On the evening of Monday, Feb. 5, at Loft 19 in Chelsea, models with prim netted buns of hair strutted down a makeshift runway, wearing clothes by H Fredriksson: a beautifully shaped gray wool herringbone pouf-sleeved dress; a black-coated denim jean paired with a black wool caftan coat and silk charmeuse shell; a royal blue dress with brocade yoke.
The “H” stands for Helena. Ms. Fredriksson, a Swedish fine artist turned fashion designer, is in many ways as far from H&M, the hugely popular Swedish mass-market chain and disposable-fashion purveyor, as one can get. She uses vintage and organic fabrics whenever she can, including knitted wool from a mill in White Plains, contracting work not to underage fingers in Singapore but to a tailor over the river in—gasp!—Brooklyn. Her clothes, which retail from $265 to $595 per piece, are intended to last not a season or less, but a lifetime.
“What we need is a bigger understanding and awareness of what’s going on environmentally,” Ms. Fredriksson said, sitting ladylike in her loft apartment on North Fifth Street in Williamsburg the other day, pulling her long blond ponytail in front of her nose as if it were a shield. “Like, if we still want to live on this planet, we need to start figuring out how to take care of it.” Meaning, perhaps, radically enough, the end of the trend: “This sort of obsession over certain specific things over a very short period of time, rather than the long-term thinking.”
Since 2004, Ms. Fredriksson’s pieces have done a brisk business in her neighborhood’s boutiques, as well as on the Lower East Side. Now, for the first time, pieces from H Fredriksson’s spring collection are on pre-sale on the Neiman Marcus Web site. “You can just see the detail and how well it’s made,” said Stacy Adams, a Neiman buyer who came across H Fredriksson accidentally while viewing another collection at the designer’s showroom.
“It changes where I’m at and how people look at me, which is really good, because when you’re only in boutiques, you are not taken that seriously from press and buyers,” Ms. Fredriksson said. It was the day before her 30th birthday, and she was reminiscing about how she began sewing at age 10, as all young Swedes do, in school. The daughter of a building engineer and a kindergarten teacher, “I couldn’t buy clothes that I wanted, so I made them, or I found vintage finds for a dollar apiece,” she said, surrounded by four racks of clothes waiting to be fitted onto typically tardy models. Later, “I’d cut them apart and fix them and do something else out of them, tailoring it to the way I wanted it. It’s something that felt natural. I always did it, and then people liked it. I made some more, and they sold, and I was like, ‘O.K., it sold—I’ll make some more,’ and they sold too.”
After arriving in New York in 1997 to attend the Art Students League, specializing in painting and printmaking, Ms. Fredriksson met Mike Skinner, 32, a music producer and drummer for indie rockers Kevin Devine & the Goddamn Band. They married in 2000, and she got a job as an assistant store manager for Camper, the Spanish company that makes those funny shoes, after meeting a guy who worked there while traveling on a bus in Mexico. She scrimped and saved and started her own line.
During Fashion Week in fall 2005, Andy Salzer, owner of the eponymous boutique on Broadway in Williamsburg and creative director of its men’s line, Yoko Devereaux, was asking around for designers to include in a show he was putting together called To the Bitter End, and he got word of Ms. Fredriksson. His own line shares something of the H Fredriksson aesthetic: small, personal, anti-corporate, even though it is sold at Saks. “The marketing agenda for most of these larger houses is feeding off of your neurosis,” Mr. Salzer said, standing among the stacked boxes of his spring designs waiting to be shipped. “Especially for women. Basically it’s like, ‘Your life sucks, but if you come and you buy this, your life will be fantastic,’ and suddenly you are just buying this. It’s more like the Prada and the Gucci and all that—it’s that little logo thing, it’s just crap. It’s not any better or any worse than anything I design, but yet they are ripping you off blindly by charging you so much money to have this little teeny piece of this lifestyle that literally 1 percent of the world lives up to.”
Ms. Fredriksson is decidedly not about logos (her label is a discreet black tag with “H Fredriksson” in white lettering), but rather a kind of synesthesia. Music and art play a role in everything she makes. Her patterns come from her own photography: twisting images of trees and leaves in black patterns over silk. She frequently gets inspiration from her husband, who has taught her about music production and layers of sound. “Just like this one subtle thing happening in the layers underneath the layers, and I’ll be like, ‘I love that,’” she said. “I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I want to do something that feels like that.’”
And what was Ms. Fredriksson wearing on this day? Straight-leg jeans that bunched at the ankle—“I made the pants, actually,” she said—above black-velvet slipper shoes complemented by black and silver chunky necklaces, over an off-white skirt shirt that flowed from her bust to her thigh.
“Do you know where it’s from? I almost don’t want to tell you,” she said. “It’s from H&M. It has spills all over it.”