kanye, demna and now virgil: how ikea became fashion’s must have collaborator

In 2017, Balenciaga dropped an IKEA-inspired tote that almost broke the internet. A year on, and the Swedish retailer has become high fashion’s hottest -- and most unlikely -- property.

by Matthew Whitehouse
10 May 2018, 2:36pm

The year was 1996 and Britain was undergoing a cultural sea change. Tony Blair had claimed leadership of the Labour Party and was on his way to succeeding the grey man of British politics, John Major, as the country’s new Prime Minister. The Spice Girls's debut single Wannabe had arrived in the charts -- a big, brash peace sign of feminist individualism. And on a quiet suburban street, a large, blue skip was imploring ordinary Britons to “Chuck Out Your Chintz” and succumb to a new dawn of clean, contemporary design.

Intending to rattle the country’s furniture buying populace, the ad -- from Swedish retailer IKEA, which first opened in the UK in 87 -- played on a supposed British predilection for old-fashioned fittings; flowery trimmage, shiny pelmets, doilies. It showed streams of women enthusiastically ditching the drab, tearing down their old curtains before marching, en masse, towards their nearest IKEA store, buying into the brand’s punchy form of modernist reinvention. The ad painted the company as a modish alternative to the traditionalist taste of mum and dad. And, in it’s own irreverent way, it worked -- with sales of some items rising 30 percent, and IKEA establishing itself as the millennial shopper's look du jour.

20 years on and the company is no longer the shock of the new. In fact, so ubiquitous is its brand of self-assembly furnishings, it’s estimated that 10% of Europe’s entire population was conceived in an IKEA bed. Over 2 million meatballs are eaten in its cavernous blue and yellow stores every day, and there are more copies of the IKEA catalogue printed each year than the Bible. From a small store in Almhult in rural Sweden has grown a flatpack empire on which the sun never sets. An endless juggernaut of Allen keys, RIBBA frames and lingonberry sauce.

Yet, rather than driving more selective customers away, the mass-appeal of IKEA’s design has, in the last couple of years, attracted a new set of fans. In the world of high fashion, a cosign from the brand has become hot property. And it all started with the humble, blue carrier bag.

April 2017 and the French fashion house, Balenciaga, had just dropped its “Arena Extra-Large Shopper”. The bag -- double printed calfskin handles (long and short), embossed gold Balenciaga logo, free keyring (!) -- retailed at a cool £1,705. And its resemblance to IKEA’s 50p FRAKTA bag hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“High fashion, or a high-priced knock-off?” asked the Mail Online. “Balenciaga’s Ikea-bag knockoff is even dumber than it looks,” wrote The New York Post. The brand’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia, had peddled a similar anti-fashion aesthetic 18-months earlier, famously sending fellow designer Gosha Rubchinskiy down the runway wearing a t-shirt of German logistics company, DHL, for his other label, Vetements. But that piece was born out of a collaboration between the two brands. The blue shopper bag caught IKEA completely off-guard.

“We were surprised,” admits Marcus Engman, IKEA’s Head of Design. “But it’s always fun to see an upscale brand take its cue from an everyday item that we see as being so practical and reliable.”

Engman, who started his career working at an IKEA store as a teenager, believes that “everything is built on something that has been done before and starting from a completely blank canvas is very difficult.” He cites music as an example of an industry that has become increasingly collaborative and suggests the way in which creatives work with references has been evolving for several years. “I think that’s rubbing off on other creative industries, such as fashion, and I think that’s very exciting.”

In a similar way to how the company reacted to rapper Kanye West’s repeated overtures to collaborate in 2016 (IKEA Australia responded with a breezy, ““Hej Kanye, we’d love to see what you’d create…we could make you Famous!”), the Swedish brand were quick to capitalise on their newfound fashion buzz. “We are deeply flattered that the Balenciaga tote bag resembles the IKEA iconic sustainable blue bag for 99 cents. Nothing beats the versatility of a great big blue bag!” an IKEA spokesperson told TODAY. A print ad and social post were released, informing shoppers how to tell the difference between a Balenciaga bag and an IKEA original (“Shake it: if it rustles, it's the real deal”). The effect, that IKEA were in on the fun, was infectious -- spawning a wave of countless copycat tributes from IKEA track pants to a blue and yellow take on the Balenciaga “Speed Trainer”.

Architecture graduate Edmond Looi, who created his custom adidas Ultra Boosts from the IKEA FRAKTA bag, suggests its the consumer friendly way in which the brand positions its products that appeals to designers like himself: “Aside from the striking colour of its logo and shopping bag, it triggers people to be hands on and imagine their own desired space,” he says.

Looi was inspired, as he puts it, “during that period of IKEA hype in early 2017”. Replacing the Ultra Boost laces with an IKEA strap and melting the FRAKTA bag onto the sneaker’s toe box and heel cap, his creation was a very literal translation of the brand’s do-it-yourself mentality; a co-opting its five pillars of Democratic Design -- affordability, function, form, sustainability and quality -- into a Frankenstein’s Monster of shopper and shoe.

“I think designers are attracted by the fact that so many people meet and interact with IKEA items, and that they are used by billions of people,” Engman says of such tributes. “To design for that level of use means that you design in an understated way. It’s minimalistic without even trying to be.”

And on to the brand’s latest foray into fashion. Last week, the furniture giant gave the world the first proper glimpse of its upcoming collaboration with Off-White chief executive officer, and Louis Vuitton newboy, Virgil Abloh. Taking the form of a 25 minute livestream, viewers were treated to glimpses of a display cabinet (shown with Nike x Virgil Abloh sneakers inside), a chair with one legged propped up by a brightly coloured doorsop, and red rug with the word “blue” shaved in to its centre. Aimed at millennials looking to furnish their first homes, the collaboration, with the industry’s current hottest property, reads like both cementing of IKEA’s place within the world of the style, and an updated version of the “Chuck Out Your Chintz” campaign of two decades prior -- a new dawn of clean, contemporary design – only this time, make it fashion.

“We look for designers who want to make a change and do good; it’s not just about creating something beautiful,” Englman says. “Design is a means to solving a problem and we look for designers who strive to do that.”

He continues. “We’re impressed by the fashion world and the way it reinvents itself every season. Fashion always seems to have a narrative and we wanted to learn from that. Working in that way, at that pace, breeds a different type of creative, there’s a lot of curiosity there. Then there is the flip side of that coin, fast fashion, and we don’t want to go there. We want to make sustainable design that people want to live with for a long time.” Looks like IKEA’s flat-pack fashion isn’t going anywhere. We just have to make a chair and take a seat.

Want some fashion in your ears? Listen to i-D’s fashion podcast, Fash-ON Fash-OFF, here .

Virgil Abloh