I am in the changing room of Acne Studios—one of Sweden’s top designer brands—in Stockholm trying out clothes, when there is a knock on the door. The salesgirl says excitedly she has got something special that I will love. I reach out through the door and pull it in. It is a white T-shirt—basic, cotton, half-sleeved—and I look at it perplexed for it is as plain as plain can be. She is helping me pick out something very Swedish that I can take home as a souvenir, but I have to confess I was expecting more than this. We finally settle on a pale blue shirt, which is pretty simple too—like a men’s Oxford shirt, somewhat looser and boxier, with buttons that end mid-chest like a kurta—but by then my eyes are tuned into Swedish minimalism, and alive to every teeny-weeny detail.
That white T-shirt episode got me thinking about the Swedish sense of style. While I have always assumed that it is defined by the principles of minimalism, I sensed there was a lot more going on than meets the eye. Everyone on the streets seemed to be dressed uniformly—very smartly turned out, I might add, but all looking the same—in safe solid colours: blacks, dark blues, greys, whites, an occasional camel or beige. Stripes or checks were few, colourful prints even fewer. I attended a design event where the room was filled with the young and fashionable, but again, everyone conformed to the black-navy-grey dress code. The extent of rule breaking was minor—one lady wore a black-and-white geometric patterned blouse, and another, bless her courage, wore an outsized pale yellow shirt. I almost worried for her.
I am intrigued because I associate this level of social conformity more with Asian cultures—Japan, for instance—and strong individuality with Western ones. But this was beginning to feel like a taller, blonder version of Japan, and I couldn’t quite figure it out. So I chatted with a couple of friends to understand what was happening.
Turns out there are two Swedish principles at play here, that of lagom and jantelagen. Perhaps you have heard of them—they seem to have acquired a certain buzz in recent times. Think of lagom as the “just enough" principle—not too much, not too little, but just the appropriate amount. A full-on Indian wedding, for example, would definitely not be lagom. I am guessing a Sabyasachi outfit would cause a lagom meltdown, but a simple white T-shirt, and hopefully, my blue Oxford shirt-kurta would make the lagom cut. The bar is set at a relatively modest level. There is a Swedish saying that “enough is already a feast", so I suppose if you have black, navy, grey, white, then why bother with pink, yellow, orange and red.
Jantelagen is about equality, about the principle that no one is better than the next person. In practical terms, it means that there is a great fear of sticking out, just like in Japan. Of course, in reality people are not equal, some have more, some less, but the point is that even if you have more, you don’t show it off. You conform to your group’s norms, and if you try to stand out, there are subtle ways of enforcing compliance via a system of social snubs. Hence, everyone dresses pretty much the same way, almost as if they accessed the same collective wardrobe every morning.
The penny suddenly drops. Minimalism may not have been a conscious choice—it was prescribed by lagom and enforced by jantelagen. And now it is the accepted way of doing things.
Brands seem to cater to that narrow palette of expression. As I walk the floor of NK—a high-end department store—checking out Swedish brands like House of Dagmar, Whyred, Tiger of Sweden, everything is beautifully made, there are a few subtle twists, a splash of colour here, a print there, but overall, there is a sense of sameness. Over in Norrmalmstorg, where flagship stores of Swedish brands are lined up—Filippa K, Hope, Rodebjer—everything is laid out in fancier settings, there is more panache, even colour, but the core is similar, at least to my Indian eyes. And if I ask what your typical Swedish customer would pick, the salesgirl invariably leads me to an impeccable white shirt or a well-cut black trouser or jacket. Over the years, a few pieces have gone on to become classics which consumers keep coming back for, such as the Pistol boot at Acne Studios. The round-toed, medium-heel, no-fuss black boot has been around for a decade, with minor updates every now and then.
Acne Studios’ flagship store at Norrmalmstorg is a good place to end—to my surprise, it is in direct contrast to my white T-shirt experience at its earlier store in NK, Stockholm. I almost can’t believe it is the same brand, so different is this assortment, replete with eccentricity and colour, as unruly and out of the box as its first store that I visited was tidy and subdued. Who is buying this stuff, I wonder? Tourists for sure: I spot several, including a Japanese shopper who is reverentially examining the clothes. There is the larger world market that the brand is targeting—Acne Studios no longer participates in Fashion Week Stockholm, choosing instead to hold its show to coincide with the haute couture segment of Paris Fashion Week. But I have to believe there is a subset of Swedish consumers, perhaps not so visible on the streets of Stockholm, who are buying its riskier pieces. Who are stretching the bounds of lagom and jantelagen.
And this would be totally appropriate, for Acne is the acronym for “Ambition to Create Novel Expressions".
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.