The former Acne Studios designer is putting Norway on the fashion map with his neo-Scandinavian approach to Nordic style
There has been a remarkable shift in the Scandinavian fashion landscape lately, as the archetypal minimalist style the region is known for makes way for new ideas and concepts from up-and-coming creative talents – take Robyn-approved brand Haal, former Fashion East resident designer Per Götesson, and, now, rising Norwegian womenswear designer Michael Olestad for example.
Fronting the departure from hyper-minimalism to a more concept-led aesthetic, Olestad’s first encounter with fashion was when he began working at an Oslo store in his teens. Bored with the lack of customers and visitors, Olestad sat down by the sewing machine and started making clothes – many of which ended up being picked up by local stylists.
After moving to London to begin his studies in fashion, he eventually went on to cut his teeth working under two Scandinavian design legends: Jonny Johansson of Acne Studios, and Sweden’s very own enfant terrible, Ann-Sofie Back – a designer renowned for her subversive take on traditional femininity.
Leaving Johansson and Back behind, the designer launched his own namesake label in 2016 with the intention of exploring exactly what womenswear can be. His SS19 runway show saw him send manipulated silk slips, deconstructed and reconstructed denim styles, and tongue-in-cheek accessories including money-clip earrings (complete with dollar bills attached) and Terminator-chic sunglasses out into the world.
Here, we catch up with Olestad to discuss his inspirations, how being Scandinavian informs his work, and producing coveted collections that rarely cross the borders of Norway.
Do you remember the first time you felt fashion’s influence?
Michael Olestad: By the time I moved to the UK, Ann-Sofie Back was my big hero and I was so lucky that I had a friend who knew her. He arranged for me and a friend to be dressers at her show, just two days after I had moved to London. Being present at the show and observing it was completely beyond for the both of us, but it got even better when Ann-Sofie asked if we wanted to join her for drinks that evening. That night I met so many people I had read about in Dazed, Self Service, and all these other magazines, I suddenly realised how intimate the fashion industry is.
How did you go from assisting on a fashion show to designing jewellery for Ann-Sofie Back?
Michael Olestad: After getting to know her and working on the fashion show, Ann-Sofie asked if I would make some jewellery for her next collection, and when I graduated she hired me as her design assistant, which I was for two years. I have so much to thank Ann-Sofie for, she is still a great source of inspiration and has a courage that I really admire.
You spent several years designing for Acne Studios. Are there any experiences that you've gained from working at Acne that you're now incorporating in your namesake brand?
Michael Olestad: Because of the work I did with Ann-Sofie Back, Jonny Johansson gave me a job at Acne Studios and I stayed there for three years. When I started at Acne Studios the brand was a little smaller than it is today, and we had a lot of freedom when working on the collections, which was great. My boss, Yolanda Zobel, was really good at leading the team and giving us space to be creative. A lot of the structure I use in my process today I learnt from working with her. Also, having to do a lot of commercial pieces as well as show styles for a number of years, while working closely with developers, pattern cutters and factories, has also given me a good backbone for my own work.
What made you want to start your own brand?
Michael Olestad: Working in fashion is very hard work, and after doing exactly that for others for a long time I wanted to try it on my own. Even though I know that it is almost an impossible dream to pursue, I would hate to not have tried and I am not really a guy that ever gives up.
How would you describe your own design aesthetic?
Michael Olestad: My aesthetic is a mirror of myself: feminine, masculine, simple, complicated, tasteful, and tasteless. I think the women wearing Michael Olestad will fit into at least three out of six of the words I just mentioned, in any composition or order.
What was the inspiration behind your SS19 collection?
Michael Olestad: This season, I was questioning the idea of fashion and the deep divide between the spectacle of the runway and the demanding, all-encompassing work that produces the dream. What do the looks we see on the runway represent, when they’re so far away from the clothes that people actually buy? It was about my life at the moment which is all work. I wanted that reality to be at the basis of this collection. It was a meeting between high and low, I was inspired both by generic, everyday dress and the art of haute couture. Mixing cheap with expensive as a reflection on the gap between the glitz that most people think fashion is all about and the hard work that is my everyday life.
You're from a place that isn't necessarily on the fashion radar, has this affected your work?
Michael Olestad: It is, of course, harder to be noticed outside of Norway, but coming from a small country made it easier to find my place here and to get the help that is very much needed. Social media doesn't have borders and that is where fashion is seen these days, so where you’re based doesn't necessarily mean that much.
What is Norway’s relationship with fashion and is it changing?
Michael Olestad: Norwegian fashion has no historical anchoring in the global fashion industry, fashion has been seen as continental, and something that enhanced elitism and international hegemony – while arts and crafts were closer to the people. Fashion still stands as a cultural outsider in Norway.
Is Norwegian fashion on the rise?
Michael Olestad: Things are happening in Norwegian fashion, and there are many new voices that are beginning to find their place and project the hallmarks of our contemporary times. Many have opened their eyes to fashion as a platform for diversity, social attitudes, and a meeting point for people, cultures, and artistic expressions.
What is your plan moving forward?
Michael Olestad: The next season is very short, so I have already started the new collection. I will be going to London for research which is always my favourite thing to do, as I studied and lived in London for six years; it is always the city I go to for inspiration. I love feeling like a student again, the time when everything was new and exciting.