Helena Ekström calls herself an artistic stylist and visual storyteller. With her background in copywriting, she went a long way from advertisement to creating her own world with her team Arter. She shared with us about this real fashion adventurer and her journey through the creative realms of the written and the visual.
Could you please tell us what you mean by being a visual storyteller?
– Curiously enough, it was another person that created that title. I met a fashion guru in New York some years ago and I got an opportunity to show him my portfolio. He directly said “You know that you are not a wardrobe stylist right? You are an artist… a visual storyteller”. I instantly agreed with the definition since I always thought it was difficult to describe what I do. The title stylist seemed wrong for my artistic work even if I operate on the fashion arena. Visual storyteller was spot on but still hard for the others to understand. Then I added artistic stylist that describes the field I work in. But being a visual storyteller means that I create stories by artistic expressions – its not about the specific clothes, it’s about the feeling!
How does your approach fit in the Swedish fashion landscape?
– I feel that what I do is quite different from the standard Swedish or Scandinavian aesthetics. That is also why I am looking for possibilities on other markets. I have just come back from China, where I spent two and a half months networking. I actually got an interesting question from an agent there. He asked me where I am in the Swedish stylists’ ranking. Am I number one? I answered; “no, if you are asking if I am the most popular stylist in Sweden, I am not”. Then he asked me if I were between number one and number ten. “No, neither that. I am on my own scale”.
Where did the idea of trying in China come from?
– It started with my trip to New York some years ago and the meeting with the fashion guru. His opinion was that NYC was far too commercial for me and I should try in an up and coming fashion city where I could be the first in my field. His recommendation was Warsaw. But it seemed very foreign for me. I started to think about alternative destinations and come up with Shanghai. I have always been attracted to the Asian culture and felt that I share Asian aesthetics. Shanghai is no fashion capital yet, but it has a great potential. China has a lot of resources, so it will not take long until they get there.
Being a visual storyteller means that I create stories by artistic expressions – its not about the specific clothes, it’s about the feeling!
How did it work out so far?
– It was absolutely fantastic in so many ways. During quite a short time I connect with a lot of interesting people – both artists and the fashion people. My strategy to get in the right circles was actually very simple. I decided to go to the right events, parties, exhibitions and literally just approach the most interesting looking people in the room and then present myself. In this time a created a life in Shanghai and I hope to be back soon.
It seems like you always have a plan when it comes to your career building. I heard about your 2 –minutes strategy when you decided to change your job.
– That’s quite true. I had a good position as a copywriter at an advertising agency but I felt a bit bored. So one day I decided to quit. I thought that I wouldn’t have problems to find something new, since I had a lot of experience. But then I found myself sitting on my couch and thinking “ok… so what now?”. I needed a plan, a hard-core strategy to get forward. That’s how I invented the 2-minutes strategy. In short, it was a promise I made to myself that I had to react to any work opportunity I see within 2 minutes time no matter where I was. This was in October 2010 and I had to keep the strategy for one year. So there I was, completely absorbed by the strategy and two weeks later I had enough freelance work for one year. I became an editor-in-chief for a new magazine called SoFo, started to collaborate with a publishing house and continued with copywriting for fashion clients. It was very extreme, but I reached my goal: I created a job for myself there I still could do copywriting but also be an artistic styling, work as an editor and digital creative. A dream situation.
How did you decide to switch from working with words to visual work? These are two completely different ways of expression.
– My identity has always been about the written and I’d never seen myself as a visual person. My interest for fashion expressions was nevertheless a fact and I started to work with fashion clients as a copywriter quite early. In 2006 I began to work with the department store NK and fashion became a part of my job. That was the start. Later on I launched my own fashion site Demodé focusing on experimental fashion. My Démode team and me did some crazy fashion initiative like street catwalks, styling clubs and a fashion film presented at Klarabiografen (Klara cinema) in Stockholm. Suddenly one of my clients asked me to style something for them and it felt natural to do that. Suddenly I worked as a stylist – but in my own way.
Was it the beginning of the Arter project?
– By the time I started to work with SoFo I met the photographer Klara G. I had a lot of diffused ideas for our first shoot but the result showed some expressions that was new for us but something we both really liked. We continued working for two years and suddenly we had a certain style or feeling that we named Arter. The team also includes makeup artist Emma Nilsson and we three compliment each other in a special way. Since we create worlds beyond our own that is very “not human” the name Arter seems right. It means “creatures” in Swedish.
Where do you get your inspiration?
– I am not looking for inspiration in traditional ways. I am rather sensing the moods and scenes and digesting them in my head. Being extremely sensible and observant I mostly find inspiration in what is around rather than actively looking for it. Material is also a source of inspiration for me and often ideas come from the material I find. The material I choose is also very leading in my work and a play around with it and let it show me the way. We are also very interactive and inspire each other in Arter. We often start with one idea and develop the concept after a lot of brainstorming and mood boards. We work on it until it becomes a clear story. This way our inspirations are never literally reflected in our work, but become a base for a creation of our own worlds.
I am always on one of the two extreme poles: the very commercial or the radically artistic
The way you talk about creating editorials seems quite similar to the way you create your written concepts. But what is the biggest difference between working with words in your copywriting job and with image in your fashion projects?
– Copywriting is a very defined way of working. I love this concentrated, witty, powerful way of writing. It is very effective and focused there each word should have a meaning and create a reaction. I love playing with words, twisting and turning them around. I am often asked if I will stop writing now, when I ’ve started working more as a stylist. Definitely not! I love writing. In my styling, I get more freedom for purely artistic expression. I am always on one of the two extreme poles: the very commercial or the radically artistic. I like switching between different roles: one day I am a businesswoman presenting a campaign strategy to a client and the another day I am sitting on the floor building eccentric accessories from odd materials. These two Helena’s give a lot to each other.
How do you choose designers that you present at Demodé?
– My fashion site Demodé has followed my own personal journey. My interests went from new designers to experimental fashion to artistic expressions. I treat it as an inspiration platform there I highlight other designers and artists that inspire me with their talent. I want to give them the attention they deserve.
Could you define ’’fashion bravehearts’’ that you often refer to?
– Démode is the French word for “un-fashion” but it’s more like a statement. The former motto was ”fashion for bravehearts” but since the site followed my interest and development in fashion I played around with the words and now use “brave art for the fashion arena”. Still , it is all about being a breveheart in fashion. That has nothing to do with being trendy – it is about daring to experiment with expressions.
Do you think they are any fashion bravehearts in Stockholm or Sweden?
– Not too many on the streets, but of course, there are a few individuals. We hold together and inspirer each other. A designer I really want to mention is Amandah Andersson and her brand AMA AWE. Me and ARTER has worked together a lot with her – our aesthetics seem to be a great mix.
So, what is coming next? What are your dreams and plans for the nearest future?
– My Chinese adventure has just started so I will definitely come back to Shanghai to explore more – first of all for their fashion week in October. I want to learn more about the Chinese culture – absorb everything from colours to the architecture and history and incorporate it in my own visual language. It’s very exciting! Also a story start growing in my head during my stay in China…I let the words come and see what happens. I never dreamed of China before I went there but the country chose me; it’s very romantic.
See more of Helena’s work at
Photography by Klara G