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Filippa Knutsson’s comeback

She founded one of Sweden’s most iconic fashion brands, creating the epitome of Scandinavian minimalism. Then something got lost. Will Filippa Knutsson’s return to operations take her namesake brand back to its former glory?

Words Konrad Olsson
Photography Andreas Sjödin
Styling Ursula Wångander

London, UK

On one early November morning last year, a team of Swedish fashion operatives left the Mondrian hotel in Hollywood, Los Angeles, and drove out to a secluded beach in Malibu. The team consisted of acclaimed fashion photographer Camilla Åkrans, model Julien Hedqvist, popduo Say Lou Lou, stylist Lisa Lindqvister, and a handful of assistants, make-up artists, and other crew.

The leader of the pack was Karl-Johan Bogefors, the newly appointed brand director of Filippa K, who, just six weeks into the job, had managed to organise the shot of the brand’s SS18 campaign. His mission was clear: in one single blow, he needed to get the brand message back on track. His boss, the founder of the brand, Filippa Knutsson herself, was depending on him.

– We had a really clear vision on what we wanted to do, Karl-Johan says. We wanted to create something that was real and warm. We wanted to be fun, flirty, and still good looking. And also do something a bit unexpected, something Filippa K hadn’t done before, which was working with people who weren’t models. With Miranda and Elektra (of Say Lou Lou), we got that. And with Julien, we wanted to bring back the classic Filippa K ”man” that I was part of creating 10 years ago.

A couple of weeks later, Karl Johan Bogefors turned up at Filippa Knutsson’s favourite café in the quite area of Islington, London, carrying with him a laptop with all the images from the shoot in Malibu.

– We sat down with a cup of green tea, and I showed her everything, Karl-Johan remembers. All the photos, all the video we had done. It turned out 100 times better than I could ever imagine. And Filippa was moved. “This is perfect”, she said. ”This is exactly how I want it to be.”

The collective exhale of relief between Filippa Knutsson and Karl Johan Bogefors can not be understated. The brand, founded by Filippa Knutsson in Stockholm in 1993, is, to many, the epitome of Scandinavian minimalist style. In the ’90s and ’00s it became famous in Sweden for bringing a new sense of international elegance to the fashion scene, and Filippa herself became an iconic figure in the business. She was both powerful and beautiful, and with her slim monochromatic personal style, she was the perfect embodiment of the brand.

But in the ’10s the brand lost some of its appeal. The competition from other brands, a diversification of the Scandinavian look, and a more developed male consumer (one who knows more about garments and tailoring than the designers themselves) put the brand in a challenging position. Most importantly, Filippa Knutsson herself had left the company operationally, being around as an owner and board member but leaving strategic and design decisions to her successors.

One could argue that Filippa K still made nice clothes, sold in beautiful shops, to a crowd of modern city slickers. But something was missing. And no one saw this more clear than the founder herself.

A sunny January afternoon 2018 I knock on the door of Filippa Knutsson’s townhouse in Islington, London. She recently moved here from Paris with her two sons, who both study in the city. Her boyfriend architect flies in from his offices in Paris and Corsica. The home is predictably cosy, no detail left unattended.

– Welcome. I’m so sorry, but the cleaner is here, Filippa says, as she prepares a tray of coffee, tea, and pastries from a local café, while her maid vacuumes the kitchen.

She is dressed in drapey trousers and a cashmere rollback in earthy tones, a look that she jokingly calls ”my hostess outfit. Really comfy but still a bit glamorous.” We retreat upstairs to the floor that combines her home office with a small living room, with a squishy sofa and a fireplace that is operated via remote control.

– I grew up here, she says while adjusting the level of the fire with the remote. Not in this area, but in London. I lived here until I was 21.

It is now a year and a half since Filippa Knutsson returned to the brand, with a mission to restore its reputation as a purveyor of ”style, simplicity, and quality”, the minimalistic values that made it the quintessential Scandinavian brand. In articles written about her comeback she had made clear, in no uncertain terms, that the brand had lost these values during her seven-year absence from operations.

– Filippa K had become an institution, she says. Many people took it for granted. There was way too little sense of urgency that this is actually a fashion brand. It can dip tomorrow, go straight downhill, and nobody will have a job anymore. It really made me feel that, ok, we’ve got to do something about this. Because I still believe in the brand.

What was it that needed to be fixed? To understand the evolution of the brand you need to go back to its origin, to Stockholm in the early ’90s, where Filippa founded the brand together with her then-husband Patrik Kihlborg. Filippa had just ended a six-year period at Gul & Blå, a legendary Swedish denim brand that her father had founded in the ’70s. While Filippa had inherited her fathers love for basics, she was on the prowl for another aesthetic.

– When I started Filippa K, I didn’t think, ”Oh, I want to start something very Scandinavian.” I was looking at what was happening in London and New York, with brands like Joseph and Calvin Klein. Everything was becoming much more clean and simple, which excited me.

Was there a point when you realized that you hit a nerve in terms of this new Scandi look?

– No, I think it just evolved. I knew that the values of it being very minimal and clean were essentially Swedish. But it was when the brand became more known outside of Scandinavia that I started to realise, “Oh, people see it as super‑Scandinavian.”

Filippa K launched a few years before it’s Swedish peers, like Acne Studios (1996), Whyred (1999), and Hope (2001). This was before anyone talked about a Swedish fashion wonder.

– It was built very intuitively. We started by the kitchen table and just did our style. We didn’t even have pictures the first few years, and it wasn’t until around 2000 that I was asked to write down my thoughts about the brand. That’s when the three words came to me: style, simplicity, quality. I wasn’t even thinking Scandinavian then. I was just really obsessed about the product. The fact that it was about the product and not about the imagery was part of our identity.

The seventh person to be hired at Filippa K, in 1997, was a young man called Karl-Johan Bogefors. He had previously worked as a store manager for the denim brand Diesel in Stockholm and was curious about the direction that Filippa and Patrik had created with the brand.

– They represented something new and different, remembers Karl Johan. I basically walked up to their offices on Södermalm in Stockholm and asked for an interview. I remember Filippa being dressed in a black turtleneck and we got to talking about values and aesthetics. I think they hired me because they liked me as a person, they weren’t looking for someone. So I got hired as the receptionist.

I’m meeting Karl Johan in the current Filippa K offices in the old brewery-turned-office-complex Münchenbryggeriet in Stockholm, not far from the brand’s first offices on Götgatan. He is dressed in a navy sweater with a white shirt collar sticking up under the crew-neck. Today, Karl-Johan is one of Sweden’s most experienced fashion operatives. His career spans established brands like The Absolut Company, JC, Malene Birger, and COS, usually in a creative, marketing or brand manager capacity. There is obviously a sense of full circle, now that he is back at the brand that he spent his first ten years in the business with.

– I was only a receptionist for three weeks, he says. Then I started working as a salesman, driving up and down Sweden with the collection. After doing that for a while, I started to try out the turtlenecks and the Merino sweaters for myself. I wore the large, and Filippa was like, “Yeah, you look good in those. Maybe we should try that”· That’s how we started the development of Filippa K Man.

It started that organically?

– It was about the product. We adapted the pieces from the women’s line into menswear. It was a small, lean collection. We did the stretch jeans, one or two outerwear, one overcoat, turtlenecks, the Merino sweaters, the basic T‑shirts. It was 20 styles, all in all. Three colors, dark navy, black, grey mélange.

Filippa K’s men’s collection debuted in 1998, three years after the British journalist Mark Simpson coined the term ”metrosexuality” in an article in the Independent. Filippa remembers being part of a shift in attitude towards men’s style.

– We came in this right moment when guys could be hetero and very conscious and into fashion, without being vain, she says. We started to make clothes that had a little bit more of a fashion attitude. They weren’t just basics in this lumpy, clumsy way. They were a bit more tailored. We were really thinking of a very casual, relaxed, masculine guy, that could care about his appearance in a modern way.

In 2002, a designer named Rasmus Wingårdh was hired as head of menswear for Filippa K. A golden age for Filippa K Man started, providing elegant, wearable basics to a fashion-conscious Scandinavian man.

— When I show up to do a job, there needs to be at least at 80 percent alignment in vision, says Rasmus. And then you need to have 20 percent of friction, of opposing ideas that push the mission or the project forward. With Filippa K we created the perfect storm, I think.

Filippa Knutsson curls up in her sofa, sips some green tea, and readjusts the flames in the fireplace with the remote.

– Are you cold? she asks. This area of London is protected, so we can’t have double-glazed windows.

When Filippa Knutsson describes the company’s growth during the aughts, she is also describing a time when she was getting more and more detached from the creative stuff. And the more focused she got on structure, the more frustrated she became.

– I went through a phase of thinking I needed to delegate, to hire other designers. That’s when we started with head designers that could do their own thing, and I was overseeing them as a creative director. It all sounds good, but somewhere down the line, I think there were too many interpretations that just made things peter out slowly.

In 2011, Filippa Knutsson stepped down as creative director of her own company. She needed to spend more time with her family, having raised two boys at the same time as she built the brand. She moved to Paris, to be ”closer to the continent” and to rediscover something she had lost.

– I felt that intuitively I needed something else. I needed to do lots of things personally during that period. I was still on the board of Filippa K, but I was kind of switched off.

The problems that arose during the years she was gone from the brand was especially evident in the men’s collection. Rasmus Wingårdh left the brand in 2010, and a completely new direction took shape.

– I think in the beginning, we had something so strong and so clear with the men’s collection, says Filippa. Then I think we were tempted to become more fashion-y. It didn’t work. I think we lost our identity and that the Filippa K woman and the Filippa K man became estranged.

But as a board member, you must have seen this happen?

– And why didn’t I do anything? Is that the question?

You said it.

– I think the brand had slid gradually in the wrong direction during several years when I was present. I had somehow lost my own confidence. When the company is 18, 19 years old, you start wondering whether you’re the right person to do it or not. That’s quite human to reflect on that. Then there’s this midlife thing. ”Can I still do this? Am I relevant?”

When did you decide to come back?

– In the summer of 2016, I had decided to move to London. I’d already bought this house. And that summer, our CEO left the company, which created an opening. But it wasn’t just that. During my three years in Paris I had rested. I was ready for something. I wasn’t sure it was going to be Filippa K. I was thinking of lots of other ideas and other companies I could start. It was around interiors, handicraft, jewelry. But everything I thought of could be Filippa K, so I was like, “What’s the point of doing something else?”

So how does it work? Do you just show up one day, saying: ”I’m back!”?

– Well, I walked into the boardroom and said, “Look, I want to be involved again”, and they said, “Great.” Nobody wanted me to not be involved. I felt quite the opposite.

– I spent the summer in Corsica, and then all this good vibe came out about how I saw it and what I felt passionate about. I created a presentation around that, with all my inspirations, and then I ended it with pictures from the latest collections which I thought were terrible. The contrast was clear. I stood in front of the entire company and said: ”This is what we are today. I’m not blaming anybody, I’ve been part of this. But I’m saying this is not right, and we’re going to change it.”

After Filippa Knutssons return, she re-hired Karl-Johan Bogefors as brand director, and Rasmus Wingårdh as men’s designer, this time on a freelance basis. She has kept her own title as creative director.

– The first time I worked for Filippa, I was the head of menswear. Today, I view myself as a tool and an extension of Filippa’s will. It’s perhaps the way it should have been back when I first started with the brand. It’s really, truly exciting, says Rasmus Wingårdh.

– Rasmus to me is almost like a brother, says Filippa. I feel that I can communicate with him so easily. And Karl-Johan I just thought of immediately. We met and we talked. I showed him my presentation. He just reinforced my own belief. It was like I needed to fetch energy from people who I trusted to understand the brand.

– There is a style that is so specific for Filippa K, says Karl-Johan. I think it’s a combination of the really smart casual, easy, and minimal things. There is a Swedish word called ”självklart” which is a brilliant word [meaning obvious, self-evident, natural], and that is what we strive for. I just wanted to take that and add warmth and personality and consistency.

There is a kind of third act element to Filippa Knutsson’s comeback to her namesake brand. The hero assembles her team to take care of business one last time. At age 51, she says that it might be her last period with the brand. I ask her what she really wants to accomplish, beyond getting the brand back on track. She glances at her phone that has been ringing a few times during our conversation. Then she looks at her fireplace again.

– I like the calmness, she says. I want to be able to de‑stress people in a world that is super stressful. There are these text messages and e-mails pouring in the whole bloody time. It’s supposed to free us and it just doesn’t. And on top of that, you have to buy clothes, and you’ve got to wear stuff! I mean, people just want to look good. If I can be a presence in normal people’s lives, normal stylish people’s lives, and relieve them of some of their stress, then that is a higher mission for me than just creating more clothes on this planet.

 

Konrad Olsson is the Editor-in-Chief of Scandinavian MAN

”I still believe in the brand.” Filippa Knutsson photographed in Stockholm.
Karl-Johan Bogefors, brand director, first started at Filippa K as the receptionist.