It’s been 40 years since Gudrun Sjödén opened her small Stockholm shop, a destination for women’s clothing with bright colors, botanical patterns and geometric shapes. That small business slowly became a global fashion empire, reaching customers in 70 countries.
And now the Swedish designer can add another accomplishment to her list: She’s opening her first museum exhibit stateside, courtesy of the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis. “The Swedish Institute contacted me and asked if I was interested in doing an exhibition,” Sjödén said by phone from Sweden last week. “I said, ‘Yes, of course. Let’s do this.’ ”
Sjödén recently staged an exhibition in her native Sweden. So “we knew a bit about how to make it happen,” she said. “And nowadays we have a lot of customers in the United States, so I thought people would appreciate seeing the exhibition.”
The installation kicks off Thursday night with ASI’s First Look party and fashion show, and continues through Oct. 28. Gallery-goers can expect to see designs from Sjödén’s previous collections and textiles created with her watercolor art, plus a pop-up shop featuring clothes from her Fall 2018 collection.
Who is Gudrun Sjödén?
Sjödén finds herself curious about the Swedish community in Minnesota, adding further appeal to her collaboration with ASI. “I learned that there are people [in Minnesota] who learn Swedish even though they’ve never been to Sweden,” she said. “That is so interesting.”
Another fascination is the hardships faced by the Midwest’s first Swedes: no railroads, no roads, growing all their own food. “It was not easy at all to find a way to survive.”
Sjödén can relate to the plight of living off the land. She was born in 1941 on a farm near a small Swedish mill town. When her father was drafted into World War II, the family lived in a pavilion with no electricity or water. She passed the days racking hay and fetching firewood. She sees the experience as a positive, though, ultimately shaping her vision as an entrepreneur.
Her childhood also involved knitting and weaving, and her art school training focused on freehand drawing and painting. Along with the bright colors of the ’60s, these early influences left a permanent imprint on her style. While other textile artists of the time were consumed with political agitation and cultural disruption — the designs of Mah Jong are a notable example — Sjödén remained true to her folklore- and nature-inspired art, creating clothes in the style of Marimekko but with an aggressively feminine twist.
Since launching her fashion line in 1974, Sjödén has stuck with that style — and women around the world have stuck with her. Today, her company Gudrun Sjödén AB has 17 international stores, including shops in Manhattan and London. In January 2018, Sjödén, who still operates the business as the CEO, accepted the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award for “best international growth.”
Who is the Gudrun Sjödén customer?
Sjödén is inspired by diverse cultural traditions — one room of the ASI exhibit is devoted to designs inspired by cultures across the world. But her customers are concentrated in northern Europe, North America and Australia.
The Sjödén customer “is a person who loves colors and culture, and who is often very social,” said Monica Ekervik Hedman, a creative director and communication executive at Gudrun Sjödén AB. At the same time, Hedman said, Sjödén’s customers have rich inner lives. Sjödén and her design team strive to create clothes for “women who have no age,” Hedman said.
Much of the label’s clientele works with children in nurseries or schools, Sjödén said. Others work jobs with strict uniforms (flight attendants, nurses) and want a 180-degree sartorial switch as soon as clocking out. “They buy from me for more colors and patterns,” she said.
But the appeal of Sjödén’s clothes is very specific. While fans see her designs as signaling the perfect mix of whimsy and power, some find a juvenile quality in the bright colors and playful patterns — they might look better suited to a grade-schooler than an adult woman. Sjödén herself acknowledges this quality in her designs: “I really like patterns and stripes and so on, and I think maybe this is some kind of childish element.”
Cost is another factor for anyone who hopes to embrace Sjödén’s love for layering. Individual pieces are well-made (with natural and sustainable fabrics) with prices running high (clothes start at $74, scarves and shawls at $24 in the ASI pop-up shop). Put seven or eight pieces together — like the outfits styled in Sjödén’s catalogs — and you’ve got a relatively expensive get-up.
But at age 77, and as the head of one of Sweden’s most successful fashion businesses, Sjödén doesn’t pay much mind to her detractors. She’s outlasted innumerable trend-focused and politically reactionary brands, in part because her iconic style transcends the seasonal whims of the fast-fashion world.
“I am inspired by the folklore of Sweden and traditional cultures all over the world — Mexico, for example,” where the clothes are colorful and innocent, she said. “These clothes have been around for hundreds of years.”
Laine Bergeson Becco is a Minneapolis-based health and style writer.