Tailor of the unexpected: Ann-Sofie Back

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

London Fashion Week kicks off on Friday and Swedish designer Ann-Sofie Back’s return will be a highlight. Expect the unexpected, says Harriet Walker

Just before Christmas, Swedish designer Ann-Sofie Back was taken hostage by a trio of machine-gun toting Anna Wintours for her crimes against fashion.

The stunt, captured on film for her blog, was part of the launch of a concept store in her hometown of Stockholm, where the clothes are cordoned off by police tape and the walls spattered with blood. Three burly men wear trench coats and high heels, topped off with sunglasses and brown bobbed wigs, in the style of fashion’s most famous face.

Back, who returns to the London schedule this weekend after taking a season off, is one of the most imaginative and theatrical designers working right now. Her autumn/winter 2009 show featured models with milky-eyed contact lenses and whitened skin, staggering zombie-like down the catwalk to a soundtrack of blood-curdling screams in clothes inspired by classic American horror films. The previous season saw a homage to the modern fixation with plastic surgery, with models in pin-tucked dresses and stapled trousers, decorated with Elastoplasts and drawn-on incision marks, their vertiginous heels wrapped in clingfilm.

“I don’t enjoy the daily grind of working in fashion very much,” she admits readily. “The show is a chance for me to enjoy myself, and I want it to be fun.” A knowing irony is one of the central components in Back’s collections. You get the impression she is poking fun not only at the po-faced seriousness with which many in the industry comport themselves, but also at the aspirational consumer, obsessed with re-invention, the Next Big Thing and the power of celebrity.

“I’m exasperated by the dumbing down and obvious hatred of women that some of the worse celebrity magazines express,” says Back, who doesn’t go as far as to call herself a feminist, but admits to being preoccupied with her “own issues with femininity”.

Signature motifs in her clothes include body-conscious cuts and revealing slashing, as well as lingerie detailing. In a 2007 capsule collection for Topshop, a cotton T-shirt with bra cups attached to its exterior wasa best-seller. “I design for a strong woman,” she says.

“Who wants to design for the weak and mindless? What sets my woman apart is that she needs a sense of humour.”Her autumn/winter 2008 collection was dedicated to Heat magazine; the invitation to the show featured a pixelated shot of Britney Spears’s crotch, as captured by paparazzi as she climbed out of a limousine, and silk skirts, dresses and blouses were festooned with mock lace thongs. “It’s interesting that we are so obsessed with celebrities,” she continues. “I find it hard to be inspired by nature or 17th-century art, but this is something that has inspired me.”

There were also unravelled hems that referenced Kate Moss’s fix-it moment at a gala dinner, where she ripped her floor-length dress and created it anew by pinning it at knee level.

One of the thong skirts ended up on style survey website Thefashionpolice.net, which kick-started the idea of the kidnapping stunt. “Newspapers and magazines that give people a tick or a cross for their dress, that’s great inspiration,” Back explains. “Personally I find it hard to talk about what’s hot or not, because it makes one feel slightly dumb.”Back’s discomfort at, and unease within, the industry is apparent in the irreverence with which she treats the concept of fashion and the mechanisms of trends in her collections, but it also stems from her childhood in Sweden.

“Fashion was never considered a serious thing, just superficial and silly,” she explains. “I wish I could be really pompous and pretentious about what I do, but I have to make it fun to be able to live with myself.” The subject of a documentary recently screened on Swedish national television, Ann-Sofie Back is forthright but down-to-earth – an attitude which is refreshing, especially coming from a designer feted by some of the most insider names and publications of the style press.

She is reserved and shy, softly spoken and quietly dressed, but steely and decisive when it comes to her work.“My parents were really bad dressers,” she continues, “with no real interest in art or culture, so fashion was the best way to rebel. My fanatical interest started when the Junior Gaultier shop opened in Stockholm; I worked nights at a hot-dog stand to fund my obsession.” But her roots go deep: Back moved her base from London to Stockholm last year, and took the helm at Swedish denim brand Cheap Monday as creative director. She has also worked with the hip Swedish label Acne, a key brand in the recent rebirth of the Scandinavian design scene, known for its edginess and directional street-style.

“Stockholm is a city where price and wearability are very important,” Back says, and it’s true that no matter how conceptual, outré or imaginative her collections are, they always consist of realistic clothes that are made to be worn.Back’s use of silk, cotton and simple jersey are testament to the wearability of her range. The characteristic drapes, folds and tucks are flattering; the (often neutral) palettes appealing; and the cuts expert. Back’s offbeat tailoring makes for an unusual investment piece that will age well. Though her shows have a theatrical tendency (she likes to stage shows backwards, beginning with her bow and the final walk-through of all the models, before showing each look one by one), the clothes she creates tend to be dramatic without being costume-y. There is a cohesive, conceptual strength to her collections, but it is not one that overwhelms the wearer. Slashed and frayed sweatshirts sit just as comfortably with jeans as they did with the zombie apparel on the catwalk; multi-strapped nylon tops made to look like rucksacks have a utilitarian edge that is perfectly acceptable for the quotidian.

Like so many contemporary visionaries, Back studied at Central St Martin’s in London. “My portfolio was absolute rubbish,” she recalls. “It took me two whole years to figure out what I wanted to do. I was into Leigh Bowery and that sort of home-made glamour.”

After years of customising individual pieces to be sold in small boutiques, Back staged her first ready-to-wear collection in 2001 in Paris. Using cheap materials and embellishment, she subverted notions of fast fashion and bourgeois styling. “They’re aspirational fabrics: cheap, glued-on sequins that are falling off,” she recounts. “They look good from a distance but they’re very common. Reality is what I’m trying to achieve. It’s very seldom that you show who you are through fashion; you present instead who you want to be.”

Identity and deceit is a recurring theme and this season, for her first show in a year, Back’s inspiration comes from the online game Second Life, in which players create their own avatar. Back avatar is complete in its verisimilitude, if not in its career. “I make a living out of stripping there – it’s really easy money,” she quips. “Second Life is quite a shitty, slow game where nothing much happens, but people do make an effort with clothes, hair and make-up. The weird thing is, you have the chance to really create something fantastic – you know, with rabbit ears or you could be green. But most people want to look like Katie Price and Peter Andre, and wear clothes like people on Big Brother. It’s even more conformist than real life.”

The collection features decorated and distressed denim with crop-tops, perfectly concurrent with fashion’s Nineties revival, but with Back’s own inimitable twists. “There has to be a feeling of being slightly uncomfortable, then I’m happy,” she admits. Back also ensures that she works with materials and styles that she doesn’t immediately like the look of. It’s a method of maintaining her own interest in the collection over the six months that it takes to bring it to fruition. She tells me she gets bored very quickly, and anxious to move on to new challenges.

Back’s absence from Fashion Week in September was keenly felt, but she continued her collaborations for Topshop and sporting label Fred Perry. Is she glad to back in London? “I feel as uncomfortable in Stockholm as I ever did here,” she says, “and I’ve realised that’s my natural state of mind regardless of where I am.”

It’s that discomfort which gives her work such verve though; it seems Ann-Sofie Back will never be entirely at ease anywhere, nor does she want to be. Fans, at least, will be glad she is back on the London catwalk.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Teaching Assistant

    £12024: Randstad Education Leeds: Teaching Assistant September 2014 start - te...

    Physics Teacher

    £130 - £162 per day + UPS: Randstad Education Hull: Physics Teacher Long Term ...

    IT Technician (1st/2nd line support) - Leatherhead, Surrey

    £23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Technician (1st/2nd line support)...

    Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

    £85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn