See the video.

Selam Fessahaye is a Swedish-Eritrean costume designer who launched her first ready-to-wear collection in August 2018. “It was for me,” she says of her Fashion Week Stockholm debut. “It was time. I just had to feel absolute freedom in my creativity.” Those were very busy days: As she was prepping the clothes, Fessahaye was filming a four-part documentary series, with producer-director Mela Tesfazion, about her life and work (it aired on Sveriges Television in September). “My main reason for doing the documentary, she says, “was thinking, This is exactly what I would have needed to see growing up to just make my path a lot easier and 10 years shorter.

After Fessahaye’s sophomore show, presented in February, she was proclaimed Sveriges modemirakle, the country’s fashion miracle. “It totally feels like they are talking about someone else,” she says of the title. For the record, this miracle was 17 years in the making—and it didn’t come easy. “As a black woman in Sweden, everything I do is political,” Fessahaye states. “Who I am is political; I don’t even have a choice not to be political.”

Fessahaye’s debut was powerful on many levels and in ways she couldn’t have anticipated. In the gilded, Old World interiors of Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel, she presented garments that were an explosion of color, sparkle, and silhouette. She cut neon-colored tulle into utilitarian shapes (some of these have been worn by Kindness, aka Adam Bainbridge, the buzzy British singer-songwriter/DJ/producer who is currently on tour with Robyn). There were romantic asymmetric gowns with trains, spangled looks for men and women that took the Kirakira effect to the next level, and hyperbolic tailoring. These dramatics were presented on a cast of clients, friends, and friends of friends, the majority of whom were people of color. “I thought, I’m showing at fashion week and I’m showing in these rooms and I’m going to bring my world with me,” the designer says. “[I wanted to show] what’s beautiful to me.” There weren’t many dry eyes by the end. “I’m amazed people got the feeling of it, and I felt it was much needed,” remarks Fessahaye. Indeed: There had been a neo-Nazi rally in the capital just days before.

Meet Selam Fessahaye, the Stylist and Designer Making Change on the Swedish Fashion Scene

The designer in action.

Photo: Adrian Pehrson / Courtesy of Assefa Kommunikation

A still from the designer’s Fall 2019 collection video.

Photo: Director, Shelia Johansson; Stills, Tom Lorentzén; Grade, Nicke Jacobsson / Courtesy of Selam Fessahaye

A still from the designer’s Fall 2019 collection video.

Photo: Director, Shelia Johansson; Stills, Tom Lorentzén; Grade, Nicke Jacobsson / Courtesy of Selam Fessahaye

Artist NSDOS (Kirikoo Des), in the designer’s Fall 2019 collection video.

Photo: Director, Shelia Johansson; Stills, Tom Lorentzén; Grade, Nicke Jacobsson / Courtesy of Selam Fessahaye

Singer Sabina Ddumba, in the designer’s Fall 2019 collection video.

Photo: Director, Shelia Johansson; Stills, Tom Lorentzén; Grade, Nicke Jacobsson / Courtesy of Selam Fessahaye

Singer AMWIN (Amanda Winberg) (upper left) in the designer’s Fall 2019 collection video.

Photo: Director, Shelia Johansson; Stills, Tom Lorentzén; Grade, Nicke Jacobsson / Courtesy of Selam Fessahaye

Model Anab, in the designer’s Fall 2019 collection video.

Photo: Director, Shelia Johansson; Stills, Tom Lorentzén; Grade, Nicke Jacobsson / Courtesy of Selam Fessahaye

A still from the designer’s Fall 2019 collection video.

Photo: Director, Shelia Johansson; Stills, Tom Lorentzén; Grade, Nicke Jacobsson / Courtesy of Selam Fessahaye

A still from the designer’s Fall 2019 collection video.

Photo: Director, Shelia Johansson; Stills, Tom Lorentzén; Grade, Nicke Jacobsson / Courtesy of Selam Fessahaye

A still from the designer’s Fall 2019 collection video.

Photo: Director, Shelia Johansson; Stills, Tom Lorentzén; Grade, Nicke Jacobsson / Courtesy of Selam Fessahaye

Many members of Fessahaye’s fashion family walked in her sophomore show and appear in the fashion film she created, with director Sheila Johansson, to tell the story of it, clips of which appear below. Cast members are dressed in looks from Fessahaye’s romantic new collection, which references Asia and Victoriana. Though the silhouettes are familiar, Fessahaye offers novelty in the way of textiles (including upholstery fabrics, which were used for the looks worn by Drake’s favorite twins, Elizabeth and Victoria Lejonhjärta). These aren’t clothes that could make an immediate transition from the runway to retail (at this point Fessahaye is taking personal orders), but the lineup delivered on other fronts and in ways that resonate with what’s happening in the fashion world outside of Sweden. When the cast posed for an assembled portrait at the end of the show, only the composition was classical; the casting was diverse. “Representation matters!” says Fessahaye. As a black female designer, she approaches inclusivity from a completely different perspective than someone like Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, who, just weeks earlier, had presented a glorious couture collection that reimagined Cecil Beaton’s famous Vogue photograph of models in Charles James gowns, recast with women of color. Still, it might be possible to find a thread between the two; both are rewriting familiar narratives to make them more inclusive.

See the video.

Fessahaye, now 35, was born and raised in Uppsala by parents who preserved their Eritrean culture. “My name means peace,” says the designer. “It was given to me after 20-plus years of war—where women have fought side by side with the men for the freedom of the people—in the hope of seeing an end to it, and that’s only the beginning of the impact of my heritage.” Fessahaye can be counted among the “third culture kids” (children raised in a culture different than that of both of their parents), who are contributing so much to Sweden’s cultural scene. “I think we are a generation of being in between,” she says. “We’re not our parents, who came from war or have seen something else, but we’re not Swedish—nobody will see us and just think, Okay, this is a regular Swede, so we’re just trying to find our own middle way where we can exist. That’s a big part of everything I do.”

Meet Selam Fessahaye, the Stylist and Designer Making Change on the Swedish Fashion Scene

Tove Styrke performing in tulle cargo pants by Selam Fessahaye.

Photo: Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Ella Mai in Selam Fessahaye.

Photo: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Tracee Ellis Ross in a suit by Selam Fessahaye.

Kevin Winter/AMA2018

Elizabeth and Victoria Lejonhjärta with Sammy and Johnny Bennett backstage at the Fall 2019 show.

Photo: Adrian Pehrson / Courtesy of Assefa Kommunikation

Seinabo Sey in Selam Fessahaye.

Photo: Ik Aldama / Indigital.tv

Sabina Ddumba in Selam Fessahaye.

Photo: Andrea Adriani / Gorunway.com

AMWIN (Amanda Winberg) in Selam Fessahaye.

Photo: Andrea Adriani / Gorunway.com

Fashion has been a big part of Fessahaye’s life, too. At 7, she started sneaking into her mother’s closet to find pieces that might not be missed and reworked them. “Fashion’s always been the most natural way for me to express myself,” says the designer. While Fessahaye’s family accepted fashion as a hobby, she was expected to aspire to a “real” profession—like being a doctor or a lawyer. “I was often told by the community around me that my parents did not come to this country so that I could jeopardize my future with a hobby that wouldn’t go anywhere.” She showed the naysayers: Among her clients are IKEA, Max Factor, and award-winning artists including Seinabo Sey, Tove Styrke, and Jireel.

Is fashion really becoming more inclusive? Fessahaye does see progress in regard to diversity in the Swedish fashion industry, but she is frustrated at the pace. “The world has been so far behind for such a long time, sometimes it’s like, ‘Yo, this needs to go faster.’ Also, we need diversity on every level,” she says. “A mostly white setting using nonwhite models is far from the kind of diversity I want and need. There needs to be diversity at all levels, from the models walking the floor to the people behind the curtain controlling the show.” Fessahaye is determined to do whatever she can “to not be a part of anything else but change.”

See Fessahaye’s Fall 2019 collection video exclusively here.

See the video.

Selam Fessahaye Fall 2019 Collection Video
Director, Sheila Johansson; director of photography, Tim Lorentzén; designer, Selam Fessahaye; producer, Adam Holmström / New Land; production coordinators, Bintou Traore and Dimona Fessahaye / Courtesy of Selam Fessahaye

See the videos.

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