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The store that's gone from Garbo to grotesque

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Cardigans singer Nina Persson has been helping to turn Stockholm's most traditional department store into a hip, modern fashion house and art gallery - complete with severed eyes and distorted heads. Charlotte West checks out the new PUB.

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Once known as the bastion of frump, PUB – Stockholm's oldest department store – is in the midst of a drastic makeover, complete with retail liposuction and a commercial tummy tuck. With Cardigans lead singer Nina Persson at the creative helm, PUB is attempting to restyle itself as the department store equivalent of Madonna – timeless yet avant garde.

PUB.03 is the second of three “floors of fashion” to be open for public consumption...and a little shopping to boot. The result is a strange amalgam of Tim Burtonesque creatures, decapitated mannequins, fru fru and wax Chihuahuas.

“It is a dream assignment. We have tried to create something magical and fantasy-inducing. A strange, incredible environment that can inspire you to have fun with fashion,” Persson said in a recent interview in Svenska Dagbladet.

The renovated floor is one part retail, one part art and one part cuisine. The redesigned shopping area and newly launched art gallery, Operating Place, were unveiled on 27 September and the new restaurant, Publik, served its first lattes on Friday 2 November.

PUB, named after the initials of its founder Paul U. Bergström, first opened its doors in 1882. Persson is not the only Swedish bombshell to be associated with PUB's history. Greta Garbo worked there as a sales girl in the 1920s before becoming a Hollywood femme fatale.

More recently, the store underwent an identity crisis, with a disjointed shop-in-shop concept and wares more likely to appeal to Princess Lilian than Princess Madeleine. PUB struggled as competitors such as NK managed to maintain their classic charm at the same time they attracted a younger clientele.

But the new PUB is unabashedly targeting Stockholm's well-heeled twenty- and thirty-somethings, bringing together well-known fashion designers such as Marc Jacobs, Ben Sherman and Vivienne Westwood with up-and-coming Swedish designers, including Minimarket, Diana Orving and Helena Hörstedt.

Several young British designers – Jojo&Malou, Junky Styling and White Noise, among others – have also found a home at "Made in London." Persson, along with set designer Caroline Kugelberg, adds her own flavour with Vintage by Nina Persson, featuring hand-picked retro from the US.

Operating Place gallery kicked off with “c/o The Velvet Underground, New York, NY,” an exhibition originally shown at the Glenn Horowitz Gallery in New York in celebration of the 40th anniversary of rock band, The Velvet Underground. It's also the place to go if you're in the market for wax piglets or wombats, such as those by artist Hanna Beling.

Although the division between store and gallery is a little confusing (it's not always clear what's for sale and what's just on display), PUB has certainly succeeded in changing its image. Nesting mannequins with bike-helmets-cum-bird-hats and child-sized ballerinas – outfitted in a witch's hat and masquerade mask – twirling in a life-sized jewellery box give a first impression of being a bit weird and whacked out. Other idiosyncrasies include tutu-inspired dressing rooms and a silhouette of a carnivorous rabbit.

But it's not the interior design that is the most sensational; the department store's exterior display windows are even more provocative with their oversized creature masks, severed eyes and distorted heads.

Persson told Dagens Nyheter that in addition to creating the look and feel of PUB.03, their primary responsibility has been to design the display windows. “This seems like a bold project for being Sweden. It's great that [PUB] has the nerve,” Persson told DN.

One window depicts an underwater seascape, with bats made out of socks, a sea witch and a misshapen female face emerging from the sandy bottom. Originally, fake 1000 kronor bills were also strewn throughout the display, but were replaced with toilet paper adorned with the royal mint after Swedish police confiscated the counterfeit money, despite the fact it was only printed on one side.

“My first reaction was a laugh and I wondered if they had called any newspapers...I know...a little disgusting, but it's quite amusing that the windows are getting so much peculiar attention! Much more than I could have imagined,” Kugelberg wrote in the PUB blog she co-authors with Persson.

A handwritten sign in Swedish now informs passers-by that "the police took our money so now we have to use toilet paper.”

One of the more controversial display windows features a man dressed in a doctor's coat standing with his back to the street. Various body parts and designer boots are strewn around his mortuary and heads float in miscellaneous beakers.

“Our idea was that he is an inventor who lives several floors under PUB and creates new people. A sort of Dr Frankenstein. He thinks that all of the mannequins are either too beautiful or too dreary and therefore gives them new heads,” Kugelberg wrote.

One of the themes is turning the expected upside down. One previous window, for instance, featured the insane Norwegian-born artist Kjartan imitating Marilyn Monroe in her famous windy-skirt pose. A replica of a 75-year-man posturing as a sex kitten – even one as vixenly as Norma Jean, does not a pretty picture make – but it did make for one interesting conversation with an Italian tourist who happened to walk by.

The gauche and the egregious are somewhat made up for by a dose of cheekiness and even a bit of self-reflection. Although Persson's “fantasy-inducing” design might also be described by some as “gag-inducing,” she and Kugelberg have, through a fusion of fashion and funk, helped to turn a department store dinosaur into a sleeker, slimmer retail concept that has a fantastic selection of cutting-edge Swedish and international designers. A little something different, alright.

Charlotte West

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