A new generation of designers is breathing life into the Swedish fashion scene. Sandra Backlund has found her niche in knitwear — and turns each garment into a piece of art.
Sandra Backlund works many long hours in her workshop in Stockholm. Photo: Caroline Tibell/Scanpix
When it comes to fashion, Sweden is often associated with ready-to-wear brands such as H&M and Cheap Monday. But fashion capitals Paris and Milan had better look out, because Stockholm is edging its way into couture and avant-garde clothing. And the new Swedish fashion generation is eager to experiment — who would have thought knitwear would be the talk of the catwalk?
Warm and woolly fashion
Sandra Backlund, Sweden’s knitting artist extraordinaire, first discovered her calling in fashion as a student at Umeå University in northern Sweden. After studying more theoretical subjects such as art history, she enrolled in a textile class.
“I really found what I was looking for there,” she says. “I think my interest in fashion came from that, in combination with being a young girl in a small town in northern Sweden where I often had to make my own clothes.”
Two woolly creations from Sandra Backlund's fall/winter 2008-09 collection "Last Breath Bruises." Photo: Annika Aschberg
Backlund describes her design aesthetic as “a combination of science fiction and sheltered, warm pieces of fantasy.” She enjoys exploring the human form through fashion: “Designers have always used things like corsets and shoulder pads to shape the body — I’m just doing it with wool. I consciously dress and undress parts of the body to seek dynamic shapes. I like the softness together with the sharp silhouettes.”
Although it’s clear Backlund adores the warmth of wool, the pieces in her fall/winter 2008-09 collection, “Last Breath Bruises,” are anything but your average sweater. Her handmade, slightly outlandish attire features heavy architectural construction and large silhouettes.
Backlund doesn’t create her garments based on patterns, but designs as she knits. “I like to make the pieces as I go,” she says. “You don’t have to take things apart. You can improvise without having to deconstruct.
“The handicraft process and the handmade feeling are very significant. I experiment a lot with different materials and techniques, but I think I’ve found the ultimate way to express myself through my heavy wool collage knitting.”
Some of Sandra Backlund's creations are now on tour with the exhibition "Swedish Fashion — Exploring a New Identity" (read more in the right column). Photo: Nina Andersson
The 33-year-old designer started her own label in 2004 after graduating from Beckman’s School of Design in Stockholm. Since then, she has taken the Swedish fashion scene by storm, sweeping up awards such as the 2008 Swedish Elle Award and the 2005 FutureDesignDays award for up-and-coming talent.
Backlund has also caught the eye of the international design community. In 2007, she won the Festival International de Mode et de Photographie in Hyères, France, which she says was probably the moment she realized just how successful she had become.
She also collaborated with Louis Vuitton on several knitwear pieces for their fall/winter 2007-08 collection and worked with Franca Sozzani of Vogue Italia for the Protégé Project, a competition where five young designers are mentored by prominent figures in the fashion world.
Promoting slow fashion
Despite her success, creating two handmade collections per year with 10 or more individual pieces can be challenging. As she explains it, “what I do — it’s not possible to rush.”
In particular, Backlund finds that running her own company takes time away from her true passion. “There is so much going on except the actual design process,” she says. “It’s really hard to find the balance between the creative and the commercial.”
And you thought knitwear couldn't be glamorous? From the "Last Breath Bruises" collection. Photo: Annika Aschberg
She also struggles with the pace of the fashion business. “There’s this pressure to constantly renew yourself. For me, this is not the ultimate form of expression. I like to recycle ideas. It’s a bit of a reaction against fast fashion.”
A lone wolf
Backlund often sequesters herself in her studio with her knitting needles. For her, solitude is a way of life, as her passion for her work comes at the expense of her personal life. However, she says the long hours and repetitive movements of knitting have begun to take their toll.
She has recently come to accept the fact that she can’t do everything herself, and is trying to find ways to lighten her load. Backlund is exploring the possibility of collaborating with an Italian knit specialist to produce more wearable, commercial pieces, and would like to focus more on accessories, such as bags and hats.
Backlund says the challenge lies in that she sees her garments more as pieces of art than clothing. “I don’t want to make a scarf just like any other you find in the store, except four times the price because it’s handmade,” she says.
But like the slow process of her knitting, Backlund doesn’t want to rush to any quick decisions: “I need to do it in my own way.”
What do you think of Sandra Backlund's knitted creations? Feel free to comment below!
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Swedish design — Fact sheet
www.sandrabacklund.com — Sandra Backlund
www.beckmans.se — Beckmans College of Design
Swedish Fashion — Exploring a New Identity — Exhibition, October 24 – November 23, 2008, at Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art, Moscow (read more in the right column)
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Charlotte West is an American writer and sweater fanatic living in Stockholm. After meeting Sandra Backlund, she was inspired to pull out the knitting needles herself. Her attempt to make her own sweater turned into a pot holder.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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