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Alexander Stutterheim, the creator of the popular Stutterheim line of raincoats, needs to clear some trees and brush on the land surrounding the cabin he keeps on an island in the south of Sweden. He’s got to build some fences, too, in preparation for the arrival of 50 or so sheep this fall.
A copywriter by trade, Stutterheim learned apparel production when he had the idea to create modern, rubberized rain gear replicating the look of his grandfather’s old fishing coat. Now he’s getting into the livestock business in service of a new project. One day, the wool from those cute little sheep will be very chic Swedish-made sweaters.
Over the last 10 months, Stutterheim has been perfecting the design of a fisherman’s pullover, the first piece in a line of knitwear driven by environmentalist leanings and a love of high-end aesthetics. The brand is called John Sterner, a combination of Stutterheim’s middle name and his grandfather’s surname.
John Sterner isn’t launching so much as flickering into existence. Stutterheim — who is no longer involved in the day-to-day of the raincoat business but remains on its board and retains his stake in the brand as well as the title of creative advisor — has been posting candid progress updates to his personal Instagram account for months without trying to stir up a great deal of fanfare.
He’s started shipping an inaugural bunch of custom-made sweaters to early followers, though, so by all measures, John Sterner has arrived.
The brand is eco-minded in the sense that it subscribes to the "slow fashion" genre of environmentalism in clothing manufacturing, pushing back against the buy-more-now demands of fast fashion and advocating for supply chain transparency. John Sterner sweaters could be considered luxury items for much the same reason: those made-to-order sweaters were hand-knit by Lena Widmark, a retired textiles teacher who helped Stutterheim develop their design. Each takes her a full week to complete.
A custom John Sterner sweater costs $1,000. That’s not an unreasonable retail price when you take into account the costs of sourcing materials and manufacturing locally at such small scale, but for most shoppers, spending that much on a sweater is a reach, if not an impossibility.
Over the phone, Stutterheim says that he knows education about the creation of the pieces will be important to selling John Sterner. To that end, he hopes to create an app through which shoppers can study the sheep he’s raising. And he wants John Sterner customers to keep their sweaters for years to come, mending them as needed.
Stutterheim has aspirations for John Sterner to be sold at high-end retailers like Barneys, and if that’s to happen, a one-woman production team won’t exactly be sustainable. Stutterheim has picked up the pace of manufacturing from a walk to a trot by working with a hand-knitting factory to produce a batch of 100 black and off-white sweaters, which will arrive in late September.
Unlike the first sweaters, these won’t be made-to-order, and will cost $800. The plan is to create 100 such sweaters a month, with Widmark helping out on additional custom orders.
Future products may be even less expensive: Stutterheim is looking into sweaters made on hand looms, too. Cashmere styles are also a possibility down the line.
John Sterner is certainly a harder sell than Stutterheim Raincoats, which quickly caught on with the fashion crowd (and Kanye) and landed in influential stores like Dover Street Market and Barneys. (Founded in 2010, its net sales reached $5.4 million in 2015 and are expected to hit $10.14 million this year.)
There are a lot more chic, cozy sweaters in the world than there are cool, minimal raincoats. Similarly, the number of people willing to spend $800 on a sweater is much smaller than those who might splurge on a sub-$300 coat.
If there’s one thing going in John Sterner’s favor, it’s Stutterheim’s continued knack for sparking the imagination, an advantage conferred by a career in copywriting. "I don’t like brands that just sell stuff. I want it to speak with me on another note," Stutterheim says.
Stutterheim built his raincoat business around the very un-commercial feeling of melancholy. The concept is so fundamental that it has a full section on the Stutterheim brand website: "Being melancholic is an essential part of being a human being," it reads. "If we try too hard to get rid of melancholy it’s almost like we’re settling for a half-life. To embrace melancholy is ultimately to embrace joy."
John Sterner is less moody, but more literally transportive. Stutterheim plans to package the sweaters in wooden boxes, number them, and eventually denote which sheep each came from. He’d like to build another cabin on his sheep pasture so that customers can come crash for a night, look at the sheep, and meet him — "if they want to," he adds in a tone that suggests he doesn’t really expect them to.
A more cynical executive would call it a brilliant retail experience, but Stutterheim talks about how beautiful the island is.
"That’s the dream," he says. "I just need the sheep first."