Beate Karlsson and I jump on a video call in early autumn. Her voice is raspy and breaks down a couple of times: “Sorry, it is a bit damaged from not sleeping and talking every day for the past month.” Runway season has just finished, and she’s back in Stockholm, almost ready to switch off and enjoy what might be her first free weekend in a wee while. I bet she’s absolutely exhausted, but you wouldn’t know it from her calm disposition and secure presence, a gentleness balanced out by what looks like a cool, comfortable black hoodie and subtle yet striking makeup I wish I could recreate for my next night out. I’m catching her a few days after Avavav’s debut show, which I will talk about, but for which an introduction isn’t needed because you have probably already seen it: it’s the one where the models tripped, on purpose, on the runway – Beate herself also took the plunge on her outing at the end. It might have been a first (first runway show, first viral moment), but it isn’t Beate’s first. She learnt the ropes at Parsons and Central Saint Martins, becoming Pyer Moss’s Head of Accessories before catching the eye of fellow Swedes Linda and Adam Friberg, the minds behind Scandinavian fashion hits Cheap Monday, Monki, and Weekday. They offered Beate the creative direction of Avavav, a Florence-based brand driven by an arty, conceptual approach and a commitment to ethical production.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 47. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
In barely two years, the brand has made a name for itself among the fashion glitterati, created a recognisable aesthetic, shocked and seduced everyone (including men and Doja Cat) with the already iconic finger shoes, and most recently, it’s also shaken the status quo with its latest collection. So, let’s talk about Spring/Summer 2023. It all started with Beate’s intimate wish, in this weird, current moment of big-f inancial-terms-energy (inflation, recession, Succession), to look rich. That desire drove her to design a collection emblazoned with explicit money-friendly messages: “Business of Gold Digging”, “Cash Cow”, “Filthy Rich”, embellished dollar signs everywhere, Rolex necklaces, or a dress that borrows the Louis Vuitton and Gucci logo aesthetic. The statement is loud and clear in caps and oversized hoodies and tees, some of the brand’s most straightforward streetwear items, but there were also Y2K-prone denim sets, complex-silhouette dresses, and striking furry boots. It’s a fashion proposal that mixes the conceptual with the practical, which is Beate’s ultimate goal as a designer, and if you look closely, it’s a statement about success and failure, about what we value and why, about wanting money and having money, about how much (or how little) it all means. As Beate says, there is a clear message, there are just no clear answers. It’s fun–it matters–to think about it nevertheless.
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Beate, I’d like to begin by asking you about the first time you were aware of money.
I’m the youngest of three sisters and I think I knew, quite early on, that money could benefit me, in the sense that I could use it to buy candy and things like that. I used to do things for my parents, helping them wash the car or giving them a massage or whatever, to earn a little pocket money. I think that’s one of my earliest memories of money and its value.
What about the value of fashion? For instance, when I was 12 and enrolled in a posh high school, my mum gave me a Ralph Lauren sweater that became a sort of comfort blanket. That logo held such social, and therefore emotional, power. Did you have the same awareness as a teen?
I have a few memories around this, some are clearer than others. I definitely remember Cheap Monday jeans. That was a thing! And they weren’t so expensive, even at that age, but they still carried a value of coolness. Then there was also this trend when I was a teenager, in the winter, which obviously is a really cold and long season in Sweden, of wearing super overpriced designer puffer jackets. I think it still endures, but maybe it’s just a Swedish thing. Fjällraven had a puffer jacket that was like, 300 or 400 euros, which was a fortune at that age, and there was also Canada Goose. Depending on which jacket you wore, you had a certain status amongst teens. That’s a powerful memory. But I wasn’t thinking so much about the money back then, it was more like the brand stood for something cool, even if that meant something quite abstract at the end of the day, you were insecure and just wanted to fit in.
And how did you go from thinking of fashion as a way to fit in to seeing it as a creative path, to the point of eventually deciding to become a fashion designer? When did you start to think of brands in terms of their design value rather than mere social signifiers?
That’s a super interesting question. I was very insecure as a teenager, I mean, who wasn’t? I was part of these girl groups that were a bit destructive, where everyone was insecure and transferring that insecurity to the others in the group. But I always liked to do things differently from others, and after the age of 14 or 15, I started to find my own style, although, of course, it was still very boxed in if I compare it to my vision today and what I like to wear. I worked a lot with jewellery, sewing, making sculptures, working with my hands to create some kind of visual communication. I also worked with Photoshop quite early on, distorting images. So when I started studying, I just knew I wanted to do something in that direction, even though, at the time, it was much more of a basic teenage dream of wanting to study fashion, you know? And it took me some time until I was able to bring, and find, something more valuable into that.
I get it. It must have been difficult to arrive at Parsons and be surrounded by so many people with ideas about fashion. Everyone needs to find their identity within a group.
Exactly. Everyone was very young on the bachelor programme, and I think most of us were very insecure, so in the beginning, loads of people were just copying others’ work. That’s what I did as well, and that’s why I was so bored with it. All of a sudden, I was like, why am I doing this? At the same time, although you don’t necessarily have to go that way, I think it can be a good tool to learn the norms of something and how other people work. It’s almost like researching by putting others’ work into yours. Even though many people would just call it copying, of course (laughs).
And who were you researching-slash-copying at the time?
When I started studying, I was much more into couture, something very different from what I’m doing today. I liked to create volume, I hadn’t got into experimental shapes and silhouettes yet. I think I looked at designers like Viktor & Rolf and Alexander McQueen. But I was doing it subconsciously, it was only afterwards that I realised what was going on.
Going from Sweden, which is the epitome of European welfare, to New York, which is such a capital of capitalism, must’ve been a big change, especially in reference to the lifestyle of each place. How did it impact you at the time?
Moving from Sweden, the biggest change I encountered was how diverse people were in New York. Stockholm is the capital, but it’s also a small city where everyone looks the same, and you see people you know all the time. So I got a lot of energy and confidence from being in a city where I was anonymous and free to be whoever I wanted. No one cared if I decided to be goth one day and super normcore the next, there were no preconceptions, which I thought was very liberating. And that’s something I’ve definitely taken with me. Now I live between Stockholm and Florence, and it’s easier to implement that way of thinking, not caring about how I’m expected to be, and actually being just whoever I want to be.
Let’s talk about this journey back, from North America to Europe, in terms of your work as a designer. New York is so opposite to Italy, which is a place where they value craftsmanship and heritage so much, and the establishment is much stronger. How does this affect you?
On a general basis, I have an easier time working in Europe because I relate more to the mentality here. I’m generalising a lot, and I don’t want to fall into clichés, but sometimes Americans like talking a lot, and for me, it’s easier to read Europeans, to build friendships and work relationships with them. At the same time, I do miss working in the US because, as you said, in Italy there are many rules. It’s been very evident when we work with factories because there’s a lot of, “No, you can’t do this.” There are multiple limitations, and not all of them want to experiment. Of course, there are good and bad sides to both places. In New York, it’s all about staying up all night, not really going home–you just live to work. And in Florence, everyone’s got a glass of wine in their hands every day after 3 pm, even Sundays and Mondays (laughs). It feels like you’re always on vacation, which has also been quite liberating. You leave work and see everyone doing something completely non-work-related, and you realise there’s also another side to life.
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You have experience working as an accessory designer at Pyer Moss, one of the most relevant American brands at the moment, whereas Avavav is a European brand. I guess there’s a global consumer, but have you found differences in what American and European clients value when it comes to shopping?
That’s a hard question. Pyer Moss is Kerby’s [Jean- Raymond] vision, although, of course, he is showing it for a wider audience and being very inclusive. With Avavav, we are still building our consumer base and understanding our customers. There are many people supporting us that we didn’t necessarily think would be interested in the beginning. For example, our shoes are mainly bought by men. Initially, we wanted the product to be available in men’s sizes as well as women’s, but we didn’t know that they would be as big, or almost bigger, part of the market. There are a lot of things that come with doing, and we don’t necessarily try to control them. It’s really fun to discover who’s into what you’re creating
I want to talk about Avavav and its approach. I know you joined initially because you were promised the possibility to work at a different pace, with more creative freedom. Was that something valuable for you as a designer?
Creative freedom is one of the top values, definitely. It’s what drives me to make new things and find new ways, new answers to what fashion can and should be. That goes hand in hand with having a goal in terms of sustainability and not just doing things for the sake of it. If you create products that you’re not seeing on the market, that’s a way to be more sustainable because trying to sell the exact same thing as everyone else is set up to create waste. And then the team and our work ethics are also super important to us. We value having fun and being surrounded by people who are ambitious and really believe in the same thing, even if it manifests in different ways.
As you say, the whole conversation around sustainability emphasises, even more, the idea of what’s valuable, and what’s good enough to spend money and resources on. When do you feel you’re succeeding as a designer? Do you search for this difference in the conceptual approach, the materials, or the silhouette?
The concept is the core of it, and then the material can be a part of the concept, or the presentation, or the silhouette, or whatever it is, but the concept comes first. I come from an artistic background, but I need to create commercial collections, so that tension is really interesting. I’m constantly thinking about innovation because I really don’t want to create just another dress for the sake of it, but it also doesn’t need to be the most avant- garde shape, it needs to be wearable. That’s the biggest challenge for me: I don’t want to be an artist, I want to be a designer. So I need to find the balance between innovation and commerciality.
The finger shoes have been such a successful product, but, obviously, for many people, it isn’t normalised yet, you know? They’re definitely wearable, it’s just another shoe with like, some fingers sticking out (laughs). I think with the collection we just released, we were able to make clothing workable for a wider audience but that still carries a message and statement, something that I haven’t seen before. I mean, most things have been done in different ways, but it was something that I felt was new, in my eyes, anyway.
Let’s talk about this collection. I want to go back to something you’ve expressed, which is this urge you had, at some point, to fake richness. What was your cosplay of a rich person? What were you wearing?
It’s super silly and funny because my version of richness probably doesn’t really match other people’s. In the collection, I tried to work with caricatures. We have the kind of Paris Hilton, 2000s Hollywood rich girl, exaggerated with dollar signs and bling-bling. Or we have the Rolex necklace, which carries a lot of monetary value for anyone who knows what a Rolex costs. Personally, in my aesthetics, I used to have green hair, so I cut it and coloured it black. I wanted to have something very clean and look neat, which was the opposite of the style I was pulling last year, basically. I think the biggest inspiration was looking at a rich, young, urban person, just owning your richness and exposing it in a kind of vulgar but ironic way.
In a way, it ties with logomania and the heritage of Dapper Dan and other figures that have worn dupes with pride. Now brands are celebrating those nouveau riches as well in their own collections.
For sure, it’s definitely part of the broader direction fashion is going in. I was also thinking a lot about Demna Gvasalia and how he changed the conversation by putting things associated with cheapness on super-expensive clothing. You want people to know that you have a Balenciaga hoodie for 900 euros, but you also want it to look like trash–it’s kind of a humble brag. I was inspired by that, but thinking of what it’d be like to do the opposite and vulgarly expose that you are wealthy. If an actual wealthy person would wear our clothing, like the Filthy Rich cap, for example, it would have one energy and one message, whereas if it was someone who’s fighting for money and scholarships, like so many of my friends, it would be the projection of a goal. It’s funny either way, and it’s interesting that it isn’t clothing and messages exclusively for rich people. It’s more the idea of giving everyone their 15 minutes of being wealthy.
It’s interesting because there are these status symbol products, like some of the Supreme ones, where the most ridiculous thing will be sold at an exorbitant price. It feels like the brand is in on the joke but at the end of the day, monetarily, there will be a customer who won’t even consider not purchasing. Do you think they’re also in on the joke?
Exactly, that’s really interesting. I do think that there’s a level of the designer mocking you as a consumer, but in a nice way. It’s funny if someone buys this, it’s the opposite of being arrogant because you’re saying, yeah, I’m in on the joke and I’m okay with it. It almost becomes a power move.
It makes a lot of sense in our context of people making a meme out of their feelings or identity. Now that we’ve come to this point in fashion, what do you think is a natural evolution? Where do we go from here?
That’s the most interesting challenge right now. With my work, I try to create messages related to what I have grown up with and understand. That’s what happens in this meme era, you carry things with statements that signify something to you, that have a certain value in its meaning. I don’t know when or if it will end, but that’s definitely something that I’m thinking a lot about.
It’s important to separate the clickbait products from those that are actually good ideas. I think it’s more interesting when the message is clear, even if the message isn’t necessarily a clear answer.
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Your show, in fact, became a viral sensation because of the models tripping.
I’ve been asked if I was planning for it to become a sensation on social media, and the truth is that there was definitely no intention to chase virality. We were a small fish doing our debut show, and we didn’t know how many people would show up. So, it was important to us, and it was also a part of the vision from the very beginning, to actually have digital material and be able to showcase the idea in a way that worked on social media. The internet has the ability to democratise the landscape of creatives being able to get through their ideas globally, and that’s probably the nicest thing about social media. It’s so easy to create relationships worldwide, to network and expose ideas. Some people think everything that flies online is just clickbait, and of course, some of it is, but there are truly good ideas out there and the internet is just a new way to expose them, to generate visual communication.
It’s interesting how the engagement something gets online also changes the way in which you measure the value of some ideas. Like, if a show had got a bad review by a fashion critic but it had became a viral sensation on social media, does one feel like it’s a success nevertheless?
The most fun is obviously when both the people on social media and the press are excited about it. And sometimes publications have a lot of power, but it’s really just one person writing about it versus everyone looking at it online and loving it or hating it. This is actually the first time that something has gone viral for me, and we haven’t got a lot of hate, there’s just been a few people writing that they didn’t understand it, or that they did the same thing seven years ago. In these cases, it helps to trust your instinct. Hopefully, our next collection will be a reflection on where the industry is at right now with cancel culture and stuff like Diet Prada. Cancel culture has done many great things, but it has also evolved into a fear culture in ways where it feels like people are afraid of being pointed out for doing something wrong. There’s a lot of wanting to create drama, controversy, and polarising people. I think it gets a little bit obnoxious sometimes.
I want to circle back to the act of appropriating the intrinsic value of brands such as Rolex or Louis Vuitton. It’s not the first time you’ve done that, as you have used discarded fabrics of luxury brands before, but to explore the idea of sustainability. It’s such a layered concept: the irony, the appropriation, the value of others and your own, the sustainability. It’s complex.
The industry’s structure is systemised to work better for someone who’s older and bigger and stronger. My intention is definitely not to become a new Dior or Louis Vuitton, and I believe that if you’re creating something today, you shouldn’t need to adapt to that old infrastructure. But at the same time, you become the underdog if you want to do things your own way and skip, for instance, seasons because you do need to show the collections to buyers if you’re doing wholesale. There are lots of structures and norms within the industry, and that becomes evident with these big, old houses. So I think it’s interesting how you can borrow those codes and play with them as an up-and-coming, young brand. Sometimes it’s an effective way to create a conversation because those houses are so obviously mainstream, and everyone knows about them. If I chose a new niche brand, instead of a luxury brand with 50 years history, maybe not so many people would understand what I’m talking about.
What about those big houses playing with one another? I’m talking about collaborations between Fendi and Versace or Gucci and Balenciaga. As a fashion insider, but also not directly related to these brands, what do you think is behind it? What’s its value?
Collaborations can be great. That being said, there are obviously many that are just, you know, merch. But I see why big brands do it, it might be the same reason we would do it. In our case, we have some collaborators that we’re talking to right now, mainly because they have a set-up to make a certain product that we don’t, and as a small brand, it makes sense for us to go to them instead of having to set up a whole new factory. We also like their DNA, and it mixes quite well into the Avavav world. To me, a great collaboration has a creative source in it, and you actually have something that ends up becoming really interesting when the aesthetics or concepts mix. And then there’s also a marketing strategy behind it, which I guess becomes very clear in the case of these big houses.
Indeed, I read that you initially conceived Avavav as a platform based on collaborations.
If you’re starting small it can be a great way to do it for production reasons. With a strong creative voice, you can basically go into these different brands and not have to set up factories yourself. Because it’s actually a pain if you’re small. Factories want someone who can make thousands and thousands of things.
Avavav’s products are being sold at what I believe is an accessible luxury price. I know you might not be directly involved with the pricing of the items, but is that part of the conversation you’re having with your team? Envisioning what the value of your products is and who you’re approaching at certain prices
It’s definitely something we think about a lot. Since we are quite young, we’re still navigating it. When we started, we were only doing direct-to-consumer drops and were able to have lower prices. Then we decided to change to a factory that also works with great brands like Vivienne Westwood and Vetements, to gain higher quality, but because of that, we had to raise prices to have okay margins. The only sad thing about that was that it excluded part of the supporters that had followed us on our own platforms from the start.
We’re going more and more into luxury streetwear, but we want to be able to have relatively affordable products as well, like a hoodie that can cost 350 euros instead of 600 euros. It’s a hard balance, though, when you don’t want to make thousands of each thing. So we’re slowly figuring it out as we go. But hopefully, we’ll be achieving a good price point where we can keep the people we really want as our community, our main fan base.
It goes back to what you were saying earlier about thinking of yourself as a designer rather than an artist and having to navigate the commercial challenge it entails.
Yes, it’s been very important to find meaning in creating something valuable as a concept and also available for a bigger crowd. It’s fun as a designer to create something people can actually take part in and wear too. That’s also one of the reasons I’m into designing accessories. People are generally a little bit more open to buying out-there shoes and earrings than a fully avant-garde dress, which they might feel is a bit too much for them.
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I wonder if this collection, aside from speaking of a broader economic scenario, is your own way to comment on all these financial challenges as a brand.
For sure. It’s important to talk about it because there are so many young brands that are surviving on investor or family money, and they’re actually not viable businesses. I mean, I would love to have a bunch of money to create whatever I want. But what’s interesting is that if you do something that is both innovative and accessible for a wider audience, it’s easier to also change the narrative, to actually make a change in the industry and develop how we view fashion. Otherwise, it’s just about making art through a crazy pair of shoes or whatever it is.
It’s definitely part of a bigger mentality of how one understands the meaning and value of clothes, especially within the context of fast fashion and how many pieces you need to own and how often you need to buy something new.
I think so too. I’ve shopped a lot since I was a young teen, and I haven’t been doing it so much lately. I’ve started to value certain designer brands for their quality. I bought these Prada shoes that I think were from a 1999 runway show, and they are so beautiful, the leather has aged in such an interesting way. That’s also something for us to think about because we’re always trying to find the best ethical option for materials and production processes. When it comes to leather, for instance, we’ve been using vegan leather only for shoes, but now we’re having a conversation about whether we should use upcycled or deadstock leather. It might make more sense because vegan leather doesn’t wear out over time in the same nice way, at least not the vegan leather options we can afford. And I think that’s also important, it doesn’t just need to sound good: vegan leather, at the end of the day, has so much plastic, and that’s bad in its own way.
It’s a very hard puzzle: your morals, the commerciality, the affordability, the sustainability. It’s tricky to be coherent in a world with so many contradictions.
Yes. And I think the focus tends to be more on smaller brands who are trying to make the right decisions, even though we have very little impact on the industry as a whole. We should put the pressure on the big guys who actually can make real change because they’re the ones producing thousands and thousands of products.
That’s a good point. Are you generally optimistic about where things will go in fashion? Or are you more of a pessimist?
I try to be optimistic. It’s hard for me to say how I would act, but I really hope that if I ever got the actual power to make a change, I would do it. There needs to be an end to business and money-making taking over everything all the time. And of course, I think it should come from politics. It’s not up to everyone individually to make a big change. But with that being said, I believe that the more the younger generations take over, the better things will get because we’re ready to apply more pressure.
Beate, I’ve just got one more question: what do you value the most right now?
I value my relationships, family, friends, my partner–everyone who helps me create a safe space where I feel comfortable because everything is so turbulent right now. It feels, more than ever, that you need to surround yourself with people that you trust, who want good things to happen to you and you want good things to happen to them. That’s what I really value.
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