Tailor of the unexpected: Ann-Sofie Back

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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.

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