New York’s downtown artsy hip area SoHo just got a little bit greener and a little more Nordic with the opening of Swedish designer Gudrun Sjödén’s first concept store in U.S.

A store opening is the sort of event that normally wouldn’t get much attention in this part of town—but this happens to be the most irresistible Swedish brand to turn up in the old mercantile district in years. An eclectic crowd of over 400 curious design enthusiasts, fashion bloggers, photographers, artists and media, gathered to celebrate the event on March 8.

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For good reason, of course. Gudrun Sjödén designs for women who care—about the environment, about the finer things in life and about who they are, how they look, and the values they project to the world.

“Our clients are often intellectual, individualistic women,” she says. “They work in the humanities and have an interest in culture. It really has very little to do with age but yes, my designs seem to appeal to women who like to come across as mature and self-reliant.”

On her Facebook page (aptly called “Kulturtanten” -- the old cultural lady), Sjödén’s more than 18,000 friends are treated updates on everything from aforementioned store opening, personal thoughts on weather or what to wear, questions about collections, to the designer’s own paintings in watercolor.

Sjödén is among the most successful Swedish fashion designers to make it under their own name. Many fashion aficionados, especially in Sweden, talk about the country’s burgeoning fashion industry, referring to the successful export in recent years of Swedish brands such as Acne, Filippa K or Tiger of Sweden.

But Google “Swedish fashion” and Sjödén’s name rarely comes up; search for it on Visit Stockholm and she doesn’t come up either. The fact is that her brand has grown more or less under the radar for many years. It could be that the brand’s back story just isn’t hip enough to be trendy in the eyes of the Swedish fashion know-it-alls.

A child of the progressive sixties but never political ,Sjödén graduated from Sweden’s “Konstfack” – University of Arts, Crafts and Design – in 1963. With an exam in textile and fashion her first job was actually as columnist for women’s magazines. She started designing clothes for other brands in the early ’70s, but tired after a few years of not being allowed to present her entire collections to the end consumer.

So, she and her husband Björn, a photographer, opened their first store in Stockholm in 1976. Around the same time, they started creating their own mail order catalogues, more or less around the kitchen table. Björn photographed Gudrun’s collections, while she wrote the descriptions for every item. Sjödén now has 17 stores, and only six of them are in Sweden; the rest are scattered around Europe, in locales such as Copenhagen and London. With the U.S. under her belt, her next store could be down under in Australia, where online sales have recently taken off. (In fact, mail order and e-commerce remain the company’s largest sources of revenue,)

Being green was never a marketing ploy for Sjödén and certainly nothing new. The philosophy of sustainable design via nature’s own materials was always part and parcel of her conviction. It could just be part of her roots, the results of growing up on a farm southwest of Stockholm or the realization early on that what women really want is to both look good and feel good about what they’re wearing.

Sjödén’s pieces are pretty, colorful and comfortable, made from organic natural materials whenever possible, and genuinely well made. There’s always been something recognizable about her basic wardrobes. Among her core audience in northern Europe, the Sjödén groupies are easily identified… her items are personal, unique, often artsy and worn by women with their own careers and in search for their own personal style. It’s not middle of the road, in either style or in quality.

The designer and the brand already has a following here in the U.S. where a handful thousand loyal customers have been buying mail order from Sweden.

“It’s also not the first time we’re here,” Sjödén says. “We opened two stores in northern California in the eighties but it was too early. We didn’t have the resources to prevail and pulled out after a few years.”

New Yorkers spend a lot of money in chain stores, but it’s the small independent storefronts that make the downtown shopping experience unique. As fashion labels come, it doesn’t get much more unique than this new addition to the posh district of SoHo.

“SoHo was a natural choice for us now, with its many personal stores and overall inspiring feel.” Setting things up has been fast; the company has had access to the Green Street location just since November 2012.

Sjödén is sharp, yet laid back and casual, but her comments, like her designs, are straightforward, thoroughly worked and prepared. The designer lives her own brand; she enjoys going to the opera, browsing the indie stores of the West Wide, walking the newly renovated high line or sitting down at the corner café and bookstore on SoHo’s Crosby Street.

Sjödén has turned 70 and is proud of the fact that the business is still fully family owned.

“I’ve never been interested in bringing in other owners or going public,” she says. “I want to have full power to do my own thing. One of the reasons I wanted my own brand was to give my customers a full collection. I don’t want to have to answer to someone, I want to be able to pursue my own vision.”

The designer has no plans to retire – in fact, she plans to run the company for another twenty years.

“I’m an artist and convinced I can offer humanity something of my own, something of value that will remain,” she says. “This is also my vision for the company and the brand—I’d like us to make it long term,. I’d like our full line to remain available and accessible for all of the women that have found what they’ve been looking for.”

“We are not a chain: You need a structure to grow as we do but we stay true to our vision: We’re a company with a soul.”

Ulf Barslund Martensson

For more info, see www.gudrunsjoden.com
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