How did functionality become a crucial element of cool?
There’s a stereotype about Scandinavian brands that, like all good cliches, holds a reasonable amount of water. “There has always been this idea that Scandinavian designs focus on common sense, which doesn’t really mix with the world of high fashion,” says David Hellqvist, editor of Dazed Digital and fashion editor of Scandinavian magazine Hemma. “Traditionally, clothes from the region are built to last, be comfortable and keep you warm.”
They may be regional in their design roots, but those of us who spend time scouring the high street and internet for interesting menswear can’t help but notice the recent rise of brands from Denmark, Norway, and, particularly, Sweden. Following the undisputed success of Acne, the Swedish brand Polly Vernon once described as “a winner of a range. Very wearable; quietly, fabulously hip. It has hip sewn into its very seams,” there are jeans by HUMÖR, backpacks by Sandqvist and Fjallraven or coats by Stutterheim. A strong Nordic flavour that is emerging in British menswear boutiques and clued-up online retailers.
Last week saw the culmination of the latest Copenhagen fashion week, an event that often fails to get the widespread coverage of the “big four” (Milan, Paris, New York and London) but was this year the focus of numerous fashion blogs, such as Style Sight, Fashion Vibe and street style site Face Hunter, as well as Vice magazine.
This kind of attention clearly goes beyond a brief appreciation for the winter jumpers sported by Sarah Lund in The Killing or the continued rise of Acne. Hellqvist believes the success of Scandinavian clothes in boutiques and online is due to brands not relying on logos, as their US counterparts, such as Supreme and Stussy, do, and instead investing time and attention in high-quality design. The lack of in-your-face design and publicity encourages shoppers to go and find out about a brand rather than buy into an established subculture choice. Unlike brands with well-known logos, expensive ad campaigns and sponorship deals, many Scandinavian designers retain a sense of exclusivity and, as a result, have that much-desired, elusive trait: authenticity.
But clearly, there is more than a grain of truth to the stereotype of Scandinavian design focusing on functionality and minimalism made famous by Ikea and H&M. Laidback designs mixed with quality materials have made Scandinavian brands sought after by men wanting both to look good and to buy something that will last.
Jamie Cansdale, who co-runs the Bristol menswear boutique Donuts, is one of many buyers who sees the stereotypical Scandinavian preoccupation with simplicity as an advantage rather than a drawback. “There’s some truth in those cliches and there’s definitely that element of understatement with [brands such as] Norse Projects and Wood Wood, but they’re also not afraid to use bright colours or bold patterns on the right piece, and couple it with an emphasis on materials and quality,” he says. “They have a very clean aesthetic, which made a welcome change from the fairly loud and graphic based direction a lot of US brands seemed to be going down.”
Now, however, the notion of functionality as an obstacle to achieving handsomely designed clothes is out of date. Whether it’s the bite of another cold winter or the fact that we live in a world in which technology has become a part of everyday life to the degree that phrases such as “smartphone” and “data roaming” are part of our vernacular, the idea of clothing built with endurance in mind is desirable. Nerds, to put it bluntly, are the new cool.
If the high-street popularity of Scandinavian design leads to a greater respect for and interest in Nordic designers, then all the better as far as Hellqvist is concerned. He speaks highly of the young Vietnamese-born Swedish designer Nhu Duong and older designers such as Peter Jensen and Johan Lindeberg, who made a name for himself with his outlandish golf collections, which were worn by the Swedish golfer Jasper Parenvik.
Brands such as Fjallraven have even played on their functionality and slightly geeky status. Hellqvist recently lauded Fjallraven’s Kånken backpack and its rise from nerdy faux-pas to essential fashion accessory in cities all over Europe. He wrote: “A new generation came along who viewed Kånken not as a slightly naff, practical and unglamorous bag, but as the ultimate in utilitarian cool. Now it happily hangs on the trendiest young backs from Borås to Berlin.”