At 50years old, Claes Bondelid was at the height of his career. He had created one of Sweden´s largest fashion companies and was looking forward to expanding abroad. Instead everything collapsed. He separated from the mother of his older children, enforcement officers went after him and doctors concluded he had two terminal illnesses. Six year s later, Claes Bondelid was back. In late 2013 a store was opened at Odenplan in Stockholm, presenting his new hobby project and what started as a shoe brand - Claes Göran. Most Swedes have seen the name Bondelid printed on the cotton knit jersey that sold over a million copies in the 90s.
But fewer know the remarkable story of the man behind the brand.
After school years marked by fights and disciplinary action, he supported himself by selling concentrated detergent to housewives in suburban Stockholm. The work made him so depressed that he often went home at lunch time to lie down on the bed. That´s why he immediately said yes when a friend asked if he wanted to be an ad salesman for the new music magazine Schlager. Inspired by Schlager´s success, Claes and his friend started their own record label and an airline that would fly people to the ten-year anniversary of the first Woodstock festival.
Searching for a location for their new business, Claes and Mathias Engdahl (later known as Mr. Pocket Shop) found a basement in Old Town. The basement had previously served as a potato cellar, strip club and warehouse. The former owner had left piles of clothes and rags. In order to get rid of this, Claes and Mathias made the location into Sweden´s first second-hand store. Da Capo, as they called it, quickly became popular amongst Stockholm´s artists and musicians. This is where they came to buy leather jackets and Reeperbahn rehearsed and performed here. One od the first issues of the influential British fashion magazine i:D had a big report on the store.
The demand for old leather jackets was so big that Claes and his new partner and girlfriend at the time, Britt-Inger Wilhelmsson, started the brand Bondelid and started making new jackets in a 50s model. They sold so well that they were soon able to start a branch of Stora Nygatan and a new store on Västerlånggatan called Street Theatre. Street Theatre´s blend of the world´s best second hand selection and contemporary, exciting brands attracted customers and journalists from around the world. Along with Bondelid clothes, Street Theatre was the first in sweden to have such brands as Dr. Martens, Chevignon, Diesel, Blundstone, Freelance, Et voi and Kookai.
Even though business was amazing it all came to a time when Claes and Britt-Inger got tired of customers constantly buying ”the wrong clothes”.
”They bought into the clothes they were less satisfied with instead of going with their guts and buy what they really liked. So around the time of the birth of our first child I decided to sell everything and try being a stay-at-home-dad”, says Claes Bondelid.
It lasted three weeks. Then he got a ”safe” insider tip an invested all the money in options with a large Swedish company. Not long after that he was broke, which he didn´t tell anyone. Instead he took a bank loan and bought an office at Birkagatan and a ticket to a textile factory in Porto. On the plane, he might have had one to many drinks and drew 15 garments in light knit. When the 12,000 garments were delivered, the demand for knit shirts proved to be limited in Stockholm stores. So when the bank called to get their money back Claes was about to give up when a guy with a flat tire came up and asked if he could borrow the phone. It turned out the man ran a clothing store in a bad-smelling tunnel at Slussen and when he saw the wacky clothes, he asked if he could make a low-ball offer. Half a year after they came to that agreement he called and reported he had sold three-quarters of all the clothes.The news got Claes to realize two things about himself: He had a lot to learn about doing business - but he could make clothes people wanted.
The small surplus was invested in more elaborate collections. Along with a new partner, Rickard Josephsson (later on Purchasing manager and Vice President at the fashion company Wesc and best man at Claes´wedding), Bondelid delivered to 80 retailers just in Sweden. An own brand store opened at NK in Stockholm. An investment in jeans established Bondelid in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
In the early 90s, Bondelid made a long sleeved T-shirt with his name printed over the chest. It sold over a million copies and became one of Sweden´s best-selling garments of all time.
In the late 90s, Bondelid had a turnover of over 70 million in retail. In order to capitalize on the success and continue to build the brand, Claes made major investments in expanding production and marketing. But the margins were small. When a large order of jeans delivered from a factory in pakistan showed up with different leg lengths, it suddenly created an emergency situation. The company was unable to pay the rent for the huge showroom in the middle if Götgatsbacken in Stockholm and Claes was all of a sudden an object of interest for the enforcement officers. Meanwhile, the separation from former girlfriend, mother of the two eldest children and colleague in the company, Britt-Inger, was a fact. As if this wasn´t enough, he was also suffering from a severe headache that wasn´t going away. When he stumbled into the Karolinska University Hospital dizzy and sweaty, he was diagnosed with meningitis. The doctor explained that the disease affects everyone differently: ”Some people lose their hair, others their memory.Some die”.
After the meningitis was treated, Claes got away with only minor memory loss. ”I had to write notes to remember where I left the car. I found the car, not the notes”. Given the severeness in the situation and Claes unable to see what the future would hold he decided to deepen the relation he had developed over the years with a chain store i Sweden. This gave him the opportunity to take a step back, live on royalty and recover with some kind of financial security. He could provide for his children and make a clean break with his former partners. Also during this time Claes, against his own reasoning, decided to follow his heart and once again let someone into his life as his girlfriend.
After a while a new baby was on its way and Helena - Claes´wife to be, working in the same industry at the fashion company Odd Molly (founded by amongst others Karin Jimfelt Ghatan, the Godmother of Claes´and Helena´s first child), was looking forward to a natural reason to take some time off. Meanwhile Claes´creativity slowly returned and looking for a reason to leave the house he rented a small office were he spent the days lying down on a Chesterfield sofa, smoked and listened to old vinyl records.Then he got an idea. He would make shoes. And that was the start of a new hobby project namned Claes Göran.
”I wanted a pair of shoes that you’d be comfortable in, whether you were check- ing into a hotel, going to a party or picking mushrooms. But when I looked for something like that, I only found shoes that suggested that you were going to run far, jump high or go skateboarding in them”.
For two years Claes spent his time recovering completely from the meningitis and went back and forth between the drawing board and occasionally visited shoe factories throughout the world. The result: 15 models of relaxed, stylish sneakers that works perfectly 363 days of the year.
Almost immediately after the launch of the sneakers Claes brought the whole family to Paris. The family now consisting of two small babies and the grown up children. The trip just happened to be at the same time as Premiere Vision was on so Claes took half a day to go there and re visit old memories. This turned out to be the start of his way back into fashion. At Premiere Vision Claes found some amazing swatches showing fabrics that had the perfect worn down finish and suddenly the passion for fashion returned. The fabric was made by an Italian weaver and the finish was made by a sleeping-beauty-like factory on the mainland outside Venice. That information didn´t come easily and when he found out he felt the need to visit them, to learn more about their skills. So then the whole family went to Venice. Helena refusing to be left at home with the two babies under two years old, this was how it had to work. Something they both laugh at today. And both the weaver and the factory are key partners today and deliver most of the tailoring part of the collections.
Having tried the combining of family life an work life before, Claes had no longing to do it again. Neither did Helena, truly enjoying staying at home with the kids and looking forward to returning to her role as head of retail for Odd Molly. But then life happened once again and the company Helena left for maternity leave had during those years gotten a new management and turned out to be a totally changed culture. Claes had started up production on sneakers and now some smaller collections returning to the fashion side of business but turned out least prepared in Helena´s area of expertise, sales. So before they even ”decided” to work together, they ended up doing just that and today they are equal parts of building the brand together with a unique group of extremely dedicated handpicked people.
”It´s an honor to be surrounded by truly inspiring, dedicated and ambitious people coming from of all kind of backgrounds, ages and experiences. It is what makes the hard work we all put into the company something we own and grow in together”, says Helena stating that the uniqueness comes from the genuine respect for one another and each others roles, as well as the understanding of what makes each and every one smile.
Last October (2015) the brand opened its first flag ship store by simply growing the smaller store at Odengatan and turning it into a mini department store. The store called Claes Göran Bl. a carries the brands own fashion collections - which today are complete collections in menswear and womenswear, the sneakers, soon leather boots and some styles in children´s sizes, side by side with other brands within the lifestyle segment that Claes and Helena has found over the years and simply love. Rebuilt old suitcases, now portable speakers. Re worked 20 and 30s bicycle frames now respectfully refurnished. Japanese, French and American sunglasses. A small high end children´s concept.
The ambiance at the store was shortly after the grand opening described as the following in the words of Koko Ntuen: ”In all the splendor of its bricks and mortar, sitting along the row of shops on Odengatan, Claes Göran is a whimsical wonder. It’s the type of shop that folk gods like Willy Wonka, Johnny Depp or even Santa Claus would frequent for sophisticated, unique pieces.
When you first walk in it’s hard to imagine shopping. I instantly forget and start having fun. A sign says “Some of my best friends are human”, and under the dimly-lit octopus-like chandeliers there are gorgeous Persian rugs that look really expensive. Are they for sale?
There are white tiles and beautiful floral arrangements in vintage-looking vases, strategically placed in strategic places that aren’t invasive. I look around at old colourful banker boxes and I can’t tell who is working and who is shopping. It’s like I stumbled into a secret closet”.
Aside from this new store concept the Claes Göran collections are shown at different fashion fairs around Europe, so far. For spring 2017 the brand is participating at Pitti Uomo in Florence, Man in Paris and Jacket Required in London and the response from buyers and press around the world are spoiling.
In the words of Claes: ”We are said to attract the wilful people looking for a sartorial alternative. Amongst our customers we proudly find both the fashion connoisseurs and the luxury bums. Claes Göran is in its core about courage and needs. Our design is built on refined and reworked un contemporary ideas and our products are made to add value for both our network of skilled producers as well as for our end consumers. By our genuine production and our uncompromising high end choice of materials, we try to add to the industry a stubborn intellectual sphere built on credibility and strong character, all of it signaling wilfulness”