Adam Lewenhaupt concedes that he stumbled into the finance world for lack of really knowing what he wanted to do. ‘Studying finance at university just sounded like it would leave the most doors open,’ he says. And, indeed, after a decade of investment banking, in the UK, Asia and Sweden, where he is now based, the one thing he was passionate about as a young man insisted it have his attention.
‘I spent a lot of my youth dreaming about sneakers, as tragic as that sounds,’ says Lewenhaupt. ‘I grew up in the 1980s, when it was all about Michael Jordan and skateboarding and when sneakers became super-commercialised. But here I was, it was 2013 and I was unable to find the kind of sneakers I wanted to wear’.
What were those? Something akin to a dress sneaker, in the classic tennis or running shoe mould: still sporty but uncluttered, with an elegant silhouette, hand-crafted in the way “proper” shoes were made – with a metal shank and soft, rich suedes and full grain leathers. They were comfortable from construction rather than by being puffed out with padding.
‘I always knew I wanted to start a company of my own, and I’d always been really interested in design and architecture,’ says Lewenhaupt. Combining those pulls resulted in the launch of CQP – Conversations & Quintessential Products – makers of clean-lined upscale sneakers in that discreet Scandinavian mode and, latterly, also of the Sabulo, a dark suede boot something akin to a modish hi-top.
The timing was right for something like CQP, Lewenhaupt concluded: menswear was already undergoing radical casualisation, formal dress codes were largely collapsing, and notions of work attire were in flux (all trends driven home by the pandemic, of course). There was a generation that had grown up wearing nothing but sneakers – who’d made them core to their culture – and who weren’t about to go through the trials of breaking in, say, a Goodyear-welted shoe. It’s why, he notes, even historic makers of precisely those kinds of shoes are now making sneakers too.
‘The culture was changing. You’d see more and more people wearing sneakers with suits,’ recalls Lewenhaupt. ‘Of course, we weren’t the first company to address a niche for smart sneakers – there were brands like Common Projects, and the big luxury goods houses were starting to do sneakers. But we were still pretty early and thought the market had a lot of growth potential. We aimed at providing sneakers of the kind someone might get if they asked their local shoemaker to create one – slightly more grown up, slightly more conservative – and which would last more like a traditional shoe too.’
That’s easier said than done though. It’s an understatement to say that he embraced a steep learning curve. After all, he had no design experience at all. ‘I always liked to draw as a child so just started sketching shoes. I really spent a lot of time on Google, then talking with people in shoe production [in Portugal, where the shoes are made],’ he says. ‘It became an iterative process, so that I could see just from my sketches what would and wouldn’t work.’
And then, just six months in, came the kind of thing that might sink a young business. At the time, CQP was getting established under the name Coloquy – but a South American company had registered a similar sounding name in the EU and was sending in the lawyers.
‘We really had no muscle to fight them, which was really annoying because I liked the name we had, though a lot of people tended to complain about it, or said they didn’t know what it meant,’ Lewenhaupt laughs. ‘So when we had to change it to CQP, everyone just said: “well, I understand why…” All the same, you don’t expect those kinds of challenges quite so soon.’
Now, almost a decade on, Lewenhaupt faces the challenge of whether to grow his business, by putting new products under the CQP umbrella.
‘It’s a tricky decision,’ he says. ‘But one thing is clear – I don’t want to add other products just because we have a brand to work with now. There has to be a good reason behind it, a real need for that kind of product. That was the whole point of doing the shoes in the first place.’