Resistance within fashion – is it possible? Can a field characterized by superficiality and lacking deeper analysis be political? The fashion world in Sweden is small and relatively one-dimensional. Characterized by clean lines and coolness, what white middle class people usually consider ”tasteful”. But there are those trying out different paths. In the project This is Sweden, fashion designers and siblings Ana and Pablo Londono are working together. The project started out as ways of expressing themselves and a way of talking about racism in their own field. From that, This is Sweden has grown organically through different collaborations and exhibitions. True Womance Lisa Carlsson met Ana Londono for a conversation on fashion, intersectionality and working collectively.
Tell me about how you started out?
We have always been very close, my brother and I, but we hadn’t lived in the same country for several years. Pablo studied fashion design at Rietveld in Amsterdam and I attended St Martins in London. During 2013 we found ourselves in a period where we had nothing to do. I had just moved in to my studio in Fruängen when we realised that we had six weeks available respectively and felt that ”Shit, now is the time for doing something together”. So it started as a project. I had been following the development in Europe with all the extreme right parties gaining ground, but it felt so strange, and completely impossible, that it could happen in Sweden. One morning, going down the subway, the Swedish extreme right party, Sverigedemokraterna, were handing out leaflets. Having looked them up on their website I found it terrifying. On the subway I contemplated that according to statistics at least some of the people in there wanted me to ”go home”. In spite of having come home from London just recently. Fashion is a huge field that can be used for so many things, working in the right way. Often it’s pretty clothes for pretty people, although it could be so much more. So we started collecting headlines, everything written about racism during that time. And we started talking about identity and Swedishness. What ever that is. For a while we felt that, ”what the hell, we should have become lawyers or journalists, something really useful”. ”Here we are making clothes, what good does that do?” But then we started thinking about how we could use our tools to talk about these issues? How we as designers could address the challenging subjects and make our voices heard?
We collected material about Bergman and Carl Larsson, things considered typically Swedish. And things that are Swedish to us, yet questioned by others. From that we started developing different characters. We were sponsored with hightech fabrics from a place in Switzwerland where I had contacts and from that we started sewing a housecoat without considering selling it, but more like a means of communicating about these subjects. We contemplated all the people coming here with higher educations. There a thousands of stories like that, about brain surgeons working as taxi drivers. Not that it’s a lesser jobb it’s just such a waisted potential and at the same time people are talking about refugeees as an imposition to the Swedish society. We discussed this through the characters we developed. A lot was taken from our own parents that came here and travelled downwards on the social ladder and later on me and my brother climbing upwards again. So we found ourselves there, picking our own brains and trying to interpret our experiences. Both my brother and I being refugee children ourselves. We arrived in Sweden in 1991 och lived at a reception centre in Säter for two years, during the same period when there where rumours about Lasermannen* living opposite to the centre.
So it was a feeling of déjà vu when I came home after seven years in London and was like ”shit Ny demokrati** but they’re not wearing bomber jackets boots and anymore. They’ve cleaned up but the ideology is still the same. But Sweden is a nation where we grow older and older, at the same time when we’re living in a global world striving forward. The racists can’t stop that deveplopment, we are growing from the exchange of cultures and experiences. We touched upon cultural appropriation and white feminism and through diving right down in that sea of knowledge we realised how little we knew. So we started collaborating with other people in projects. We can’t represent everybody being racialised or all refugees in Sweden. There’s a need for more perspectives and we grow stronger the more we are. We presented our characters to people who had written about the topic and worked with the subject, before we released them publically, because it is a touchy subject. When envisioning multiculturalism and creating racialised characters one too often feel that, ok, they tried but how did it turn out so wrong?
We produced a magazine that Jasmine Stork, who is an amazing fashion photographer, shot. The models had made a conscious choise to participate since we had sent a presentation of the project to Nisch management, who, in turn, sent it to the models. Otherwise the model is just a body and not a human being. They then got to choose which character they wanted to act, together with the stylist. So everyone was contributing. We also included texts with everything from Agnes Braunerhielm, who’s a fashion journalist, to Julia working at Migrationsverket with unaccompanied immigrant children and Omar, that works as a human rights lawyer. We then had an exhibition at NAU Gallery with the ambition to give people the opportunity to sit down and think and reflect. We have also, among other places, exhibited in Gamla Linköping, at Mångkulturellt Centrum and at Liljevalchs. Our latest event was at Mall of Scandinavia. The spaces in which we have acted earlier have been very white and middle class. I felt that we have to work more actively to reach outside of those. So that it doesn’t end up like Beckmans, Konstfack and other institutions that claim that everybody are welcome but the majority of young people today don’t even know they exist. And you can think what you want about a mall and commerce but what Pablo and I envisioned were all these people who were going to come there and experience This is Sweden. So we had pop up gallery there for three months. We sold some T-shirts so as not to lose too much money and invited other artists to exhibit.
How did people react?
It varied, some didn’t even dare to come inside. Our colours are yellow and blue like the Swedish flag and there were bomber jackets hanging there with the flag on them. Some people came in and got angry. Then they started reading and understood that it’s about reclaiming what is considered racist. So then many people thought it was cool and wanted to buy a sweater. But then again, if you’re white and blonde with blue eyes maybe it’s not for you to buy one of those bomber jackets. Many people expressed regrets that they weren’t able to wear them. Well, one day you may be able to, or, you wear it and face the discussion. Also, people have been commenting on our social media that it’s an experience to put on and wear such a jacket. Even Silvana Iman has told us about the looks she gets when she’s wearing the jacket in a part of town where people may not know who she is. At the same time, I’m thinking that it’s good to do something that blonde and blueyed not easily can pass with. So that whites are forced to consider their position as neutral.
What I got from the ones I talked to was that many of them became aware of the colour of their skin. That their skincolour was percieved as something negative. I told them that you can choose to go home again and take the jacket off an fit right in again. Other people can’t undress their skin colour and the beauty industry constantly tries to sell me skin bleach. I think that walking in somebody else’s shoes is a good experience, even though it’s never ever possible to compare. What we have tried to do is to include everybody. We want to build bridges, which takes a lot more time if we are going to form groups and fight our battles against each other. It’s so much more effective if we can agree and do something together. And to be able to experience this feeling might contribute to greater understanding, responsibility and solidarity. To feel that I can’t bare to wear this ’cause I don’t have the strength to face the issue while another person’s mere existence is constantly questioned and challenged. We had a lot of those conversations. They would pick up a sweater and then we would be standing there for half an hour discussing these issues.
We called it This is Sweden Guerrilla Gallery. We consider it a means of conquering spaces. To move the art away from the elitist spaces where there are so many invisible walls for a large part of the population. It’s so much more difficult to try to change the institutions. So you have to bring the art to the people who are excluded from those contexts. That’s what Guerilla Gallery is about.
My favourite show at This is Sweden’s Guerilla Gallery was the collaboration with Unga Romer*** (Young Romanis). We hadn’t addressed the issue before because we didn’t know anything about it. Talking to a friend, Emir, who is the president of Unga Romer, he told me ”Ana, this is the last accepted racism in Sweden”. And we decided to clear all the walls at This is Sweden to make room for Unga Romer. So they put up an exhibition that among other things included a timeline of Romani history. Emir came and did a lecture and guided tours where you could learn about the Romani history and about why romanis are such an oppressed group today. For example, it’s not that they don’t want to work or to integrate themselves (I hate that word, by the way) but about thousands of years of systematically breaking down an ethnic group and never allowing for vindication.
How do you feel about the way the fashion world use political issues as trends?
It’s not ok to hijack certain things and it’s not ok to be unintelligent because you work in fashion. The fashion industry has started to appropriate things like hoods and realising that it’s trendy to be antiracist. It has become suburbian colonialism. They’ll go out to the suburbs and think that it’s cool to shoot there. This has become far to common in the fashion world for us to be able to lend clothes to just anyone.
How have you been recieved in the fashion industry?
We have distanced ourselves from the fashion industry on purpose. In the beginning we contacted people that works in the Swedish fashion industry when we were planning different projects but the interest has been low. We’ve chosen not to participate during the fashion weeks. Instead, we try to find new, exciting and progressive alternatives to the business as it is today. We’ve contacted other designers, such as Minna Palmqvist, that are trying to break their own ways and addressing and criticizing the way the business works today. Also, we’re meticolous when it comes to lending our garments to other stylists and magazines. What will the stylist do with this piece of clothing? What will the head line for the job be? There are people getting in touch that are like ”yeay, we’re going to do this fashion story about norm criticism, do you want to be in it?”. If we don’t trust them, we say no. It would feel very bad if it landed in the hands of someone that don’t understand what we want to do. We work with powerful symbols so it has to be handled with care. And in the fashion world people often think that they have some damned political correctness hall pass we’re they don’t have to take responsibility and can get away with anything. But as a fashion designer you have to take on a certain responsibility.
We didn’t know how it would work for us literally in the fashion industry, considering how it looks today. But Minna has been a role model for me personally when it comes to existing in the industry and at the same time finding one’s own path. And of course it’s much harder doing that then to follow and already existing path. You have to take out your machete and chop your own way through the jungle. It’s a lot more ardous than walking along the trail that’s already been trampled but if it isn’t in the same level as your values it’s the only alternative.
What is the most challenging with the way you work?
We ask ourselves ”Why are we doing this?”. Not that we’re earning any money but are we gaining something by addressing these subjects. Are we making a career out of challenging the racism in Sweden? Where’s the line between criticising and profiting on something? In the beginning we wanted to create a platform where our voices were heard. And now, when we’re being acknowledged, we ask ourselves why we want to create this platform? Is there a limit? We don’t have the answers.
The way you work, multidisciplinary and collectively is connected to intersectionality, I think.
Yes, that’s the power of This is Sweden. Gathering strength, inspiration and knowledge from eachother. What we do is not foolproof but we strive to not step on our sisters’ and brothers’ toes. We made the exhibit about Romani history since the initiative came from Unga Romer themselves, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to do it the right way. We just lent them our platform and then I sat at the front row of the lecture taking notes. It becomes almost like a study circle. We have conversations in our studio. In different stages of our processes we invite different people to the studio. Offer them coffee or wine and discuss what we’re doing with them, opening up to criticism, so we can keep evolving. I’ve learnt so much during these two years. A lot more than what I learnt during my five years at the university.
* Lasermannen is a serial killer that targeted racialised people in Sweden during the early 90-ties.
**Ny demokrati was a Swedish right wing party that were represented in the Swedish parliament 1991-1994 and declared bankrupcy in 2000.
***Unga romer, Young Romer, is a nonprofit national association Roma that works to increase knowledge about Roma history, culture and present. They fight for Roma issues and participate in various debates in order to sensitize society about young Roma’s plight, both nationally and internationally.