Sweden’s leading labels have captured an international market with their distinctive aesthetic and refreshing approach to fashion. In London, walk down any major shopping street and you are likely to find a boutique or two from the leading Swedish brands. We take a look at the secrets behind the enduring success of brands including H&M, Acne Studios and Cos
From the avant-garde luxury of Acne Studios to the revolutionary fast fashion of high-street giant H&M, Swedish brands have an impressive presence on the international fashion landscape. Companies from this Nordic nation have a reputation for defying design norms, and over the years have developed a distinctive, easily recognisable national style. It is a combination of aesthetic, substance and sustainability that has gained Swedish brands such a permanent place in homes and wardrobes across the world. Walk down any major shopping street in the UK and you’re sure to find at least one Swedish fashion store.
Brands from Sweden emphasise craft over trends, although there is a definite fashion-forward aesthetic to Swedish style that is often defined as minimal or conceptual – designers tend to focus on innovation rather than heritage. The impact of Swedish clothing design comes not from bold floral prints, intricate lace or embroidered detailing, but, more often, from exaggerated silhouettes and functional fabrics. The rules of gendered fashion are frequently broken.
Femininity is not defined by pastel palettes or fitted floral dresses; masculinity is not confined to sharp suiting and dark tones. The H&M group’s Cos label, for example, is known for producing unstructured suits, crisp white shirts and oversized pieces for women. Stockholm-based catwalk label Acne Studios adopted pink as its trademark colour from its beginnings in 1996, putting men in this typically feminine hue right from the start.
Pushing inclusivity further, Sweden’s style also sidesteps ‘age-appropriate’ dressing. For the Acne Studios 2018 Resort collection, co-founder and creative director Jonny Johansson has chosen to use 78-year-old model Veruschka von Lehndorff as the face of its campaign. Johansson explains that the idea is to be ‘current and honest’, pushing the idea that an icon can be of any age and that Swedish fashion has no age limitations: its style is timeless.
Swedish dress codes are much more casual and practical than those of other European fashion capitals such as Paris or Milan, so streetwear has become an integral part of Nordic style. Sneakers are readily combined with skirts or suits and cuts are always neat and functional. Clothing made from technical materials, which enable the body to move easily and breathe, is designed for life and adapts as readily to commuting by bike as to the changing seasons.
Stockholm-based J Lindeberg began as a golfing and ready-to-wear brand and its designers thus understand how to fuse elements of sport and fashion, making everyday clothing more practical. Striving to achieve this defines the brand’s mission and, to an extent, that of Swedish fashion in general. Creative director Jens Werner explains that ‘trends are important to know, but not necessarily to follow’, stressing that J Lindeberg's concept of fashion goes beyond trends. Inspiration comes from real-life sources as varied as ‘an art exhibition, an Instagram post, a conversation, architecture or a vintage sample.’
Jonathan Hirschfeld and Max Schiller, founders of sneaker brand Eytys, follow similar principles, confessing that, despite being co-owners of one of the world’s most influential sneaker brands, neither associates themselves with ‘the sneaker hype scene’.
Swedish brands also differ from other international labels in their lack of desire to be endorsed by celebrities. The Eytys duo eschews the idea of trend-led footwear created in collaboration with A-list celebrities – models which inevitably come with a high cost. Instead, they create affordably priced, unisex styles that can be worn forever.
Jonny Johansson states that Acne Studios does not pay celebrities to wear the brand, telling GQ magazine that ‘what’s interesting is when people find your clothing and they interpret it in their own way.’ This stance gives Swedish brands a cult-like status as well as an integrity that distances them from the disposable nature of trends and fast fashion, instead encouraging individuality.
Sweden puts great emphasis on the ethical responsibility of companies to be sustainable. The growth of environmentally friendly clothing means garments last longer, and customers feel they’re investing in high-quality items. This has had an impact on all levels of design, from high street to luxury. The H&M group advises customers on how to wash and care for clothing so that garments will last longer, and follows farming and industry standards that minimise the use of hazardous chemicals.
The group’s Weekday label, for example, which has seen rapid recent expansion and now has 30 stores, has strict environmental and efficiency guidelines that means it does not use PVC or fur; its merino wool is humanely produced and all its leather comes from stock reared for meat production. Swedish fashion houses generally encourage a culture of transparency, from being open about their choice of suppliers and materials to giving advice on how to care for products to prolong their lifespan.
The enduring power of Swedish brands is down to the endurance of their products. Not only does the substantial quality of the garments promise long-term wear, but the styles are most definitely more timeless. This applies to lifestyle brands too: names as diverse as Ikea and Spotify, which strive for innovation and modernity, were also launched in Sweden. As a guiding principle, Swedish lifestyle and company culture tackles the idea of necessity, carving an identity for guilt-free fashion that is globally popular. As Jonny Johansson explains, ‘If you are from Sweden, you grew up with Swedish design – it’s in your DNA, functionality.’