Homogeneous Zen are the words that spring to mind when describing Swedish culture. Where fashion is concerned, their version of chic is minimalist and down-to-earth, their style still managing to upstage the most fashion-forward tourist.
The beauty of discovering the elusive Nordic esprit behind their fashion preferences for white, beige, grey and black is that they’ve always got something tucked up their sleeves, sometimes literally. Open the door of the new Volvo XC90 SUV to be rolled out in 2015 and you discover a gear lever made of crystal glass from Orrefors and a tablet-like touch screen control console. While Volvo might seem like a lost leader in the luxury car market, that is partly their point: Swedes like being understated. In fact, they are so exceptional at it, they have made it into an art form. Incidentally, when Swedish designers try to break out beyond the no-nonsense signature Scandinavian style and follow the hype, they seem to be as lost and befuddled as someone who goes into Ikea for a lamp and ends up in a kitchen showroom, mesmerized by funky gadgets.
Yet in little more than 20 years, Sweden has come a long way from its Ikea beginnings on the international design scene and is starting to raise eyebrows. You’d think that by now the world would have grown tired of the user-friendly functionality of Ikea and the standard fare of trend-setting H&M. The secret to their ongoing success is this: Swedish designers skip out on the latest trend and instead deliver practical products which draw inspiration from the way Swedes live and work.
When visiting Stockholm, there is something almost maddening about how comfortable and laid back they manage to look while remaining highly sophisticated in what appears to be a plain white shirt. The innovative panache that Swedes effortlessly master is in the carefully harmonized blend of emotional and rational. A perfect example of this is the care in which designers lavished on the XC90. The seats have a massage feature as well as an integrated child booster seat option. The ventilation system filters pollen and harmful particles from the air. It runs on a two-litre, four-cylinder engine and is 200kg lighter than competitive models. There is a panoramic skylight (modelled after an airy Swedish living room) and 19 Bowers & Wilkins speakers with a sound system that used the Gothenburg concert hall as a benchmark for the ultimate acoustic experience. It’s rather like the professional music equivalent of wearing inner ear monitors in your car.
Stutterheim raincoats do the same. Going it alone against the Gore-Tex monopoly on rain gear, the rubberized cotton raincoat brand is a family-run business that was inspired by a grandson chancing upon his grandfather’s fishing coat and deciding to bring back the vintage rain jacket. For those readers born in the mid to late 70’s, putting on the coat gives you a nostalgic feeling and being in the rain in one reminds you that we all fared quite well before textile technology exploded. And Stutterheim jackets are the much-anticipated accompaniment to Hunter rubber boots.
On the haute couture front, after experiencing Stockholm fashion week in August, I’m convinced that Swedes will be the first to create a silk pyjama onesie that doubles as evening wear. To that end, Deitas’ new spring/summer 2015 collection is full of flow: light fabrics, soft, simple lines and just enough frill to create an erotic flutter. Menckel is all about pinstripes and skyscapes for next season, an effective cross of airy bohemian and business-minded. Buttoned-down men’s shirts meets sunset cloud patterns. The Back collection features exaggeratedly large safety pin clasps; asymmetrical, stiff cloth that is crudely cut; and high-waisted skirts and French stripes. Cheap Monday is embracing gaudy in a smörgåsbord of hipster: chunky platform shoes, trucker hats, raver glasses, wide fishnets mixed with distressed denim, their colour palette bold primary colours offset by touches of baby blue and baby pink. Diana Orving’s women’s line was quite Grecian, sexy slip out to the store gear and perfect comfort for night’s out while on holiday. Caroline Kummestedt is focusing on plunging necklines. Think oversized hospital scrubs or graduation gown v-neck shirts only highly flattering.
The design heritage extends to nearly everything: The New Clarion Sign hotel room gains an extra few square metres solely from the clever choice of seascape picture on the wall, and the throw pillow is propped up in the middle of the bed as if literally thrown there; the hotel Nobis’ bar has a signature (and award-winning) drink that is a variation on the strawberry daiquiri but with crushed basil instead of mint. Even the canapés served at the Artipelag, a conference centre cum art gallery built by the BabyBjörn founder, evoke ideas of long ago Norse warriors: ‘Ang’ was beef brisket glazed in red wine with pickled onions and smoked mayonnaise, and ‘skog’ featured blueberries with milk chocolate and spruce syrup. Additional Nordic touches included breakfast of hard boiled eggs with caviar and reindeer salami.
It’s hard not to be completely taken in by Scandinavian luxury and forget the natural beauty of the waterfront landscape. So, for a sobering walk take a wander along the harbour pier, take in the figureheads of sail boats to the placid, mermaid-like faces of passers-by. There is a reason that Swedes boast of living in the best country in the world. They stay true to themselves and to their roots, and haven’t forgotten how to recognize a good thing when they see it.