Making a Difference – Ann-Sofie Back and the Fashion System
“My designs are always about the same thing: referencing fashion that is about fashion.” / Ann-Sofie Back, Fashion Projects, 2006
By Maria Ben Saad
My first encounter with Ann-Sofie took place at Beckmans College of Design in the mid-nineties. She was a student in fashion design and I was a guest teacher, doing a course in fashion communication. Since the course was quite short, about a week, I didn’t get any real insight into what Ann-Sofie was about, but what struck me was her extremely personal and intellectual approach to fashion, something unusual in Swedish fashion education at the time. When she left Beckmans, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she – as the first Swedish fashion student – continued to do an MA at Central Saint Martins in London. She spent a lot of time in the school’s library doing research, because, as she later told me, she didn’t feel she had enough historical and theoretical references from Sweden. “When I grew up in the seventies, fashion in Sweden was considered superficial: an invention by men to make women feel insecure,” Ann-Sofie said to fashion theorist Francesca Granata in an interview for Fashion Theory 2007. Although the situation since then has improved (in 2006 Stockholm University opened the Centre for Fashion Studies, for example), the view on fashion in the mid-nineties was only slowly starting to change. For Ann-Sofie, moving to London meant that she could explore her design ideas on a whole new level. And in the process, as it turned out, she also helped in re-defining the face of Swedish fashion, introducing a critical perspective.
After graduating from Saint Martins in 1998 (her graduate collection was about “naive cutting” – she kept mistakes in the design process, to demonstrate her own ambivalence and impatience), Ann-Sofie quickly gained a reputation as a “conceptual” designer. This had a lot to do with the fact that she didn’t enter the traditional, Paris-based fashion system, where you are supposed to embrace the new and show collections on a regular basis. Instead, she began to work with materials and garments that were outside the fashion system – fabrics and objects that she would find in flea markets and customize into something desirable. The method echoed Martin Margiela’s strategy to give new life to rejected objects by putting them in a fashion context, except Ann-Sofie didn’t operate inside the fashion system. As a result, a problem of definition occurred. If the garments weren’t produced in the fashion system – or looked like fashion – could they still be fashion? Even though The Pineal Eye, one of the most respected fashion retailers at the time, bought her graduate collection, her pieces were often mistaken for art objects, or adopted by magazines such as Purple, which belonged to a new creative scene where boundaries between fashion and art were blurred.
Fashion theorist Caroline Evans speaks in Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness (2003) about the evolvement of “a new kind of conceptual fashion designer,” who in the nineties took the role of cultural practitioner, questioning the traditional role of the designer in the fashion system and reacting against stereotypes. “Many of the designers of the 1990s […] regarded it as hypocrisy simply to present happy, shiny images, rather than exploring the entire range of human emotion and experience.” Although Ann-Sofie has always downplayed her intellectual side in interviews, to me her early one-offs represent this shift in sensibilities of the late nineties, when fashion became culture. Not only did it subvert and alter perceptions of fashion within the fashion system, but society at large.
The first time I discovered her post-graduate work myself was when she participated in Stealing Beauty: British Design Now at the ICA in London, a cross-disciplinary exhibition which put focus on work inspired by everyday objects and the vernacular as a reaction to the money-fuelled, consumerist lifestyle of the late nineties. Ann-Sofie got a great review in The Guardian – she was introduced as “rising star of recycled design” – but writer Laura Craik also discussed the gallery space as a new context for clothes, asking whether clothes should be “hung on walls” instead of bodies. Although initially skeptical to the idea, she concluded that Ann-Sofie was “the perfect candidate to be included in Stealing Beauty,” and in the following years (Stealing Beauty opened in spring 1999), Ann-Sofie’s designs were deemed fit to hang on walls by a number of art and design institutions, even after she started her production of regular ready-to-wear collections in 2001. She was also, as the first fashion designer, selected by IASPIS, a Stockholm-based network for art and design, to represent Sweden in their exhibition for the Venice Biennale in 2003. In an interview for the exhibition catalogue, she told me that in the early days she actually felt more at home in the art world than most of the fashion world. “[…] I was doing something resembling deconstruction, which is something that gallerists and the art crowd were familiar with from before and could identify with and understand. That’s why it was easier to be accepted in the art world than the fashion world, which despite everything is still an industry to a large extent.” Later on, Ann-Sofie regarded this as a “disadvantage.” In 2007, she told Granata: “To be honest, it’s only in the last year or two that I have been addressing the commercial reality of fashion. […] I’m a bit in the doghouse because I’ve basically been saying that I don’t care about the rules. Today I see it as a disadvantage that my designs were initially appreciated in the art world, but I think the fashion world is slowly forgiving me for this.”
An important step towards recognition in the fashion world was the publication of Visionaire’s Fashion 2001: Designers of the New Avant-Garde, where Ann-Sofie was listed together with 63 other designers. “In the grand scheme of fashion, many of these designers register only as small blips, working as they do out of their bedrooms or borrowed studio spaces and producing their clothes as one-offs or in extremely limited quantities,” it says in the foreword, signed by Stephen Gan and Alix Browne. “But if you measure these designers not in terms of sales but in terms of their ideas and the passion and dedication they bring to what they do, their impact is incalculable.” The book came out in 1999, the same year as Ann-Sofie stated in the magazine Bibel (where I was the fashion editor) that she wanted to “change the world with clothes.” She claimed her right to use fashion as a self-reflexive tool and means to address social and political issues – although she didn’t define herself as a conceptual designer. “My work is very personal,” she told Lauren Cochrane in i-D 2006, “that’s why it doesn’t sell. Who would want to identify with me?”
Well, today Ann-Sofie’s personal approach to fashion has taken her all the way to style.com. On the 20th of February 2011, Tiintellectualm Blanks posted their first ever review of an Ann-Sofie Back collection. “Back’s clothes were undoubtedly impressive in their immaculate, almost mathematical construction,” he wrote. It seems that Ann-Sofie (finally) has been forgiven by the fashion world.
Maria Ben Saad is a fashion journalist and senior lecturer in fashion communication at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm.