“I would rather they were nervous than they were not. It’s very emotional and it can be a very intimidating thing to be part of fashion week,” says teacher Marie O’Connor two days before the Wednesday show.
Fourteen bachelor’s candidates in their second year of a three-year course are sleeping and eating in the warren of ateliers at Beckmans Design School in Östermalm, Stockholm.
For the past 12 weeks, they have been learning new techniques – everything from weaving to knitting – to tackle their sources of inspiration and knead them into a finished collection.
“From an educational point of view, the project is bigger than the show,” says O’Connor, who explains there is a fair amount of tweaking along the way.
O’Connor, a graduate of the Glasgow Art School who went on to work for a decade in London, is teaching in Stockholm for her second academic year.
Yet even in the UK, she says, there is a certain awareness of what’s happening among Swedish designers.
“I don’t like to generalize but there’s kind of a nice darkness about some things I see coming out from the smaller labels in Sweden,” says O’Connor.
“There are fewer decorative elements for decoration’s sake, it is more fashion about fashion, with elements of re-imagining what clothing is, what fashion is and what fashion can be.”
The Beckmans show on Wednesday is less of a fashion bellwether than the much-scrutinized graduate shows such as for example Central Saint Martins – a key highlight of London’s fashion week where editors sniff out emerging talent.
The Beckmans show is a different beast entirely. Many of the students are young, many still experimenting. This doesn’t, however, preclude some creations from setting the tone for a designer’s future work, or homing in on an upcoming trend.
“Some students already know where they want to be placed in the world of fashion and whether it’s commercial,” says O’Connor. “Or non-commercial as an artist treating what one does more as an extension of yourself.”
“There are designs that will become a trend, or commercially viable later on. And that’s what fashion is about, it’s projecting, it’s the future, it’s not doing a version of what is out there, it’s about understanding the zeitgeist or feeling what’s in the air and knowing what the next thing is.”
If her students agree with her or not, they seem rather unconcerned by it.
“I think we are subconsciously tapped into trends, as there is constant input, but for me I’d rather step away from it,” says Nhina Svensson, 21, who is stitching the coat tails of a man’s jacket.
“I’d rather find myself.”
Svensson is preparing a five-piece collection with two men’s outfits. The jacket she is finishing combines sports mesh and panels of a utility-like fabric. Her outfits are layered, many with knits she herself has developed.
“Layers of netting become more dense, but it still aerates. I like that paradox,” she says.
Her collection merges capes, netting and functionality into a blend of the Super Bowl and the Night’s Watch but still has a soft touch through dense but gentle layering.
“Future employers may be sitting in the front row,” Svensson says with a soft shrug. “But my outfits don’t need to be garments to be worn or sold.”
She slips a black scarf with five different knits around her neck – both the texture and the size of the yarn are wildly different. Some of their forebears are pinned to a mood board at Svenssson’s work station, next to cut-out images from the clean-up efforts at Fukushima, scene of the nuclear accident following the devastating tsunami off the coast of Japan in 2011.
“I was supposed to go to Japan on holiday when the accident happened. I cancelled the holiday. It felt odd to be a tourist in a country in crisis,” Svensson says.
Yet, the rescue efforts were to form the basis of her collection, looking at utility and protective gear in a new light.
One photo shows the blue crinkled plastic of shoe protectors slipped over a heavy workman’s boot. The image has made its way into Svensson’s collection as she dipped the toe of clunky ankle boots straight into see-through silicone.
“I’m designing for a person who is engaged in what they wear. I don’t think the H&M jeans and t-shirt set are my target group.”
Svensson cites Alexander McQueen and Yohji Yamamoto as designers she looks up to.
“It’s a fact that a lot of us will be snapped up by H&M, but I want to go to Central Saint Martins,” she says with a smile.
A few desks down, her colleague Moa Sjöstedt, 26, also cites a Japanese designer as inspiration – Issey Miyake, known in fashion circles as the king of pleats. And there are pleats galore in the three intricate outfits that Sjöstedt is preparing.
A white dress plays with the light in folds of silk organza, a fabric Sjöstedt calls “both heavy and fragile”, while a more solid creation to its right uses cotton canvas, a textile that the designer at first thought would be too unyielding for her purposes.
In both dresses, the pleats juxtapose with different fabrics and patterns – a burgundy shoulder patch festooned with coarse orange stitching, or a mock weave that actually consists of strands of thick yarn glued into a cohesive streamlined fabric, then painted for added texture.
“The different surfaces meet each other, a bit like a landscape,” Sjöstedt says.
She has a background in drawing and collages, both media that have made their way into her inspiration scrapbook. It is packed so tightly with references that it looks swollen, near sodden.
She has included work from artist Agnes Martin in there – “whose frenetic repetition makes the drawings look like textile,” Sjöstedt says.
Pictures of artist Sheila Hicks’ woven art are also glued onto the scrapbook’s thick black pages.
Second year student or not, Sjöstedt feels no commercial pressure, in fact she thinks wearability cannot be the sole focus of fashion.
“Why ask who’ll wear this instead of seeing it as an idea, a proposal?” she asks.
Like Svensson, Sjöstedt wants to keep studying after Beckmans, although her sights are set either on the mixed media textile master’s at the Royal College of Art in London, or moving into the art world.
Her intellectual bent is clear as she muses tentatively while touching the different panels of handcrafted materials and discussing the techniques she used and what they achieved.
The heavy cotton, for example, allowed her to slice its edges once it was already in place on the mannequin. She has, during the 12-week project, tried her hand at traditional pattern-making, but reverted to building her outfits directly on the doll.
And although she operates further from the fashion mainstream than many of her colleagues, she is quick to defend the industry.
“It’s easy to look down on fashion, as it’s a profession by women for women,” Sjöstedt says.
“The fashion industry should be held responsible for the environmental problems of over-consumption and for working conditions, but no more than other industries – I’m sure car manufacturing has its hidden secrets,” she says.
“But because people view clothes as superfluous and fashion as superficial it’s easier to be judgmental.”