Ask a denim connoisseur to cite the best nations for jeans and they would undoubtedly present a case for either the US as birthplace of the five-pocket western style or Japan, home of artisanal denim weaving. What would surprise many is that third on their list could well be Sweden, a country seeing a denim boom so noticeable it has been nicknamed ‘the Swedish denim miracle’.
‘What we do well here is dark, clean denim, because that suits the dark winter climate; it’s less expressive of itself and more about your relationship with a pair of jeans and how they age. It is fashion, but a slower kind of fashion,’ argues Maria Erixon Levin, former head designer of Lee Jeans and co-founder and owner of Nudie Jeans, one of the biggest denim brands to come out of Sweden in the past 10 years. ‘I’m not all that surprised by the development of Swedish denim now; we’re a very denim-oriented people.’
Into the blue
Recent years have seen the launch of a spate of new Swedish denim companies, perhaps because of the strength of demand for denim with a difference. Nudie Jeans, for example, could lay claim to having introduced the skinny fit that became the staple fashion denim choice. Last year it became the industry’s first fully organic denim brand and is well on the way to becoming its first fully transparent one, conducting published audits of its suppliers’ working conditions and environmental standards.
Nor is Nudie Jeans alone. Among the spate of new names are the likes of Denim Demon, Dr Denim, Neuw and Pace Jeans. Some of Sweden’s most recognised fashion brands – Acne, for example – started out in denim, while others, most notably Nudie Jeans, are growing into casualwear companies. Strom is a new label established by an ex-Swedish model with the emphasis on jeans for women; Cheap Monday, now owned by H&M, launched on affordability.
But a fact little known outside the country is that Sweden has a denim culture dating back half a century. It was then, in 1966, that the pioneering brand Gul & Blå was formed by Lars Knutsson, sparking a jeans explosion for a youth market unable to buy Levi’s or Lee Jeans, then still a rarity outside the US. At the first Stockholm shop, queues were the norm and sales of 1,000 pairs a day were not usual, particularly for the signature wide-legged ‘V’ jeans, while the company was also at the forefront of developments in creating aged washes and other treatments. Dormant for some 15 years, this spring/summer sees the international relaunch of Gul & Blå – according to a study last year, still the most widely recognised of Swedish denim brands – complete with jeans production in Sweden.
‘Sweden actually has a very early denim culture relative to other European countries, which most people outside of Sweden don’t know about,’ explains Gul & Blå’s Mattias Hallencreutz. ‘It comes from the fact that Sweden has always looked to the US for inspiration – in fashion, cars, music – perhaps because we have this long story of emigration to the US, so feel this strong link. And the Vikings discovered the US, after all.’
Fabric of a nation
According to Peter Lindh, design director of Crocker – the jeans brand established in 1976 by JC Jeans Company, Sweden’s biggest jeans retailer – the national attachment to denim is a reflection of the Swedish democratic approach, too. ‘Swedes have never looked down on jeans; they were something you could wear anywhere,’ says Lindh, who tips the return of the boot-cut for women this year and stretch fabrics in denim for men. ‘Perhaps that is because jeans have never been considered workers’ clothing here either. Jeans have always been a fashion item for us. And while Swedish design has been better known for its clean, minimalistic approach, there is a side of us that likes the broken-down, washed-out and lived-in that denim can represent. Sales of jeans here are always stable, even for the new brands that keep popping up.’
According to Carl Malmgren, Cheap Monday’s head of design, there is room for many more. ‘A lot of the US and Japanese denim brands are all doing much the same thing, albeit very well,’ he says. ‘But Swedish denim brands really try to do something that isn’t already available. For us, that is denim that anyone can afford but done with pride: a very Swedish, socialistic idea. And there are no doubt other ideas pursued by other denim brands to come.’