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Easy pieces

London, Paris, Milan... Stockholm and Helsinki? Scandinavia has no international reputation for its fashion. But as its high quality and simple - yet contemporary - style finds new fans during the recession, all that looks set to change, as Josh Sims discovers

It is not often that a fashion company will thank a recession for success. But a number of them are sitting pretty thanks to their sharing an ethos that chimes with more considered consumer times. Their price, at the upper middle-level, is accessible without being punishing. Their quality - the products nearly all being made in Europe - is high, ensuring their products take plenty of wear. And their look - directional but not avant-garde - is interesting without dating overnight. “And now they are making more of a move from the edgy to the more commercial, without losing those defining characteristics,” says Tove Westling. “What might seem surprising is that so many of these successful brands seem to come from one place.”

She is referring to Scandinavia. If America has had its moment in the fashion sun thanks to its everyday style, Italy its own thanks to its high glamour and luxury goods and the UK its time in the spotlight due to a combination of heritage and outlandishness, then now the winds are blowing in Scandinavia’s favour.“The media and buyers are much more interested now,” says Ms Westling, whose Varg sales agency is a leader for Scandinavian fashion. “And that’s a reflection of its especial relevance during the recession.”

Indeed, increasingly important events the likes of Swedish Fashion Week and Copenhagen’s CIFF trade show have pushed Scandinavian fashion to the fore. The high-street retail giants the likes of H&M and Cos aside, the racks of picky independent stores are groaning with Scandinavian brands, from specialists the likes of Cheap Monday and Nudie in denim, through to Acne and 5th Avenue Shoe Repair, Makia, R/H and House of Dagmar to name just a few.

“In fact, the reality is that there are not that many successful Scandinavian brands and those that are are relatively small,” says Keld Mikkelson, founder of Day Birger et Mikkelson, which pioneered the way when it launched some 15 years ago and is now launching its new, younger line Second Day. “It’s just that fashion is more naturally ‘us’ now, which it wasn’t when we launched - people thought what we were doing was strange, even though it looks really normal now.”

Creating a high fashion garment that's high fashion for many seasons is hard

Normal might translate as intriguing but wearable. “Scandinavian clothes aren’t exactly basic but they are easy to mix with other, more distinctive or special clothes - it’s much the same as the design at IKEA works. You buy their good simple pieces of furniture to use alongside your more statement ones,” explains Palle Stenberg, cofounder of Nudie. “These may not be especially big brands but sometimes it’s easier to be small - there’s more of a readiness not to over-complicate, and to do your own thing.”

Crucially, the clothes themselves also allow the wearer to do their own thing. According to Kristina Tjader, ex designer for H&M - who in 2005 set up House of Dagmar with her sister, the ex buyer at H&M - its very wearability suits a social shift (or perhaps just a fad) towards individuality in dress. “The more different you are, the cooler you are is the message of fashion now, and Scandinavian style fit that attitude very well,” she argues. “It’s clean and contemporary but doesn’t seek to impose a costume. It’s not going to make you look like a clown.”

Finding that balance - “creating the high fashion garment that high fashion for many seasons,” as Ms Tjader puts it - is harder than it looks, even if it would appear to be in demand: House of Dagmar, which this year won the Guldknappen, Scandinavia’s most prestigious fashion design award, saw sales increase 80 per cent in 2010, and predicts a 50 per cent increase on that for 2011.

Indeed, Scandinavian fashion brands suggest that one reason why they are successful now is that hard work has led many of them to some kind of tipping point in the home market that has so carefully shaped them over the last decade. “Scandinavia is a small and so a tough market - your product has to be of a high standard to break into it and it needs to be outward looking. It’s an environment that tests whether a fashion brand has what it takes,” says Ms Westling. “That means by the time it exports - and because it’s a small domestic market that is happening for many brands now - it comes with credibility, which is essential in this climate.”

But while, to outsiders, Scandinavian fashion may appear to share characteristics - chiefly that of being of the times rather than of the moment - perhaps it is too narrow a vision to lump the various nations’ sensibility under one banner. After all, Tjader notes how to Scandinavian eyes, Swedish and, less so, Norwegian fashion is more modernist, against the Danish more Bohemian style and the Finnish more quirky design. According to Emilia Hernesniemi, co-founder of the new Finnish R/H label, her nation’s designer outlook - shaped by Slavic influences from the east as much as Scandinavian countries to the west - is “less dark, less Gothic, happier really".

"It’s Scandinavia in a good mood. And I think that appeals. There has been so much emphasis on Swedish design recently that I think it’s starting to lose its freshness while there’s so much bubbling away in Finland now,” she says.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Finnish designer Aki Choklat agrees, citing not just Helsinki as next year’s World Design Capital, but the likes of Finsk, Heikki Salonen, Laitinen, Minna Parikka and Samuji as just some of the new wave of Finnish fashion brands on the rise.

“Scandinavian brands are appealing now because they’re so welldeveloped before you even get to hear of them. And Scandinavia is relatively isolated from mainland Europe, which encourages that independent thinking,” says Mr Choklat, whose snappy menswear collection for Finnish company Petrifun launches next spring. “And, though I might well say this, it’s a Swedish moment now, but it will be a Finnish moment soon," he says. "Long-established Finnish companies are now bringing in designers that will allow them to re-invent and there is still an exoticism about the country that appeals. After all, what do people know about Finland? Not a lot. But in fashion terms
that’s about to change.”

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