Gothenburg in Focus: The Axel Arigato Guided Tour

16 August 2019

END. heads to Gothenburg for a day with native sneaker label, Axel Arigato, to get the insider's guide to the unlikely streetwear hotspot on Sweden's west coast.

Max Svardh and Albin Johansson of Axel Arigato in their pop up store in NK - Axel Arigato Gothenburg City Guide
Since launching in 2014, Axel Arigato has - by any estimation - taken the fast track to the top of the global sneaker scene. Built with a resolve to do things differently in an infamously complicated product category, Axel Arigato's raison d'etre has always been fused with a desire to push a new agenda and question industry norms. Imbued with this pioneering outlook and seamlessly delivering world-class sneakers from the first drop, it's a natural instinct to assume that Axel Arigato operates out of one of the same 4 cities we hear of each and every day in the sneaker game. But for Axel Arigato doing things differently means harnessing the power of a different perspective, and so co-founders Albin Johansson and Max Svardh opted to keep the label on their home turf: Gothenburg.

Characterised by a pervasive sense of chill that's unique even by Scandi-standards, Gothenburg is a city whose days of being overlooked are coming to an end. Fast emerging as the region's latest go-to city break, Gothenburg has become a secret party town with pockets of subculture establishing themselves clandestinely in the warehouses and basements on the outskirts of the city. This carefully crafted dichotomy allows Gothenburg to remain a picturesque harbour town by day while offering global-standard nightlife options after the sun sets. Thanks in no small part to the thriving young creative scene - of which Axel Arigato is an important cornerstone - the city's youth-culture stock has soared as an influx of young creatives from across Europe and beyond have settled here and fused with the local talent to herald a new era for Gothenburg; ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of Europe's essential travel destinations.

Joining forces in 2014, Albin and Max decided to fuse their own expertise (Max a self-taught creative with a passion for retail and Albin providing a strategic mindset and a background in buying) to question the entire structure of the sneaker industry. Unwavering in their resolve, each and every industry veteran who told them their 'Drop of the Week' model would never work in the footwear game only pushed the duo forwards on a mission to prove them wrong. Seeing the writing on the wall long before many of the aforementioned industry vets, Axel Arigato was built on the 'see-now-buy-now' retail model that streetwear and sneakerheads now expect as standard in the Instagram age. Driven by their passion for ephemeral retail and cultural experiences, Axel Arigato have taken their mission one step further: dedicating themselves to participating in the cultures that surround them by throwing frequent parties that champion young artists, offering pop-up spaces to younger brands in their flagship stores, and building a brand that's built on much more than just the bottom line.

Taking a guided tour of Gothenburg with the team of Axel Arigato - during the 13th year of city's famous festival, Way Out West - we delved deep on the brand's disruptive agenda and why change is the only thing that matters.

10am | Breakfast | Da Matteo | Vallgatan 5, 411 16 Göteborg
Interior of da Matteo Vallgatan cafe in Gothenburg - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
da Matteo courtyard - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
Avocado toast breakfast served at da Matteo - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg

Easy to spot - both sporting new Axel Arigato styles on foot - we meet Albin and Max outside our hotel for breakfast at 10am and take a leisurely stroll through the streets of central Gothenburg towards our breakfast spot. It's a week day, but the city seems to be waking up like an easy Sunday morning. "This whole area will be full of people come lunch time," Albin says, but for the time being the calm is what strikes me most.

Arriving at da Matteo - a quintessentially Swedish breakfast spot in the centre of town - we order cinnamon pastries, coffee and sandwiches and decide to sit in the summer sun in the courtyard outside. The interior combines a rugged palette of raw materials - woods, metals, and concrete - while the outside sits in a sun-drenched square with watercolour murals painted across the walls. We ask what's in store for the day ahead and the pair quickly rhyme off a list of parties and events taking place across the city that day. "Gothenburg doesn't have a reputation as a party town, but an underground scene has started growing. There's warehouse parties most weekends now; small groups of people making things happen," Max explains. "We've started to see a lot of people moving here from places like London and Paris and they need somewhere to party."

When the food arrives, the standout star is the goat's cheese toasted sandwich. Salty and sweet, the melted cheese lies atop a bed of walnuts, caramelised onion relish, and rocket, all packaged in a fresh Swedish bread roll. The perfect foundation to line our stomachs for what seems set to be a day where we'll need it.

11am | Exploring | Axel Arigato HQ | Södra Larmgatan 7, 411 16 Göteborg
Albin Johansson and Max Svardh in the Axel Arigato brand HQ - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
Axel Arigato HQ details - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg

After breakfast, we head past the Axel Arigato brand headquarters. Just a stone's throw away from the Gothenburg flagship store, the minimalist space is the perfect embodiment of the brand and the people who work there. Having grown from a team of 2 to a team of 70 in under 5 years (they celebrate their 5th anniversary next week), the HQ carries with it the stories and personality of a start-up company which has forged a tightly knit team.

Upstairs in the marketing and communications office it's all systems go finalising plans for the store event later. Dedicated to building unexpected synergies with local talent, the brand often throws parties or holds events that feature little-to-no product - an unusual approach in an industry typically so driven by the need to promote a new line or activate the latest sneaker. "It’s about doing things we like and building things other than product around it in an interesting and authentic way," Albin explains when I ask him about the party tonight which will see the entire Gothenburg store cleared of stock to make way for a rough-and-ready hip-hop show featuring a line-up of emerging artists. "The product will always be super important," Max goes on - the pair's conversation about the brand passing back and forth effortlessly, a clear signal that the synergies that exist between the two of them and their vision of the brand their building are completely aligned. "We want people to be proud to wear Axel Arigato and that’s why it’s important to place the brand in context. Whether that's the context of our stores or our events or our partnerships, the context matters and it helps people understand Arigato better."

Axel Arigato team post it notes in brand HQ in Gothenburg - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
Axel Arigato store in Gothenburg shot from the brand HQ - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg

Downstairs they show us the social space, fully stacked with three beer fridges and a self-contained DJ booth. "We want this to be a social space as well as a work space," Max says. "Bring your friends and have a party - there's free beer!"

Sitting down in one of the meeting rooms (nicknamed 'Berghain'), we talk more about the brand's journey over the past 5 years. "In the beginning it was just the two of us and now there’s 70. Every six months it’s almost like a new company, so it’s different faces and different ideas all the time," Albin says, posters from events they have thrown all over the world montaged across the wall behind him. "Four and half years ago we were sitting in an office just around the corner from here doing everything ourselves. Photography, packaging, customer service - everything," Max says. Laughing, Albin replies, "I even had an alias ‘Cole’ I'd use for customer service calls so that if someone had an issue and wanted to speak to the manager I could come back on the phone as myself." 

When asked what they think has contributed towards their success, Albin is quick with his response. "We don't think of ourselves as a success yet. There's still so much we want to do." This forward-facing energy - always ready for the next challenge - is what drives the momentum at Axel Arigato; trickling down from the top and into the rest of the team. "We’ve always operated on a trial and error basis and we don’t see the boundaries that others do. We’re not afraid of taking risks and we sort of believe anything is possible. It might take longer, but it's possible and that's how we like to approach projects," Max says. Testament to this ethos sits just a few hours away in Copenhagen, where the brand has just opened their latest flagship space. A monolithic, multi-level part-store-part-art-installation that has been 12 months in the making, the stunning new concept store stands as a clear cut example of the context Axel Arigato wants to place itself in: leading the charge in 21st century luxury retail.

12pm | Exploring | Gothenburg Harbour
Max Svardh and Albin Johansson of Axel Arigato booking out Lime Scooters in Gothenburg - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
Gothenburg harbour - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
Axel Arigato team on Lime Scooters in Gothenburg - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg

Next we take a quick tour of the city, taking full advantage of Lime's electric scooter sharing service which has become the essential method of transportation across western Europe, popping up in key cities including Copenhagen, Paris and Milan. Easy, intuitive to use, and undoubtedly the fastest way to zip around the city, the scooters are dotted around the city and operate via an app with minimal set up required. Remarkably light on road traffic, the city feels open and spacious - free from congestion even on a Friday afternoon.

We head down to the famed Gothenburg harbour; an essential entry point connecting western Sweden with the rest of the world and largely responsible for the diverse cultural communities which have come to characterise the city in the 21st century. Taking in the skyline - far removed from the barcodes of skyscrapers and tower blocks seen in busier locations - it's clear to see why two metropolitan-minded young creatives have opted to stay on the banks of this coastal city to build their business.

2pm | Shopping | Axel Arigato Pop-Up at NK | Östra Hamngatan 42, 411 09 Göteborg
Axel Arigato pop-up in NK store - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg

We swing by the Axel Arigato pop-up that sits within the famed NK department store within the city's primary shopping district. Part of a drive to connect the store with a younger audience, Axel Arigato's space is a clear destination which sets the brand far apart from many of the others situated nearby. Single minded and uncompromising in their vision, the pop-up plays with industrial materials and varying levels of opacity to create an immersive brand experience within the confines of a traditional retail environment.

Well versed in both sides of the pop-up arrangement, Max and Albin have used the platform of their own flagship stores to champion the growth of other emerging brands by offering pop-up and event spots to newcomers including M+RC Noir, PLACES + FACES, and Souvenir Official. "When we offer space to other brands I think a lot of them are waiting to hear what the catch is, but there is no catch," Max says. "We want them to have a party in our store so that we can go to it!"

3pm | Lunch | Tacos & Tequila | Tredje Långgatan 9, 413 03 Göteborg
Interior of Tacos & Tequila bar/restaurant with neon 'Make Tacos Not War' sign above kitchen - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
Chefs working at Tacos & Tequila - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
Fish and chicken tacos and Tacos & Tequila - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg

Having worked up an appetite (and 'been sober for too long' to quote Albin) we make our way (on scooter, of course) to one of the guys' frequent haunts for lunch. Tacos & Tequila does exactly what it says on the tin: serving up an array of unreal Mexican fare and cocktails in a fiesta-ready setting. Situated in an enclosed square - another sun trap similar to the one from breakfast - the food and drinks are a masterful take on traditional Mexican cuisine with a contemporary twist. Packed out with a young crowd, the outdoor space gives way to an atmospheric interior and a lively open kitchen/dining experience to enjoy if visiting in the colder months. We order a jug of margaritas and a flight of fish and chicken tacos to share. A devious collision of sweet and sour, the margaritas are as good as I've had anywhere, while the tacos are generous and filling and cut through with fresh vegetables and salsa to keep the flavours lights and refreshing.

"From now on I don't take any responsibility for anything I say," Albin laughs as the margarita jug quickly runs dry. The conversation turns to the creative process and where they find inspiration for the brands direction - be it from a design or a strategy standpoint. "Travelling is so important to staying inspired," Max says. "I was in Barcelona last week and even visiting the furniture stores there inspired me for products we can do at Arigato. Inspiration can come from anywhere and seeing different parts of the globe just leads to a wider pool of inspiration."

"I follow macro trends - not from a design perspective - but more seeing what’s happening in the world and how it might affect us as a company. Brexit, Trump, trade regulations. How will all of this affect business in future? Will people travel less as we try to be more sustainable? It’s important to stay connected to global culture; if you look away even for a second you will have missed it. You need to know what’s happening to stay relevant, and you can become irrelevant in a second," Albin says. "Fashion is a reflection of the world. It’s important to remember that. We want our customers to be involved in global culture and to use their voice."

6pm | Entertainment | Axel Arigato 'Way Out West' Party | Södra Larmgatan 7, 411 16 Göteborg
Axel Arigato store Gothenburg
Axel Arigato Way Out West Store Party - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
Street Style at the Axel Arigato Way Out West Party - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg

Our next stop is the Axel Arigato store itself where the city's streetwear community has gathered to take in a show from a range of emerging artists and DJs. Completely transformed from when we visited earlier in the day, the industrial installations have been removed and the stock replaced by fully stocked bars. Laid on gratis by the brand - for no other reason than to deliver an experience their customers will remember - the store is packed and the drinks flow freely as each act takes to the makeshift stage at the back of the store. "We made the floor from asphalt," Max yells above the crowd. "So it didn't get fucked up when we throw parties like this."

With rabble rousing sets from Anansi and PARHAM followed by DJ sets by Loxgold and TKND, the crowds are so intense that at one point there's talk the party might get shut down by the police and based on the range of hyped sneakers and streetwear on show it's clear that this is the most coveted invite in the city tonight - a hunch confirmed by the Axel Arigato event's manager who tells me she had to decline more than 700 RSVPs. After the official sets are over, the after party kicks off across the street in the brand HQ (putting the DJ decks and drinks fridges to good use). "I hate the word community," Albin says "but we are super connected to our customer. We want to operate on a level that our customers can relate to."

11pm | Entertainment | Way Out West Festival | Slottskogspromenaden, 414 76 Göteborg
Way Out West Festival - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
Way Out West Festival - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg

After a few hours (and a few beers) partying at the HQ, listening to afterparty sets from DJs Harun, Shewit, and Vinter, and getting to know the crowd that surrounds the brand, Max and Albin tell us it's time to head to the main event - Way Out West festival at Slottsskogen: a sprawling urban garden just west of the city centre. Attracting visitors and artists from across the world, Way Out West has been one of Sweden's foremost music events boasting an diverse range of music from hip-hop to rock to electronic. With headline acts this year including Stormzy, Solange Knowles, and Jorja Smith, the acts are followed by a curated set of club nights which take place in venues all across the city dubbed 'Stay Out West.'

The park is alive with energy with three main stages and a plethora of food options and smaller tent parties to choose from. We grab some pizzas before making our way across to watch the headline set from The Blaze. Even in the chaotic festival setting, Gothenburg's easy-going energy set the tone for the entire night - from what I remember, at least.

And just like that I wake up in the hotel (minutes before checkout) and am left to put the pieces of myself back together as we make our way to the airport and head for home. Suffering, but well worth the pain.

The Blaze playing at Way Out West Festival - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg
The Blaze playing at Way Out West Festival - Axel Arigato City Guide Gothenburg

Truly the embodiment of the ideals it was founded upon, Max and Albin have built Axel Arigato in their own image. Balancing on the very tip of the global zeitgeist, Axel Arigato remains ahead of the curve; hyper-agile and thriving on the endless change which defines our generation. Free thinkers and boundlessly creative, they continue to thrive on a weekly drop-based model they were told would never work; deeply invested in the customers they serve and how they want to engage.

"To be honest, there's not much left of the original Axel Arigato from 5 years ago because we've changed so much," I remember Albin saying at the brand HQ the previous day. "We've changed office, changed out product assortment, moved into new ways of doing business. Even the logo has changed. The only thing that's left is the concept at the core of the brand and that will never change."

Sitting on the runway, fanatically announcing to my group chat 'we need to go to Gothenburg!', I know that Axel Arigato's is a concept I fully buy into - and I'm excited to see what the next 5 years have in store.

Axel Arigato AW19 is now available online and instore at END.

Albin Johansson and Max Svardh of Axel Arigato at the Gothenburg Harbour

This article was produced as part of an ongoing 'In Focus' series: END.'s essential guided tour of the most prominent style and culture hotspots from around the world as seen by those who live and work there.

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