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Pop singer Lykke Li

Has Sweden Become the Hippest Country in the World?

March 05, 2009 07:30 AM
by Liz Colville
No longer known simply for Ikea and H&M, Sweden is transforming into a creative design mecca watched by the rest of the world.

“Decadence, escapism and rebellion”

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For years, Sweden has been known for products that are simple and affordable. The ubiquitous H&M tows the line between perennial basics and runway-inspired numbers and, like Ikea, promises low prices. But some suggest that the status of these brands is making Sweden “misunderstood.” Under the radar, a hipper Sweden is making itself known.

“[T]he new generation of designers are fed up with the lack of variation,” knitwear designer Sandra Backlund told the International Herald Tribune in 2007.

“The functionalistic aesthetic is so deeply rooted in the Swedish society,” added Tomas Rajnai, who produces an alternative fashion event called Plus 46. This aesthetic has appealed to other countries for decades. But the younger generations in Sweden are proving that their more rebellious offerings are just as worthy of imitation.

Design crosses over into other spheres. Sweden’s women musicians, notably Robyn, Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife and Fever Ray, and pop singer Lykke Li, have made waves with music that artfully draws from the European club scene and pushes the pop envelope abroad.

But they are also arbiters of fashion and art. The Knife gained stardom with help from their sophisticated live performances and eerie, cinematic music videos, while Lykke Li’s passion for vintage clothing, which she says is ingrained in Swedish style, has situated her alongside other young fashion mavens.

Other Swedish creative types show a fluency in multiple disciplines. Marina Schiptjenko, who won the Elle Gala prize for Sweden’s Best-Dressed Woman in 2007, is both a gallery owner and a musician in the band BWO. What impressed the prize judges was that her style flits between these two identities, and draws from an adolescence fueled by punk music.

Background: How climate shaped Swedish design

The Swedes endure harsh winters, which may explain the country’s abundant offerings in home décor and appliances. “Harsh winters meant Swedes were traditionally forced to enjoy the indoors: furniture, rugs, glassware and ceramics become exceptionally important when it is 30 degrees below outside,” writes Stephen Bayley in The Observer.

The country’s socioeconomic structure also has a hand in how its design has evolved. “Demographically, Sweden is more nearly all one social class than, say, Britain or France,” Bayley says. “This meant that when the first design movements began in the early last century, their appeals could be addressed to the whole population, not just a special interest group.”

Swedish books like “Skonnhet in Hemmen” (“Beauty in the Home”) by Ellen Key in 1913 asserted the importance of interior design as something that could “transform life itself.” This and Gregor Paulsson’s “Vackrare Vardagsvara” (“More Beautiful Everyday Things”) in 1919 helped pave the way for the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, a kind of coming-out party for Modernism in Swedish design. After this, Sweden’s influence spread, endorsed in the U.K. in the 1960s as an “exemplar for imitation.”

Opinions & Analysis: Purism, rebellion, democracy and vintage

“Sweden has become a Mecca, of sorts, to design purists around the world,” argues Richie Rankin in the Swedish newspaper The Local. “The upshot being that local designers (fashion, industrial, architectural, whatever) are some of the most sought-after around the world.” Rankin also calls Sweden the “new Milan” of the fashion world.

“[W]e have so many vintage stores and amazing Swedish brands,” Lykke Li told The Independent in 2008. “There is less choice in Sweden, they use fewer colours and all the brands have a similar look. … In Sweden there's not such a thing about high-end fashion.”

But London’s Fashion and Textiles Museum Curator Dennis Nothdruft suggests that this may change as Stockholm moves away from the past. Speaking to PopSugar about a recent Swedish fashion exhibit at the museum, Nothdruft said, “[L]ooking at Sweden and their culture there’s kind of this idea of social democracy where everybody's equal. So, for people to do high concept fashion where it's purely personal expression and it's expensive...Well, they’re not used to it.”
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