When it comes to postmodern fashion, industry titans, including Martin Margiela, Rei Kawakubo, and more recently Virgil Abloh, have pioneered the movement with designs that toe the line between the theatrical and theoretical. Whose creations go beyond the practicality of fashion — as mere garments we live our lives in — to explore wider themes of what our sartorial choices say about the self and society at large. But who among today’s emerging talents is taking up the mantle and leaving us fervent fashion folk with more questions than answers? If AVAVAV doesn’t immediately spring to mind, they should.
In September, the Swedish brand presented their S/S 24 collection as part of Milan Fashion Week, and the runway show quickly went viral. Dubbed ‘No Time To Design,’ the spectacle captured all the stress and anxiety that festers behind the scenes of fashion week and brought it to the runway. Hastily dressed models threw on their shirts and trousers before power-walking down the catwalk, a far cry from the flawlessness one expects from a traditional presentation. Models donned messy hair and smudged make-up as if an emotional breakdown had just occurred backstage—an unfortunate reality that industry insiders are all too aware of.
‘If we do a runway show, it has to have an impact. Otherwise, we’re putting a lot of time and budget into something that doesn’t showcase the brand,’ creative director Beate Karlsson tells me. We’re both in Stockholm for the Swedish Fashion Council’s answer to traditional fashion weeks, Fashion X. The five-day event not only showcases the work of SFC’s [INCUBATOR] program but also addresses the industry’s most significant challenges, including diversity and sustainability, through innovative activations beyond runway shows and showroom appointments.
The two of us are sitting in Stockholm’s Bio Capitol, the art-deco-style independent cinema where Karlsson has just presented what she described as the shortest fashion film in history. About the runtime of a music video, the ‘film’ was a series of production title card parodies replacing the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks with AVAVAV. What felt like a never-ending joke culminated in a black-and-white shot of a model on a bridge. Dramatic, sombre lighting set the scene for the delivery of a single nonsensical line (one that has slipped my mind) before the credits rolled.
‘I love comedy. My partner is a comedian,’ Karlsson tells me. The ‘film’ was created in just two weeks, after the council informed her that AVAVAV had the 15:00 slot, putting an end to her original plan of hosting a party. While I get the sense that Karlsson doesn’t view the film as the crown jewel of her creative output, it did embody all the humour and irony at the core of AVAVAV. ‘The seriousness of the industry, from early on when I was studying fashion, has been difficult for me. I’m not creative in that seriousness.’
Karlsson founded AVAVAV in 2020 after graduating from New York City’s Parsons School of Design. In the short time since, the independent brand has seen a meteoric rise with her humorous approach to design and A-list clients, including Kim Kardashian and Doja Cat. No stranger to virality — her monstrous Finger Boots harken to the Japanese mythological creature Kappa with its otherworldly, amphibian-esque appearance — the brand has garnered just as many fans as critics.
On the surface, it’s easy to categorise Karlsson among today’s fashion trolls, using OTT shenanigans as a cheap marketing ploy for attention. But when you dig a little deeper, it’s clear her intentions are to reflect the challenges, pressures, and frustrations young designers face today. Before her takedown on the anxieties fostered within the creative corporate space of fashion, AVAVAV’s A/W 23 show tackled themes of overconsumption, fast fashion, and how luxury is being redefined today.
As models strutted their stuff, garments were torn, embellishments fell, and heels broke. It was an apt representation of where the industry finds itself: how the desire for growth among brands big and small has led to cutting corners and a decline in quality. Behind the shining facade, the fashion industry as we know it is being held together by the seams, ready to fall apart at any given moment.
‘For us, it’s the biggest obstacle in the industry: mass production. Everything is going so fast based on these trend cycles,’ Karlsson explains. ‘You’re always working on a collection one year ahead or even more.’ She also draws comparisons to other creative industries, stating, ‘In the film industry, you can work creatively on a project for years. In the music industry, you can work on an album for years. [In fashion] the seasonal cycle is built on commercial grounds.’
As for sceptics of her viral antics, Karlsson explains, ‘We definitely haven’t planned going viral and being as exposed as we have been, but we also aren’t shying away from that. It’s marketing… The internet and social media have democratized marketing. As a young brand, production is very difficult. We don’t have the same muscles as established brands. Even emerging brands can have as much impact as the likes of Balenciaga with good marketing. There are so many areas of the industry where you don’t have that ability.’
Calling Karlsson a marketing genius would be a disservice to her creativity as a designer. While viral runway moments have propelled the brand to the forefront of fashion, it isn't what Karlsson wants AVAVAV to be defined by. ‘For our next shows and the future, we want to do something that’s even more focused on the clothing, on the AVAVAV look, so people aren’t just seeing the storytelling.’ In the last six months, the brand has relocated their base of operations from Florence to her hometown of Stockholm, a move that Karlsson hopes will afford them the time and space to explore new ideas away from the industry's pressure system. 'The goal is to have the freedom to be creative and to have fun with it'.