Interview with Fashion Designer Sandra Backlund


With her three-dimensional structures Sandra Backlund pushes the boundaries of what we expect from fashion design.

”I have always liked fashion because it’s ambiguous. Fancy and coveted, but also disdained at the same time,” Sandra says.

”Fashion is very gratifying because it encompasses so many of the things I am interested in: design, craftsmanship and traditional techniques, but also conceptual and artistic ideas and issues.”

The task of categorizing Sandra’s work is far from straightforward. A few months ago she was awarded a prestigious Swedish visual arts grant for her design and her uncompromising attitude when choosing materials and techniques. When The Art Institute of Chicago brings together three designers and fashion houses for their first show on fashion this spring, they’ve chosen Backlund, Bless and Boudicca. What they all have in common is, besides their unusual approach to fashion, that they are part of a new phenomenon. By taking on an interdisciplinary approach to the medium, they have the possibility to incorporate architecture, design, art or film, and thereby transcend traditional production and presentation techniques.

“I like it when a garment can take on different meanings, depending on who picks it up. A garment might be photographed for Vogue one day, and exhibited as an art object at a design fair the next.”

When I meet up with Sandra it’s during a hectic period in her personal life. She had her first baby three weeks ago and she’s trying to get used to the new situation. She’s not on maternity leave but also not working full-time. Sandra comes from the north of Sweden but has lived in Stockholm since she started her own company in 2004 after graduating from Beckmans School of Design.

“My goal was to start my own business straight away. I wasn’t focused on the commercial side of things, but I still wanted to stay within the context of the fashion cycle.”

Sandra’s time-consuming designs are only made to order. Her largest market isn’t her home country. When I ask whether it would make it easier if she moved abroad, she says that she’s thought of France or Italy:

“But it’s not that important for my work that I am based in a particular place. It’s only when I’m showing a collection that Stockholm can feel a bit small sometimes. I feel at home here, of course, but at the same time my work is put in a different context abroad where there are different traditions around the type of fashion I work with.

Sandra has a studio, but the fact that she makes everything herself by hand means that she works from home at night. That she sacrifices sleep for work is both a strength and a weakness, she says, but she has realized it’s not something that she can control:

“I’ve worked with a few producers in Italy to try to see if some of the things I do by hand can be done by machines. To make it easier, more time efficient and also impacting the final price of the product. It would be nice to be able to sell my work in stores and be able to produce more editions of each garment. But it’s difficult to find the right balance when I have to translate my designs into something that I don’t need to make with my own hands.”

Sandra made her international breakthrough in 2007 when she won the fashion category at the Festival of Fashion and Photography in Hyères on the French Riviera, which is well-known for picking up young design and photography talents. This was her first major recognition and real challenge. Franca Sozzani at Italian Vogue was one of the first to draw attention to her collections and the same year Marc Jacobs got in touch and ordered hand knitted details for Louis Vuitton. Since Hyères she’s been in contact with the Fédération Française de la Couture and has been invited to show her collection at the couture weeks in Paris:

“I had planned on finishing the spring collection in time for the couture week in January, but it was difficult to get it done on time as I was pregnant. But I enjoy trying to find a forum where I can get as much as possible out of my work. Because I still don’t really know where I fit in. In a way my work is couture, because I make everything by hand. At the same time that isn’t the only focus of my collections. It’s not all focused on showpieces for example. Whether the couture week is the best fit also depends on whom I talk to. Some people believe we need a new couture generation, while others claim that couture is dead. It’s difficult to grasp the future of this type of fashion and presentations.

For her degree project in 2004 Sandra made garments of human hair. Since then she has worked in several different materials. Always focusing on knitwear, her materials have ranged from copper thread, mirror mosaics and clothespins.

“I usually choose the material first since I don’t have a set plan for the collection before I start working with my hands. It can end up being a prototype material that I replace because the finish didn’t turn out the way I had envisioned.”

“I can never say in advance how many garments will be included in a collection, or if it’ll end up being seven dresses, or three tops and a skirt. It’s difficult for me to put my collections into words, not only officially, but also for myself. I assemble them very intuitively. A lot happens along the way. But I always know when I’m finished.”

In her latest collection Sandra uses basic silhouettes in unbleached, organic cotton. For her it’s a symbolic blend of a new stage and a type of closure.

“I think I have unconsciously chosen something neutral in order to straighten out some question marks. I have gained experiences that I now have to work through. Still it feels like I have advanced; I’m good at hand-made garments and that is what I can contribute with to the fashion world.”

But there is also an underlying frustration in the collection, as Sandra can’t do everything she wants to because all the parts are handmade.

“It’s a bit frustrating not being able to realize all my ideas. That there is never time to make changes is a typical limitation that might make me realize that I need employees and can’t do everything on my own.”

“Even if I thought it would be cool to try a shape or a silhouette in a different material or color, I would never have time to redo everything.”

What’s the longest you’ve spent working on a garment?

“I usually work on several garments at the same time. It can be completely infinite, depending on technique, size and level of detail. I have probably spent 1000 hours on one single garment.“

Your interest in craft comes from your childhood, right?

“Yes, I’m good at making things with my hands. And my patience is also one of my strong suits. I can spend a lot of time making something, just to find out how it will turn out.“

A lot of designers talk about inspiration. How come you don’t do that?

“For me it’s personal. I’m not inspired by anything outside myself. My work is very much based on feeling and intuition. It’s all about venting, everything from performance anxiety to what it means to have your own business and combine that with some sort of personal life.”

How would you describe your process?

“It’s difficult to explain, but I work a lot with small parts that I assemble in different ways. It’s like a collage and sculpture technique, where I’m always adding and detracting. Working on a collection is like being in a state of trying to solve a math problem or a riddle. There is always a common element, sometimes it’s apparent, and sometimes it’s so vague it’s hardly discernable. It’s an on-going process. I might find a solution by chance after accidentally hanging a garment upside down on the mannequin, or if a safety pin holding something together falls off. So chance plays an important role.”

When it comes to craft techniques, do you often return to the same method?

“I allow myself to repeat myself. It’s like cooking. You start with a recipe, but want to see what will happen if you replace two ingredients, or if you keep it in the oven an extra five minutes. I like to work through things I’ve done before. Not to make it easy for myself, but because it adds new chapters to the same story. It’s a kind of serialization. Sometimes with completely new things, and other times an entire collection can be a development from something I’ve done before. As I said, chance plays an important part.”

Can you see yourself ever working as a designer for another company?

“After having worked a little with production I can envision how I could further develop a basic idea in my work with the help of others. If I reach a point when I can’t move on in my own work, or if it becomes too complicated financially or organisationally to develop within the context of my own business, I would definitely consider working for someone else.”

Fashion is often referred to as ephemeral, but don’t you obtain more lasting values in your work?

“I’m fascinated by things that are a bit timeless. Many traditional craft techniques don’t change much over time. But then, of course, I live in a modern context and I almost automatically apply the old in my everyday life. But being first with the latest or challenging prevailing ideals has never been my strong suit or my interest. I don’t work with trends, seasons and function, aspects that are often crucial for fashion and fashion collections.”

Interview by Antonia Nessen, photography by Magnus Magnusson and modeling by Ellinore E@Mikas