Take the Ugly and Make it Nice


Ann-Sofie Back & Göran Sundberg in Conversation

Three · Take the Ugly and Make it Nice

Critical Fashion Project

In her practice, fashion designer Ann-Sofie Back, who graduated from Beckmans in 1996, has explored failure, cracks and delusions in the construction of female identities, while applying a form of profane transubstantiation process to convert the ugly and plain into fashion, as a comment on fashion culture, its striving for perfection, and the fear of contact with human frailties. Göran Sundberg, who alternates between teaching (he is staff member at the Department for Fashion Design at Beckmans), designing, fashion journalism and consulting, has applied the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories on cultural fields in several of his collections, as a framework for combining attributes from street culture with conventional tailoring, and taken impulses from critical theory for collections that relate thematically to the consequences of climate change, identity issues and fashion consumption. In a conversation set up for this project, they elaborate on their thoughts on what it means for a fashion designer to work with critical perspectives inside the fashion system.

Göran Sundberg: How did critical thinking enter into your design process?

Ann-Sofie Back: I don’t really recall how it all started. I saw Martin Margiela’s work and felt that it was meaningful, and began thinking how I could work with fashion design in a similar way. Perhaps it was a critical approach to what fashion can be, clothes that reflect on other clothes. At least, he was up there on the barricades aesthetically in those days.

GS: In the documentary We Margiela,1 his aesthetics are said to come from Margiela’s mother, who painted all the furniture white. Anyway, the fashion house went against the prevailing system, for instance in their use of labels. I was living in Paris when Maison Martin Margiela opened and recall how their first logo was a cutting from a newspaper column, and I thought it must be a mistake. And then I got it, of course.

ASB: Maison Martin Margiela had a show in a dilapidated playground2 and let the local kids join in. That could probably be described as inclusive and critical fashion. For me, it came a bit later, when me and a girl in my class at Saint Martins started working with second-hand clothes. I focused on deconstruction but was interested in cheap materials, things that weren’t stylish. So, I began exploring “failed glamour” and my own aesthetic. In that sense, I’ve carried on taking ugly things and making them nice. It’s a reconciliation process for me: finding something I don’t like and transforming it. It could be simply a colour, or a phenomenon, such as celebrity worship or porn. I treat all sources of inspiration that way.

GS: Ugliness, is that a matter of aesthetics, moral or taste? The inspirational sources you mention are perhaps interesting because of their lack of moral clarity. We could also discuss beauty in general, or the rules for taste that apply to social interaction in fashion.

ASB: All three aspects are included to a varying degree. When I left Saint Martins, other designers were exploring second-hand, such as Noki and Susan Cianciolo. Now, nearly 20 years later, Rave Review3 is transforming second-hand materials, and several others are on the same track. Now, it’s about the environment and sustainability, whereas 20 years ago it was more of an aesthetic.

GS: What was it you did? What impelled you? I’m interested in how you would describe your mission.

ASB: It was partly a desperate need to find something I could identify with on an intuitive level, since I can’t identify with what is considered to be “good” or beautiful in the traditional sense. And partly, I’ve tried to carve out a unique niche. I need un-worked territory where I am left alone to get on with what I’m doing. The point, for me, is to make fashion that is fairly unique. To suggest things that could also be fashion. Originally, I felt compelled to come up with some kind of answer, but in the course of the journey I accepted that it is inspiring to change the world, not an obligation.

GS: You worked on a collection relating to the knicker shocks in the British scandal press, photos of celebs showing their underpants as they get out of cars.4

ASB: … or no knickers. Yes, I was appalled at how the British press treated women. It was horrible, the raw hate against women, how they sold this contempt for women to other women. It was disturbing, tacky and really extreme for a few years. I knew I had to do something about it and tried to work out what it was all about. It took a long time for me to visualise my approach. The collection was rather “textbook”, and on the nose: a lot of thongs, pixelated photos. One part of the collection was about Kate Moss’s 30th birthday. Photos were published of Kate arriving to the birthday party in a full-length dress, and her decline in the course of the evening, how her long dress got shorter and more tattered. My collection had split seams, parts that looked like they had just been torn off. It also included boyfriend pieces: an oversized jacket or shirt over a crumpled dress, after “sleeping out”.

GS: What are your thoughts on the result, or the product of a process? Do you evaluate it in some way? You made a skirt out of thongs, for instance. What makes it a good garment, good fashion, something you want retailers to buy?

ASB: I didn’t have an inhouse seller then, that came later. That collection had a good balance between marketable and more difficult pieces. Retailers won’t buy the thong skirt, they want asymmetrical cuts and that kind of thing. If that’s all the customer sees, then the inspiration will seem rather contrived. I’ve always had trouble getting my message across to retailers: you only have one shot at it, and that’s at the show. It’s painful. 30 per cent of the Back range has been reserved to convey my intended theme and message. The rest, 70 per cent, has consisted of stuff we have to include: black trousers in that bloody flapping material, and so on. I’ve racked my brain to make it all go together anyway. For some themes that was easier, and for others the end result was just clothes.

“It all fell into place when I realised I didn’t have to solve a problem. Instead, it’s about identifying problems and phenomena.”
— Ann-Sofie Back

GS: But have you evaluated your work in terms of artistic quality or how clearly the message was expressed?

ASB: I’m so self-centred that it’s mostly about me being satisfied. About me feeling that it’s sufficiently interesting or unique. The asymmetric pieces that we have to include aren’t unique, but there’s a reason why they exist. I don’t know how many people understand what the collection is really about, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s worse from the other perspective, like when I was working for Cheap Monday5 and came up with this really good theme. Ten designers were working there, developing products on my theme, but after all the meetings with different departments, it was whittled down to barely nothing. Then I had to go out and talk about the collection theme we’d worked on and show whatever was left of it, maybe a pair of black jeans or some jersey rag. So, the story didn’t match the end result at all. It was horrible. I want to stress that it wasn’t like that to start with at Cheap Monday, but that’s what happened more and more towards the end of my time there.

GS: And yet, you learn when you work with fashion, that those stories around the product are what give it the most value.

ASB: So, you had to demonstrate the theme in how you photographed. If you had a show, you could clarify it there. But the piece itself wasn’t that special.

GS: That’s not entirely unproblematic for a designer. So, how do you react? By fighting more? Resigning? Or, do you see it as a challenge?

ASB: All of the above. The problem at Cheap Monday, where I worked alongside Back, was that I wasn’t included in the decision-making. I couldn’t protect my design or explain my intentions with it. I just had to bite the bullet.

GS: Describe your design process!

ASB: It all fell into place when I realised I didn’t have to solve a problem. Instead, it’s about identifying problems and phenomena. I choose a few aspects of a subject; I experiment, drape, sketch. When I was working on my first collections, I had to draft all kinds of design solutions in the figure drawings, since that was my only way of visualising them. That was an incredibly laborious and long process, but it also meant that I had loads of material to expand on for the next season. I’ve always sketched everything by hand. Then I can go straight from the draft to the pattern construction. Sometimes I need to drape, like those thong details. That time, I had a great assistant designer to help me, and I got tons of photos from the detail work. Now, I see more quickly what works and what is a dead end, that won’t give enough back. I also have more confidence now in being able to bring it all together. Some seasons in the distant past, I was desperate and ultimately had to pretend to be my own cliché of a real designer, since I couldn’t think of anything important to say. “What inspires wussy designers? Nature.” That resulted in a weird collection with cut-out shoulders, conch shapes and what have you.6

“I don’t believe in aimless sketching or draping. There needs to be an intention, and critical thinking has to come into it, otherwise it will end up flat and empty.”
— Ann-Sofie Back

GS: I probably rely more on draping and toile, since I do a lot of the work myself. I try to remain open to it turning into something other than what I had in mind. Do you make discoveries when you drape?

ASB: Yes, but it has never had a decisive impact on my work. I don’t believe in aimless sketching or draping. There needs to be an intention, and critical thinking has to come into it, otherwise it will end up flat and empty. At least, that’s what I think.

GS: I’ve noticed that it can be precarious to read something smart, like a French philosopher, and then base your design on the ideas. The clothes and the collection can end up being an illustration, rather than a work in its own right. I lose the intuitive side of design and might miss the subtlety of fashion design: gestures, attitudes, nuances.

ASB: Back was partly a chance to break free from the strict, thematic approach. It allowed me to use things I’d already been working on as my starting point and simply make good clothing.

GS: I usually apply a framework for my design that consists of alternating between experimenting and representation. Going back and forth between them a few times, depending on how much time you have in the design process. What is it like for you?

ASB: I’ve only had to revert to the research phase a few times, when I discovered that an idea didn’t generate much clothing. Sometimes, I’ve realised that a theme doesn’t work at all, that I needed to dig deeper, and that I had to start from scratch. But I don’t have time for too many cycles either. So, I prefer to move on in the next collection instead.

GS: There have been discussions in the media about how much or how little time a designer has to make a collection. How much time do you have to create a collection?

ASB: In London I could take at least a month off from creative work after each collection. That was a kind of mental pause. When we started doing mid-season collections at Back, that break vanished, it was a hard blow. And it had a noticeable effect on the design. It took me years before I even understood what had happened and could perceive the “emptiness”. I saw myself as some kind of machine. Now I’m more experienced and know that I can work in parallel with different product groups in the collection. That would give one or two weeks of effective drafting.

GS: Do you experience that critical thinking is included in the sketching phase?

ASB: It is most manifest in the inspiration phase. New stuff is allowed to deviate from the theme if it’s good enough, if the rest of the collection can give a clear picture of the theme, and there’s something to talk about in the end.

GS: I remember you had exciting shows at Cheap Monday: football fields on the outskirts of town, a swimming pool, or outdoors in the dark with bonfires.

ASB: We had to shout in some way, and to be inventive with that kind of thing, so there would be something to write about. But the entire PR budget was spent on the shows and that changed radically just after the bonfire show, probably. From then on, it was more social media, influencers, and god knows what. The company started questioning whether our customers cared about our shows. That may have been a fair point, but it took the fun out of working there as a designer. A show is like a closure and a summing up of what you’ve been doing for the past few months. “It’s done.” Then you can move on.

“On a concrete level, critical thinking and creativity represent a desire for change or revolution.”
— Göran Sundberg

GS: I’d like to hear what you think of one of my theories. I’ve read a great deal of Bourdieu,7 and theories on deconstructivism, which are often referred to in critical studies. My theory is that the deconstructivist action of injecting critical intentions introduces chaos in ordered structures – such as an organisation, a company or a fashion system. Sort of in the way that I believe Carl Jung saw chaos as a creative force. On a concrete level, critical thinking and creativity represent a desire for change or revolution. In the context of fashion, this could simply be a new trend, or a new collection, but also a new way of marketing fashion and building stores. Change is needed to prevent that structure from stagnating and becoming obsolete. That is what new, non-traditional fashion labels contribute to the fashion system. In that perspective, I would say that Cheap Monday is very much structure and not so much critical thinking, whereas Back is comparatively more critical thinking and revolution and less stable structure.

ASB: I don’t know. When we wanted to change things and open stores at Back, we didn’t have the money we needed. So, it was hard to make major or real changes at all levels. So, there was more money and potential at Cheap Monday – even if the budget wasn’t enormous there either.

GS: But you worked a lot around the collection too. For instance, I remember an invitation to a show that was a white, sealed envelope printed on the outside, as though it had accidentally gone through the printer. It was congenial with your design of clothing, accessories, jewellery. You also did shows backwards, with the models coming out and applauding first, before showing the clothes. It feels like you have examined every part of the fashion designer’s role from every angle.

ASB: Maybe. I’m not sure the result was always that good. Sometimes it’s all a bit too much: untraditional models, reversed shows, weird music and conceptual clothes. It left you a bit overburdened. So, I began to realise that, okay, not too many messages. If I use professional models, people will see the clothes, and then the message might get through. It’s also tedious spelling everything out, and I risk ending up in some kind of farce, which I seem to have a natural proclivity for anyway, for some reason [laughs].

GS: You prefer subtlety and ambiguity?

ASB: Yes, it doesn’t have to say “vagina” (although even I have never been quite that blunt).

“There’s a point in raising issues in fashion in order to discuss taboos.”
— Göran Sundberg

GS: I was born in the 1960s, grew up with progressive rock, and may still be suffering from the aftermath. I loved Nationalteatern8, but there was a lot of bad music, theatre and social-realist kids’ TV shows in those days. A lot was considered to be immoral. That also seems to be a pitfall for fashion with a critical ambition. It’s not always that fun or good to focus on conveying the correct message.

ASB: They got caught up in being good and that was more important than artistic quality. That’s partly where we are today. Everything has to be so damned clear, so everyone understands, everyone is on board, nobody feels offended.

GS: And then the trigger warnings and safe zones. It makes fashion shows awkward. You’d prefer them to be “unsafe zones”.

ASB: It always has to be so fair. I’m not fair. I think fashion is inherently grossly unfair, despite the democratisation of fashion. And yet, fashion is interesting precisely because everyone can take part in club fashion, no one can ignore it. It is everywhere, and we all have to wear clothes. Everybody has to choose. That’s what makes fashion more interesting than art. It also annoys me that you can’t be that weirdo genius who lives in a bubble any more. I’ve got into bizarre discussions with followers on Instagram who bought a fucking reflective beanie because they thought I care if they get run over. We got funding [from an insurance company – editor’s note] and made a reflective beanie, but that doesn’t mean I care about road safety. It’s not that I’m against road safety per se, it’s just not something I devote my attention to. Some granny somewhere in the country buys a reflective beanie for her eleven-year-old grandchild and then sees an Instagram post from Back with a seriously skinny model, with her tits out, and this now creates a problem for her because she can’t identify with that. I wanted Back to be able to be in both worlds but there is no room for grey areas anymore.

GS: You’re onto something there, the goodness thing. When designers are criticised for not communicating enough diversity, this criticism seems to come from a desire to be good. A good person should promote diversity. But it’s also an attack, something you throw in the face of a designer. It’s like saying, “I’m holier than thou,” which is actually a way of attaining social status, rather than promoting diversity. I don’t necessarily think designers have an obligation to be good. On the contrary, they can present something that looks like evil, such as dark things or advanced sexual practices. In any case, there’s a point in raising issues in fashion in order to discuss taboos.

ASB: It’s a fine line. When Balenciaga and Lotta Volkova9 were accused of not having enough ethnic variation, I sided with the critics. Volkova’s defence was that they had another kind of diversity, with alternative gender identities and ideals of beauty, and that she was doing her bit in that way. And there is some truth to that, although it sounded more like an afterthought. As a designer, you can’t tick all the boxes: gender equality, diversity, road safety, representing all body types. You can’t do everything, at once, all the time.

GS: It would be impossible to represent and sectionalise all gender identities, sexual orientations, ethnicities, ages, body types and social classes. If you seriously intend to do that, you’ll soon be down to the individual level, which shows the absurdity of pigeonholing people.

ASB: Basically, it’s about what you consider to be attractive or ugly. That’s determined by your prejudices. But inclusion is not confined to the obvious identity markers. When will ugly people be included? It’s painful for me to be forced to look at a beautiful woman, regardless of whether she’s black or white. I also get upset because I’m not “good-looking”.

GS: So, how should we define critical thinking in fashion design?

ASB: Who could be called a critically thinking designer, apart from me, perhaps, and Minna Palmqvist10?

GS: Well, Maison Margiela, of course – perhaps less today, although it seems like John Galliano11 is picking up the pieces and that there is something left that could be described as critical, especially with regard to gender. There are a few American labels that are overtly norm-critical, including Eckhaus Latta and Gypsy Sport, who have worked with overtly trans models and diversity in their catwalk presentations. Apart from them, there aren’t that many designers or brands that engage in critical design. From where I’m standing, and in the part of the fashion industry that I report on, it seems like the economic climate makes it hard to experiment and explore alternatives.

ASB: There are some that I follow on Instagram. But none of them are really established, they’re operating on the margins of the fashion industry. I wouldn’t quite say that Balenciaga is critical fashion. Maybe. But then they do a collection that is all about spandex…

GS: I’m wondering how that relates to the Zeitgeist. I began working in the industry in the 1980s, when club fashion was progressive. In those days, Jean-Paul Gaultier was also expressly working with different ethnicities, large sizes, religions. But his approach might not have been looked upon favourably today – it was too jocular and would probably be accused for cultural appropriation now. Then came the 1990s, with Martin Margiela and a load of other designers in Belgium, Paris and London, who worked with anti-fashion. Can you remember what it was like working in fashion then?

ASB: I couldn’t really identify with Margiela or Ann Demeulemeester. It was all so serious, heavy and black. I wasn’t, but there was room for doing weird stuff. I was selling to Japan in those days, and the retailer Pineal Eye12 bought my graduate collection from Saint Martins. I also did strange fashion features with the photographer Anders Edström, and no one even raised an eyebrow: “Okay, let’s print!” Anders and I nearly laughed ourselves to death. “That was a joke, did you think we were serious?” People were mad. You couldn’t do that today – or is that precisely what you can do?

GS: Exactly. Is it because people are more professional now?

ASB: Yes and no. It’s more personal now, with Instagram. Everybody has to be so perfect, but there’s also room for human flaws. There’s not the same budget now, and the money has to cover so many channels, with social media. It’s less glamorous.

GS: But it feels like fashion had more influence on culture in general in the 1990s, and that critical thinking in fashion played a bigger part then. Both Moderna Museet and the Nationalmuseum later had exhibitions on tendencies from 1990 to 2000. Do you think that there is as much room for critical thinking in fashion or on the fashion scene today?

ASB: Yes, but there’s a new generation with labels such as Ottolinger13, which is exploring an alternative aesthetics. They do it differently than I do, who am twenty years older and not part of the same crowd. Or, they don’t know that it’s the same way. What happened twenty years ago is not documented to the same extent as fashion is documented on social media today. Nowadays, we can see that people in Korea and South Africa are doing interesting stuff – we weren’t aware of that before.

GS: You’re right. The globalisation and democratisation of fashion allows more people to participate – but only if you’re cool and good-looking, of course. London was hardly referred to as a fashion hub in those days, fashion today is not even centred in the West. But the ones you mentioned, do you think they stand a chance of building a business?

ASB: Maybe not. Perhaps that is what’s changed, that new labels aren’t meant to be mainstream and big business but are fashion at grassroots level. Little cliques and very scattered.

GS: No one would be happier than me if there was a revival for subcultures. They’ve been struggling for a long time, since big business is so quick to pick up on trends. The scale is diametrically different between grassroots brands and retail chains. When students say they’re not looking forward to working for chains after graduating, we try to tell them that if they manage to influence a style they are influencing at least 50,000 pieces of clothing.

ASB: That sounds dead boring [laughs]. Maybe it’s more about shopping habits and how you cope with the fact that people are buying less clothes, which has already started to happen. I think it’s an awareness that has truly begun to sink in. If you consider that many of my friends are early adopters, then they have definitely given up shopping. It’s more cool to wear something that’s three years old, from an archive. There will probably be more EU legislation soon to make clothing more expensive. I hope so. And then, the question is how fashion companies will respond.

GS: The need to have this season’s fashion seems to be gone. There’s something a bit unsavoury about bringing a load of shopping bags home. You notice shops are doing different things too, like organising lectures on fashion.

ASB: We consume fashion in other ways than by shopping. All you need to do is to try on some Balenciaga in the shop and take a selfie and post it on Instagram. You don’t need to buy the clothes, you just prove that you get it and you’re in on it.

GS: What are your thoughts today on your studies at Beckmans and Saint Martins? Is there something you wish you had been taught, and what do you think these schools need to offer?

ASB: Beckmans is very different today from when I went there. It used to be just colours and shapes. I can’t remember anyone ever talking about content or inspiration. Or if they did, it was just very matter-of-fact; like, someone was interested in bridges. The scope is much broader now, and the research part is at least as important as the end product – or even more so. I would probably have liked it better today, I hated it then. There was this lingering attitude that fashion is superficial. We weren’t allowed to read fashion mags, for fear that we might be influenced and copy them unwittingly. As though originality and creativity could not survive contact with the fashion scene. Did they think fashion should exist in a vacuum? Critical thinking formed no part of our studies at Saint Martins either, but at least they expected us to do research. I needed to focus my research on something that really mattered, but that’s not how everybody worked.

GS: You encountered quite a lot of resistance to your ideas from Louise Wilson,14 who was head of the master’s course in fashion at the time. The school was a vital recruitment base for international fashion companies. Did that give you opportunities to discuss things?

ASB: She couldn’t really see how I would ever get a job. But I don’t know if that was an honest discussion – perhaps it was her defence because she liked to bully people who didn’t do as she told them. But in the end, she said, “No, I’ll let Fabio15 handle you now, because I don’t get it, good luck.” Discussions with him were a little more helpful.

GS: What are your views on the future role of designers?

ASB: No idea. Never before have I been this confused about what fashion designers should do. A lot will change, but I don’t know when or how fast. I’m not even sure we need to work industrially, since that aspect of fashion, mass-production of clothing that ends up as landfill, is bad for the environment. Maybe we’ll only design virtual fashion. ⬤

Written by Göran Sundberg

Ann-Sofie Back studied at Beckmans College of Design and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where she graduated with an MA in womenswear in 1998. Over the years, she has combined her own design practice (Ann-Sofie Back, Ateljé and BACK) with working as a designer and creative director for Cheap Monday and other fashion companies, and as a stylist for numerous fashion publications including Purple, Self-Service and Dazed & Confused. Ann-Sofie Back has received several awards for her design, and has been widely represented in Swedish and international exhibitions. She has also been the subject of two documentaries on SVT (Sweden’s Television) in 2004 and 2013.

Göran Sundberg is a Senior Lecturer in fashion design at Beckmans College of Design and designs for his own brand since many years. He is also a fashion writer, consultant and researcher, and has been the editor-in-chief for the Swedish trade journal Habit. His assignments include a national survey of Swedish fashion design (Mode Svea, 2006), commissioned by the National Council for Architecture, Form and Design, and recurrent participation in several design juries. His designs have been featured in a number of fashion exhibitions in Sweden and abroad.

  1. We Margiela, directed by Menna Laura Meijer, produced by Mint Film Office, the Netherlands, 2017.
  2. The Spring/Summer collection 1990.
  3. A Swedish fashion brand launched in 2017 by former Beckmans students Josephine Bergqvist and Livia Schück. www.instagram.com/[…].
  4. Ann-Sofie Back Autumn/Winter 2005.
  5. A denim brand launched in 2004 and bought by H&M in 2008. It was discontinued in 2019.
  6. Ann-Sofie Back Spring/Summer 2006.
  7. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist and scholar, 1930–2002.
  8. A Swedish rock band and theatre company founded in 1969. www.nationalteatern.nu.
  9. A Russian stylist, born 1984. www.instagram.com/[…].
  10. A Finnish designer, born 1980. www.minnapalmqvist.com.
  11. The creative director at Maison Margiela since 2014.
  12. A London store, existed in 1997–2007.
  13. A Swiss-German fashion brand, designed by Christa Bösch and Cosima Gadient. www.ottolinger.com.
  14. A British professor of fashion design, 1962–2014.
  15. Fabio Piras, current head of MA studies in fashion at Central Saint Martins in London.