10 Questions for Swims’ Johan Ringdal

Scandinavia may be known for its modern approach to design, but for Norway-born Johan Ringdal, 30, his grandfather’s galoshes inspired him to launch Swims.

Rather than focus on heavy rainboots, Ringdal reinterpreted the look in a series of colorful, lightweight overshoes that can easily protect a pair of stilettos or oxfords. The entrepreneur introduced the brand in early 2006, a year after graduating from Parson’s School of Design in New York.

“Before Swims came about, overshoes could almost only be found in shoe repair stores or cobblers,” he said. “It was a forgotten niche.”

Today, Swims is available in a range of styles, including two looks for women — the Ballerina, a basic silhouette for flats, and the Cityslipper, meant for covering heels — and two for men: the Classic and the Mobster, an ankle boot that zips up the front. To coordinate with the overshoes, which retail from $89 to $169, companion raincoats and umbrellas have been added. And for spring ’10, Ringdal evolved the overshoe concept to include a waterproof penny moc designed to be worn on its own.

Distributed in countries such as the U.S., Italy, Germany and Japan, Oslo-based Swims posted gains of 35 percent in 2009, with the product available in the U.S. in higher-end stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and Allen Edmonds.

According to Paul Grangaard, CEO of Allen Edmonds, Swims was added for its unique color options and the fact that they don’t leave marks on shoes (thanks to a soft inner lining). With Allen Edmonds’ strong focus on shoe care, having superior rain gear in the brand’s stores made sense, said Grangaard.

Here, Ringdal speaks out about drawing from his background for creating new product, breaking into the rain-shoe market and having fun in bad weather.

1. What inspired the name Swims?
JR: I wanted to create a fun and unpretentious name. I believe it gives our products a playful and modern character. Graphically, it’s a great word to play with. You can turn it upside down and it’s still legible. It also has connotations of water, which plays a key role [in the product].

2. How have your Scandinavian roots influenced the designs?
JR: The fact that I’m from Scandinavia may have influenced the overall design, but not deliberately. Scandinavian living is practical, simple and truthful, which reflects our overshoes.

3. Did your formal design education help you with Swims?
JR: Parsons School of Design encouraged me to think unconventionally. My actions and taste level have been sculpted by product design and education in fashion history, as well as case studies within the consumer product segment.

4. Has Swims been a hard sell because they are out of the traditional rainboot category?
JR: In some markets, overshoes are fairly unknown and customers can be [unsure] of what they do. However, in climates with lots of rain, people are familiar with the product or the nostalgia, remembering that their fathers and grandfathers wore them.

5. What are Swims overshoes made of?
JR: We’ve developed a special upper compound, cashmere rubber. The lining, made of synthetic fibers, stretches with the elasticized material to create a snug fit, [which allows] Swims to adapt to the shape of the shoe. The lining also reduces dampness by creating a pocket of air between the rubber and the shoe’s leather upper, driving circulation while walking. Additionally, there are high-top styles designed with waterproof neoprene uppers.

6. Your business depends on weather. Can that be limiting?
JR: Statistically, it rains more than it used to, which helps us sell more overshoes. We could probably benefit by using the global warming argument in our marketing, but we’re not interested in capitalizing on that. I’d rather educate consumers about consumption. Instead of buying five pairs of shoes a year, with Swims, you only need two.

7. How different are your consumers around the world?
JR: We’re more likely to find our customer in areas with heavy rainfall. On the other hand, our core customer, people with a serious interest in footwear, are quite likely to buy into the concept whether they’re in Tokyo, London or New York. Our customer is an urban professional between 20 and 60, a lawyer, architect, banker or designer, all with an [appreciation] for top-quality leather shoes and craftsmanship.

8. How can you encourage multiple purchases on such a tightly focused collection?
JR: Offering different styles and colors gives our customers a wider choice, and each [item] serves a different purpose. Customers usually buy more than one pair — a black pair for their black dress shoes for the office, and a red pair for their loafers on the way to Sunday brunch. At the moment, it’s a niche and seasonal, which is why we’ve added more products.

9. How difficult has it been to convince retailers to buy Swims?
JR: Some are hesitant because the concept is new to them. Some are willing to spend time and learn [about it]. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not it looks like a typical rain shoe; it requires that they think out of the box.

10. What city is the most fun in the rain?
JR: Rain in Paris creates a spectacular cinematic vibe. For me, it’s a small escape from the everyday hurdles.

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