Back in Black
In the style of British provocateurs in art and literature like Sarah Lucas, Sue Williams and Tim Noble or Will Self, Stockholm-born designer Ann-Sofie Back’s catwalk shows satire celebrity culture and unobtainable beauty standards—without giving up on beauty entirely. It’s a strategy that’s worked: The week that she and I exchange a series of emails, she’s appointed head designer of the Stockholm-based brand Cheap Mondays. While adding high-end cachet to Cheap Monday’s punky image, Back will continue designing her eponymous collection at her new Stockholm studio to still show with London Fashion Week. Back is a perfect match for a brand marked with a skull, and which continues to fit women and men alike into morbidly skinny jeans.
“I knew Orjan from before and I have a lot of respect for him,” Back explains, speaking of Cheap Monday’s co-founder, Orjan Andersson, who will continue to head the brand’s denim line. “Orjan is very much the poster boy for his designs. It’s honest somehow and even if Cheap Monday is very different to what I do,” But it’s not all that different, Back concludes, “I think we share a lot of common ground; a no bullshit approach to fashion and not taking yourself too seriously. I have a personal problem with people who take themselves too seriously.”
Back made her opposition to stuck-ups evident in her Fall/Winter 2008 show, staged at the TopShop showcase alongside designers Mario Schwab, Louise Goldin, and Peter Jensen during London Fashion Week. She dedicated it to “Heat and OK! and all the misbehaving lovelies they portray.”
The show’s invite was an homage to celebrity shlump chic illustrated with three tabloid “got ya!” scenarios. First there was a chick shot with a telescopic lens as she chatted on the phone while buried under mangy bangs, Ray-bans, baggy sweats, a pillow coat, sweater, latte and “IT” bag. Then there was a girl hurriedly throwing away her trash wearing a towel and especially ugly Uggs. And finally came a shot of a starlet her face with her hand while exposing her panties to the camera. Then the show itself focused on sullied morning-after celebrity glamour.
At the show, the seated audience was welcomed by models preening and posing to the sound of cameras snapping. Once a “Tom & Jerry” soundtrack began, the models streamed down the catwalk in over-sized Mommie heels and a slash of green eye-shadow, looking every bit as vulnerable as Mary Kate or Kate Moss. Back showed G-strings wrapped around models’ left thighs, hair that looked prepped by vigorous back-seat rubbing, T-shirts with cubist patterns inspired by pixelated crotch-shots, date rape-slashed silk dresses, and over-sized men’s suit jackets, which were slung over model’s slender shoulders as if protective bodyguards or last night’s “boyfriends” were prepping the poor things for their walk of shame past the paparazzi. Studded details in leather minis were dedicated to Paris Hilton’s preference for jewelled piercings and shredded hems; customized tears and asymmetrical shapes paid respect to Kate Moss’s ingenuity at altering her torn dress during last season’s Victoria & Albert party.
Returning to the ruined demographic for Spring/Summer 09, Back styled the show show as a playful attack on surgically sculpted celebrities. The models sported slivers of bandages on their noses and surgical sutures under their brows, along with patterns mimicking plastic surgeon’s markers decorated with clasps inspired by the staples that hold incisions together during recovery. But the dresses’ flowing Grecian drapery also referenced the elusive, idyllic beauty that drive girls to take on the roles of both Pygmalion and his sculpture with their own bodies.
Back says that her intention isn’t to mock starlets, but to explore her own role in a star-struck culture. “I’m normally inspired by things that annoy me like celebrity culture or things I don’t understand, like plastic surgery, for example and therefore it’s more interesting working with those issues than being inspired by say butterflies.”
Back’s most recent London catwalk collection presented an array of gorgeous ghouls with the models styled as zombies. Though Vogue.com named her Fall/Winter 10 show “arguably the scariest show to ever grace the London Fashion Week catwalks,” it was an abstract fantasy set of images. As she explains, “it came out of looking at American stereotypes and realizing they are often represented in horror movies, the prom queen, the farmhand, the college-kid and so on.”
More in line with the Goth trend now common on the catwalk, it cut less close to the bone for fashion folk, even though artists like Shezad Dawood and Bruce la Bruce have resurrected zombies as vibrant metaphors for rapid consumer culture. “I had no idea that zombies were a trend,” Back says. “I think it was a fluke and not recession related, either, but you don’t always know why you pick a subject until after. I have never had such a ‘non-threatening’ source of inspiration before and I was almost worried people would think I made it too easy for myself but it seems people who normally might be sceptical to what I do liked it so maybe it’s the way forward.”
Though Cheap Mondays, named for the day after everyone has blown their money on the weekend, is known as a pugnacious playful brand, Back for the label include developing her slightly softer side. “I think it needs to be more straightforward and less critical,” explains Back. “A bit of humour doesn’t hurt though.” Back will be returning from London to Stockholm after her recent marriage to a Swede and expects the move to help lighten her out-look. “This thing is frightening,” she says. “It could also have a good effect in the sense that I come closer to one of our core markets. Swedes are very conformist (which is boring) but trends are more visible here and people pick up on things quickly in a way they don’t in other cities. I don’t know, hopefully it will only be to the better, but life in Stockholm is easier, the pace is slower, people are less critical and it might make me lazy!”