Representing the creative future

Ellen Hodakova Larsson on her debut collection for Hodakova and the notion of validation

Ellen Hodakova Larsson sat down for a designer-to-designer chat and shared the joys of upcycling

What does it feel like for your first physical collection of work to be shown in Paris? Overwhelming, according to Ellen Hodakova Larsson, who started the brand Hodakova in the midst of the pandemic. Ellen showed her collection video, filmed inside the interior of the 18th Century copper tents in Stockholm’s Haga Park, as part of a showroom installation at the end of September. The showroom itself was housed within the Institut Tessin in Paris’s Marais district, which holds a permanent collection of works reflecting Franco-Swedish relations throughout history. “It felt like an extension of my story,” Larsson shared.

The eponymous designer graduated from the Swedish School of Fashion’s BA Design program in 2019 and has since stayed true to the design ethos she developed there. Centring around upcycling and repurposing second-hand or deadstock materials, which she sources from various larger businesses within Sweden, Hodakova is able to breathe new life into discarded garments and offer the customer, not just a conscious alternative but also a unique piece. The work is extremely sensory, you can almost hear the clanging buckles and the rubbing leather of the dress constructed from a weave of old belts, or the clashing of the buttons hand-strung together to form a voluminous skirt. There is tailoring too, think boxy blazers contrasted by dresses with svelte silhouettes. A degree of continuity and balance throughout the pieces is something important to Ellen in the design process for the collection, ‘I think all the items or the pieces need to communicate to each other.’ Remarks Larsson.

We sat down with Larsson, albeit over a shaky internet connection, to discuss the challenges and thrills of centring a brand around the sustainable practice of upcycling, the importance of validation for fashion designers, and how she can produce a collection at scale using one-off pieces.

So you just got back from Paris?

Yes. I’m so overwhelmed with the response. In a good way. The whole experience of meeting a lot of different people. It feels like a big step. It’s just my first proper physical collection that’s been out. This is the first time I’ve been in this kind of situation, I didn’t expect that much. But the response, of just having a showroom in Paris has been more than I could imagine.

“I believe that when you come to a showroom, you’re actually looking at it. Feeling the items, asking ‘what is this?'” – Ellen Hodakova Larsson

So the showroom was the next step to take your practice further? Do you think showrooms are still relevant?

I think, the way I’m working with the materials, they need to be seen physically. Because that’s when you see the handicraft and the tactility of it, that is the most important thing because you consume so many pictures that you don’t even look at. I believe that when you come to a showroom, you’re actually looking at it. Feeling the items, asking “what is this?” When you go to Museum and you’re like, “What is the idea behind this?” It’s hopefully a similar feeling seeing my clothes. People get nostalgic about where they recognise elements of my work.

How was the reception in Paris, did you speak with a lot of people, or was it more people coming to interpret the garments for themselves?

It was both, some of them were like, “Oh, my God are you the designer, you never get to meet the designer.” I’m happy to speak about it because it’s my baby. I mean, when business people come, they want to hear the story and the prices of course, but other people just come by. People who just want to see the clothes, they’re not there for me. They’re more there for my work, or whatever else is at the show. So it was different. But it was nice. With this collection, and the showroom everything just felt so fitting.

How was it fitting? 

Because it was at the Institut Tessin, which is part of the National Museum of Sweden. There is a beautiful historical room with paintings from a lot of celebrated Swedish painters. And it felt like an extension of my story. It feels more complete when you can present in somewhere like that even though it’s just a hangar in a space. It felt important.

So it’s as though your clothes are something that had a life and you’re giving it a new life. And this continuity was the same as the environment because the paintings are archaic. But then you’re re-contextualising them by putting your garment in there, there’s a whole interaction going on. 

No, exactly. It feels so good when it’s presented in the right way.

Did you have any control over the showroom presentation?

It was actually us and some others curated by the Swedish fashion council, and luckily no one else wanted that room.

“To make new traditions, you need to use old traditions for people to adapt to change.” – Ellen Hodakova Larsson

I think the first thing that struck me about this collection was the colour palettes that you chose, predominantly black and white. Is there a reason behind this?

In my whole perspective of timelessness, I think we only consume colour in the short term. And then in the long term, in memories, it tends to morph into earth tones so I think that strategically, it’s part of how I define timelessness. And also not having this seasonality as well. I think the collections should not be as seasonal as they have been, which brings elements of timelessness into it too. But also when it comes to the choices of sourcing my material, I mainly have chosen to work with the basic traditional Men’s Wardrobe. To make new traditions, you need to use old traditions for people to adapt to change.

Your work heavily focuses on upcycling and using discarded garments. How did you source the materials for this season?

We have different collaborators. One collaboration with a company that only makes this very special traditional men’s suit company in Sweden called Oscar Jacobson.

So they’re giving you leftovers?

Yeah, they’re providing us with their dead-stock. And also a company called Sellpy, which is like Vestiare but it is not in the luxury department. Sellpy is more a secondhand store but online.

“Instead of burning up the garments when they have an overstock, [clothing companies] reach out to us and say, “what are you interested in?” And then we can pick and choose.” – Ellen Hodakova Larsson

Okay. So a free-for-all?

We also have a collaboration with a company called ELIS, which mainly rents out workwear and garments for different purposes. Instead of burning up the garments when they have an overstock, they reach out to see what we are interested in.

Can you tell me more about the looks with the belts? First of all, how heavy?

The biggest one we’ve actually not gotten the weight of. The bags, just looking at them, look like very heavy bags, but they’re not. They’re similar in weight to a normal leather bag. With the belt dress; you can pull the straps in the waist and then it can fit closer to your body.

Oh, interesting. Your weaving technique is movable.

Yeah, definitely. And if you tighten it as a corset, it gives you this compact fit. Then it doesn’t feel like it’s heavy because all the weight is held by the waist.

“We are being very specific about what quality we’re after. If we present a wool dress, it should be wool and not polyester. ” – Ellen Hodakova Larsson

Regarding production, it can be really difficult to produce at scale while upcycling. Are you able to actually produce the garments in quantity?

Yeah, I think for us, it’s not a problem, because I’ve squeezed the sourcing down to this traditional wardrobe, it’s unique pieces, but there are a lot of white shirts going on the second-hand market. So it gives us a large sourcing quantity, which is not that big of a difference to other much less sustainable production cycles. We are being very specific about what quality we’re after. If we present a wool dress, it should be wool and not polyester. So our sourcing is very specific but it gives us space because this is a traditional wardrobe.

What sort of scale are you working on, say, what would be the maximum of one item you would produce?

It’s different depending on our collaborations and how much we can get. Also, depending on how many orders we get from different sales but more or less it could be between three items up to 10 items. I think that provides a space for exclusivity and uniqueness and it’s part of this concept of the garments being timeless as well.

So you would say it is possible to produce an up-cycle but just keep it at a small scale? And you would say this practice is a sustainable business model?

Yeah, definitely. Honestly, sometimes it feels like it’s the easiest way to do it. But I think to control how big the production is, that is key to actually know how much to sell.

What’s the studio like?

We have three smaller floors and we also have a sauna.

No way. Do you use it?


Were you raised at a horse farm?

Yeah, raised at a horse farm, which comes a lot with good quality products. It’s this uniform way of dressing and approaching your life. That is the kind of approach you get in that horse world.

“When you do practical work, once you’re done with it, that project is over and you’re released from it, but I also have this kind of emptiness.” – Ellen Hodakova Larsson

Uniformity and a stringent routine. I find this a very interesting subject. In an industry that’s so demanding of everything being new, it all happens so quickly. And then the makers are looking for this routine and repetitive pattern to be able to create.

Yeah. And I think that comes with finding your schedule. When you do practical work, once you’re done with it, that project is over and you’re released from it, but I also have this kind of emptiness. I find myself always finding new things that inspire me directly after that. When I’m released from that focus, I’m like a sponge that absorbs everything around me.

When running your own business, there’s essentially nine people working on the brand, you have to handle the management of that. And you have to be the entrepreneur, the business person, and fill every position. But when you have a routine, you can leave things and trust people with doing stuff and some weight gets taken off your shoulders.

So you argue a good routine can help you delegate?

Yeah, definitely. But I’m so bad at routines.

It’s too much for one human. So can you explain to me how it works, then? Are you very pragmatic about it? Or do you delegate first and then you do your own schedule in organised chaos?

The last.

The organised chaos!

When you have the overview, you can just delegate to an extent, and then you can find your ways to handle that and do it with a free approach. It gives you an element of space to be able to focus. That needs to be there to create.

You work very intuitively, would you say that requires a lot of self-confidence?

To validate yourself is a way of believing in yourself. Being pretty sure that this is the direction and then not arguing about it. And then seeing what comes out of that.

So you don’t question until it’s finished. And when it’s finished, is this when you start doubting, or is it never space for doubt?

No, it’s never a feeling of doubt if it has potential at the beginning and in the sketching. We do a lot of sketches and the result is often this combination of all of them. I think all the items are somehow connected, because it is a wardrobe, more or less. It’s not about making one good thing and then making another good thing.

“All the items or the pieces need to communicate with each other. There needs to be a balance in the whole collection.” – Ellen Hodakova Larsson

So it’s almost like you structure it as a whole as opposed to item by item. It’s like they’re answering to each other somehow?

Yeah exactly. I think all the items or the pieces need to communicate with each other. There needs to be a balance in the whole collection. If a material feels off, you need to add a trim, or you need to have a silhouette. If it’s a narrow silhouette, you have to maybe have a contrasting silhouette elsewhere in the collection. I think that kind of dynamic, that kind of balance helps all of the looks communicate together, it needs to be a continuous story between all of them.

Do you also need the validation of the audience? You were saying you were overwhelmed by the reception in Paris.

I think that is super important, of course. However, I think the most important part is that I have been satisfied myself.

Do you live to work or work to live?

Oh my god, I think it’s about finding satisfaction in both. I live to enjoy. I live to develop myself. Because I think development is the biggest part of life, to be able to learn new stuff and be able to evolve as a person. I don’t see this as my work. I enjoy learning in this area because that leads me into other areas all the time. Fashion crosses so many areas of society.

But also running a business, it’s so complex, because it is so layered: working on the creative but also being a businesswoman, understanding business, and understanding other businesses. It’s a management of people and understanding of the industry, but also society. Fashion always shines through so many areas, which brings me to a position where I evolve very quickly because I need to be updated and have so many philosophical thoughts about all the areas that I communicate through. So I think this position of designer for me, it’s very fun.

Gives you a reason to wake up in the morning, right?

Yes! All the knowledge that you gain being a designer, or being interested in art and music and societal questions, you can express that to people around you who haven’t got into those kinds of areas through design. When they see my work, old friends are always like ‘Oh, you make such cool stuff.’ And then you start talking about it. And they get new ideas. It’s a cute communication thing.

On this, nowadays it’s more and more about the network you have and press and how a designer needs to wear all of the caps at once. Do you feel the pressure that you need be the face of your practice?

I think the clothes and my concept and the whole thing I’m presenting is the communication by itself. So I don’t think I should be trying to over-speak. I think I just want to make what I make and then be very curious about the development of that, instead of me being an icon or the face of the brand.

One last question. How does it feel to be a woman in this industry?

I have a brother. Do you have a brother?

I have a brother. Yeah. 

I think that has allowed me to be very natural around men and, because you’re brought up with a brother, it feels like it’s a natural thing just being around men. So I very much enjoy having all of those guys around me because everyone is so interesting. I think my integrity is quite high.

It’s cool to hear that a woman is designing for a woman and who doesn’t feel like men are deciding for her. Which is the case a lot in this industry.

Yeah, definitely. I think we can learn so much from anyone, not depending on what sex you are. It’s more about experiences, acceptance and curiosity and I believe that it doesn’t need to be that hard if you just make it work. But then, of course, can’t take things personally.