Branding the Good Life

Erik Torstensson wanted to talk about Frame, the “model-off-duty” denim brand that he started with his business partner, Jens Grede. As Frame rounds its 10th anniversary, Mr. Torstensson has been on a store-opening spree — Marylebone in London in October, Madison Avenue in December — intent on injecting Frame with new energy (the implication being it needed some). Sales were approximately $170 million in 2022.

Mr. Torstensson, 44, talks fast and moves faster. “You have to do,” he said. “Do do do do.” The conversation began in late August over Aperol spritzes at Sant Ambroeus in the West Village in Manhattan, a pit stop on the way to a party for Frame’s men’s collection at the Golden Swan restaurant, in which Mr. Torstensson is an investor. There was a campaign shoot with David Sims and Gisele Bündchen, an old friend of Mr. Torstensson’s and the new face of Frame, during New York Fashion Week in September. Later that night, Ms. Bündchen and Mr. Torstensson hosted a dinner at a restaurant called Jean’s that had not yet opened.

“We thought it was funny — Jean’s and we do jeans,” he said.

Frame will open on Madison Avenue in December.Credit…Ted Shaffrey/Associated Press

In Paris, Mr. Torstensson was conducting back-to-back meetings to refresh Frame’s Los Angeles staff. Its creative director, Chemena Kamali, had recently replaced Gabriela Hearst at Chloé, a move Mr. Torstensson took in stride. He is known for being nice.

“She was fantastic,” he said of Ms. Kamali. “I love her. I’m seeing her here. We’re still close.” A few hours later, Mr. Torstensson was holding court with a bunch of models — Ashley Graham, Jessica Stam, Camille Rowe — for another Frame party at Caviar Kaspia, home of the world-famous $100 baked potato. “I love institutions,” he said.

Last week, Mr. Torstensson was back in New York to pose for a portrait in the seven-floor, 12,000-square-foot Upper East Side rental into which he had just moved with his partner, Natalie Massenet, and their children. They will be living there while the couple’s side-by-side Upper East Side townhouses are renovated and joined.

Originally, the shoot was to be at Mr. Torstensson and Ms. Massenet’s Amagansett spread, but he decided the rental’s one-piece Corian spiral staircase would make a better backdrop. An art director by training, he loves to frame the shot. He named his brand Frame.

Zoom out and Mr. Torstensson’s life is fabulous. Zoom in and it’s even more so. In addition to the palatial properties in New York, there’s Donhead House, a Georgian-meets-Edwardian sprawl in the English countryside that he and Ms. Massenet painstakingly restored over six years while they lived in London.

“By the time that was finished, we had decided to move to New York,” Mr. Torstensson said. “So now we have a country house seven hours away on a plane.” Such things leave him amused, unfazed. He and Ms. Massenet were supposed to have only one townhouse on the Upper East Side. After renovating it for two years, a water leak destroyed the whole thing.

Mr. Torstensson in his Upper East Side rental.Credit…Alexandra Genova for The New York Times

“We cried,” Mr. Torstensson said. But then the townhouse next door came up for sale, in bad condition but for a great price. They decided to buy it and make a project out of it. “This is me and Natalie,” he said. “It’s a life philosophy.”

“Life is good,” Ms. Massenet said.

Mr. Torstensson and Ms. Massenet are at the nexus of a powerful cell of fashion operatives. She founded Net-a-Porter in 2000 and met Mr. Torstensson when he pitched her the idea for Mr Porter in 2010. She is now a partner in Imaginary Ventures, an investment fund she runs with Nick Brown, the partner of Derek Blasberg, the highly connected writer and art consultant. Imaginary invests in brands like Brady by Tom Brady, co-founded by Jens Grede; Skims, co-founded by Kim Kardashian and Mr. Grede; and Good American, founded by Mr. Grede’s wife, Emma Grede, and Khloé Kardashian. Mr. Grede and Mr. Torstensson were the original power couple of the group, two Swedish guys who met 20 years ago in London when they were working at an advertising agency.

“I don’t think we liked each other out of the gate, but three or four months later we became best friends,” Mr. Grede said.

Friendship and business overlap at every turn. Money flows freely. Commercial success and branded abundance abound. Last week, Skims unveiled a collaboration with Swarovski, whose creative director is Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert.

“She’s married to my best friend,” Mr. Torstensson said, referring to Oscar Engelbert, a fellow Swede who’s in real estate. On his flight to Paris for fashion week, Mr. Torstensson had run into Catherine Holstein, the creative director of the brand Khaite. “My dear friend Cate,” he said. “There we were on Air France, first class, and she had her baby and we’re going to Paris. I was like: ‘Look at us go. Isn’t this kind of great?’”

Mr. Torstensson is aware that he is “100 percent living in a bubble,” he said. “But I think that’s very helpful.” When people know you, like you and trust you, they want to work with you and oftentimes be friends with you. In his case, it’s by design. Before Mr. Torstensson was in the shiny fashion bubble, he was an only child growing up on a third-generation farm in Forsby, Sweden. His father had a business called Happy Pig.

Mr. Torstensson with Julius Randle of the New York Knicks at a Frame cocktail party in 2022.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

“The happy pigs because they were not farmed, they were running nicely, freely, idyllic,” Mr. Torstensson said. “My dad is a very cute person.” Perhaps he gave his son his first lesson in branding. Happy Pig is the kind of straightforward idea that has defined Mr. Torstensson’s incredibly successful career.

Mr. Torstensson was not content to stay on the farm. He wanted more information, more experiences, more culture, more people. He joined a competitive dance group and traveled the country.

“I was Swedish junior champion in swing dance twice,” he said. “I loved it, and I was good at it.”

He also loved skateboarding, but he was not very good at it. He managed to get a subscription to Thrasher magazine delivered to rural Sweden and became obsessed with drawing skate logos and typefaces and taking photos of other skaters.

“I could hang with the really good guys because I took pictures,” Mr. Torstensson said. “That’s the power of putting someone on the cover of a magazine and whatever. I realized I could be part of this by creating stuff around this industry that I’m interested in.”

When Mr. Torstensson was 23 and Mr. Grede 24, they decided to open their own agency, called Saturday Group. “Why not?” was the attitude. They didn’t have any money or any clients. “We used to say we were like Avis,” Mr. Torstensson said. “They had this old commercial: ‘We’re No. 2, so we try harder.’ Jens and I were like, ‘We’ll just have to be faster and nice and cheaper than everyone else.’ And it kind of worked.”

Mr. Torstensson and his partner, Natalie Massenet, at a Business of Fashion event in March.Credit…Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for BoF

Soon, Liberty London and H&M signed on. Calvin Klein was a huge get: The first campaign they did was for a “soft-wire” push-up bra. Steven Klein shot a video of Lara Stone dancing to “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa while wearing the push-up.

“The idea was simple — I’m quite simple — but I think consumers like simple,” Mr. Torstensson said. After the video was put on YouTube, it became the most viewed Calvin Klein ad ever. He went on to create the My Calvins campaign starring Justin Bieber in 2015.

Mr. Blasberg met Mr. Torstensson well over a decade ago, before their partners were in business together. “Even back then, he fit the profile of the cool, smooth, talented art director type,” Mr. Blasberg said. “He sort of styled himself after Richard Avedon, with the tousled hair and the thick glasses, and looks good in a crisp shirt.”

Under Saturday Group, Mr. Torstensson and Mr. Grede operated several businesses, including the digital agency Wednesday, the sales agency Tomorrow, a talent and brand creation wing, a public relations agency and Industrie Magazine, famed for putting Marc Jacobs on its cover in drag in 2010. Each business was a vehicle through which Mr. Torstensson and Mr. Grede could gain access to industry players.

“I will happily admit we started Industrie so we could be editors, so we could be more important, so people would listen to us and have meetings with us,” Mr. Torstensson said. In 2016, he and Mr. Grede sold a majority stake in their company to BBDO, which is owned by Omnicom Group.

Frame was a way for Mr. Torstensson and Mr. Grede to build a brand and thus a world for themselves rather than their clients. The fact that Frame started with denim was practically beside the point.

“It could have been a cashmere sweater just as well,” Mr. Torstensson said. “It’s my idea of a certain aesthetic and a woman that I thought was exciting and beautiful.” Now he’s having a field day designing all the interiors for the new Frame stores, using A.I. to create furniture and objects.

Credit…Alexandra Genova for The New York Times

“I’m obsessed with it,” he said of A.I. His preferred model is Runway ML, which he feeds images from books, exhibitions, designs — any references that he would normally put on a mood board — and asks to create things in his taste.

“It’s a superpower,” he said. “Before I was slow. Now I am fast.” Mr. Torstensson was playing around with handbag designs and ceramics. He thinks he could design a Frame hotel or do a Frame movie.

This is the “do do do do” that Mr. Torstensson was talking about. He can do anything as long as he has a brand brand brand brand. You can’t swing a cat in Mr. Torstensson and Ms. Massenet’s world without hitting a person with one or several brands.

“Everyone is a brand,” she said.

Is this what drives him? Having a brand?

Mr. Blasberg remembered a photo he had seen of a young Mr. Torstensson at one of his swing dance competitions. “If you look at that picture, you really understand,” Mr. Blasberg said. “At least, I understand, because I have a similar humiliating childhood picture where you are looking at the action and so excited and so desperate to be a part of it.”

At dinner the night before, Mr. Torstensson was sitting with people he didn’t know. “I was so bored with ‘What do you do? What have you been up to? La-la-la.” So I was like, ‘What do you love?’ Then they asked that back to me, and I wasn’t prepared.”

His answer was not “brands.” “What I love is people and newness and energy,” Mr. Torstensson said. “Because I want to offer energy and, hopefully, at times newness, besides being nice.”

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