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How Did Camper’s Ugly Shoes Become So Iconic?

A new exhibit in London reveals the secret to Camper’s success as a global design powerhouse.

Since Lorenzo Fluxà Rosselló founded the Spanish shoe brand Camper in 1975, it has become a global design powerhouse with inventive retail spaces, bold advertising campaigns, and big-name collaborations. Nendo, Shigeru Ban, Kengo Kuma, the Campana Brothers, and Hella Jongerius have all worked with Camper in some capacity, whether it’s masterminding a brick-and-mortar storefront or lending their sensibility to a pair of sneakers.

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“Camper has flourished from Rosselló’s strong direction,” says Nina Due, head of exhibitions at the Design Museum in London, which is currently staging an exhibition on the brand. In Life on Foot, the museum explores how Camper has cemented itself as a design-led brand (even when its products can be pretty heinous). Here’s how the company did it.

Creative Vision
When Camper set up shop during the post-Franco regime, “there was an appetite for doing things differently,” Due says. Rosselló came from a family of shoemakers and brought years of expertise with him but added a modern twist. “Camper was using the traditional ways of bespoke craftsmanship, but they added humor to shoes that hadn’t been seen in the past.”


Collaborations
Though the model of “Designer X for Brand Y” isn’t unique to Camper, the company has successfully navigated the terrain to carve out a distinct identity. “They have a really good eye and exceptional ways of working with designers,” Due says. “Designers can express their ideas, but their result is very much a Camper product…the brand is very knowledgeable in how to commission.”

Because the company is family-owned, it’s able to be more flexible and nimble in its operations. “We spoke with a lot of designers who worked with Camper,” Due says. “And while it is a global brand, it works in a relaxed way when it comes to commissioning. It’s about giving designers carte blanche from the outset to create a story they fell will captivate customers.”

While Camper has some repeat offenders in its list of collaborators, the brand continually works with new talent and keeps commissioning new designers. In the case of retail stores, they have a cap on how many can be designed by a person or firm so as not to saturate the Camper ecosystem with a singular vision. “It’s about giving a different flavor and experience to the retail spaces,” Due says. “It’s a strategy to bring freshness and novelty to the company. Lots of big brands have megastar designers, but the ongoing commissioning gives Camper an edge that other brands would die for.”


Messaging
Camper’s home base is Majorca, Spain, a popular vacation destination. This has informed the company’s international approach to advertising. You’ll see ads in English and Spanish. Moreover, Camper isn’t afraid to take liberties with marketing. For example, its Walking Society campaign from the early 2000s shows how the company isn’t just concerned with the shoe as a product, but how it factors into the experience of walking. “Camper is wiling to be provocative to a point where you don’t see other brands willing to go,” Due says.

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Experimentation
“They have an attitude where they dare to fail to succeed,” Due says. From a production standpoint, Camper has experimented with biodegradable plastics, man-made composites, and natural materials. She points out how there are more than 100 variations of the best-selling Pelotas shoe. “The materials, the stitching, the laces, etc. are all variations that offer up a different product. It shows something about the enthusiasm and willingness to push and push and try new things.”

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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