Let other brands sweat it out in southern Europe. Max Mara had a better idea for its Cruise 24 show. Head north to Stockholm, a place where Scandi cool meets spooky fairytales and Midsummer mythology. Back home, London swelters in a mini heatwave, while the hotspots of Europe have become scorched earth. “I think going somewhere cooler in summer will increasingly be a thing,” says the ever-elegant Max Mara designer Ian Griffiths. And sitting here with him, on the terrace of Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel, looking out to the Royal Palace opposite, with crystal clear morning light bouncing off the calm waters of the Strömmen, why would you want to be anywhere else?
The cruise and high jewellery season are in full swing as brands stage lavish far-flung events. The fashion pack have racked up the air miles travelling everywhere from Korea to Mexico, Los Angeles, Florence and Lago Maggiore, but we’ve never been this far north before, so an eager group of editors gather in the business class lounge at Heathrow to swap notes on their Cruise season travels. Footballers who score the most goals in a tournament win the Golden Boot. Sadly, there’s no official trophy for the editor who goes to the most cruise shows. But if there was it would be called the Golden Handbag and Avril Mair would claim it. The Elle and Harper’s Bazaar staffer’s Chanel sandals have barely touched the ground these past few months. She is heading direct from Sweden to Athens for a Louis Vuitton high jewellery event before heading to Paris for couture and then to Dolce and Gabbana’s Alta Moda show in Puglia. It’s the kind of itinerary that stretches a girl’s supply of The Row to the absolute limit.
Speaking of what to wear, Max Mara have issued a dress code for their welcome dinner. We must stick to white or pale pastels in honour of Sweden’s Midsummer traditions. To get us in the Nordic mood, we’re served smoked salmon on the plane and it is surprisingly delicious (surprising because most food on planes is disappointing). We emerge from the airport into bright blue Scandi skies and speed through the elegant streets of Stockholm to the Grand Hôtel. The omens for this trip are good.
The city is built on a series of 30,000 islands connected by bridges in the wide, open waters of the archipelago. We’re having dinner on one later and the welcome pack in the room gives us clues for what to expect. There’s a pair of oversized sunglasses, because the summer sun doesn’t set here until midnight and rises again at 4am, and a sumptuous woollen stole (it’s 25 degrees in the daytime but gets cold at night). A book of hand-painted flowers reference the Midsummer festival, when Swedes celebrate the longest day with pagan flower crowns and all-night parties. There’s also a set of vivid, patterned place settings from Svenskt Tenn, Stockholm’s famed interiors shop, which has taken Scandi style to the world (if you’ve ever wondered where the craze for dark green velvet sofas came from pay them a visit).
I have time for a quick walk around town. There are public gardens and taxi-boats everywhere. The absence of skyscrapers and the wide-open skyline give Stockholm a quiet bustle, quite different to the clamour of London’s concrete jungle. It must be happy hour. Everyone is sitting out in pavement cafés, basking in the afternoon sun and drinking aperitifs.
It’s time for me to zip into a pastel pink Alaïa dress and head to dinner. I follow a line of white and pastel-clad people to a quayside, where a large taxi-boat, bows garlanded with flowers, is waiting. One unfortunate influencer manages to drop her phone in the sea while getting on the boat. We sail off without it, through the archipelago, past a huge fairground and out to an island where a little restaurant nestles in a picturesque bay. Waves lap on a shale beach. We sip cocktails and cluster around firepits as a string quartet plays. Griffiths looks chic as ever in a white suit (he uses Max Mara fabric but gets his suits tailored in London). Keeping it festive, he’s added a white flower in his lapel and sprouts a pink silk polka dot pocket square. We talk about the infinite nuances of beige, Max Mara’s signature colour. “After a lifetime of looking at it, you start to pick out the redder ones and the more blue or green ones. When people ask my hair colour, I say it’s khaki,” he says.
Wait, is that Demi Moore? Yes! And she looks utterly serene in head-to-toe cream tailoring. She is carrying her teacup chihuahua, Pilaf, in a matching puppy papoose. The dog’s little tongue hangs out adorably from the side of her mouth. Perhaps Pilaf is hungry? We go inside to a candlelit table decorated with sprays of wildflowers and stylish Svenskt Tenn tableware. Kiernan Shipka, the sparky, American actress, tells us Max Mara dressed her so stylishly and appropriately when she was a rising young teen star in Mad Men (nothing too sexy, always youthful and chic) that it will forever be her favourite. We head back to the boats at midnight. The sun has not quite set and we sail back to the hotel under a purple twilight.
The next day, as is our tradition, the ladies of the British press have breakfast with Ian Griffiths. One of the most articulate designers in fashion, he jokes about the pressure to live up to that erudite reputation. Last year, he described Max Mara’s understated luxury as a “quiet wow” months before the phrase quiet luxury was even coined. What’s he thinking this time? His intellectual pin-up is Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, the first female recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded in 1909. “She was a lesbian, social activist, feminist suffragette. She fought against realism in Swedish literature and wrote fairytale narratives into her work, which was the other thing that I associate with Scandinavia, the whole sense of folklore and fairytales. She’s on my mood board forever now,” he says over Swedish pancakes and berries. His research referenced other forthright Scandinavian women, from the Vikings, who practiced equal-opportunity pillaging, to Queen Charlotte of Sweden (described online as a “lesbian troublemaker”) and Henrik Ibsen’s heroines intent breaking free of their stifling bourgeois existence. “But I’m not designing a BBC costume drama,” says Griffiths. “You realise you have to focus on real clothes.”
That sense of realism gives the brand a special kinship with Scandi style. “I’ve always felt there were some parallels between Max Mara design and Swedish design. There’s a sense of attainability for Swedish design. It is designed for anyone who wants to use it,” he says, recounting how, after the war, when Swedish newlyweds got a government grant to buy furniture for their homes, it came with instructions on how to choose pieces that would be of good taste and add lasting value. “There was a real sense of introducing design on a democratic level,” says Griffiths. After breakfast we go on a boat ride and tour the Royal Palace to get a flavour of the past pomp and current practicality of the Swedish royals (the King and Queen once flew economy on a trip to India and carried their own bags!).
The Max Mara show is being held in Stockholm City Hall. This beautifully made building, completed in 1923, is an imposing arts and crafts wonder. The models descend a wide staircase and circle its vast, austere atrium. Griffiths borrowed from traditional Swedish styles but takes the twee out of folksy flower crowns, floral prints and smocks, giving them a pared back, monochrome and linear treatment, in tune with modern Scandi aesthetics. “They instantly become much more powerful, and less pretty,” said the designer. “We took away decoration to see what we would get.” His cream and black colour palette kept it cool and modern, as did easy, sporty pieces like floral embroidered boxers, billowing sheer shirts and smock dresses. “I always aim to bring a certain desire for effortlessness. There’s something about Max Mara which allows you to put something on and then forget about it,” he explained. The house’s famous coats were embellished with folksy studs and tassels, which played to the growing number of younger customers flocking to the brand for statement runway looks. “I think the general direction is more design content, but never abandoning Max Mara’s wearability or the rigour,” says Griffiths. “And there’s the fact that you can take any piece from any collection and you should be able to wear it in five or 10 years’ time.” Or even pass it on to the next generation, as the coolly elegant Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman did with her favourite Max Mara coat, gifting it to her daughter Isabella Rossellini. The show ended with a series of fluttering, light, wildflower print and embroidered pieces which signalled the brand’s new desire to offer elegant evening options alongside its signature coats and tailoring.
After the applause, everyone heads up to the famous banqueting hall for a feast. Long tables line the room, which is covered in soaring golden folkloric mosaics which twinkle and glow in the candlelight. It was like dining inside a huge jewellery box. A truly precious moment.
Photography by Arvida Bystrom.
MAX MARA RESORT 2024: HEART AND SOUL
Date 11 JUNE, 2023
Location CITY HALL, STOCKHOLM
Designer IAN GRIFFITHS
Hair PIERPAOLO LAI using Wella
Make-up KARIN WESTERLUND