Some Camper shoes look like they were stolen from a bowling alley. Others have messages inscribed on their soles. With certain styles, the right and left shoes don't match. On purpose.
Yet for more than a decade, this quirky footwear company has racked up more sales in its native Spain than any other casual-shoe brand. Now the company is going global, with stores in London, Milan, New York, Paris, and Taiwan. Last year, sales topped $120 million -- more than 3 million pairs of shoes sold. The industry's leading trade publication, Footwear News, named Camper "fashion brand of the year," and all kinds of celebrities -- from Woody Allen to Rosie O'Donnell to Robert Redford to Bruce Willis -- kick around in the unique shoes. It's not the largest shoe company in the world nor the most visible. But it is arguably the most unusual and, for the moment at least, the hottest shoe company on Earth.
It all starts with Camper's sense of place -- geography, culture, and history. In an economy dominated by design, and in an industry propelled by design hype, Camper's geocentric approach offers both an important antidote to and an interesting lesson in authentic design and counterintuitive marketing.
You start to learn the Camper story from a travelogue that comes with every pair of shoes. It's usually printed on an attached tag or in an accompanying brochure. The words or pictures may vary, but the message is clear: These shoes come from Majorca (Mallorca, to Spaniards), a Spanish island in the Mediterranean. "Camper" means "peasant" in Catalan, and the shoes are inspired by farmer footwear and steeped in island tradition.
The tale is effective as a source code for the product and as a marketing tool to the world. Lorenzo Fluxá, who started Camper in 1975, has always said that it's better to build a brand around old-fashioned ideas than to try to be fashion-forward. "When people call us a 'fashion brand,' it offends me," says Fluxá, 54. "We don't like the fashion world at all. We're trying not to take ourselves too seriously."
Plenty of fashion designers insist that their clothes are timeless, but few actually craft their product from the attributes that exist entirely within their own time zone -- without regard to outside taste or opinion. "Some people try to tell us what kind of product to make," says Guillermo Ferrer, 45, Camper's design director and all-purpose muse. "We appreciate their opinions, but we usually say, 'No thank you.' We make Majorcan shoes. If they don't want our product, we accept their decision, close the factory, and go home."
And yet these shoes, which are created out of the company's strong sense of itself and are rich in local character, have become globally chic. In a marketing flip worthy of the new economy, Camper's old-economy unwillingness to compromise has made it hot. Camper is design with a comfortable twist and a wink. And every day, more and more urban dwellers are slipping on their Campers and winking right back.
Unisex or Casual Sex?
Fluxá has always understood the role that history and geography can play in selling shoes. Majorca sits about 150 miles off the coast of Barcelona, and until airplanes started unloading tourists there, farmers and craftsmen drove the economy. By the time Fluxá was a young man, however, tourists had discovered the island. He made friends with some of the European vacationers -- and faced his father's disapproval. "The way he transmitted his values to me was very clever," Fluxá recalls. "He would make jokes about my long hair, about my friends, and about my shoes."
A fourth-generation shoemaker, Fluxá comes from a long line of shoe innovators. His grandfather is renowned for having sailed to England to haul the first pieces of modern shoe-making machinery back to Majorca. Fluxá's father was actually born in the family shoe factory; ultimately, he took over the family business, Lottusse, which specialized in dress shoes. When it was his turn, Fluxá found that he liked the shoe business -- but was bored stiff by the company's product line. Meanwhile, his urbane friends from mainland Spain kept asking him where he bought his slip-ons -- espadrille-style footwear fashioned after old peasant shoes that islanders would cobble together from cast-off canvas and recycled rubber. Sensing an opportunity, he asked his father to help him launch his own line of casual shoes.
To Fluxá senior, the idea verged on sacrilege. (He called it a "prostitution of the family business.") Retailers who had been loyal to the family for decades were puzzled by the new concept. "I told them of my plan to make casual unisex shoes, and I got two letters back from people who said that they would never sell these 'dirty shoes,' " says the younger Fluxá. "They had never even heard the word 'unisex'! They confused it with 'casual sex.' "
Eventually, Fluxá's father agreed to let him try a low-cost experiment with his espadrilles. The old-line retailers never quite figured out how to sell the shoes. But once the dictatorship lost power in Spain, and stores began to sell blue jeans and other casual clothes, Fluxá convinced those outlets to carry Campers. Sales took off.
As the company grew, Fluxá realized that Camper had to be about a place. His friends were city people who wanted country shoes. So, he needed to make an explicit connection between his country and his shoes. "We didn't want to be just a fashion brand," Fluxá explains. "We wanted to take a more cultural approach." But what does it mean to be a culture brand, rather than a fashion brand? Last year, Shubhankar Ray, 32, a Brit who studied business at INSEAD and whose father is an anthropologist, moved to Majorca to help answer that question.
According to Ray, culture is not merely about geography: "Companies that become culture brands usually have an opinion about something that people value. People know that your company is about commerce, but being a culture brand allows you to have more of an emotional connection with your customers." Both Benetton and Nike, Ray says, have emerged as culture brands.
Camper stands for the preservation of rural culture -- both the setting and the values that are embedded within it. It's a timely message: Majorca's rural reality is rapidly fading. Across Europe and around the world, word has gotten out about the island's beauty. Last year, more than 9 million people visited Majorca. Some of those tourists are buying up land, and the island now has more than 600,000 full-time residents. Upscale chain stores and fancy Italian boutiques sit cheek by jowl with 800-year-old churches. Gradually, the island's peculiar charm and unique culture are giving way to global commercialism and economic homogeneity.
In an attempt to stave off some of this, Camper has become both a caretaker and a curator: In 1989, the company purchased an old country estate with plans to renovate the buildings for a design studio and employee retreat. Says Fluxá: "We bought the land to represent our love for the rural way of life -- to link Camper to its origins and to reclaim agriculture."
Design With a Wink
The most interesting connection between Majorcan culture and Camper shoes comes from the distant past. Islanders tell a story: Throughout the Middle Ages, control of Majorca passed from one European dynasty to another. Majorcans' solution to the threat of invasion by competing pirate bands was to build homes with interior courtyards so that they could sit inside (unlike in other parts of Spain, where it is customary to sit outside). From the outside, the houses appeared modest -- a design trick to keep the pirates guessing which homes held real wealth.
Camper shoes are not particularly fancy on the outside either. The designers think that wearing them should feel like having a funny conversation with yourself -- a notion reflected in the soles of the shoes. In the past, some pairs have had poems or messages stamped on the bottom ("Hispanic causing panic," for example). Camper employees count the number of Camper customers nearby by examining footprints on the beaches.
Why pay attention to something that's just going to get scuffed up? "The sole is the soul of the shoe," Fluxá says. "We've registered many of them as trademarks. They are an investment for us."
Camper has taken a similar low-key approach to opening its stores. Its target audience usually frequents upscale shopping neighborhoods -- where rents are high and remodeling permits can take time to get. Rather than waiting for all of the work to be finished, Camper piles up shoe boxes, puts the shoes on top, and sells them that way until the interior overhaul can legally begin. "People are begging us to keep the stores that way," says Dalia Saliamonas, 37, who is in charge of all sales outside of Spain. "It's sort of naughty, but we enjoy going into fancy areas with our lower prices." (At $120 - $160 a pair, Campers are much less expensive than many upscale designer brands.)
The best evidence of the brand's appeal? People from all over the world are now trying to move to Majorca to work for Camper. Ray moved from London last year with his wife and small child. This year's Camper design interns came from Japan and Scandinavia, among other places. Then there's Kim Fabio, 34, who grew up in the Caribbean and spent 10 years at Converse before moving to Majorca last year. "There seems to be a lot of inspiration at Camper," she says. "I wanted to see things the way that they see them here."
Ron Lieber (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Visit Camper on the Web (www.camper.es).