Swedish fashion is not comparable to the great powers of style, like Italy or France, but it’s not the case that Sweden didn’t have any successful fashion designers before Acne, Cheap Monday or J. Lindeberg.
If we want to, we could point out that the first couture house, House of Worth, was bankrolled by Otto Bobergh, a wealthy Swedish gentleman. However, he dissolved the partnership early on and he wasn’t a designer.
The first Swedish designer who had an international career was Katja Geiger, designing under the moniker Katja of Sweden. Her style was very Scandinavian, a sophisticated simplicity with influences from folk art and textiles. The career of Katja of Sweden was mainly an American affair, after a big article in the New York Times in the late Forties put her on the map and her style was a reaction to the Parisian ladylike stiffness, a fashion for women with jobs and family and an active lifestyle – a legacy that is still strong as of this day.
The Worth connection returned with Sighsten Herrgård, who in 1969 designed the first menswear collection for the brand, then based in London. A few years before that, in 1966, he had won the Courtauld International Design Competition with a unisex overall, a style which became a signature for him. However, his international career faltered when he decided he wanted out of a contract with a big management company and he relaunched himself as a PR guru and founder of the model agency Stockholmsgruppen.
Besides Katja of Sweden, the most successful Swedish designer was Rohdi Heintz. In the Sixties, as the young head designer for ready-to-wear company Wettergren (Rohdi Heintz by Wettergren was sold at Barneys, Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue, among others) and as a guest designer for Jaeger of London, Heintz carved out a presence on the international scene. In the Seventies Heintz launched his eponymous line and a decade later he became head designer for Björn Borg. His decision to use the underwear style of the Swedish armed forces as a design model is probably the reason for why today’s Björn Borg is mainly seen as an underwear brand.
Looking at these three examples together, they seem like a template for much of Swedish fashion design. The sophisticated simplicity of Katja of Sweden, the egalitarian thrust of Sighsten Herrgård and the utility inspiration of Rohdi Heintz (who of course did so much more than underwear, but for the sake of argumentation, I simplify). This to me, seems like the bedrock of Swedish fashion, an aesthetic tradition that is still seen in today’s fashion design.