Trend-savvy Swedes are taking a democratic approach to fashion, wearing practical and functional designs that say less about luxury, and more about style.
Celebrated for creating clean lines, streamlined silhouettes and soft textures, Swedish designers are pioneering a fresh approach that makes fashion as democratic as it is chic. The synergy between independent Swedish labels such as Rodebjer, Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair, J Lindeberg, Carin Wester, Tiger of Sweden and Dagmar, as well as popular chains such as H&M, creates clothing made to meet local needs — yet these brands still resonate with global fashion culture.
The graphite pen can bring any design to life despite its monochrome color, the weapon of choice for many designers. Photo: Sofia Sabel
As H&M make affordable versions of high fashion available to local consumers, independent Swedish designers combat colder temperatures with sleek designs that are beautiful and functional, yet priced within reach of everyday shoppers.
The contrasting combination of high design and low prices challenges the fashion establishment, an elite group of designers based in Paris, London and Milan. These have, for nearly two centuries, dictated the fashions worn by style-conscious consumers. Designs worn on couture runways trickle into ready-to-wear lines, filtering into collections launched by mainstream luxury labels before being reproduced by shopping mall brands.
International fashion trends were mostly dictated by the colors, cuts and accessories chosen by the elite designers, which were backed by magazine editors reliant on the lucrative advertisements that top labels buy. Swedish fashion, however, embraces more practical aspects. It aims to be both wearable and affordable.
Several Swedish denim brands have emerged internationally during the past decade such as Nudie Jeans and Cheap Monday. Photo: Ulf Lundin/Imagebank.sweden.se
The drive to combine functionality with beauty and efficiency is not unique to Swedish fashion; it also pervades many other aspects of Swedish culture. Ingrid Giertz-Mårtenson, a fashion industry consultant and a former director of the Swedish Fashion Council, describes how this ethos influences fashion: “Swedish fashion is based on values relating to our cultural traditions and political ideologies,” she says.
“Fashion, like other ‘lifestyle’ elements, is interrelated to disciplines such as interior design and architecture, which combine comfort with functionality. This may be where the sense of practicality and ease in Swedish fashion comes from.”
Swedish fashion giant H&M employed some 90,000 people in 2011 and pioneered high-street design at affordable prices Photo: Sonia Rykiel
Fashionistas want to wear chic clothing, and for the work of top designers to be within reach of their budgets. During the past decade, the works of leading designers have been made accessible to mainstream consumers through diffusion lines or collaborations with no-frills retailers.
H&M has introduced capsule collections by high-profile designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Roberto Cavalli and Comme des Garcons, with prices well within reach of mainstream consumers. Like IKEA’s mandate to make good design available at prices most consumers can afford, H&M represent a non-elitist approach to fashion that make trendy looks available to everyday shoppers.
A leading example of Sweden’s democratic approach to fashion is its emerging denim industry, which exports designer jeans worldwide. Acne, Nudie Jeans, Cheap Monday and Julian Red are among the hottest multi-national jeans labels, and newcomers such as Denim Demon and Denim is Dead are quickly gaining currency abroad.
Following a visit to Acne Studios in Stockholm, Valerie Steele, author, academic and director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, said: “It’s genius to take a fashion staple such as jeans and apply new technology and design tools to heighten their look and performance. Acne provides fashionistas with a hard-wearing, efficient garment, while simultaneously introducing design innovations to jeans that could also be worn for their practicality alone.”
Swedish fashion house Whyred was founded in 1999 and has offices in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Paris. Photo: Whyred
International in scope
Thanks to the interactions between fashion brands, media and retailers, what fashionistas wear on the streets of Stockholm today looks as cool as the styles worn in London, Paris and New York. The Swedish fashion industry keeps pace with global trends, but unlike the vast stranglehold of mainstream fashion, makes more space for individual creativity than the dictates of the distant fashion elite.
The success of Swedish fashion abroad attracts international media and foreign buyers to the twice-yearly Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week held in Stockholm, where leading Swedish labels launch new lines. This season’s Fashion Week was inaugurated in royal style by Crown Princess Victoria, who also took a front row seat at couturier Fadi el Khoury’s runway show.
Bradley Quinn is a British writer and critic who contributes to magazines and newspapers worldwide. His books include Techno Fashion, The Fashion of Architecture, Chinese Style, Scandinavian Style, Mid-century Modern, Ultra Materials, Textile Futures, Design Futures and the recently-released Fashion Futures.
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