The retailer H&M is such a global behemoth that it's easy to forget – or perhaps not even realize – it remains headquartered in Stockholm, home to other hot fashion brands such as Nudie Jeans, Filippa K and Acne. Stine Goya, Designers Remix and Wood Wood, meanwhile, are putting Denmark on the style map. And then there's Norway's Nina Skarra (who shows in New York and is a favourite of Mette-Marit, the country's crown princess) and Andreas Melbostad (recently named creative director of Diesel Black Gold).
How did such cold, remote countries become such fashion hotbeds? "Fashion is a strong part of the culture here," says Katarina Angelin, editor-in-chief of Habit, the leading fashion trade magazine in Sweden. "It's easy – everyone can buy H&M. They are very strong here and it's definitely a big influence."
Their appeal is "post-recessional," opines Montrealer Byron Peart, who, with his twin brother, Dexter, handles North American distribution for Filippa K and Nudie jeans. Whereas all of these brands have household-name status in their home countries, they enjoy a different kind of cachet abroad, their streamlined aesthetics resonating among consumers who reject flashy logos and over-embellishment. "They feel relevant," Peart believes.
In 2005, writer and stylist Emma Fexeus started Emma's Designblogg, becoming a go-to voice on Scandinavian style. While she says reducing the aesthetic to a single message can be difficult, she describes "Scandi style" as "simple and pure, focusing on textures and materials."
At the same time, the knack that young Scandinavians seem to have for self-styling has gained wider overseas exposure through popular online style sites. Among them are The Locals, a blog that originated in Copenhagen and has expanded to include the major fashion capitals. In his hometown, Locals founder Søren Jepsen continues to find cool kids wearing printed jeans, oversized coats and sneakers in crayon colours. It's among the most idiosyncratic mash-up of activewear, lived-in layers and bohemian chic on the Web.
The region, Angelin says, also plays host to many talent incubators, such as Stockholm's Beckmans College of Design, whose graduates often start working in the H&M design offices before launching their own labels.
But if H&M is a regional fashion force, it also breeds a counterculture, Peart points out. "Some of the designers try to find a place outside of fast fashion," he says, explaining that while brands such as Nudie might reference trends, "they have a strongly static point of view. Consistency is important to them."
A case in point: the Swedish clothing label V Ave Shoe Repair, which got its start as Astrid Olsson's final-year design-school collection in 2004. After graduation, she partnered with Lee Cotter, who had a retail background. They now have two standalone stores in Stockholm, one in Singapore and a thriving online business.
As rooted in their cultures as brands such as V Ave are, however, many don't set out to wave their national flags, says Kristofer Frojd of the Swedish Trade Council in Canada, if only because they're thinking internationally from the start. "It's not that the brands are too small, but that Sweden is too small," he says of his home country from his office in Toronto. "No one has the mission statement to be the biggest in Sweden. They have a 'global market' mindset."
Still, even the most avant-garde of Scandinavia's style labels understand – and cater to – customers they know (and who know them) best. "I love the fashion and all the excess, but it's not practical to take your son to kindergarten in 12-centimetre heels," Olsson says with characteristic Swedish pragmatism. "Living in Sweden, we also usually have a lot of snow and it's not all pretty and white. Most of the time, it's like mud. Our brand [straddles the] borderline between practical and fashionable."
In the eyes of foreigners, however, the "fashionable" aspects of Scandi style tend to resonate more. "They really pull it off nicely," says Glenna Weddle, co-owner of Toronto's Rac Boutique, which carries such brands as Rodebjer (by New York-based Swedish designer Carin Rodebjer) and Ganni (which is based in Copenhagen). "The girls look really cool riding their bicycles with their [stylish shoes] and blond buns."
But while there's a general consensus that Scandinavian fashion is clean, streamlined and pragmatic, experts draw the line at calling it minimal. Among others, for example, Altewai.Saome designers Natalia Altewai and Randa Saome do not shy away from the use of strong colour and graphic detail. When he's not moonlighting as part of the electronic music group Trentemøller, moreover, Henrik Vibsov designs men's wear with a Nordic-dandy flair.
"We don't need extra details to look and feel good," Fexeus explains. But if the goal among Scandinavia's designers is, as she says, "to make wearable, practical items," a strong, discernible style is just as important and intrinsically, alluringly linked.