Book Review: “Fashion Scandinavia”

fashion scandinavia

We’ve just moved back to Stockholm from Boulder (whose kick-ass rock-climbing, heli-skiing, mountain-biking citizens were once deemed “Worst Dressed but Best Looking Underneath“), and I am appreciating this fashionable European city anew. I listen to the podcast Stil i P1 (wrote about it here), and one of the episodes from early this year focused on what it means to design Swedish fashion. Is it a help or a hinder to make clothing with an intentional, identifiable nationality? I was surprised that so many designers say they avoid overtly Swedish signifiers and aim for a global aesthetic. I would have thought Swedish or Scandinavian would be a niche, since it is (or at least was) having a Moment. You’ve heard of Acne, no? And maybe seen a Fjällräven backpack?

This idea of Scandinavian Design, that there are aspects significant and inherent in clothing from this part of the world, was inspiration for Dorothea Gundtoft’s new book, Fashion Scandinavia. She also has noticed a moment/Movement, sometimes here called The Swedish Fashion Miracle (Det svenska modeundret, explored in a book of the same name by Karin Falk). Scandinavian design, generally furniture, textiles, and architecture, have been admired for a long time, but fashion has only recently come to the forefront of that field. While interest in Scandinavian homegoods tends to be backward-looking, favoring “midcentury modern” classics, Scandinavian fashion is appreciated for its forward-thinking attitude toward dressing their customers “the way we live and work today.” (7)

Functionality, clean lines, simplicity, equality, tradition.

Gundtoft attributes this “distinctive aesthetic” to “once-dominant agricultural and fishing societies, which contributed to the clean lines and the emphasis on craftsmanship and practicality, with a palette of light tones that contrasted with the darker, richer colors of southern Europe.” (6) Her short introduction prepares the reader through thoughtful causal historical themes that lead to the main content: interviews with more than fifty designers raised in, and mostly based in, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. These are designers the author admires, who represent and personify current Scandinavian fashion. Big, classic companies such as J. Lindeberg and Marimekko are included, as well as smaller and/or independent designers such as Libertine-Libertine and “conceptual” designers such as Moonspoon Saloon and Vilsbøl de Arce.

Images chosen by Henrik Vibskov to illustrate his interview in "Fashion Scandinavia" by Dorothea Gundtoft, 2013.

Images chosen by Henrik Vibskov to illustrate his interview in “Fashion Scandinavia” by Dorothea Gundtoft, 2013.

The book is a collection of interviews or descriptions of the brands conducted and created by the author, usually about ten or fifteen questions or short paragraphs; the author asks a question in underlined bold, the answer is given in plain text. Acne was the only brand to not participate even through a PR or Marketing manager; shame on them.

Significantly, the designers or their people were responsible for choosing the accompanying photographs, “to best present and explain their particular universe.” (6) I was glad to read that after paging through the book a few times and wondering generally how the history of fashion is written. Gundtoft has lived in Andalusia and Copenhagen, Paris, New York, and London; she is both an insider in all of those places but must have only grown up in one. Is the best fashion history (or future) written by an “insider,” and what makes one so? That the designers may present themselves visually here is significant, giving them the agency that so many critics, commentators, and fashion historians do not. Both approaches are useful, but this collaboration feels fresh, although subtle.

Images chosen by Silas Adler to be included with his interview in "Fashion Scandinavia" by Dorothea Gundtoft, 2013.

Images chosen by Silas Adler of Soulland to be included with his interview in “Fashion Scandinavia” by Dorothea Gundtoft, 2013.

Fashion Scandinavia actually makes the reader contemplate how to define “Scandinavian” or “Swedish,” despite the declarative title. Some of the subjects, like Silas Adler of Soulland, grew up in one country (Sweden) but calls another home, both personally and professionally (Denmark). Many of the designers went to prestigious Central St. Martins in London; is there a latent Englishness to their designs from years living there? Is it the head designer’s childhood home that marks the person/brand as Scandinavian, the location of its first/biggest storefront/studio? Or are the themes and values that Gundtoft uses as her red thread to connect the subjects of this book the most important key to Scandinavianness? One of the first questions Gundtoft asks in each interview is, “Tell me about your upbringing” and she is sure to ask why a designer prefers a London studio to a Copenhagen location, or why one moved away from Norway to Paris.

Graphic layout of each entry in "Fashion Scandinavia" by Dorothea Gundtoft, 2013.

Graphic layout of each entry in “Fashion Scandinavia” by Dorothea Gundtoft, 2013.

The questions and answers, while short (they take up no more than two or three pages, interspersed with photographs), inspire further rumination on the role of location, identity, and local vs. global brands. It is evident that by grouping designers from five different countries into one “Scandinavia” is a compliment, and “Scandinavian” is seen as a positive niche that connotes the values stated in her introduction. Sweden and Denmark are most often represented here, and Iceland, with only three designers included, surely benefits from association with those countries known for more than their intricate, bulky sweaters.

Gundtoft set out to give readers a look into the current state of Scandinavian fashion, and urges readers to continue to look for the new, the worthwhile, the local, the unique. Many books are written about up-and-coming designers, but I’m always glad to see more press for Scandinavia. I’ve read a few books collecting new Swedish designers, but the inclusion of “all” the Scandinavian countries in one volume is a welcome approach, and makes for interesting compare/contrast. This is definitely not an in-depth or theoretically challenging discussion of Scandinavian fashion, but rather an entrée into fashion’s northern frontier.

Lead Photo: Cover of Fashion Scandinavia,  by Dorothea Gundtoft. Thames and Hudson, 2013.

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Further Reading:

Carelli, Peter, Lena Wilhelmsson, and Cay Bond. In Fashion: new Swedish clothing design. Helsingborg: Dunkers Kulturhus, 2005.

Falk, Karin. Det svenska modeundret. Stockholm: Norstedts, 2011.

Sommar, Ingrid. Scandinavian Style: classic and modern Scandinavian design. London: Carlton, 2007.

Spandet-Møller, Henrik. Danish Fashion Going Global. Hellerup: HSMH Holding, 2011.

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