How a bold new crop of Nordic designers are redefining Scandinavian fashion
While there’s a lot to be said for the enduring appeal of minimalism, Fashion Scandinavia, a new book and exhibition at Somerset House, shows a whole new irreverent fashion sensibility emerging from our Nordic neighbors, exemplified by labels like Wood Wood, Astrid Andersen, Anne Sofie Madsen, and Henrik Vibskov. “The design coming out of Scandinavia at the moment is very strong, I think there’s a new movement in fashion design,” says Dorothea Gundtoft, the Danish, Copenhagen-based stylist, author, and curator behind Fashion Scandinavia. “Generally Scandinavian fashion is quite sleek, and it’s known to be minimal and simplistic. But a lot of the new designers have studied at the best schools in London so they’re more extreme and more focused on details than before.”
Weather also has a big impact because it’s so cold; the colours in the north are grey and black.
In Fashion Scandinavia, Gundtoft takes a comprehensive look at the work of 56 designers, from well-known labels to up-and-coming names in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland via photographs of their collections and ateliers, as well as interviews with the designers themselves. Throughout the book, certain themes re-emerge, namely the region’s rich design and architectural heritage, as well as the kind of pragmatic concerns you might expect from countries where winter lasts for six months, when days average six hours of sunlight. “We have a really great design tradition in the north for architecture, furniture, and technology,” Gundtoft considers. “Fashion designers use that background in their designs: they’re influenced by designers Børge Mogensen, Arne Jacobsen and Bang & Olufsen. It’s a natural part of being Scandinavian to grow up at home with these items. Weather also has a big impact because it’s so cold; the colours in the north are grey and black. Summer is short so people get outside and travel a lot and then the designers do more strong coloured prints, but with the same Scandnavian lines and design. It’s not like Paris,” she points out wryly, “where you have that tradition of going to balls. In the exhibition you can’t show these crazy couture dresses because its not part of the Scandinavian background. It’s all much more minimal.” Instead of elaborate balls, the Danes have their bikes. “In Copenhagen it’s normal that you cycle everywhere, so a lot of the clothes are made for that. Everyday wearability is important.”
And while there’s a shared northern sensibility, Gundtoft explains that each country also has it’s distinctive approach to design. “Swedish brands like Acne, Filippa K and COS all have the same kind of aesthetic which is very minimal and you can see it in the lines, but the Danish designers use a lot more prints, colour and different fabrics.” Although Swedish and Danish labels have traditionally been the hallmarks of Scandinavian fashion, Gundtoft points out that newer centers in Oslo and Helsinki are producing promising work as well. “Norway is an oil country so their economy is quite good and designers like Haaning & Htoon and Veronica B. Vallenes are more extravagant, they use richer fabrics in their collections,” she says, “and then the Finnish use prints a lot, they have Marimekko, which has been famous for so many years, but a new Finnish label like Samuji is very interesting because they know how show their universe. They use very subdued and cool colours, and their lookbook is just beautiful, the photos are taken in a villa from the 70s with a frozen swimming pool outside.”
But out of all of the countries represented in Fashion Scandinavia, it’s Gundtoft’s home country Denmark which is leading the way. Copenhagen Fashion Week is increasingly becoming a reference point for interesting new work and Danish designers like Astrid Anderson and Henrik Vibskov have also been showing their work at fashion weeks in London and Paris.
One of the labels at the head of a new Danish wave in fashion is Wood Wood – their designs were shown as part of the Somerset House exhibition, and co-founder and head menswear designer Karl Oskar Olsen was recently in London for the launch of a new pop-up at The Shop at Bluebird. He and a couple of friends started Wood Wood 10 years ago, making limited edition t-shirts because they “didn’t want to work” Olsen admits laughing. Now Wood Wood shows at Copenhagen Fashion Week and the brand has developed a cult international following with menswear designed by Olsen and his partner Lotte Bank Nielsen heading up the womenswear. Wood Wood’s repertoire has extended way beyond t-shirts to preppy classics like chinos, varsity jackets and trench coats that have been reworked with their distinctive subcultural edge. It’s an astute collision of streetwear and high fashion, with well-designed pieces which retain that characteristic Scandinavian ease. Olsen says that the irreverent attitude that characterized Wood Wood’s early days is still evident in the collections today. “We came from the whole graffiti scene at the beginning of the 90s, which we were a big part of in Copenhagen,” Olsen explains. “We tried to take some of that energy with us into this project. In subcultures you have to keep on moving, and that’s the same more or less in fashion. We like to think of ourselves as not quite streetwear, a little bit off traditional fashion and with strong subcultural aesthetics, but still built upon recognisable classics. I think we do clothes that we want to wear ourselves,” Olsen considers, “and also we like to travel a lot, we like art and we look to other creators – all of this influences Wood Wood.”
Gundtoft also looks to several other experimental young labels based in Copenhagen in Fashion Scandinavia, like Central St. Martins graduate Henrik Vibskov who just showed his menswear collection during Paris Men’s Fashion Week. “His shows are almost like an art installation and he’s influenced a lot of the Danish designers to be a lot more experimental,” Gundtoft says. One of her favourite designers featured in Fashion Scandinavia is Anne Sofie Madsen, whose designs made it on the cover of Gundtoft’s book. “I think her work is exceptional and very different. Even though it’s really hard for her to survive now, she always works in these dark spaces, she’s very interested in dark creatures and she uses these references from artists, films and translates them into her garments.”
With the new movement in Scandinavian fashion partially indebted to a growing experimental aesthetic, it’s a surprise when Gundtoft reveals the reason that everyone has turned their attention northward recently. “It might have something to do with two TV series at the moment, Borgen and The Killing, they’re so famous here in the UK and States!” she laughs. “Of course it’s not only that, but I think it helps a lot to put a focus on Scandinavia.” And while Sarah Lund’s notorious Faroese jumper might not be an obvious fashion moment for the new wave of designers, there’s something to be said for taking inspiration from your own heritage, something the Scandinavians know plenty about.
Fashion Scandinavia by Dorothea Gundtoft is out now on Thames & Hudson