The fashion pieces in carefully crafted paper by Bea Szenfeld have the unique ability to be lighthearted and thought provoking at the same time. We met with the funniest designer in the business.
I’ve booked a meeting with Bea Szenfeld at Stockholm’s most exclusive department store, NK. Just before we are to meet, an update pops up on Facebook from the Royal Dramatic Theatre a few blocks away. Bea Szenfeld has taken a photo of paper garments that are being prepared for a production this spring.It turns out that she’s done the update from NK, because she is waiting at the table when I turn up a few minutes ahead of time. Or maybe she is in two places at the same time. If anyone could pull that off it’s Bea Szenfeld.
After graduating from Beckmans School of Design, Sweden’s most distinguished training academy for creatives, she has had time to run a clothing line under her own name, take part in a reality show, style artists like Björk and Lady Gaga, and create advertising for big brands. She appears weekly on Swedish TV and now she’s sitting at an expensive café with a large cup of soothing tea.
Your first paper garment was a dress you made for Absolut Vodka to interpret one of their vodka flavours. Why did you choose paper as a material for that dress?
“I’d done some experiments on my own with various materials in my studio. I looked up all of Absolut’s history with creatives and saw what big names they’d worked with. I couldn’t just sew together a pair of tights or something – we needed to think bigger than that. It involved masses of chance and experiments. I succeeded in finding paper in the perfect colours to interpret the particular flavour they wanted interpreted, Absolut Apeach, and then it was put on the cover of their magazine. That was my first really major cover.”
And from that point on you were a convert to paper?
“I thought ‘God, that turned out well’ and applied for a scholarship from the Swedish Arts Grants Committee to create something in paper. And I got it. The result was a small exhibition where we did something we called Paperdolls. The idea with them was that anyone would be able to go down to their local grocery store and buy paper things there and create their own couture. We made instructions that were included in the purchase and described how many needles were needed, how many doilies and so on. Then I created Sur La Plage, a collection of paper bathing suits. The latest thing I did was for the Liljevalchs art gallery here in Stockholm and their fashion exhibition Utopian Bodies. I made a fur coat out of babies. It was meant to be a commentary on the fashion industry’s stretching of limits. How far can you actually go? Now we’re selling babies! It received the most attention of any garment in the entire exhibition. Liljevalchs gave eight months’ notice to do it. I have to know at least six months in advance if I am to create special pieces of clothing.”
Why does it take so long?
“First we need time to experiment. We need time to see how the hang of the garment changes and what it’s like after a week.”
What is it you like about paper?
“I believe that paper and I go well together because I need something that will hit back a little. With a fabric, you can wash it if it gets dirty, you can work freestyle to combine things together with fabrics. But when paper is folded, it’s folded. It’s pure, it’s simple and I understand it. When I go into a fabric store it’s like going online – it never stops. I hate it. Paper is A4, 70 x 100 and so on. It makes my brain calmer and I can focus on making more shapes and suchlike.”
But your constructions appear to be anything other than simple.
“But they are! They’re nothing difficult. The baby garment is circles on a cord with a bead in between. Any daycare kid could do it. But no one has the energy! That’s the point. People have families and summer cottages. With us it’s more about acknowledging that a baby takes five days to make and we have to do 14 of them. Okay, let’s get going. That’s the strength – the staying power in the company.”
You do everything by hand?
“Everything! We never use a 3D printer, nothing is die cut in a factory. The babies, for example, I could have sent them out and got everything die cut. But we have templates. All the holes are made with a small needle or a thicker needle or with something else. Every part of a garment is very unique – it’s different depending on who does the cutting and who makes the holes. The end result is a garment with much more soul.”
Who are “we”?
“Myself and my assistants. How many we are varies from project to project – I have at least two and a maximum of ten. Then I don’t have the energy to keep track of everyone. Only two people are allowed to cut circles in my studio and they are me and my assistant Evelina. No one else has managed to cut out circles without making them angular.”
What kind of scissors do you have?
“Different ones. This sounds crazy but I actually have a pair of huge wallpaper scissors from Fiskars that are totally fantastic to cut with and then I have an old pair that I ‘permanently borrowed’ when I was at the adult education school and that are giving up the ghost now. Totally ordinary scissors with plastic handles. We have masses of scissors in the studio but these two are the ones that always work.”
What other tools do you need?
“A straight edge. Never a scalpel. That’s a totally different approach. Cutting with a scalpel requires incredible precision. There have been so many accidents with assistants and Instagram and a scalpel at the same time. I don’t have time to sit in A&E with cut-off fingertips. Scissors and needles and beads. The same things that are in drawers at an ordinary daycare centre.”
How do you define yourself?
“I have no idea. When I was young and had a commercial collection and was doing to close the company down, my business card had fashion designer written on it. If I don’t have a commercial collection, what am I then, just a designer? Then it was much harder. Nowadays everything’s possible. I can still sew and that’s the foundation…. But what I call myself, that doesn’t matter.”
Are you a control freak?
“Both yes and no. But I believe I scare people a lot. I always use CAPS LOCK when I write emails: ‘REMEMBER!’ At the moment they’re doing a photo session at the Royal Dramatic Theatre and they wanted to borrow a white garment. That’s the worst – white garments together with hair spray and make-up. It just doesn’t work. So now three assistants are standing there using their claws to defend it against hair and make-up. The garments will last as long as you lift them correctly – you have to lift the fabric underneath, not the paper directly. Yes, I’m a control freak but I’ve become better at living with the fact that things go wrong. Yesterday a garment got damaged during transport – it got pulled too much. The people who helped me weren’t used to doing it and it got damaged. I could really get down about it but now I know that it will take a month to fix.”
Do you have any role model in creative terms?
“Absolutely. I have to, so that I don’t lose inspiration. Bill Drummond of the KLF is an obvious role model. They were the world’s coolest band and went up on stage during an MTV gala and fired blanks towards the audience. Today he’s sitting at home in London baking cakes. He’ll draw a circle around districts in London and decide that everyone who lives in those particular buildings will receive a home-baked cake from him. He’s also decided to work through the entire alphabet during his life and listen for a year to bands that begin with the letter A and then he will never listen to them again. He’s super cool and at the same time a little inspired by Martha Stewart. I like all the crazy people who just want good things for people. Everything tends to be so stiff otherwise. I can get jealous of Acne, which just does such cool things the whole time. Sometimes I think I can be just as cool, do something that will also be cool – and then it ends up being a paper pig. Benny Hill is so deeply rooted in me, I wonder how I can ever be free of him.”
What’s the hardest commission you’ve done to date?
“The craziest job was when I and a scenographer called Helena Delén did the Polar Music Prize in 2015. We decided to dress the entire stage with handmade origami sculptures called paper fortune tellers or cootie catchers, 1.5 x 15 metres. I bought all the paper dust sheets in Scandinavia. After the thousandth paper fortune teller I lost count. Twenty-four hours before the gala, the fire department came in and set fire to our test sculpture. We were forced to make everything fireproof. How do you fireproof paper? My assistants got glowing teeth and glowed in the dark for six months – but it worked! And it turned out really well. When the party was over, a refuse lorry came and took everything we’d worked on for six months – it was too big to store anywhere. That was the most mammoth thing I’ve done.”
If you were to think really big, what’s the most powerful thing you could do in the next ten years?
“It would be so terrific to be able to do a show in Paris. Just in paper and really conceptual. Or to have the chance to exhibit at MoMa or the Victoria & Albert. Then I will have ticked off my list – then it’ll be done. Unfortunately these types of thing need someone to fund them. Or you have to have slept with the right people.”
How did you get to do Björk’s outfit when she received the Polar Music Prize?
“Everything’s chance. It was lucky for me that Björk’s stylist liked to check out various blogs – that was how he saw the Sur La Plage collection. Everything’s just luck. I have no agent, no strategy. Recently I saw that the BBC had posted the baby fur coat on their Instagram account and I thought ‘I’m going to take advantage of this.’ But weeks have gone by and it still hasn’t happened. Just think how much you could do if you had the financial muscle. But on the other side, I can’t work faster or sew more than I’m doing. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword.”
You’re not exactly lacking in commissions.
“No, it could be worse.”
TEXT: JOHAN LINDBERG