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Lars Nilsson, Hélène Hellsten Putting Swedish Design First

NEW YORK -- Modern Swedish design of the last century was influenced by Josef Frank, an Austrian transplant who created hundreds of unique fabric patterns. Now Lars Nilsson, the Swedish designer at the helm of that quintessentially American label,...

NEW YORK — Modern Swedish design of the last century was influenced by Josef Frank, an Austrian transplant who created hundreds of unique fabric patterns. Now Lars Nilsson, the Swedish designer at the helm of that quintessentially American label, Bill Blass — observers say Nilsson’s brought a bit of his native heritage to the collection — is using Frank’s fabrics to make a new fashion statement.

Nilsson has teamed up with Helene Hellsten, the owner of Clearly First, an eclectic shop at 980 Madison Avenue, to create a limited-edition handbag using a 1947 Frank print of a map of Manhattan. The bag, which will bow in July, retails for $1,950 and has a vermilion crocodile handle and trim. In keeping with Hellsten’s philosophy of exclusivity, no more than 50 will be produced.

The handbag is the first product in a tightly focussed collection that Nilsson plans to introduce at Clearly First.

“I’m working with different textiles,” said Nilsson. “There are some interesting prints by Frank and other designers that I’d like to take into accessories, like shoes.

“This is the beginning of the project,” he added. “The next step will be knitwear. [Helene] talked about children’s wear. I’d love to do that, too.”

Nilsson stressed that the Clearly First project is strictly an extra-curricular activity. “This doesn’t mean at all that I’m not designing for Bill Blass,” he explained. “I’m doing it because I’m Swedish.”

Nilsson pointed out that his contract with Blass is not exclusive. “Women’s apparel is something I could do,” he said. “I envision designing some key pieces or staples, not an entire collection.”

Hellsten, who once produced the 50th birthday party for the King of Sweden, fills her store with everything from Gustavian furniture to paintings by Olle Baertling, a Swedish artist who’s work is in the Museum of Modern Art.

Hellsten appreciates antiques as well as clean, modern designs. She discovered Extravaganza bicycles by Marc Newson, an Australian designer who also crafts watches and private-jet interiors. The $4,500 bikes are as technologically sophisticated as cars.

Also streamlined are Boblbee backpacks. The ergonomically correct carryalls can be customized and range in price from $90 to $195.

Fashion runs the gamut from evening clothes by Lars Wallin, couturier to the Swedish royal family, to sheared mink jackets in pastel colors by Birger Christensen.

“I’m thinking of selling more clothing in the store,” said Hellsten, who worked with Stig Anderson, the late ABBA manager, on establishing the Polar Music Awards. “In some way we’re going to have to expand space.”

Hellsten, who travels the world 200 days a year searching for exquisite objects, calls Scandinavian designers “a hidden secret” — and notes that the Swedish invasion isn’t limited to Hennes & Mauritz and Ikea.

“All the light has been on middle Europe — France, Italy and Spain,” she said. “In the next year, there will be a movement towards Scandinavian design.””