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Fashion talks

In Conversation with Michael Olestad

Oslo Runway Fashion Talks by Anna Skavlan

Michael Olestad’s modern, conceptual and subtly glamorous shows have not only been a staple but a highlight of the Oslo Runway program. There is something so confident and sophisticated about the way he presents a collection that one can’t help but feel proud of coming from the same corner of the fashion world as him. I spoke to Olestad about his decision to not present a collection this season, about his move from industry big shot Acne to his own brand and his best advice to those who dream of doing the same.  

The two of us have known each other for many years now, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with you ever since your first ever solo show in October 2016. Being in your shows have always been the highlight of my fashion season, not only because you are a friend, but because your clothing always makes me feel sexy, strong and powerful. You have a great eye for matching outfits with the models in your shows, and the women you dress off the runway. There is a sense of comfort and confidence in the way you dress women. It’s never random or awkward. Where do you think this ability comes from? How do you hope to make the women you dress feel?

So far, I have been working with an introspective approach to my research process, where big and small events in my life have influenced both the aesthetics and the design process. I take these experiences into my work and grapple with them conceptually as well as in practice. There are a lot of women in my life, and they are subconsciously present while I am editing my work. I am very much a designer who needs confirmation to move on, and because of that, I often ask people close to me for criticism during the process. In the end, it has usually been influenced by different views on femininity, which strengthens the outcome, in my opinion.

Your runways have always been quite inclusive and diverse as well, yet the issue of diversity in the fashion industry is hard to overlook. What are your thoughts on industry-wide representation and diversity?

I have always chosen my models because of their look and attitude, and not the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation or what they identify as. Which I think should be the natural way of looking at beauty. But this, unfortunately, has not been the case for many other brands, and the importance of widening the approach to these issues are still needed in our industry, as much as in the rest of the world.  

This season, however, no model will have the pleasure of wearing your outfits, as you have decided to not present a collection. Why is that?

I am not presenting a collection this season as the pandemic is still in full bloom and the international market is deeply affected by it. Instead, I chose to spend my time reflecting on how I work and to make positive changes for the coming season.

How has the pandemic influenced the way you work?

It has been a really difficult season and a situation that no one knew how to deal with until it hit us all. As devastating and financially draining it has been, it has also been a time for contemplating and reflecting on how the industry can make necessary changes for the future. After almost 60 years with the same market set up, where the conglomerates are the reigning winners, we need to think smaller, more local, and give niche designers a possibility to survive.

You already took the step from big to niche a few years ago; before launching your brand, you worked for many international designers, notably Acne. What made you decide to take the leap from working for others to working on your own?

I had been living abroad for 9 years when I decided to leave Acne. And I had two possibilities: to continue in the fashion design cycle and work for someone new or to move back home and start something on my own. I had already worked for smaller labels and seen the sacrifice that was needed to make it work. And I felt that if I wanted to do that, I needed to do it before my naive approach to it disappeared with age. If it all would suddenly fail, I could always go back to working for someone else. But the other way around felt like a bigger struggle. And I am very happy with my decision.

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I think a naïve approach is very important when it comes to fashion. So important in fact, one should not have to call it naïve. If one becomes too cynical or realistic, the excitement of creating and exploring fades quickly and there is no point in doing what we do. It’s a feeling I hope you keep alive in the future. Speaking of, how do you see your brand developing in the coming years?

It is hopefully my life project that I have started, that now has a very good base for where I want to go next. The kind of work methods I am aiming to develop further, ones which I continually work towards, are creative and artistic. This at the same time as they result in wearable garments, however, still with a conceptual basis. I hope that my garments will be worn and desired by a wider audience than the one I am currently reaching. I am also striving to continue to work in an interdisciplinary practice as a supplement and enrichment to my brand, to be able to challenge my own expectations of what fashion is and can be when it is not categorized by the same system that I usually exhibit my work in. And with that experience, I try to make a progressive change to how we can see, wear and consume clothes.

Is sustainability a factor in this change?

Sustainability is a pressing issue, one we all need to deal with one way or the other as designers and consumers. We live in a consumer society which needs to examine itself. To me, this is an environmental issue concerning how clothes are produced, as well as a question about how we consume and how we can change these patterns. I have been going through how I can make room for change in my own practice, and also what I have done right so far. There are so many measures that can be taken in all aspects of the design and production process.

What about our local industry – how do you think we’ll develop? Do we have any big challenges to overcome?

We need to work towards becoming an industry that is not overridden by the purely commercial but is closer to art and cultural life. As a form of cultural expression, fashion is still being downgraded. Perhaps as a result of a lack of historical grounding. Fashion was historically seen as continental, and something that advocated elitism and international hegemony - while the craft was closer to the Norwegian people's soul.

Is fashion still a cultural outsider in Norway?

Fashion has remained a cultural outsider here for a long time, but now Norwegian fashion is changing. Several new voices are beginning to find their place. And many spectators have opened their eyes to fashion as a platform for diversity and social awareness, and as a free space and meeting point for people, cultures and artistic expressions. The National Museum, as a big cultural institution, buying young designers to their permanent collection is a great example of an important change in this regard. Decisions like these are crucial for fashion to leap into being a respected part of our cultural history, and crucial for it to survive and evolve.

Lastly, what is one thing you wish you knew about the industry before you started working as a designer?

I am glad I didn´t know too much, as I would probably have changed path a long time ago.

And what is your best advice for young hopeful designers reading this?

Trust your gut, and never be satisfied.