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Style, innovation & equality

Ulrika Nilsson

JUS has been a growing ground for Swedish fashion since the 1990s — from Acne Studios to Adnym Atelier. Its iconic founder Ulrika Nilsson continues to believe in physical retail, and explains how it can both survive and thrive.

Words Jonna Dagliden Hunt Photography Dan Sjölund

On a backstreet in central Stockholm multi-brand concept store JUS has managed to establish a unique niche on the market since its launch in the early 90s. Located below ground, the store feels more like a secret members’ club than a traditional fashion retailer. The interior is personal and artisanal, the logo has a futuristic art deco pattern.

After seven years at the street Birger Jarlsgatan, Ulrika Nilsson, the founder of JUS, wanted a more anonymous address, which people had to track down.

— JUS is a place to discover, that’s why we don’t really have a sign for the shop. I took the decision to move JUS to a slightly odd location and venue. It was central, but on a street most people had not heard of.

For years I had walked past an empty, neglected basement on Brunnsgatan. That basement became JUS’ new home during the autumn of 2001, she says.

Ever since 1995 JUS has been a hub for Swedish and international fashion. Ulrika Nilsson took a lot of personal inspiration from London during the 90s, meaning brands such as Vexed Generation, Maharishi, Griffin, Conscious Earthwear, Future Classics and FDS (For Design Sake), had a natural place at JUS from the start. Overall, it was loud, colourful and a bit crazy.

— The street art scene, pop art with Basquiat and Lichtenstein inspired me. The aim was to tell stories, just like now, she says.

With her unique mindset, Nilsson quickly became the go-to-person for young, up-and-coming designers: Acne, Whyred, J.Lindeberg, Rodebjer, Burfitt, Ann-Sofie Back, POUR, The Local Firm, FESWA, and Adnym Atelier are all Swedish brands that have used jus to present their first collections.

— There was no platform for new brands and concepts in Stockholm during the early 90s. A place where new brands could be introduced in an international context: I believe that fashion happens when different brands are mixed together and that’s why I advocate multi-brand stores, she says, adding:

— The idea was that JUS would act as an umbrella under which new brands and designers could present their collections.

Early on, JUS became so much more than a shop. Through the years Ulrika Nilsson has acted as a men-tor or agent for many brands and their collections, Rodebjer, Ida Sjöstedt, Diana Orving, pour and The Local Firm to name a few.

— I’ve been given the privilege to work with many talented people with a lot of passion. Everything is about energy, I love the challenge of having a concept presented and help develop and improving it and then see it and the people behind it grow. JUS has been my platform and it has given these brands a chance to be part of the international scene, she says.

Today established international brands such as Comme des Garçons, Dries van Noten and Rick Owens are displayed next to up-and-coming designers such as Margaux Lonnberg and Namacheko. For Ulrika Nilsson, trends always come secondary, what’s important is the larger picture: brands with a clear idiom, that are sustainable and which respect the creative process.

— It doesn’t matter if the clothes are part of this au-tumn’s collection or if they are several years old, what interests me is how they extend and build the wearer’s personality, Nilsson says, and recalls a day when she started one of her most important collaborations.

— I was on holiday in New York in the late 90s and spotted a girl that had a really cool look. I started walking after her, admiring her style which looked like something from Little Edie or Grey Gardens. We started talking and she invited me to her apartment for a cup of tea, her name was Carin Rodebjer. The next day I was on my way back home to Sweden with her first collection in a couple of plastic bags — a big step for JUS was when we ended up being the first shop to sell her clothes after having worked closely together for several years. Carin is a designer that I admire, she is faithful to her look with a clear idiom and style.

What’s most challenging to Ulrika Nilsson, is simply sustaining these values in a changing retail environment.

— To stay faithful to one’s concept but at the same time evolve without changing direction is challenging, she explains.

The reason JUS has survived, and thrived, in the era of the so-called Death of Retail, is the simple fact that it has become a destination, according to Nilsson. Today it not only acts as a platform for Swedish and international fashion, but also as an artistic arena, where art and fashion mix. On Mondays, the JUS team closes the shop, and turns it into a venue for lectures, film screenings, and exhibitions.

— JUS is a meeting place and an alternative stage for different cultural expressions. We believe that collaborations that cross borders are important and create an interesting synergy. One good example is the collaboration between designers Monica Förster and Bosnian company Zanat which resulted in a black collection of their pieces developed for JUS. Collaborations like these and participation is vital for survival today, she says, and adds another JUS memory — from a rundown old rehearsing studio in a Paris suburb.

— We met fashion designer Lamine Badian Kouyaté, founder of Xuly Bët Funkin’ Fashion Factory. That playfulness, joy and self-clarity floored me completely and is still one of the most interesting brands of its time. Maybe it’s time for a revival?

Yes! I’ve seen comments online requesting Xuly Bët Funkin’ Fashion Factory tights… On that subject, how do you create a balance between big and small brands?

— Whether a brand is big or small isn’t important to me. For me, fashion is a mix of brands. The creative process and the craftsmanship is what should be in focus. I give my attention to those who fully believe in their ideas without compromising. A clear vision, creativity, personality and presence are all very important qualities. We can take Horisaki as an example, Mako and Karin believed in their idea and moved to Småland to create handmade hats. And despite it being a difficult product, their hats are now all over the world. Niched concepts make the world smaller and creates an affinity.

What are the most important brands for you right now?

— They are all equally important and bring different things to the whole experience.

Name a new brand that you’ve started carrying or are thinking about bringing into the store?

— Meo Fusciuni, a poetic perfume concept from Sicily and Japanese Julius has just been added to the shop.

How important is it to bring unique products into the store that others don’t carry?

— I would say — always. Unique pieces are always important.

What is the most important thing to focus on in order to stay relevant as a retail outlet today?

— Many retailers are too similar and offer a similar range of clothes. Alignment has always been extra clear in Sweden, perhaps the new playing field will create a more niche market? There is definitely a future for niche boutiques. We are currently going through a tough time with eliminations and changes, but with that good things also happen. There will be an increased openness to new concepts and for smaller brands to become established, away from the mainstream. The physical shop will be as important as the digital. More brands are limiting their availability digitally and it will be more important with unique pieces.

What is the characteristic that makes your shop the most unique?

— It’s welcoming and has a good vibe. Our staff is everything, they are helpful, engaged, know their stuff and are kind. Not to forget, the mix of brands. I believe in niche stores that have a clear concept and carefully choose what they represent with love and respect for the designers’ aesthetics. We find a lot of inspiration from Antwerpen 6 and the fashion scene in Belgium with brands such as Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Maison Margiela, and I also admire Rei Kuwakubo at Comme des Garcons, Number Nine, Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto. These are designers that have challenged the mainstream, retained their integrity and continued to inspire during decades.

How do you balance physical retail vs online retail? How do you think that will change in the future, for your shop and for the industry as a whole?

— I hope and believe that we have reached the culmination of the hysterical online shopping that we are currently experiencing, and that we soon will see tougher guidelines for online shopping with in-season price reductions and high send backs. The high speed with which we are ordering and returning things is completely absurd. Some post offices even have fitting rooms where the receiver can try something on and return it straight away, and that just feels sad. I believe that more customers will realise that it’s more important to do less, but better and more sustainable purchases. I also believe that we will go back to experiencing things in real life rather than just virtually, no matter if it’s a visit to a museum or a shop.

At the same time, it’s very important as a retailer to not rely on old ways of doing things and one must never stop being curious. It requires a curiosity and openness to try new things, but without completely changing direction. To never stop being inspired by what’s around us and make use of new references. Ideas must be driven by passion and interest — we must become specialists at making our concepts clear and telling their story. This has not really changed, it was as important 20 years ago and will be as important 20 years on from now. Organisations and businesses need enthusiastic people, it’s vital.

Are you threatened by big e-commerce players like Amazon, or do you think your unique position will hold strong?

— As larger e-commerce sites like Amazon are being established, I believe it is especially important to emphasise one’s niche, sampling and brand mix. To establish a brand today without a clear view of what you stand for feels like a waste of time. In the future we will be wanting to feel inspired by a concept, a designer’s thoughts and ideas and also find how it relates to us and our own values. The personal sampling is one of the bigger advantages with a small niche boutique. Someone has already done half of the work and created an interesting mix. It’s in the combinations that fashion happen. To create a unique concept and to find one’s own way is absolutely essential.

How has social media affected your business?

— I don’t think all small boutiques needs an online shop to survive, but I believe that a presence in social media is essential. The making of a community and development of collaborations are positive for all parties from different businesses.

How do you communicate with your customers? How do you keep them engaged?

— We have a customer mail list that we use to inform about event end exhibitions. Not too often though, no one likes to be spammed. Apart from that, we talk to our customers at the shop and tell them about our future plans and events. The shop is set up in a way to make it easy to stay a long time and browse, but it also invites conversation between customers and the team. We share the same interest for fashion and inspiration.

How important is it to create special events in the store?

— To be active and present in one’s own shop is a must to survive as a private retailer. JUS is very active in the art and cultural scene with invites to openings every other month. It’s partly because we enjoy the inspirational experience, but also to offer the experience to our visitors.

Where do you see your business in 10 years? What will the ratio be between the physical and online retail experience?

— JUS has a small shop online where a small part of our stock is available. We work on the online side of the business when we have time, but it’s acting more like a digital shop window which might incite people to visit the shop in real life. Since I believe in the connection between people I don’t think much will change. We will continue to explore more unique pieces, artisanal pieces and garments you have to touch, smell and dis-cover for yourself outside the digital world.