Monki: Swinging Sweden comes to Carnaby Street

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The quirky concept-shop has just opened in London. Harriet Walker takes a trip to a magical mystery store

One shop opening in these climes is ambitious enough, let alone two. But in the same week that people queued for hours outside stores for its Marni collaboration, Swedish high-street giant H&M brought two of its stablemates to London – and set them up next door to each other.

Cult jeans label Cheap Monday opened in mid-February on Carnaby Street and a couple of weeks ago, on International Women's Day, no less, its sister brand Monki, full of cute and quirky, design-led pieces, opened its doors, too.

"I wouldn't say we follow trends," says CEO Henrik Aaen Kastberg of the brand, which first arrived in Britain last summer as a concession within Selfridges. "We go with the trends but we combine that with our own kind of style. From the beginning, it has been a combination of the more simple minimalistic Scandinavian fashion sense and a more expressive street style."

Both of which are bang on the money: brash, bold colours inspired by the cool kids of Tokyo paired with sleek and androgynous shapes in challenging cuts that reference the beautiful people of Stockholm. Add in prices between £10 and £110, and it's small wonder that the Swedes are taking over the high street.

"I'm Danish, by the way," Kastberg laughs. "But the last 10 years have definitely seen a Scandinavian wave. It might be because Scandinavians in general are not the most outspoken or loud – maybe we're a bit more understated, and that's in fashion right now."

There's a certain humility to Monki, despite the contrived garish interior of the new store and the label's kooky aesthetic. The company, founded in 2005, opened its first three branches in 2006 and by the end of last year counted 52 boutiques in eight countries. It's a success story by any brand's standards, let alone a young one making its way in a difficult climate for retail.

Monki takes a unique and engaging approach with its customers, who are referred to by staff and in literature as "our Monki friends", by presenting them with a fable based around a clutch of weird-looking fuzzballs. These, the Monkis themselves, inhabit a magical world, supposedly brought to life in the colourful interiors of the shops.

"We call ourself a story-based concept with a focus on fashion and price," Henrik Kastberg says. "We have a fairy tale – about the Monkis being born out of the chimneys of the City of Oil and Steel – that was made before the first store opened. I think it was one of the graphic designers who created them."

If it sounds oddly hallucinogenic, it is a little bit – but it stems from the time when Monki was conceived as a cheap fashion hit for teens, before their older sisters got in on the act too. "We hadn't ever thought about age as such – we never said 'from this age to this age'," Kastberg says. "We see all ages in our stores. They like the uniqueness, they like that we give them the opportunity to express themselves. We like to say that Monki is a do-and-don't-free zone."

It works perfectly: there's enough zaniness and hits of bright colour to appease a younger market, and plenty of interesting separates and updated classics to please those with a more refined palate too. When I stumbled into Monki in Stockholm three years ago, I was briefly troubled by the age of my fellow customers but the clothes spoke for themselves – as did the prices. And the shop assistants too have all the style of the American Apparel cohort with none of the hauteur or hipster homogeneity – blending into the crowd is strictly against the Monki ethic, according to Kastberg.

"The founders of Monki found that old-fashioned retailers had the same appearance. If you took away the sign from the façade it was very hard to tell who it was. So you could say Monki started because there was no Monki."

There can be few other shops with such Nietzschean origins. But Monki works hard to maintain the whole picture, producing a biannual magazine that features editorial content and high-budget shoots, selling each of the Monki creatures as cuddly toys, and decorating each store differently to represent part of their make-believe universe.

The Carnaby Street location speaks volumes, too: this corner of central London so famed for nascent youth culture in the Sixties has become an area for offbeat and independent retailers. And while behind the scenes Monki may be a corporate product in itself, it strives to appear as undiluted by big business as possible. Which is another very effective, not to mention very Swedish, characteristic.

 

39 Carnaby Street, London W1; monki.com

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