New Year, Cold Me

I spent December in a fiercely committed relationship to mince pies and woke up in January wearing slightly tighter clothes, under a blanket, in a drizzly scene reminiscent of Angela’s Ashes.

Last month, paid my January wages two weeks in advance, I was a thriving credit card-toting consumer with repetitive stress incurred from over-flaunting my card. Now I’m in a hostile relationship with my banking app, a lying, cheating scoundrel-of-a-thing who left me with nothing but bad debts and empty promises.

January is the bleakest month we’re told, with newspaper columnists piping up on the third Monday – “Blue Monday” – to remind readers that their relationships are over, their diets have staled, and that the ESB bill isn’t going to pay itself.

The red, green and gold of yester-month have vanished beneath a small pile of wine bottles collected around the bin (note: I can’t get rid of these until the weather picks up and a trip to the recycling unit doesn’t include frostbite).

Meanwhile my fleece dressing gown has come into its own of late, and beans (sans toast) are a delicacy to be consumed in front of interminable diet shows on television with their “new year, new you” spin.

Well I say bring on February. It’s a new year, but this isn’t a new me, just a really cold, miserable and unmotivated version of myself.

Oh, Ja! Fun Times in Stockholm

I went to Sweden this time last year and wrote a whole 1000-word thing about it for the Irish Examiner. Anyway, it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never bothered to publish it, so here we go… 

If my work colleagues are anything to go, the city we aspire to live in is Paris. Imbued with a characteristic insouciance, it calls to mind rainy street scenes, peeling shop fronts and pastry chefs in tall hats.

But these tableaus have never grabbed me and by-and-large I’ve always felt as though France was too cool for me, or perhaps I was too earnest for France.

Over the years though, where others have dreamt of Monet-like scenes of the Seine, I’ve been infatuated with misty images of Scandinavia, cobbled together through Danish television series.

In particular, I’ve developed a fascination with Sweden, which for me embodies something incredibly exotic yet remarkably familiar.

My curiosity was initially roused by Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, but developed through an interest in online fashion and particularly Swedish brands Acne and Cos.

Eventually, after eighteen months obsessing over Stockholm street style blogs and Cheap Monday jeans on Asos, I decided I was going to move to Sweden and immerse myself in its glacially cool culture. The only issue was I’d never actually been there. What if I didn’t like it?

Getting to Stockholm proved pricey and my flight, which originally went on a Sunday, was moved to Monday after Aer Lingus suspended all weekend service to Stockholm for the month of January.

In the build up to my trip I spent several weeks studying up on Stockholm’s history and marking off what I’d do when I got there. I wanted to enmesh myself in the culture and if that meant learning how to take a photo with my mittens on, then so be it.

The city itself is made up of 14 islands, with one-third consisting of water, another of green space and a final third entrusted to urbanity. Nothing feels concentrated or clustered and fresh air is in abundance.

Visiting in late January however, the temperature was a brisk subzero and moody, atmospheric light punctured the grey skies as well as intermittent snowfalls.

Sights:

Stockholm’s medieval architecture unfurls like a fairy-tale town in a children’s pop-up book and the compact layout allows travellers to navigate it by foot.

The Old Town (or Gamla Stan as the locals call it) is cobbled around the Royal Palace which is located near Stockholm’s oldest building, Storykyran. This ‘Great Cathedral’ dates to the mid-thirteenth century and features a rich, robust interior with redbrick columns and a whitewashed ceiling. Home to royal weddings and coronations, it also boasts a dramatic sculpture of St George and The Dragon adorned with genuine elk antlers. Best of all, it’s free.

Nearby on the neighbouring island of Skeppsholmen, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet (admission 120 sek) presents Irish tourists with a somewhat familiar sight: four painted, contorted sculptures by Alexander Calder – the same artist behind Trinity College’s Cactus Provisoire – welcome pilgrims who’ve toiled uphill and prepares them for the preeminent collection of modern art shielded behind the gallery’s glass shell.

Inside, the Museum’s permanent collection is presented chronologically and draws parallels between Swedish art and the European avant-garde. It moves seamlessly from the turn of the century to the inter-war years and displays works by a range of artists including Munch, Picasso, Pollock, Bacon, Rauschenberg and Richter.

At a 1968 retrospective in the museum, Andy Warhol coined his prescient platitude ‘In the future everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes’. If you’re anything like me, then you’ll use that as leverage to take a quick selfie on the terrace of the museum’s restaurant which offers a beautiful view towards Östermalm.

Shopping:

Coming from a retail background – as well as a general addiction to shopping – I was hyped to visit the brands that had piqued my interest in this North European city. I might not speak Swedish I thought, but I could parlay about fashion like a native.

For many, myself included, Swedish fashion is synonymous with structured, minimalist tailoring. Brands like Whyred, Filippa K and Tiger of Sweden (all high end labels) are imbued with that signature Scandinavian silhouette. Gina Tricot and Monki meanwhile are aimed at younger, more eclectic audience similar to H&M.

Acne is one of Sweden’s best-known exports, originating as an advertising agency and jeans manufacturer but now renowned for its relaxed yet pricey clothing. There are several Acne branches based in Stockholm but the Östermalm store (Hamnagatan 10-14, Östermalm) is located, rather significantly, in the same building that introduced the world to the concept of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.

For those with high-end taste and low-end budgets however, it’s worth noting that the Whyred Outlet (No.94 Drottningattan) and Acne Archives (No.53, Torstagatan) sell past collections for men and women at significantly discounted prices. Be warned though, sizes run on the small side.

Fika:

Once you’ve wriggled your way in and out of some close-fitting skinny jeans, it’s time for a coffee break – or Fika – as the Swedes call it. Coffee and cake are an institution in Sweden and post-lunch slumps are tackled with a strong java that’s washed down with a semla in spring or cinnamon bun (kanelbullar).

Home birds on the hunt for Starbucks might be a little putout by the lack of franchised coffee chains but Wayne’s – Sweden’s equivalent to Insomnia or Butlers – is located on most main streets and sells rich, quality coffee.

Travellers seeking something more traditional however should visit Kaffekopen (Stortorget) in the Old Town, which sells magnificent semla buns (edible, geometric pastries made with almond paste and whipped cream and which more-or-less beg to be slathered over your face) before taking a stroll across the way to Chokladkoppen, a dimly lit chocolate café that sells bucket-size mugs of cocoa.

‘Tak’:

Tak (meaning thank you) was my buzzword throughout the trip, and I used at every occasion in a non-stop bid to pass myself off as a Swede.

Sure I was an imposter, dressed head-to-toe in Swedish garb, no better than an Irish woman in a beret, muttering d’accord at every street stall merchant she passed, but I left feeling somewhat satisfied I could live in Stockholm and get by in my earnest ways.

Sweden, like its Scandinavian cousins, has been described as one of the happiest nations on earth. There’s nothing cool about being cheerful but then who put such a high precedence on being cool?

Alexander Wang x H&M

alexander-wang-x-hm

I’ve dipped my toe in-and-out of most exercise fads and wondered whether my absent athletic skills were the result of some less-than-quality footwear or a disdain towards ankle socks.

Being a picky shopper I tend to avoid the unsustainable trends pedalled by most big brands. I follow trends certainly, but I abhor the buy-wear-bin mentality that pervades so many people’s attitude towards clothes.

A few years ago I remember standing in a department store with my mum, who upon inspecting some sports gear told me she was making the move from gym rags and cast-offs to the new, stretchy fabrics which had started to populate store shelves.

I’d seen these products too, mostly in sportswear chains, but incrementally they began to appear in high-street stores, and now sportswear has percolated its way through most levels of the market with practical styles as well as high-end diffusion lines.

But despite trailing off as a leading story on last season’s runways, the “sports luxe” momentum has carried through to the high-street for yet another season, with Alexander Wang’s forthcoming H&M line highlighting the trend’s refusal to to be sidelined.

But while I love high-end, Wang’s dystopian fashion-meets-sportswear line does nothing to assuage my sportswear apathy. The designer once remarked that while he only wears activewear, he doesn’t lead an especially active life, but that his clothing endeavours to straddle the sports-meets-sedentary gap with poise and a touch of panache.

And indeed, the range is interesting: scuba-like neoprenes embellished with skin-effect details make up the body of the collection. While oversized, cocoon-like silhouettes are punctuated by Wang’s inescapable three-dimensional foam logo. But the range, for all its active-meets-inactive talk, is impractical and, worst of all, ugly.

alexwangmenh&m

Nothing straddles the active-meets-sedentary divide like an explosion detonation pack worn with branded long-johns.

H&M are truly my favourite retailer: their marketing strategy, sustainable clothing and subsidiary labels leave me in awe.

The recent Wang x H&M video – an example of H&M’s consistently excellent TV campaigns – drummed up a pang of excitement with its warrior-like women clad in futuristic garb. But this year, for the first time in several years, I won’t be making the pilgrimage to inspect H&M’s once-off range.

My inner-athlete might well be impeded by my dislike towards ankle socks and a wandering eye for high-end fabrics, but something tells me this range won’t give my exercise routine the kick in the butt it needs.

(I love this video: soundtracked by Diplo with a distinct video game-feel, it’s simply phenomenal. Alas, they lost me with the clothing.)

Nashty Girls

IMG_0300.JPG Rather unusually I was on Instagram today, which has become a sort of once-a-week treat now that my phone isn’t working. Mid-scroll I noticed a photograph of Sophia Amoruso with Lena Dunham, both recently published authors and two of my favourite women. For me, Amoruso embodies that stylish, hard-working young woman while Dunham by contrast resonates that relatable, totally adrift persona which occasionally touches too close to the nerve.

Last Tuesday, Dunham’s memoir “Not That Kind of Girl” arrived in stores, (greeted by large numbers of glasses-wearing white women apparently). And today, Nasty Gal posted a shoppable lookbook featuring Lena Dunham, who will wear Amoruso’s Nasty Gal clothing line exclusively on her US book tour.

While I’m not especially smitten with the clothes or branded bag (if only Nasty Gal would ditch the trends and take its lead from its own CEO’s wardrobe; all black, diaphanous, minimalist wares) the photos are a lot of fun, albeit missing some of the pants-free moments most people (myself included) love Dunham for.

Camel Scarf, WEEKDAY

Under Cover

Camel Scarf, WEEKDAY  

Somewhere in early puberty my body became a battleground for sore throats and gritty coughs. I visited the doctor, took time off school and chatted to pharmacists and chemists, but the cure as I learned was endlessly simple: a swathe of fabric wrapped twice around my neck proved itself an effective armour against tonsillitis, and I’ve worn a scarf almost everyday since.

Once I discovered the cure to my ails, my scarf collection grew exponentially and eventually my mum began to complain I had too many. Slowly and overtime I was forced to cull my collection, mostly donating these to charity, and now I treat myself to one new scarf each autumn.

~

Last week I took a ten-day tour through Scandinavia, beginning in Copenhagen and finishing in Oslo, but en route through Gothenburg I stopped in Weekday, a Swedish jean store, which stocks a variety of denims and shirts as well as prominent Swedish brands Whyred and Cheap Monday (to name a few). The store I visited had a Beyond Retro upstairs (what a combination), and like most things Swedish I was smitten by its unshakeable commitment to low-key style.

But I had made a conscious decision that there would be no shopping till Stockholm (No. Shopping. Till. Stockholm.), but I knew without hesitation that my first purchase would be a camel-coloured wool scarf, which I had spotted in a window in Malmö and yearned for on that hot, busy day in Gothenburg.

Seeing that I’ve lived the last ten years of my life in a scarf however, I’m often surprised by how many people dislike them, regarding them as bulky or superfluous (this includes my mum). My views are quite the opposite – a long piece of wool or cashmere carefully draped around a neck, or streaming down one’s back seems endlessly graceful to me, a simple, effective way to create a seamless silhouette.

& Other Stories / Weekday

Scarf, Weekday; Coat, Dress, Shoes, & Other Stories

My choice of colour was no doubt inspired subconsciously by Burberry Prorsum’s cashmere-blend blanket ponchos, whose easily knocked-off graphic intarsia will go down well with M&S’s customer base the UK-over. But while I love Burberry’s classic camel tones and bought into them this winter, the Arts and Crafts feels of Burberry’s shawls – designed to be loosely slung over one’s shoulders and belted for a relaxed Jessa-from-Girls kind of aesthetic – makes me grimace. Magazines, especially ones aimed at older women, will get behind it and tout it as ‘hiding a multitude of sins’ but the understated elegance of a scarf will long endure when blanket-coats become fodder for ‘Worst Looks of The Last Decade’ lists on Buzzfeed.

Of course I took a trip to my Swedish mecca & Other Stories, too (the damage can be seen above and felt at present as a type in a state of near starvation). But ultimately I’m chuffed with my new winter scarf: pure wool, soft to touch and extremely warm. C’est parfait.

Hitting The Right Note?

lykke li other stories

I somehow side-stepped the rest of the Internet and posted Lykke Li’s & Other Stories video a day ahead of the crowd (hurrah).

The web caught up with me of course (naturally), the range launched, and now reviews are dotted across every magazine and blog.

Other Stories   Online store[2]Personally I was excited at the prospect of a pared back capsule collection carefully devised to suit a ‘nomadic’ life. But while the range is considered, an emphasis on superior fabrics evident, it failed somewhat to wow.

I found the retro flares, oatmeal polo, black polyester shorts, and a boxy blazer that stubbornly refuses to resonate any femininity, well, a bit dull.

Other items like a chic cigarette pant, an oversized shirt and patent slip-on shoe, while wonderful, could probably be picked up in a local Zara or COS.

But while the range hits a flat note (for me anyway) my brand love is in no way diminished. Instead I’ll stick to the items I was lusting after all along: this purple dress, that leather skirt and a midnight trench that would surely lend an air of mystery to any outfit. Or get tangled in my bicycle spokes. Either / or.

Lykke Li & Other Stories make-up shot

A New Story From My Favourite Brand

I saw Lykke Li perform in Chicago two or three summers ago, but while I was au fait with her pop songs I had never really engaged with her music until then.

That year a passing interest had turned into active dislike as DJ-after-DJ renditions of “I Follow Rivers” snaked through shops and bars.

So when I finally saw her in a wooded inlet at Jackson Park I discovered her presence (small and witchy) and voice (synthy-soprano) were surprisingly magnetising.

I’d be lying if I said a lifelong interest was forged that day, but I became more forgiving of those trancey remixes which extended Li’s choruses beyond the thirty second mark.

Lykke Li & Other Stories atelier March 2014

As Sweden’s best exported musician (Sorry Jenny Wilson), with an ingress to mainstream and alternative music fans , it seems fitting that & Other Stories would partner with Lykke Li in the run-up to their New York launch.

Last March when Stories announced the collaboration, Li hinted at the utilitarian nature of the collection:

“I’m a nomad and travelled my whole life,” her press release read, “so my style choices have grown out of pure necessity. I need to travel light but still feel empowered, there’s no space for frills or colours.”

The collection, unveiled today in a promotional video and accompanied by grainy black and white images, suggests cool, masculine styles that lend themselves to migrant life.

Launching this Thursday – one week before my two week trip through Scandinavia – tailored pieces for a rucksack-toting nomad sound just divine.

Other Stories   Online store[1]

 

A New Crew

I wrote this more than a month ago but then my perfectionist side got in the way and I stalled publishing for almost two months. Anyhow it’s far from perfect but it’s not appalling. Here we go…

I visit a handful of fashion sites daily – Refinery29, Fashionista, GQ, The Cut – but The Business of Fashion tends to be my first port of call each morning. Earlier this month the site published a special print edition with a two-page feature on J. Crew’s Mickey Drexler and while it was a great read (no seriously, read it), it got me thinking about the steadfast role American tailoring plays in the US retail business.

The fashion preppy playbook is populated with stalwart brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, while Abercrombie and Hollister could feature as a keynote on the look and feel of the last decade.

But within a shifting landscape where Urban Outfitters and FreePeople have taken hold, J. Crew has continued to tiptoe on high-end and high-street profit margins, influencing shoppers with its unshakeable commitment to classic tailoring, low-key colour palettes and expertly mussed-back hair.

The interview with Drexler honed in on his ability to spot a trend and back it up through data, but failed to consider how compelling J. Crew’s success has been in the wake of unsustainable micro-trends fuelled by fast-fashion brands and an army of voracious shoppers.

Certainly J. Crew’s offering is pricey even if their product is broad, and season after season the same choice fabrics, clean silhouettes and ‘borrowed-from-the-boys’ aesthetic flood the web, offering shoppers simple upgrades on last-season pieces. But while J. Crew’s strategy sounds more regurgitation than master plan, it plays to a more selective shopper seeking coherency rather than insipid trends.

Rooted in lifestyle and functionality, J. Crew’s premium pieces appeal to a sense of aspiration while their core range relies heavily on styling – suits teamed with runners and runners lending an airy vibe to cotton dresses.

But while Americans refuse to max out on Americana, they can easily migrate to cheaper brands or premium names they feel deserving of high price tags. When shoppers grow tired of clean, directional tailoring where will J. Crew (and its global expansion) stand?

Food For Thought

Deciding to lose weight is like stepping headfirst into a tornado: one friend swears by the caveman diet while another plans to starve themself two days a week for the rest of their life. Meanwhile threads and forums populate the web with the same vacuous drivel, encouraging us to fear our food and try made-up detoxes which regard daily eating as some kind of dicey past time.

Of course when your dress size is tipping – nay keeling – into the next size, and every dressing room magically transforms into a brightly-lit crime scene littered with balls of clothing, desperation kicks in.

I’ve never been fat in a way that compromised my health but for a long time I slid down that tunnel of self-despair reducing myself to strings of adjectives  – hideous, embarrassing, fat –  criticisms I wouldn’t think to call anyone else.

When people ask how I eventually lost weight they seem sceptical that it was as obvious as walking each day, cutting out bread and trying my hand at mindfulness. And there were other important factors too of course,  like learning to cook and substituting ‘diet products’ (low cal, high sugar soups and things) for vegetables, grains and pulses.  But mindfulness has been the unsung hero in my new outlook towards food and life.

I’m a fussy eater. Like a reaaaally fussy eater. I won’t eat meat and I hate anything with an unusual texture (I’m looking at you courgettes) so when I find something I love – and I mean really love – the urge to plough through it becomes too much. I inhale everything in sight, trying to fit in as much in as I can without considering whether I’m really hungry or what I’m even eating. I can devour entire loaves of bread or several portions of pasta in one sitting failing to recognise that I’m full until it’s too late and my stomach’s sore and protruding.

My mum was the first person I heard mention mindfulness. She used it to reduce stress and become more aware of the world around her. When she told me about the exercises – focussing on breathing, contemplating movement – it sounded facile and slightly new-age. But over time I started adapting it to what I was eating, and in turn learned to appreciate food in a way I never had before.

For me, mindful eating isn’t about diets or giving up food, it’s about experiencing food more intensely. When I eat now (especially if it’s something I like) I try to eat it slowly, putting my fork down while I chew and tuning into the flavours, the aroma, appreciating the colours and presentation of the food.

Over time my appetite has reduced (or maybe stabilised) and I can finally recognise when I’m full (content to be precise), reducing all that preventable stuff like indigestion and bloating. It’s still testing of course and I’m not an expert by any stretch but in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, Smile, breathe and go slowly.