DANSK Loves this is Sweden

The concept of storytelling is known as a traditional method to recall, preserve and pass on knowledge. Stories are pivotal in gaining insight into a phenomenon: they tie us with the past at the same time as providing basis for continuity with future generations. In an industry where every new collection tends to come with a new story, and “the inspiration” for these are often attributed quite random sources, this is Sweden diverges from the fashion flocks by emphasising the importance of personal narrative and context. The label’s founders, Ana and Pablo Londoño, were born in Colombia and came to Sweden as refugees in the early 1990’s. this is Sweden is their story. Siblings and Central Saint Martin’s graduates, who became a forceful design-duo insisting on creating ‘more than pretty clothes for pretty people’. Following the passing of Ana Londoño in 2017, Pablo has continued on what they built together: a unique creative platform driven by social commitment and an anti-racist agenda. Friends and family surround the label. Pablo explains their relation to this is Sweden as essential. “They have the heart and the brain and the pace to understand the meaning of what we’re doing.” While this is Sweden presents the Londoño’s vision for the country that became their home, it also stands as a rare demonstration of the reinforcing power fashion has – when fashion has something to tell. On a sunny spring morning, via FaceTime from Copenhagen to Stockholm, DANSK spoke with Pablo Londoño to learn more.

“We always said we wanted to do something together as siblings. We were always very close, we always got along very well. If we had a fight, it lasted for half an hour maximum. I have always been into drawing and sketching and if you asked Ana, she would say ‘you were always such a nerd’. I would never go out, I just wanted to go to museums and draw. She was the total opposite. But she was the one who introduced me to Alexander McQueen, for example. I was always interested in art, but she was the first to be interested in fashion, per se. She showed me style. She was always so knowledgeable. Not transcendent, just knowing good style, and my style was always informed by her influence. In high school I was very well dressed because I had an older sibling who knew what was what. People would say, ‘Pablo wears cool clothes’, but that was all because of her.”

Ana and Pablo had, as Pablo puts it, almost telepathic abilities. When completing their BA’s during the same year, the profound connection manifested in the same silhouette appearing in both of their collections. “We never spoke about our work to avoid influencing each other too much. But after finishing our collections we showed each other pictures, and there happened to be this silhouette, a double layered basketball short, that was exactly the same. Ana’s was in a grey, tailored fabric, my fabric was pink, kind of like the woven Chanel jackets, but the designs were absolutely identical.”

The opportunity to bring a collaborative work into fruition came after their final graduations. Both Ana and Pablo had started working, Ana freelancing in her own studio in Stockholm and Pablo in London, but in 2013, when he happened to have a free month in between jobs, a gap in their schedules appeared: “It was Ana who said, ‘Pablo, it is now or never’, Pablo says and adds “because, you know, life gets in the way. It’s always after graduation… after this job… after that job… And so I left London and we were in the studio for a month, designing a collection of ten silhouettes. It’s gonna kick ass, we said,” he reminisces and continues: “Ana had a tailoring background and was a perfectionist. I am more into prints, fabrics and textures, more about designing on the go. Although I like details and get really nerdy about pockets and drawstrings, Ana was more about silhouettes. In that sense, the team was very complimentary.”

Originally intended as a fun, personal project, the collaboration rapidly turned into more: “We wanted something to put in our in our portfolios, to show how good we were as siblings. However, we were also aware, that if we were to spend all this time and effort, and of course put our own money into it, it should be more than just showing off. Ana said ‘I just don’t want this to be pretty clothes for pretty people. There are already so many collections. What do we want to say, what is important to us Pablo?’.”

this is Sweden certainly became more than pretty clothes for pretty people. The brand’s anti-racist agenda grew out of initial discussions the pair had back in 2013 when this is Sweden was formed and the Swedish Democrats, Sweden’s right-wing nationalist party, was predicted to grow significantly in the 2014 elections. For the Londoño’s, both having just returned to Sweden after years of studying abroad, the built-up atmosphere and tense political climate led to discussions on the notion of identity and home. “This was a déja vú to the early 90’s for us. When we first came to Sweden and lived in a refugee camp for two years, waiting for our permit. At that time there was a trend of neo-Nazi’s and skinheads marching the streets and waving the Swedish flag.” Alongside the discussion of growing up in Sweden, cultural affiliation, and their first encounters of racism during childhood, the two began researching notions of Swedish-ness. “What is considered Swedish and what isn’t? A lot of people would say standing in a line is very Swedish,” Pablo laughs. Balancing the heavy issues with humour has been important to the brand from the get-go, an element that also shows in their signature pattern, the Birch print. Highly adaptive and able to sustain harsh conditions, the birch has come to symbolise strength, renewal and growth. In this it acts as a beautiful symbol for the thoughts behind this is Sweden, however, it was another, less obvious, feature that brought the tree to the table. “We call the Birch print a camouflage, but a non-military camouflage. Birch is highly appreciated here, it is light and has a lot of aesthetic value that is connected, for us, to Sweden and Scandinavia in general. But the Birch is also the cause of allergies in spring. And hay fever was something we had never heard of before coming to Sweden. We saw red eyes and running noses, and we thought, what is going on with all these Swedes? I remember asking my Mom once, ‘Do people in Colombia have allergies? I don’t remember anyone talking about it’, and my Mom replied, ‘People in Colombia have bigger problems!’”

Both having work experience from bigger, commercial brands, the siblings knew what systems they didn’t want in their own business. This implied, for instance, the system of excess and waste dominating the industry of today. this is Sweden makes their designs from either deadstock or faulty garments, or high-quality fabrics and sheets Pablo finds in thrift stores (“I found out yesterday that I’m probably a hoarder”, he laughs). Every garment is made in the studio and reprocessed on demand. This includes the icon MA1 bomber jacket with crossed flags that revisits what this loaded garment represents and can symbolise. this is Sweden would receive emails before they were well known from people that didn’t feel comfortable sporting the flag-graced bomber jacket on the subway. Addressing this issue, this is Sweden designs now bear a QR code to help solve misunderstandings. “On the contrary,” Londoño notes, “people of colour would e-mail us saying ‘I feel so good about wearing your product in ‘white’ spaces. I feel like saying, here I am, this is also Sweden’.”

With nationalist parties employing flags and patriotic slogans to get their messages across, one could argue that for a movement working against these standpoints, abandoning all nation-specific markers would be easier. But the Londoños chose the opposite approach. “In Sweden our flag has been draped with connotations of nationalism and racism for a long time. We have to neutralise it. To reclaim it and take it back. Not in the sense of reclaiming it to be like, ‘this is our flag’, but in the sense of levelling it out.”

From the bomber jackets and the Birch print, to the first ten silhouettes from 2013: nothing comes out of this is Sweden’s studio by accident. With storytelling as a main tool, the garments are not only outstanding designs but also a means for sharing and interpreting experiences. “When I look at design myself, the storytelling part is always what I find most intriguing. The common notion in fashion interviews is, ‘I was inspired by this painting by Monet or, I went to Egypt’ – and it leads to beautiful things. It’s just that, the moving elements, the aspects that people can reflect upon and recognise themselves in, are missing. I always go back to this thing Ana said, ‘we want to make more than pretty clothes for pretty people,’ Pablo says. “You need to have something to say, to contextualise your work. Storytelling is what this is Sweden is based on, to put it as an elevator pitch. The story of two refugee kids who grew up in Sweden. And it’s a concept so many others can relate to; being a refugee or being in between two places, two worlds. This is where the energy comes from. It’s an endless source of inspiration. Endless!”

The new collection ‘this is Sweden, 1994’ was presented on March 28th in Stockholm. The collections takes its starting point from the school photo – or class photo, as the description of the collection says, to stress the fact that class might be depicted in more than one way in this annual ritual. “I had a photo from my first year in a Swedish school, and I was wearing this little tuxedo and a bow tie,” Pablo explains. “My sister was wearing a puffy princess dress with lots of layers. I remember going to that photo day at school, and a classmate of mine from Kurdistan was also wearing a white princess dress – you know, over the top. And of course, I looked like a groom and she looked like a bride and the other kids teased us. They were in Mickey Mouse t-shirts, a normal day at school. From what I remember, most of the immigrant kids wore button-up shirts and ties, they were top notch.”

Pablo’s Mom saved Ana’s dress. “It became a story about being ashamed,” he explains. “I started thinking about the other things I was ashamed of growing up. That I had weird food when we went on school excursions. The other kids would bring sausages and mashed potatoes, whereas I had a chicken stew with bones in it! As a kid you’re embarrassed about everything. You just want to fit in. Normally kids are ashamed of their parents because they’re goofy or dorky. Imagine being an immigrant kid and ashamed of your parents because they live in social housing, on social welfare, don’t have a car, speak poor Swedish. I grew up translating letters from social services for my Mom. It’s a whole different level of..” he trails off and adjusts: “But fast forward to today, what I used to be ashamed of, is now an asset. I’m fluent in Swedish and in Spanish, I speak English, and I can write and read in all three languages. Being this kind of multi-ethnic person, a chameleon almost, it’s a super power,” Pablo concludes and adds: “It took until I was 28 or 29 to realise that I didn’t have to choose, that I could be both. The question was always ‘Are you Swedish or are you Colombian’? The answer is, I am a Colombian-Swede. I dance salsa, but I also stand in line.”

Words by Anne Ulrikke Bak
For more information, see this is Sweden

Credits, this is Sweden, 1994

Photography: John Jamal Gille Columbus
Photography Assistant: Idil Mohamud Gurey
Styling: Maria Barsoum
Styling assistant: Ekaterina Milenskaya
Hair & Make-up: Elin Laine
Shoes: Greenlace shoes
Design assistant: Etchell Dorkenoo
All clothes and accesories: this is Sweden

Paul Wiliams
Anfa Lashari
Kevin Beaulier
Carolina Nylund
Josef Figueroa Nilsson