From established to couture brands, Scandinavian designers are gearing traditional ideas of timelessness and practicality towards sustainability.
“Scandinavian design has traditionally been simplistic and known for good quality,” award-winning Veronica B Vallenes observes, adding that now “more and more of the practitioners on the frontlines are nding their own personal expression.” The region’s powerhouse ideals have, for the last few decades, been dominated in popular imagination by high street labels such as H&M, and furniture conglomerates such as IKEA. These companies have replicated a movement that calls for reliable, stripped-back products and which, thanks to quality materials and enduring character, have become indispensable in many households across Europe.
Undeniably, one of the most lauded Scandinavian cultural exports in recent years has been crime dramas, and noir literature. Television series such as Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Bron (The Bridge) are characterised by muted palettes and almost austere production values, marking a clear and conscious turn away from the glamour and opulence of Hollywood. Sarah Lund, the protagonist of Forbrydelsen, has single-handedly given the Faroese jumper a new lease of life, with sales increasing to an unprecedented level in the months following the initial airing of the series. Whilst the actual execution of the jumper isn’t traditionally Danish, the minimalist, practical piece of clothing that captivated the public imagination can almost be seen as encapsulating consumers’ fascination with an alternative style – one that, through the very fact that it dismisses any attempt to be regarded as “cool”, achieves this kind of status nonetheless.
Mid-century furniture has also been seeing its own renaissance, perhaps as a by-product of the rise of the hipster movement, with its attendant harking back to a less complicated time – fewer frills, fewer bells and whistles, more people enjoying authentic lifestyles surrounded by objects that respond to the real needs of day-to-day life. The fact that lighting, chairs, tables and storage solutions can be purchased from places as prestigious as London’s antique fairs or as populist and accessible as eBay is testament to the wide appeal of their character: simplicity never gets old.
Alongside the perpetual practicality that Scandi design is famous for, a new kind of trend has been emerging, especially evident in fashion: the emergence of a responsibility which reflects concerns with both their own and their consumers’ footprints, and planning for the long-term effects that couture production can have on social consciousness and the environment. Filippa K, a brand which is synonymous with Northern European style, has brought a pioneering, industry-defining spirit. It is telling that its founder, Filippa Knutsson, built the company around the principle of “recognising innovative sustainability” as its guide to growth. At the same time, the long-cherished values of lasting functionality are joined by a desire to imbue a tinge of luxury to garments, a hint of a quirk that, whilst produced within the tenets of the region, will also ensure progression onto the world stage. Vallenes weaves together both classic styling and progressive elements: a combination of tradition and innovation that defines her work and sets it apart from that of her peers. Whilst the Norwegian pioneer doesn’t make a conscious effort to challenge definitive elements, she does admit that combining recognisable clean lines with more exotic features has allowed her to find her own expression that works and one that she can keep on exploring further.
With a background in costume design, her experience and training continues to feed into creative processes, although, as she points out, working with these theatrical elements is something she enjoys “as a contrast to fashion.” When imagining and producing new season collections, the dramatic element is downplayed, retaining “only a hint of the inspiration,” and the flattering and comfortable silhouettes with a laid-back elegance that the region is famous for is focused on instead. Conciliating effortlessness and individual expression is the route through which Vallenes has been able to achieve a balance that allows her to be true to her spirit: “It is important for me to not just jump on a trend but to make timeless contributions that can last season after season.”
When it comes to sustainability, from production, to transport, to waste disposal, Northern European countries are fast becoming a pioneering force to be reckoned with. In recent years, Sweden has seen less than one per cent of household waste ending up in landfills, and has in fact been importing rubbish to recycle in order to keep plant regeneration operational. In the Danish capital, Copenhagen, almost half the population commutes to work by bicycle, and the city is currently midway through a 14-year strategy, aiming to make this desirable location the most bike-friendly city by 2025. Oslo is redeveloping its harbour, Bjørvika, around a curatorial vision of a “Slow Space” that is “free from commercial activity in which to think, to slow down, to congregate, to self-organise,” which partly hinges on the concept of Slow Food – an encouragement to enjoy regional produce and more traditional, organically grown foods.
Awareness of the state of the planet is also evident in the use of fabric, especially in the way each blend is chosen and sourced. There has been a movement in contemporary culture towards minimising ecological impact and supporting a more aware and adaptive approach to the landscape, with brands from the luxury to the independent championing both innovation and re-use when it comes to fabrics, which are equally chosen for durability as they are for quality. Vallenes is an example of this: “The materials are very important for me; I always find them first. Then I work and drape with them and that always gives me so much inspiration. I nd most of the fabrics at Première Vision Paris, one of the big gest fairs.” Of course, the drafting and manufacture comprise only the first few steps in the lifetime of a garment. Making the responsible choice in terms of acquiring these items is always down to the consumer. “I really hope that the clothes we design, create, market and buy are embracing sustainability,” she muses, adding that it is important that “people start making the right choices and thinking about how their wardrobe is being put together, before they buy.”
The region’s vision is geared towards apparel that, thanks to the plainness of line, durability, and comfort, can become and remain indispensable and longstanding items in people’s wardrobes through successive seasons. Nina Bogstedt, Filippa K’s Head of Design, sums it up when describing the process of producing a collection: “Each one has a core of essential pieces that stay the same over the seasons, only small changes are made to make sure they stay up to date.” In addition to the production of a jumper, top or skirt, the consumer’s ability to hold on to said item over many seasons, without fear of having it go out of style or compromising in quality, highlights a spirit of minimising the kinds of consumption that would lead to an increase in waste and its attendant ramifications for the environment.
Of course, an individual is more likely to decide to retain an item of clothing for a long period of time if it is practical and its design is in tune with the rhythm and demands of everyday life. One of Sweden’s most highly regarded designers, Carin Rodebjer has made this the cornerstone around which she built her brand – a sense that her work is there to “enhance personalities and meet the many needs of the modern woman.” Rodebjer’s contributions are intensely responsive to the present-day urban lifestyle: on the one hand, they allow the wearer to move about her daily business comfortably and with aesthetic consideration; on the other hand, they are constructed in a way that allows the wearer to express their personality, leaving space for the flourishing of style without sacrificing comfort. An admirer of counterculture and supporter of feminist movements, the designer understands that femininity does not need to equal discomfort: the patriarchal model has been eclipsed.
Vallenes’ garments also make use of colour, fabric, design and texture in a way that responds to and accommodates the needs of the quotidian. She notes: “It is important for me that my clothes should feel natural and not stop you from doing your daily errands,” she asserts. She points out that Northern European populations are known for their practical spirit; in Copenhagen, in particular, “most of the people are jumping on a bike to get from one place to another.” She keeps this sense of activity in the forefront of her mind when thinking about how to produce her collections and designs. It is important to Vallenes that, when wearing her creations, “people feel free to do what they need and want to do.” There are, of course, obstacles that come with running an independent label and carving a niche in the industry, dominated by big couture brands. Vallenes works with a relatively small team, amplifying the inevitable challenges that occur as a consequence of competing with larger and more expansive labels. Whilst her company isn’t able to market its products with the same level of advertising as bigger names, they counterbalance this by focusing on the development of a close relationship to the consumers, with the ultimate aim that “more and more people will take an extra look in our direction.” The model of a direct, honest relationship with the public, which is not predicated on complex or wide-reaching marketing campaigns, sits comfortably alongside the more traditional methods of large-scale advertising favoured by more long-established names: different needs filled in different ways within the context of many disparate kinds of consumer relationships.
From industry titans, such as Filippa K and Carin Rodebjer, to indie mavericks, such as Veronica B Vallenes, these unique and forward-thinking creators infuse their work with a balanced mixture of tradition and a futuristic vision that not only puts them at the forefront of culture but also places them firmly onto the stage of world fashion where they come together to represent the move towards an innovative everyday which holds longevity as purveyors of Scandi cool. Hopefully, this is something these designers will indeed achieve whilst keeping the social and environmental impacts firmly in their sights. Perhaps Vallenes acts as a representative of her peers when she explains: “Our ambition is big, but we want our consciences to be clean when we get there.”
Words Regina Papachlimitzou