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Sweden’s Sex, Sin and Sustainability

Looks from DEM Collective S/S10

Sweden is renowned for design, progressive politics and according to Sweden & Swedes (the welcome brochure that I received upon arrival in Stockholm) sex, sin and suicide. The country also stands at the forefront of sustainable fashion innovation. Its two-year-old Sustainable Fashion Academy draws designers and companies from around the world, educating them on a holistic ethical and ecological approach to production and design. At Beckman’s College of Design in Stockholm, these methods are communicated to the next generation of designers as an expectation, rather than exception. NICE (Nordic Fashion, Clean and Ethical) works to raise awareness within Northern European nations and demonstrate the potential of a more sustainable fashion cycle. Meanwhile, one of Sweden’s best-known brands, Fillipa K, has introduced the concept of a single-brand consignment boutique, a place where Fillipa K loyalists can exchange past purchases or gain credit towards a future acquisition.

In an effort to promote these practices beyond the nation’s borders, the Swedish Institute has curated Eco-Chic: Towards Sustainable Swedish Fashion, a traveling exhibition on now-August 21st at Manhattan’s Scandinavia House. The clothing on display is genuine “fashion,” boasting an inspiring ethos and even more impressive esthetic. Here are a few of them.

Shoes: Swedish Hasbeens

Marrying Ali MacGraw’s Jennifer Cavilleri with Olivia Newton John’s Sandra Dee, Swedish Hasbeens has resurrected the clog from its hippie heyday. The Stockholm-based company stripped the footwear of staid garden and commune connotations, and created a shoe that taps into today’s subliminal desire for a simpler time. The brand’s mission statement describes a nostalgia for an era when fashion “made us laugh and feel like a knockout,” and founder Emy Blixt confirms that, “We try to keep a ’70s philosophy of fighting for what you believe in.” The result of these ideals are all-natural toffl (the Swedish word for clogs) that have enraptured the fashion world. Styles range from classic Slip Ins to Jodhpur booties to basket-weave sandals, and aside from the metal staples holding them together, they are constructed exclusively of wood and vegetable-dyed leather.

In a nod to both tradition and ergological comfort, the company carves the soles from a single plank. This process is both expensive (three-times that of an industrial clog made from multiple parts) and lengthy (the wood can take up to five months to dry). As for the uppers, Blixt notes that 95% of leather shoes contain chrome, an allergenic that is also harmful to the environment. This, she says, makes an ethical choice easy and the difference profound. “It’s like sugar. It’s really cheap to get fat, and it’s cheap to have a lot of stuff, which is why a lot of shoes are similar and why [ours] are very different.”

Denim: Julian Red

Julian Red is the Swedish denim and ready-to-wear label that’s so cutting edge, you’ve probably never heard of it. Sharing a heritage with better-known brands Acne and Cheap Monday, the company’s aesthetic adeptly balances the sophistication of the former with the irreverence of the latter. The way co-founder and brand manager Piotr Zaleski tells it, Julian Red was the first to introduce the super-skinny “late-90s modern fit”—the one that Cheap Monday turned into an international signature. This may seem like boasting, but actually the opposite is true. Since founding the brand in 2003, Zaleski and head designer Mattijas Lind have purposefully flown under the radar, producing a mere two to 300 pieces per style and selling only to those who approach them, happy to grow at a manageable annual rate of 20%.

While Zaleski regards these small batches as “one of our most sustainable practices,” the company has skewed ethical and ecological since its inception. The distinction is rather that Julian Red is a fashion label first and fabric choices are about “organic for it’s own sake. [It] has always been a secondary position, listed in the fabric label but not played up.” The majority of the brand’s production is done on the island of Mauritius, which is ratified by the International Labor Organization and renowned for its environmental awareness. Additionally, they work with a Japanese factory that weaves adobe denim twill on 1940s looms and develops fabrics like recycled Gortex. They source Peruvian bio (free range) alpaca and continuously search for innovative ways to incorporate sustainability into advanced design. For example, instead of using chemical dyes to produce the saturated colors they desired for their F/W10 collection, they bought discarded scraps from a factory and wove them into vibrant heathered sweater dresses. The key to conscientious fashion, Zaleski maintains, lies in educating every part of the supply chain—from the factories to the sales people—integrating them so that they are invested in the end product.

General Ready-to-Wear

Camilla Norrback F/W10

Situated in an ancient monastery in Old Town Stockholm, Ekovaruhuset, which translates in English to House of Organic, contains the country’s best collection of ecological designer fashions. The wares are curated by owner Johanna Hofring, a self-described “crochet-addict” who became interested in ethical fashion when a friend showed her a documentary of a factory in India where Swedish companies produced. It was, in Hofring’s words, “nightmarish” and she believed that there had to be an alternative. Her own elaborate designs are evidence of this alternative, as are those of Anja Hynynen. Hynynen’s creations are a romantic take on classic shapes: puff-sleeved jackets, tailored trousers and angelic dresses produced in organic wool, hemp, linen, cotton and silk. Camilla Norrback’s clean, drapey designs similarly defy bland “eco” connotations and dispel any notion of compromising style for sustainability.

On the basics side, there is DEM Collective. An impressive label based out of Stockholm and Gothenburg, DEM started when Karin Stenmar, a DJ at the time, was looking to buy t-shirts to use for club promotions. Concerned about the implications of the meager price points she encountered (approximately $1 per shirt), she and Annika Axelsson created their own wholesale company. The brand’s name DEM stands for Don’t Eat Macaroni, an allusion to the world’s increasing reliance on a fast food, and similarly fast fashion. It is also an effort, Stenmar explains, “to not stand and preach, but rather give an alternative with a laugh.”

After failing to find a factory up to their ethical standards, the pair opened their own facility in Sri Lanka. They chose to produce in Asia because, as Stenmar says, “That’s where the problem is.” As opposed to an insufficient minimum wage, DEM pays workers a living wage that corresponds to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, works to promote gender equality through education and has recently planted its own organic cotton field. In the process, they have become a leading case study for truly sustainable and ethical fashion—and launched denim and ready-to-wear lines.

To learn more, visit Eco Chic: Towards Sustainable Swedish Fashion.
Now-August 21st at the Scandinavia House: 58 Park Avenue (between 38th and 39th Streets), New York.
Online, visit Sweden.Closettour


  1. Posted May 7, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    great post as usual!

  2. Posted May 7, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Yes, great post

  3. claudia haspedis
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Against all expectations,Swedish design again wins out with great aesthetics and progressive politics- if only they had warm weather!

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