GOTHENBURG, Sweden — When Maria Erixon was a teenager in the Seventies, she used to take the bus from the Swedish countryside into Stockholm to line up at the Gul & Blå jeans store to buy the hottest blue jeans.
“We used to lie on the floor in the shop in order to zip on the super-tight pairs,” she recalled. “The region around Gothenburg was Sweden’s denim hub.”
The village of Borås, 70 kilometers from Gothenburg, which today has a textile museum and school, swelled with textile production in those days, when Sweden boasted nearly 200 denim brands. Erixon’s early initiation into the cult of the right fit foreshadowed her future career as the creative force behind Nudie Jeans and Denimbirds, two of Sweden’s leading denim labels today.
“Practically the entire population are denim lovers. It coincides with our egalitarian state,” Erixon said in an interview at her design studios in Gothenburg, smoothing out her own carrot-fit jeans. “We are a casual country. Even the King used to wear jeans in the Seventies. It’s in our blood.”
Sweden’s clean, cutting-edge styles from niche brands such as Nudie and Acne Jeans are topping bestseller lists across the globe. While the rest of the world is just starting to squeeze into skinny fits, the slim look has been a Swedish staple for more than five years. Denim brands here are already on to the next wave, such as Japanese clean-selvage denim with waistlines soaring above the navel and slightly looser legs.
Sweden’s textile heritage, industrial design sensitivity, love of American postwar culture and acceptance of conceptual ideas have all fed its strength in denim design, making Swedish labels hot tickets all over the world.
“The difference with the rest of Europe is that in Scandinavia, labels are designing for the love of denim and not to be a multinational brand,” said Jan Busch Carlsen, owner of Copenhagen’s CPH Vision, one of Europe’s most avant-garde trade fairs. “They nurture their jeans and are careful not to expand too quickly.”
The American way of life underlines many of the Swedish denim collections today. “They are living the American dream,” said Carlsen. “They’re just doing it in Sweden.”
Scan the main street in Gothenburg and a handful of shiny silver Cadillacs might be spotted still roaming the city.
“American culture was very much a part of Swedish lifestyle here,” said Jonas Eriksson, the designer behind the three-year-old premium denim brand Pace, located outside of Gothenburg.
Pace takes a minimalist approach to its designs, offering little detailing and drawing its sophistication from Japanese raw-selvage denim.
“With raw denim, you should wait to wash until at least three months,” explained Eriksson, showing the selvage trademark, an inner stitching marked with a fine line of colorful thread that true denim junkies turn outward to display.
For next winter, Eriksson, who drives a Chevrolet pickup, used a 1966 model Ford car as inspiration for his collection.
“I wanted to combine ideas from hardware into denim,” he explained. Eriksson’s “antifit” styles with high waists retail from 1,500 to 3,000 Swedish kronor, or from $204 to $410.
Sweden’s clean industrial designs and architecture have inspired many denim makers here.
“We have a more functional approach to design — just look at our Volvos,” joked Mattias Lind, creative director behind the Fengersfors, a Sweden-based Julian Red label he founded three years ago.
Much like Nudie and Pace, Julian Red started out as a unisex collection and today has evolved into a fashion-forward label for women and men.
“We’ve always tried to focus on clean, classic jeans style and then explore it further each time,” said Lind.
Echoing other Swedish denim gurus, Lind agreed that the music culture in Sweden also helps set the tone when it comes to trends.
“We have always been very connected to the art and music scene,” said Lind, who takes his inspiration from Chicago’s Acid House scene of the late Eighties.
Sweden bills itself as the third-largest rock and pop music producer in the world after the U.S. and the U.K., with artists such as ABBA, Ace of Base, The Cardigans, The Hives and The Wannabies hailing from the country.
For the winter season, Lind will explore different shades of black and experiment with how they absorb light. Julian Red has expanded into a full fashion line and will introduce its first women’s collection next summer.
“Good denim is not how it is woven, it’s about how it behaves,” Lind said. “In order for it to be stylish, it has to live with you.”
Ultra-thick denim from Kurabo denim mills in Japan will be used for super-skinny fits.
“We convert two-dimensional into three-dimensional; it’s very technical,” he added, noting that Japan is the label’s strongest market. “Swedish denim has more in common with the denim market in Japan than any other market.”
The Swedes have long been on the forefront of innovative concepts in marketing, too.
“The success behind Sweden’s denim boom has developed through strong concepts and smart ideas,” said Sara Lönnroth, project manager at the Swedish fashion council, noting that Sweden’s fashion exports for 2005 reached 7.82 billion Swedish kronor, or $1.07 billion.
For a country that has churned out high-design champions with mass appeal such as IKEA and H&M, it’s not surprising that ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Acne Jeans, for example, covers a plethora of creative categories, including Acne Jeans, Acne Film, Acne Advertising and Acne Media and Architecture.
“We wanted to build a new kind of company, to launch a creative collective idea that combines architecture, fashion, music and film,” said Acne founder and creative director Jonny Johansson.
It appears to be a successful formula. Acne is one of the pioneers of the skinny fit. It first launched the look in 1998, only to make a splash on the market a few years later.
“It didn’t take at first, but we believed in the style, so we continued to push it,” said Mikael Schiller, Acne’s chief executive officer, noting that the line started out with only 100 pairs.
Acne, an acronym for Ambition to Create Novel Expression, reached sales of 13 million euros, or $16.6 million, from 6 million euros, or $7.6 million, in 2004. The company also opened its flagship in Stockholm’s infamous bank where hostages were taken in 1973 and the term “Stockholm Syndrome” was coined.
For the fall, the label will introduce a denim catsuit for jeans fiends, as well as high-waist clean-fit styles.
“You can be functional without being boring,” said Johansson.
Super-tight selvage denim for the fall will also be a first for the market.
Selvage denim is also key to creations at WESC. The brand, founded by professional Swedish skater Greger Hagelin, has done denim since its start in 1999.
“The Japanese recovered America’s old shuttle looms that offer irregularities and subtle authentic effects in the cotton that make each pair very exclusive,” said Thomas Flinn, product developer at WESC, who, like his Swedish colleagues, insists on using the finest cotton from Japan or Zimbabwe.
While raw denim has gotten more attention from men, designers believe the trend is picking up steam with their female customers.
“Raw denim shows how to be sexy without being vulgar,” said Flinn, who takes a minimalist approach to WESC’s designs.
For winter, WESC will introduce the Sandra look for women, a more directional antifit that is looser around the hips with a very long, skinny leg, as well as overall shorts for women. The brand’s success in the U.S. prompted the label to open its second U.S. location in April, at 282 Lafayette Street in New York. While initial forecasts projected sales of $80,000 in the first month, the boutique doubled that.
Last year, the group generated sales of 14.5 million euros, or $18.5 million, and projections call for 20 million euros, or $25.5 million, this year. The firm now counts four company-owned stores.
Meanwhile, retailers from around the world are taking note of Swedish brands.
“[Swedish denim brands] definitely tend to be a bit more sophisticated in terms of cut and washes than a lot of other brands,” said Julie Gilhart, senior vice president, fashion director at Barneys New York. “They have become a point of difference; the customer is just beginning to understand Scandinavia in terms of the denim market.”
“They introduced cutting-edge styles that have been very successful and continue to launch new trends,” said Sarah Lerfel, buyer for Colette, noting that Acne, Cheap Monday and Nudie jeans were top sellers at the store.
Super-cool but dollar-conscious denim is also a Swedish-born conception.
“There was a demand for cool looks but at an affordable price point,” said Alexander Graah, co-owner of Gothenburg-based Dr Denim Jeansmakers.
The fledging label offers skinny styles for women for around 65 euros, or $83, a pop. Selecting only high-end and ultra-trendy shops to carry its bargain blue lines has been key to Dr Denim’s success.
“You must be very selective in order to survive in the long run. It takes a lot of patience,” said Graah.
Last year, Dr Denim sold 30,000 pairs, a figure expected to swell to 170,000 by the end of 2006. For winter, Dr Denim says its Snap jeans, a slim fit with a high waist in cortina blue, a bluish-gray tone, is already marking up orders.
Cheap Monday is also as daringly cheap as it is conceptual.
“You have to keep design fun and forward-thinking,” said Orjan Andersson, founder and creative director of the label, as well as a co-owner of the Weekday denim shops in Sweden.
The label’s ultra-slim fits with stretch denim sell for an average of about 50 euros, or $64. Last year, Andersson sold nearly 1 million pairs of Cheap Monday jeans, and he expects to reach 1.5 million pairs by the end of this year. The Eiffel Tower, with a waistline nearly reaching the bust, and a denim worksuit are on the cards for next fall.
“It may be a bit conceptual,” Andersson said. “But we’ll make them change their minds.”