The trip began with a cross-Atlantic redeye flight through Copenhagen to Sweden’s Gothenburg airport. Arriving to a small welcoming committee between the Volvo signs and baggage carousels, unsure of what to expect, I found myself in the company of two other well-known North American retailers whom were also invited to the week’s carefully planned activities. We were whisked to a small boutique hotel in the quaint neighboring town of Borås, where the festivities began, champagne in hand. Among the small crowd were the Eton directors, including CEO Hans Davidson, a helpful support crew and 23 other retailers from North America. The mood was cheery and the drinks flowed freely, before we made our way to Borås’ finest restaurant for our first of many 5 star meals in the coming days. It became quickly apparent that this trip was primarily a big ‘thank you’ to those retailers who have supported ETON during its largest growth period in the company’s 87 year history.
The following morning we made our way to the town of Gånghester, where Eton’s humble head office and manufacturing facility built in the 1940’s—and recently built state-of-the-art warehouse—dominate the sparsely populated streets. Our first workshop illuminated the history of the company and the roots of the legendary shirts it produces.
The company once known as ‘Syfabriken Special’ was started by Annie and David Pettersson in their kitchen during the Depression in the 1920’s. Their simple motto, “never hand over a shirt before you are completely satisfied with it,” was and is the cornerstone for their company’s success. Their four sons, including Rune and Arne, continued their legacy, and during a trip to England in the late 1940’s in search of the world’s finest fabrics, they came across the town of Eton. The name resonated and ‘The Eton Shirt’ was born. The overwhelming success of this collection led the company to rebrand a few years later, and has since been the name most associated with quality dress shirts the world over.
In the early 1960’s, ETON’s success required them to adopt a more efficient manufacturing process. Inge Davidson (Annie and David’s third son) conceptualized and installed an automated transport line which carried pieces from each stage of development, which made the planning, storage and quality control of shirt production far more economical. We witnessed the newest iteration of the original machinery in their factory in Gånghester, that would not only help Eton Shirts survive growing competition from newly industrialised countries of the 60’s, but would also lay groundwork for automizing garment factories and revolutionize the entire clothing industry. The Eton System can now be found in over 6000 factories in 40 countries.
ETON aims to produce a record 1,000,000 shirts this year. This is partly possible thanks to Jan Borghardt, Head of Design for ETON in 1981, when he stopped relying on other mills to produce quality fabrics and interesting designs, and began spinning proprietary fabric and creating their own patterns. This monumental course change allowed ETON to own every step in a shirt’s production from cotton to customer, whilst improving quality and design. They only use the best ELS (Extra Long Staple) cotton from Egypt and the USA with staple lengths over 40mm, and weave true 2x2 ply fabrics for further resilience and body.
Perhaps the greatest advantage the ETON shirt has over competition is its easy care. No shirt is truly ‘non-iron,’ as many of those who claim to achieve this simply coat their fabric with a formaldehyde or some other chemical, which is either not good for your health, damaging to the environment, or likely both. ETON’s partner treatment facility in Switzerland changes the fabric at a molecular level through a rigorous 4 week organic treatment process, using no chemicals while retaining the softness of the cotton. This top secret, proprietary and unique process ensures fabric durability and lustre, even after dozens of washes.
It was an information-packed morning! For lunch, we were guided to their onsite cafeteria. All of the staff that worked in Gånghester at any of the ETON buildings gather for lunch together. They can choose their meals at the beginning of every week, and the expert kitchen staff have their dishes ready when they arrive every day. What a wonderful way to treat your staff, I thought to myself. The meal was restaurant quality, and had us ready for the afternoon exploring the warehouse and meeting more friendly staff at every corner.
A three-hour, late afternoon train ride throughout the Swedish countryside—which closely resembled the rocky shield and countless lakes in Muskoka—led us to the country’s capital city of Stockholm, where ETON had booked a trendy restaurant for us to freely mingle and get to know our travel partners and ETON coordinators after a long day of learning and commuting. I got to know some of the best retailers in North America on this trip, and being able to bounce ideas and enjoy conversations with industry leaders was truly a rare opportunity.
The following morning, very early I might add, we gathered at a local movie theatre where the current Head of Design, Sebastian Dollinger and the marketing team were ready to teach us their secrets for success in today’s fast paced world. Being in charge of design for a €100,000,000 company in your early 30’s sounds like a stressful job, but Sebastian’s cool demeanor and exotic flair shows no sign of it. “We want to be the future vintage shirts,” declared Sebastian, underlining the importance of quality, durability and style in an ETON shirt.
For our final dinner together, The ETON team pulled out all of the stops. We weren’t given any details, but were instructed to dress colorfully. We paraded down Stockholm’s busiest street toward the main pier, where a wooden river boat was waiting for us. A scenic tour around the winding channels of Stockholm led us to the lush and vast Hagaparken, home to Swedish royalty for centuries and steeped in history. Of course, horse-drawn carriages awaited us there, and in short time off we galloped through the trees in the brisk spring evening air. We reached a large glass greenhouse, whereupon opening the doors we were greeted with a rush of tropical humidity and lush greenery—the ETON team had turned the city’s butterfly conservatory into our very own Midsummer party hall.
Every summer solstice, Swedes let loose with their friends for Midsummer celebration, feasting on a smörgåsbord, singing traditional drinking songs and dancing around a maypole (which was explained to me as a phallic fertility symbol). We ate, we drank, we sang and we danced. We felt as if we were a part of the family.
After a short sleep, I had my final day in Stockholm to myself to explore the streets and styles, while pondering the lessons learned over the previous three action-packed days. The importance of the ‘corporate family’ resonated strongly, and the week’s events solidified its significance in developing a strong brand. Treating your customers like an extension to your family, much like the ETON team did with me, can result in fierce loyalty with a mutually beneficial outcome.
I think it is safe to say Sweden is recognized for their fish, meatballs, cars, chefs, sustainability, flat-packed furniture, among many other revolutionizing items and ideas. But soon they will also be regarded as the purveyors of the finest dress shirts in the world. When it comes to the pursuit of function and style, leave it to Sweden.