Swedish chic for the blue-collar set

IT all started with lefse and lutefisk and continued with Saabs and Ingmar Bergman movies. Now arrives another Swedish sensation: Skillers, a colorful line of functional but stylish work clothes that may become the pin-striped suits of blue-collar workers.

Skillers are designed, manufactured, and marketed by Swedish electrician-turned-millionaire Matti Viio, an honest-to-goodness capitalistic success story from socialistic Sweden. Although Mr. Viio has just recently introduced Skillers in the United States, his work clothes are already tremendously popular in Europe.

Skillers are called Snickers (Swedish for carpenter) in Sweden and Europe, but the name was changed for American markets to avoid confusion with the candy bar. Snickers was named one of Sweden's 100 most important developments of the century. To make the list, a product must have had sales of $28 billion since 1945. Snickers made that in 10 years. Sales in Europe are $4 million, with franchises being sold in Holland and England.

Ten years ago, Mr. Viio was a working electrician in Stockholm who became frustrated when he couldn't find serviceable work clothes that looked stylish. So he drew up a design, had the garment sewn, and went off to work, where he received numerous compliments and inquiries from his fellow workers.

''I thought maybe this was a good idea, but I had no idea to make a business out of it,'' Mr. Viio recalls in excellent but halting English. ''I just wanted to give it away to the manufacturer so I could buy it in the store the next time.''

The manufacturers laughingly turned him down, saying his clothing was too fashionable and too different. They told him to go to a department store and sell it as leisure wear. ''That was not my interest,'' he says. ''I wanted to see the guys on the job look good.''

Undaunted, Mr. Viio borrowed $800, bought fabric, and had a small manufacturer make up 200 garments. He then became a salesman. After dealers gave him endless reasons why they couldn't buy the clothing, he headed for the building sites and sold them for cash, one by one to the workers. During 1973 and 1974, while still working as an electrician, he sold 10,000 garments ''person to person'' and gained his invaluable education and future marketing strategy.

In 1975, he quit his job as an electrician and started his workwear company from scratch. Business didn't come any easier. Along with the frustration of financial losses, the Swedish government at that time spent several million dollars in research, only to discover that work clothes could not be improved.

Once again Mr. Viio appealed directly to the workers, this time through a full-page ad in Sweden's largest daily newspaper. The response was overwhelming, and today Snickers is the second largest manufacturer of professional work clothing in Europe.

Now Mr. Viio is ready to fashionably outfit the workers of America. He chose Minneapolis for his test market because of the receptive large Scandinavian population and comparative size and climate of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Mr. Viio travels to Minneapolis once a month to train employees, meet with unions, and call on area companies.

The brightly colored Skillers come in 120 mix-and-match pieces specialized to fit the needs of construction workers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers, truck drivers, and hospital workers. Specific tools fit in specially designed compartments. Pockets expand on the outside to keep the garment's shape attractive. Knee pockets hold lightweight, removable waterproof pads. Some garments are completely waterproofed for specialized jobs like concrete work. A totally black outfit for chimney sweeps is uniquely designed with padded shoulders and top hat.

One of the most popular items is the ''walking tool chest,'' a mesh-backed vest with lots of pockets and a zipper extender panel for a snug fit when worn over a winter jacket. Many of the garments are multipurpose and can be worn for hunting, fishing, and gardening.

Mr. Viio still designs the clothing and doesn't let anything leave the factory ''unless I am willing to put it on and use it. If I'm not willing to wear it every day, it's not ready to go.''

He is in high demand as a speaker in Europe. ''People like to hear about success stories,'' admits Mr. Viio, who would like to write a book describing his marketing philosophies, which include keeping the company independent in every situation.

''We want to keep our freedom to do what we have to do if something happens in the market,'' he says. ''I'm not tied up in distributors because we produce about one-third of all our garments in our own factories. Two-thirds are made by sub-contractors. That means we know how to produce it, and we know the quality as well as the costs.''

Mr. Viio sells 50 percent of his line directly to the end consumer, usually large corporations. The other 50 percent is sold to dealers, retailers, and small companies. ''That means we get two things,'' he says. ''We get good distributorship through the dealers, but we also get the real feedback from the market through our direct sales.''

Mr. Viio will use the same marketing research here in the US that has served him well in Sweden and Europe: ''The only research I believe in is to take a sample case, go to town, and do cold calls. If you can sell like that without any backup or advertising or nice catalogs, that's great. Then we know we can make it.''

Although he admits he is looking for investors for his American adventure, he isn't very concerned. ''Money is not the question. The important thing is to get good people around you, get a good lawyer, accountant, and banker. If you have those, the money is no problem, you will get it when you need it,'' he says. ''I don't think too much about money because I know if you can't take the first step , you can forget the second. The first thing is to make it move.''

For catalog, write Skillers, 2724 University Avenue SE, Minneapolis, Minn. 55414.

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