Few would suspect that the culprit behind these anonymous urban feminist- art-raids is actually Lovisa Burfitt, one of Sweden's best-known illustrators and fashion designers.
“This is something a friend and I started to do just for fun," says Burfitt, taking a coffee break at her cozy studio near Humlegården Park in central Stockholm.
Burfitt, 28, is part of a new generation of super-cool Swedish fashion designers who aren't ready to give up their dreams and ideals, who want to communicate their artistic visions to millions and listen to good music at the same time. There are plenty of obstacles in the path of these brave souls, including geography, a population relatively uninterested in provocative fashion, and a domestic market which is too small to support artistic, independent labels.
Another problem is that Sweden lacks a tradition of haute couture, as is the case in France or Italy, explains Lotta Lewenhaupt, the author of a recently published history of fashion called "Modeboken 1900-2000."
All of these obstacles don't stop unconventional designers like Burfitt, Kereklidou, Liljefors or "Blank" from battling to not only survive but also reach the world.
Lovisa Burfitt is probably best-known as a fashion illustrator- her sketches have been published by Vogue in Britain and Australia, as well as most Swedish glossy magazines - but her ambitions are focused on her own fashion label. Burfitt's clothing, launched in 1998, is already sold abroad in stores in Antwerp, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Milan.
Her Fall/Winter collection, ironically called "No More Drama," is inspired by "sadness, imprisonment, war and religion." Much of the clothing employs military fabrics and colors, and carries on Burfitt's longstanding fascination with hand-pleated details. This writer would have been quite pleased to walk out of her studio with a heavy, warm black scarf ornamented with a thick band of pleated brass zippers; it fit quite snugly on his shoulders.
Burfitt is a tough individualist who isn't afraid to be playful and daring: She once made a jacket decorated with 2,500 safety pins, spray-painted in green, yellow and red. But she is an exception in a country where most fashion is commercial, "mainstream" and safe.
"Swedes are very practical people. Maybe this has something to do with the climate. We usually don't like to scream or shout too loud," Lovisa explains.
One reason that the adventurous side of Swedish fashion hasn't taken off on the international arena yet is that this is a country with a population of less than nine million, and there aren't so many people here in the market for artistic clothing decorated with braided zippers, or with pants pockets of mesh attached outside of pants.
"It isn't possible to live only on the Swedish market today," confirms Lena Kvarnström, a fashion instructor/designer at Beckman's School, a top-notch greenhouse for this country's designers. Young fashion wannabes have to reach out far beyond the boundaries of Scandinavia, if they are to have a reasonable chance to make a living from their own creations. Some pack their bags and head for the airport.
Leaving the country was the choice made by London-based Ann-Sofie Back, a Swedish fashion designer and stylist with 0.0 interest in glamour. Back is more likely to slash a pretty silk blouse into shreds than she is to sew one; at the risk of sounding pretentious, one might dub expatriate Back a fashion-deconstructionist. Back, who also designs for Sweden's Acne Action Jeans brand, has "made her own fashion paranoia into an art form," trend-bible "Nylon" recently observed.
Swedish pop and rock music has paved the way for Swedish fashion by making a big splash abroad, particularly in Britain. Music is central to many of today's young
designers, who often describe their look in terms of a certain band or musical style. While Lovisa Burfitt moves to the sound of hip-hop or raggae, Ylva Liljefors, who graduated from Beckman's School in 1999, is solidly into rock. She showed her first own collection in February - with TV celebrities acting as models. The showing took place at Stockholm's "Alcazar" rock club to the fast, punk beat of "Le Tigres" and "Queens of the Stone Age."
Ylva, a descendant of the great turn-of-the- century painter Bruno Liljefors, designed the distinctive sleek white stage costumes of Malmö-based apololyptic glam-rock band The Ark, which was designated by readers and editors of Elle fashion mag as the "best-dressed pop/rock band of 2001." She has also designed stage outfits for youthful femme fatale rock singer "Lambretta," and a Swedish newcomer called "Moe" (short for Mohammed), who is said to sing and dance just like Michael Jackson.
"I'd rather be a little too wild than too stiff," says Liljefors.
One gets the impression from looking at the Ylva collection, hanging on a chrome rack near the door of her tidy studio a few blocks from Odenplan in central Stockholm, that these Japan-inspired silk blouses and sexy, open-backed dresses are tailored with great care and attention to the smallest of details.
Ylva creates some of the samples herself in a workroom crammed with five different types of sewing machines, an embroidery and a knitting machine. How, one wonders, does one finance the launch of one's own label in London and Paris, as Liljefors is preparing to do, only a few years after graduating from design school?
In Liljefors' case, she gained experience and earned money by creating the first two womens' collections for J. Lindeberg, a mid-sized clothing company developed by former advertising man-turned fashion-guru Johan Lindeberg.
Mr. Lindeberg, who played a central role in marketing the international Diesel brand, must be doing great on his own because he is too busy to return phone calls. According to a J.Lindeberg press release, awash in superlatives like gorgeous, ultra-modern and "luxurios" (!), this Stockholm-based fashion retailer is selling in at least eight countries.
Rock-fashion-designer Liljefors isn't the only recent graduate to winter over for a few seasons under the wing of an established clothing retailer while preparing to start a new, independent label.
Fredrik Blank, who has created the award-winning new fashion label "Blank" together with partner Åsa Göransson, is a design consultant Sweden's large Tiger clothing chain. The better half of Blank, Åsa, contributes to the treasury by doing fashion illustrations for Swedish magazines. Blank was named "Newcomer of the Year" by fashion magazine Elle for "demonstrating how the art of classical tailoring can be developed in a fascinating manner." Like other leading-edge designers of their generation, they are well aware they will have to find success outside of their own country.
"We have understood that our way of making clothes is more for the American market. Here in Sweden they don't understand it," says Fredrick.
Blank, whose label consists of an empty rectangle without any words, has a low-key, dry style spiced with a subtle wit, which appeals to customers aged 25 to 50. Their current collection includes a gray dress made to resemble a Swedish flag (in gray, rather than in traditional blue-and-yellow colors). They call the dress "Gråsosse," popular slang for the stereotypical gray-haired loyal member of the Social Democratic party, which has dominated the political landscape here for more than a half-century.
"We always try to do something that is distinctly Swedish in our collection," says Åsa. "We make clothes with many layers, because we live in a place which is very cold."
At the present time, of course, if people in New York hear the phrase "Swedish fashion", they probably think first of Stockholm-based Hennes & Mauritz, H&M, the giant retailer with over 500 stores in 14 countries. H&M is the largest clothing retailer in Europe, with sales last year of SEK 46.5 billlion. They produce international fashion for the masses, chic, affordable and yet sensitive to seasonal trends.
Some describe the off-the-rack collections produced by H&M as "throwaway fashion," because the low prices allow one to buy a trendy shirt or skirt and discard it quickly with a good conscience. Others claim that H&M, which employs some 70 designers, is so successful because it is proficient at quickly ripping off the brilliant designs of more exclusive firms like Gucci, Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren. On the other hand, H&M must be doing something right; few clothing retailers anywhere can earn a profit, as H&M did last year, of SEK 5.7 billlion.
And fashion is big business, even in Sweden.
"The fact is that Swedish exports of textiles and clothing reached SEK 13,5 billion in 2000. This represented a higher value than Swedish exports of vodka and all other beverages (3,2 billion), music exports (about 5 billion) and Swedish exports of iron ore (3.6 billion) - even all of them taken together," explains Sven Cele, president of the Swedish Textiles and Clothing Industries Association.
Very little clothing is actually manufactured in this country, despite the impressive value of exports. Only about 2,000 people are employed in sewing clothing in Sweden. Instead, Swedish clothing is made in the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary and China, where labor and social costs are approximately 10 percent of their levels here, according to Mr. Cele.
Most of the export volumes are generated by the largest companies, such as H&M, Swedish-owned Gant, Tiger and the Björn Borg design label. But several firms whose designs have a trendy, international feel, such as WhyRed, J. Lindeberg and Filippa K, are steadily gaining ground.
Filippa K, in particular, is the darling of slim, trendy urbanites in their early 20s. Felippa Kihlborg is the creative designer of the company which bears her name, started in 1993, which currently has outlets throughout Scandinavia as well as in the Netherlands. A three-floor Filippa K store was launched in November 2000 in Amsterdam. The company expects to move into southern Germany and Austria this fall, and London is also high on the list. Continuous incremental growth is the name of Filippa K's game:
"We've grown from nothing to SEK 170 million in sales in only eight years," says Marketing Manager Karl-Johan Bogefors.
Filippa K (Knutsson / formerly Kihlborg) herself is on maternity leave with her third child. But she turned up at the company's headquarters for a business meeting anyway one day in late February. Instead of a briefcase, she was carrying her 9-month-old son Dylan (named for the poet Dylan Thomas). Dylan, a real cutie who seemed to be teething, was dressed in baggy grey sweatpants and a roomy blue-striped shirt decorated with dribble; functional, but definitely not part of the Felippa K's Fall 2002 collection. That collection, according to a company brochure, is "a cosmopolitan freethinking collection for today's tough-and-go Bohemians that like to mix and match."
"I think we're very Scandinavian," says Filippa, trying to balance her infant on her knee while answering questions. "We represent practicality, simplicity, and quality. And sensuality, after all, we don't want to be boring," the Swedish designer adds with a laugh.
Text: David Bartal
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