‘Isolation in Sweden put my art on world stage’

Yorkshireman and denim artist Ian Berry locked himself in a studio for three years in the small Swedish town Landskrona. The isolation took little toll, instead his career took a big leap – so big it outran him.

Sometimes Ian Berry forgets he lives in Sweden.

The artist, who was born in Huddersfield, UK, and became famous with making art out of blue jeans, most of the time locks himself up in his studio in Landskrona and works the whole day into the night.

"When I get out and talk to someone, I am like: 'Oh yeah, right, they are talking Swedish.'"

Despite the Swedish summer his skin is still white and despite having lived in Sweden for three years his language skills have not improve significantly.

"I work till I am exhausted, which is around one o' clock in the morning, then I go to bed and sleep until 7 or 8am. Then I go straight back to my studio. If I haven’t slept there."

In his art, Berry cuts pieces of denim into shapes and glues them together. This way he creates pictures of, for example, the London Underground or Piccadilly Circus, or interiors ranging from London pubs to American Diners. The magazine "Art Business News" placed him recently in its "Top 30 artists under 30" list.

In his studio, he stores thousands of different pairs of jeans, so he may always find the right shade for his new piece of art. Sometimes it takes him up to half a day to find the fitting piece.

The 29-year-old artist was inspired when he saw a pair of his old jeans on a pile of cast offs ready for the charity shop. "I was transfixed by the ripped, faded texture of the fabric," he writes on his homepage. "How the different blues contrasted against each other with the varying shades."

He doesn’t like to bang on about the conceptual nature of his art, but he does have his own meanings in his works, he says, but leaves further interpretation to the viewer: "I like when people come to me and say: 'I am not really into art but I like what you are doing'."

GALLERY: Scenes made out of jeans

During the recession in 2009, he was made redundant as an art director at a company in Sydney and left for Sweden to visit his backpacker girlfriend. But – "this changed my life drastically" – he stayed.

He focused only on his artwork full-time – which basically meant he was working on all cylinders again. Only this time, he did not do it for the money but was actually using up his savings while building up a new collection. The young couple even moved from Lund to Landskrona – a town of 30,000 – since the rent is cheaper there as they were not sure how well his art career would go.

At first, Berry was inspired by his new surroundings and a country that seems to love jeans. "It is amazing that such a small country has so many jeans brands," he says. "And they are a lot cheaper here than in London – one of the only things, that is."

In 2011, he set up an exhibition with Swedish scenes in southern Sweden, but, he says, "it didn't feel natural for me". He prefers the American brands which he associates with romantic notions of big movies. "It has a more international feeling but also a personal connection for me," says the artist, who held several exhibitions in the US, Portugal and London and is preparing for one at London's Catto Gallery in November this year.

At a recent exhibition in Miami, Berry sold his pieces for $7,200 a pop.

"I had 16 flights this year from Copenhagen, all work-related," says Berry. "My artwork has gone faster than I have. I did not have one day of vacation this year in all that travel."

When he does have the time, Berry visits the Swedish flea markets – loppis and shops there for used jeans. Sometimes people donate old clothes. "I even got a pair from the Nobel family."

Blue jeans are big in the Swedish second-hand market, he says. "It's just because so many people wear them here."

Even though he could not really immerse himself in the country he lives in right now, he found some things he likes about it: that Swedes love whisky and the summer, for example. "And I do like pickled herring." Berry has also swapped English tea for Swedish coffee.

On the other hand, there is a downside as well.

"I miss being around a creative crowd," he says, "but the good thing is, I don’t get distracted here."

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‘Don’t wear bright colours’: Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Swedes have an international reputation for dressing well, with Scandi style a popular trend outside Sweden. The Local asked Swedes and foreigners living in Sweden to try and figure out the best tips and tricks for how to dress like a Swede.

'Don't wear bright colours': Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Black is best

When asking several Swedes their top-tips on how to dress like a Swede, many agreed – wear black.

Young professional Tove advises to keep it “all black, minimalist”. Uppsala newspaper columnist Moa agrees: “Wear a lot of black clothes and DON’T wear sneakers or ‘comfortable’ shoes, like running shoes, with dresses.”

Black is a neutral colour and, in general, if you get the neutral colours right you have got a long way in following the Swedish style. 

Neutral colours and a lot of knitwear is a good starting point. Photo: FilippaK/

Stay neutral 

Sweden might be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of neutrality by joining Nato, but Swedish fashion maintains its strong neutral stance when it comes to colour combinations.

Generally speaking, in autumn and winter Swedes tend to wear darker colours, as Sharon put it: “lots of beige, grey, black and ivory knits or wool. Jeans black or any shade of blue. Black tights with white sneakers for skirts and dresses”.

“Swedes in general will wear black and navy together which I’ve not seen before,” she added.

However, as the weather gets warmer, things change, as half-British half-Swedish Erik explained: “in summer/late spring Swedes change shape and personality,” adding a bit more colour to their wardrobe.

“Lots of colours yet still somewhat monochrome,” he said.

Most Swedes don’t wear a tie at work. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Follow the news trend, drop the tie

Nils, a reporter and presenter for public broadcaster SVT in western Sweden, does not always wear a tie in front of the camera – and he said his colleagues on national news don’t wear ties either.

“It’s not a must,” he said.

A blue shirt, no tie, top button open, beige chinos and a grey dinner jacket is the look he chose when presenting the evening news a few weeks ago.

Nils Arnell presenting the news on SVT Nyheter Väst. Photo: Nils Arnell/SVT

On a day to day basis Nils, who stressed that he’s “not a fashion expert”, gave the following advice: “As long as you manage to dress in a neat style, you can get away with quite a lot.”

“A white t-shirt and an overshirt work well in most situations and look stylish.”

Stay classy, even in class

Engineering student Erik (not the same Erik quoted previously) recently returned to Sweden from a one-year exchange at Birmingham University, where he noticed a big difference in student style between the two countries.

“The first thing that comes to mind is that on university campus there are so many people wearing work-out clothes, at least where I was”, he said.

“In Sweden, it’s more common to wear jeans than tracksuit bottoms, compared to the UK”. 

It’s also common to see a difference in styles even between departments at Swedish universities. The law and economics departments, for example, tend to wear more formal attire with a higher number of students wearing shirts and polos than, say, social sciences or engineering students.

Many students seem to wear a toned-down version of what they might be expected to wear in their future workplace.

When in doubt, think Jantelagen!

Equality and conformity are important concepts when it comes to many aspects of day-to-day life in Sweden, including the clothes you wear.

This doesn’t mean you have to do exactly the same as everyone else, but more that being too flashy or over-the-top can be frowned upon.

This can be traced back to Jantelagen, “the law of Jante”, a set of 10 rules taken from a satirical novel written by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in the 1930s, which spells out the unwritten cultural codes that have long defined Scandinavia.

Jantelagen discourages individual success and sets average as the goal. It manifests itself in Swedish culture not only with a ‘we are all equal’ ethos but even more so a ‘don’t think you are better than anyone, ever’ mindset.

And this is seen in Swedes’ attitude to clothing, too. Flashy, expensive clothing with obvious logos or brands designed to show off your wealth breaks the first rule of Jantelagen: “You’re not to think you are anything special”.

‘Stealth wealth’

This doesn’t mean that Swedes don’t wear expensive clothes, though. They’re just not in-your-face expensive.

Felix, a podcaster from Stockholm describes it as “stealth wealth”, saying that Swedes would have no problem buying and wearing “a black jacket without any tags for 10,000kr”. 

Despite living in Sweden his whole life, he said that it’s not always easy to get the style right.

“I’m struggling myself,” he admitted.

He suggested taking a look at fashion blogger and journalist Martin Hansson for inspiration on how to dress. 

“Do NOT use bright colours,” Felix added.

Birkenstocks with socks. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT


Most of those we asked said that Swedes are a fan of white trainers, most commonly Stan Smiths or Vagabonds.

With the shoes being popular all year round for men and women, this can cause issues at house parties – as Swedes take off their shoes when they come inside.

This inevitably results in confused guests at the end of the night trying to figure out just which pair of white trainers belongs to them – and trying to find one missing shoe the next day because someone accidentally walked away with one of yours is more common than you might think. 

Vans trainers are also popular amongst more alternative crowds (black of course). At work, dress shoes are popular in the winter and loafers or ballerinas in the summer.

In the summer months, you’re likely to see Birkenstock sandals on men and women. Most Swedes wear Birkenstocks without socks – unless they’re off to do their laundry in their building’s tvättstuga.

Birkenstocks are also popular as indoor shoes all-year-round, both at home and at work. It is common to have a “no outdoor shoes” policy in gyms, schools and some offices. This is to avoid bringing a lot of dirt indoors, especially in the winter months when there is snow, rain, grit and salt on the streets.

H&M’s then-CEO Rolf Eriksen wears colourful socks at a press conference in 2006. Photo: Björn Larsson Ask/SvD/SCANPIX/TT

Don’t forget the socks!

As you often take your shoes off indoors in Sweden, your socks are visible.

This has led to an unexpected trend for colourful socks with interesting patterns, which are a great way to break the monotone of neutral colours and conformity by expressing your personality – in a lagom way, of course.

A pair of colourful socks or a playful pattern will get you noticed and likely be a conversation starter at a dinner party.

What’s your best advice for dressing like a Swede? Let us know!

This article is based on the responses we received from Swedes and foreigners in Sweden on what they think you should wear if you want to follow Swedish fashion trends.

If you have any tips of your own which you think we’ve left out, let us know! You can comment on this article, send us an email at [email protected], or get in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @thelocalsweden