NHL player Ville Leino watched his mate Juhani Putkonen flick through Instagram when the duo was killing time at the airport in Detroit, US.
“I’m on Instagram a lot. Like, a lot,” Putkonen says laughingly. “Then Ville asked me to help him set up an account, as he didn’t have much in the way of digital skills.”
Putkonen was happy to help with everything but one thing: Leino had to come up with his username by himself. Being famous, at least in hockey terms, he didn’t want to use his own name. ‘Billebeino’ was born out of one of his nicknames among foreigners, Bille.
At first, the photos were Leino’s personal snapshots and the private account was followed by his friends. Now, looking at @billebeino, there are over 20 000 followers and both Finnish and international stars wearing clothes with a stripey logo or the word Billebeino on them.
What has happened after a hockey man took his tentative first steps on visual social media? The same as Putkonen’s Instagram usage: a lot.
“Are you Billebeino?”
The Billebeino logo was initially a signature Leino marked his paintings with, and then it became a bit of a thing between the him and Putkonen. The duo printed out several hundred stickers with the logo on and stuck them all over the place, posting photographs of them on social media using the hashtag #billebeino.
Some of the stickers were splashed onto clothing. Then the two started to ponder: why not actually print it on a shirt?
“I always say that the coolest thing about Billebeino is that we never decided to start a clothing brand, sat down and created a strategy,” Putkonen explains. “It’s been a bunch of accidents, one leading to another.”
In the beginning, Billebeino made beanies that were sold to friends. When you’re famous yourself, you tend to know a few other famous people, too. Thus, soon people like F1 driver Kimi Räikkönen and NHL superstar Teemu Selänne were wearing Billebeino under the hashtag #areyoubillebeino.
The frustrating thing for fans was that they couldn’t get their hands on Billebeino. Its origins were a mystery, so too its purpose. The enigma surrounding the brand also suggested a huge trend that was bubbling beneath the surface.
This lasted for months.
“It was pretty cool,” Putkonen notes. “It was mysterious, so people became keen, as they weren’t sure if it was something they should know about.”
When the website opened in 2014, the site crashed under the weight of enthusiasm.
It’s not all hockey
Since then, Billebeino’s selection has grown to comprise all sorts of clothing. Although any regular Joe can purchase the items nowadays, stars haven’t abandoned the brand: musicians as well as sports folks from both Finland and abroad have been seen wearing Billebeino.
For example, P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators recently sailed through a Stanley Cup press day with a Billebeino cap on. Such visibility is the kind that can’t be bought with dollar bills.
Despite Leino’s background, Billebeino isn’t just sports. Putkonen emphasises that Billebeino is a lifestyle brand.
“We don’t want to be sold in sports stores; our dream is to be in shops like Urban Outfitters.”
It’s not just a pipe dream. When Leino is done with professional hockey, the brand will start hitting the prospects in the North American market.
Putkonen says that Leino sees Billebeino as his second career. Financially, NHL players don’t really need a dayjob after they take their skates off.
“That’s how much passion there is for Billebeino,” Putkonen says. “He wouldn’t need to, but he wants to.
Leino’s passion for fashion has made him Billebeino’s head designer. All items are, design-wise, creations of the company’s founding fathers.
The production itself is outsourced and happens with the help of fellow Finns, Pure Waste. Clothing comes from India and is made of 100 per cent recycled materials, and caps are made in Bangladesh. Pure Waste owns the factory in India, monitoring sustainability and workers’ rights closely.
“We’re really excited about the ethical aspect,” Putkonen says. “We’re already overconsuming the Earth’s capacity, so it’s nice to be able to do our share to improve that, as well as the wellbeing of the workers.”
In Finland, Billebeino is operated by Putkonen plus one staff member, a second one joining in later this year. Leino does what he can, when he’s not on the ice.
At the moment, the vast majority of orders comes from Finland. There are upcoming collaborations that are likely to change this, though, but Putkonen remains tight lipped, as contracts are yet to be inked.
The product range is growing, too. Billebeino sticks to its guns when it comes to basics and has so far launched its new products as drops instead of collections. The plan is to sell some limited edition items too, such as colours and designs that won’t be restocked.
“Our classics won’t go anywhere, but limited editions are a treat to fans and a way to get customers to react,” Putkonen tells. “It’s working: pretty much every launch has crashed the site, not matter how well we’ve thought we’ve prepared.