz, designer/ artist Guixé and design group Grafica, all Camper regulars.

‘It’s not a structured process. In fact, my ideas have evolved precisely because there is so little structure at the company,’ he says.

Much of the graphic work from TWS, such as Guixé’s Dr Tapa illustrations, finds its way in-store in the form of graphic displays, giant photo panels and carrier bags. Ray has collaborated with filmmakers, too, and his latest project is a three-minute film that plays in stores worldwide.

‘Camper’s approach to media is highly modernistic. TWS is a response to globalisation. I sample reality – using photography, graphics, videography – transporting real people into real public spaces,’ says Ray, referring to the latest magalogue that features Ruiz’ shots of men playing boules in Italy and his accompanying film. ‘In this way, our stores become a physical experience.’

It’s hard to avoid comparisons with Colors, Benetton’s socially aware magazine. ‘We’re different to Benetton, but respect its [hard-hitting] commercials from the 1980s,’ says Ray. ‘We have a similar thinking to Benetton, which also started life as a rural company.’

According to Saliamonas, Camper is now in its third ‘phase’ of growth, and is seeking out new channels of communication, such as short films and the Internet. The growth, however, doesn’t include brand extensions such as hats, bags and other accessories, says Ray.

Saliamonas goes further. Camper doesn’t agree with putting its brand about across products such as perfume, she says. ‘At that point, a company becomes just its brand name and a million miles away from its roots,’ she says.

Plans for Camper hotels – the first, in Barcelona, is currently under construction – therefore appear to contradict all that Camper stands for. On the contrary, argues Fluxá. ‘The hotel is a different story. Our product is often described as a product that is a way of life and the idea behind the hotel is very similar. People travel all the time, and I felt there was room for something new that represented Camper.’ He has plans for a rural hotel in Majorca, too.

Ray adds, ‘What it boils down to is how much a company is driven by ideas that enable you to be open, or by a product, a shoe, that has obvious limitations. Camper is all about comfort, the same way a hotel is,’ he says. He’s almost convinced me.

It is these contradictions – a dedicated shoe company opening hotels; a modern, cultured team in a rural setting designing for urban city dwellers – that are at the heart of Camper. ‘We look at the urban way of living and interpret it according to those values that surround us on a daily basis,’ says Fluxá. In Majorca you can find culture in all its forms – humour, irony, the light and the sea. All these things influence the way we design.’

‘We’re an honest company and want to help people look at the world in a different light,’ adds Saliamonas. Lofty pretensions for a shoemaker, perhaps, but highly honourable in an increasingly commercial world.

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