& Other Stories co-founder Bengtsson on creating brands that engage consumers

Swedish creative director Sara Hilden Bengtsson has a solid track record of brand creation, notably within the H&M group, where she was involved in the launch of edgy fashion label & Other Stories. In 2017, she left the group and founded her own consultancy firm in Stockholm, Open Studio, specialising in fashion, lifestyle and luxury branding. 


Sara Hilden Bengtsson worked for the H&M group from 2007 to 2016, notably as creative director - DR

Open Studio works on visual identity and digital communication applied to the creation of new labels, from their inception to retail concept definition. Bengtsson has now linked-up with two French partners to open a Parisian subsidiary of Open Studio. They are Lionel Massias, who worked for British graphic designer Neville Brody, and Bertrand Thoral, in charge of communication and brand image at French event sales specialist Vente Privée from 2007 to 2015, and later running the global expansion of the menswear and watches category at vintage luxury e-tailer Vestiaire Collective.

Bengtsson was in Paris at the Open Studio offices in rue Montmartre, and talked to FashionNetwork.com about her vision for fashion labels, seen through the prism of the new expectations of consumers.

FashionNetwork: Why did you decide to open a branch of your consultancy agency in Paris?

Sara Hilden Bengtsson: I worked with Lionel Massias in the past, in London, notably on the creative vision for the launch of the Citadium department store, and on the visual image of the Flower by Kenzo perfume. We decided to collaborate again, and opened this agency to exploit the advantages offered by Paris, whose environment is so different from Sweden's. We like to define this collaboration between Stockholm and Paris as being based on logic and love: it’s a blend of Scandinavian pragmatism and organisation with the passionate feel and creative heritage typical of Paris. The French capital is the cradle of luxury labels, while Sweden was the birthplace of democratic global brands like Ikea and H&M. This interesting duality will enable us to look at the companies we consult for from different perspectives. And to do so for all market segments, from the high end to the mass market. Because it’s hard to guess which products will be more exciting tomorrow, as brands and retailers truly have to overhaul the way they think, and open their eyes to the future. Some established players struggle to think outside the box.

FNW: Don't fashion labels respond to their customers’ needs nowadays?

SHB: Definitely not! On the retail side, customers expect a much higher level of service than labels offer. ‘Why can’t they deliver tomorrow? Why can’t we have better service, more information?’ The innovation unleashed by digital tools is what customers demand. They need to be instantly, easily satisfied, with no strings attached, because they know what they want and have an instant perception of contemporary trends. Nowadays, customers thrive in an environment different from traditional retail. Companies need to move in this direction, and they don’t have much time to do so.


Bertrand Thoral and Lionel Massias, SaraHilden Bengtsson’s Parisian associates - DR

FNW: What is the point of stores then?

SHB: They serve to produce a different kind of experience from that of online shopping, without competing with the latter. The first step is to conceive a store that is easy to understand, and welcoming. Paradoxically, and this varies from brand to brand, some brands need a store where customers can spend some down time, have a cup of coffee, buy flowers, find a book, and share a unique experience in a pleasant environment. Hotels are well aware of this type of shift, and can also be enjoyed as meeting places or co-working venues.

FNW: Does this mean brands should develop more experiential stores, but have fewer stores altogether?

SHB: Of course. People no longer travel all the way across town to go shopping on a Saturday, those times are long gone. People go online, and have other priorities: family, friends, culture, and more. To get them to go somewhere, it needs to be something surprising, they need to know they will enjoy something special. I also believe in the strategy of deploying smaller stores, located in neighbourhoods where local people actually live. As opposed to venues frequented by tourists, where the product range needs to be different.

FNW: On which areas are you consulting for the H&M group now?

SHB: I’m involved in a variety of different projects, especially relating to the in-store experience and brand identity. Like many other retailers, the group has a long way to go still, and this is exciting. For example, I helped devise the ‘Take Care’ concept for H&M: the original idea was to find a practical, playful way to communicate about the group’s eco-responsible activities, emphasising how important it is to take care of one’s own clothes. And why not make people aware of H&M’s detergents, or clothes patches, for example! It’s a concept which could gradually be introduced in other H&M stores.


The new Paris store opened by & Other Stories in the Marais district - & Other Stories

FNW: Where did the idea to launch & Other Stories come from?

SHB: In 2010, the group tasked a team of five people with developing a beauty brand. We quickly added ready-to-wear to the project, and we sought to make various influences come together, setting up ad hoc design studios in Paris, Stockholm and Los Angeles. It’s worth remembering that there was no Instagram then. The first store opened in London in 2013, and there are now nearly 80 & Other Stories branches. Every last detail about the brand has been thought through, from the lettering to the music callers listen to when they're on hold. Nowadays, it’s crucial to have a global vision of all of a brand's elements, right from its inception.

FNW: Has brand storytelling become a must for labels to exist and survive? 

SHB: Yes indeed. Consumers yearn to fall in love with a brand, to feel ultra-connected to it. If I’m really concerned about product sustainability, I will choose a brand which in my opinion follows this ethos. It’s very important that people understand what it is that a company makes, and how, and what its values are. Links are forged in all sorts of ways: on social media, outside a shop window, through a tip form a friend, or a newsletter. We don’t always remember where the nudge to seek a certain product comes from. Brands must communicate on every inch of the landscape they occupy, clearly and consistently. And the communication, in my opinion, needs to be mostly visual. Fewer words and more images: to have an impact, brands must think in these terms now.

Translated by Nicola Mira

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