Fashion-starved Swedes started queuing outside the Gul&Blå store in Stockholm before opening hours. Scandal was in the air. Soon, desperate moms were forming lines round entire blocks of buildings, to buy jeans for ungrateful kids who obstinately refused to go to school for as long as they didn’t own a pair of decent jeans. Human impulsiveness and folly being what they are, there is no telling how things might have ended. Now, 50 years later, looking ahead towards an uncertain future, we may well afford a moment to look back at those glorious and riotous days of yore. Who knows, it just might inspire us.
The Gul&Blå story is unique in Swedish fashion. Today it may be difficult to grasp just how significant Gul&Blå really was to the budding Swedish pop culture in the 60’s and to what extent the label carried on to dominate young fashion in the 70’s and the 80’s.
Everything began in the 60’s
In Sweden, at the beginning of the 60’s, youth fashion simply did not exist. Much to their annoyance – or so one may assume – Swedish teenagers had no choice but to dress and look like adults. Meanwhile, things were happening abroad. The Beatles’ breakthrough and the “Swinging London” era introduced trends that were unheard of in Western Civilization, such as long hair for boys, strange music and a new psychedelic popular culture.
To Lars Knutsson, the 60’s represented a new world:
– It was like a kick, a process of liberation. I remember I felt a longing away from it all. You see, Stockholm was quite grey at that time.
Influenced by his experiences abroad, Lars made the decision that would open the gates for young fashion in Sweden. Gul&Blå was founded in 1966. Soon the first store opened in an old health supply store in Stockholm. It became an instant success. On opening day, fashion-starved Swedes were queuing to secure piles of imported clothes.
– It was the first pop store in town, Lars recalls. There was nothing like it!
It didn’t take long until Lars was compelled to start manufacturing clothes domestically.
– There was such a pressure, especially when it came to pants, that I was forced to start producing in order to have anything at all to sell.
An important milestone in the Gul&Blå Story was when Lars met Maria, an Italian designer. Romance was in the air. Lars and Maria became a couple. Together they carried on to transform young fashion in Sweden, by cutting down on imported products and by further developing their own collection.
– We designed corduroy and gabardine pants and tight t-shirts in many colours, Maria Knutsson recalls. There was a sense of playfulness and fun in those days. We didn’t think about money. We were happy!
Gul&Blå was getting close to yet another breakthrough when, in 1970, Maria designed a pair of wide jeans. By a stroke of genius, she placed an original and strikingly unusual seam at the knee, a seam in the shape of a “V”. YSL had previously done the same thing with suede pants. The idea was that the heavy, English denim fabric would fall more nicely with a “V”-seam. The new pants went on to become such a huge hit that crowds began to gather outside the store before opening hours. Soon long lines were forming along the pavements. The jeans never even made it to the shelves but were taken directly from the cartons to the counter, where they were immediately sold. Everybody wanted wide jeans.
The “V”-jeans model was soon copied by other fashion chains. While “V”-jeans were a great success and sold everywhere, the designers at Gul&Blå didn’t rest on their laurels. Instead they carried on to design the model that was soon to follow and that would become an even bigger seller: the TT-jeans. The TT-jeans were so popular that lines were now forming round entire blocks of buildings. Desperate moms were begging shopkeepers to hold jeans for their kids who were refusing to go to school until they got their precious TT-jeans. Every Thursday at eight a.m. a new delivery of 5000 pairs would arrive. People would line up outside the shop. By afternoon, the stock would be nearly depleted. As you may well imagine, the jeans were frequently sold out. This didn’t restrain the cravings of some of the more desperate customers, who carried on to persuade the shopkeepers into selling the pants that they were actually wearing. Fitting rooms were no longer required. Customers turned up with long lists on behalf of their friends. People arrived from afar to Gul&Blå in Stockholm. One day, sales hit a record of a 1000 pairs of TT-jeans.
Gul&Blå, who at that time still had not begun to advertise, then began to retail by mail order. The factory in Vegby, in the textile province of Västergötland, was hiring ever more people exclusively for Gul&Blå. Soon, the millionth pair of jeans could be hung on the honorary wall. The profit was spent on big outdoor parties in Stockholm.
Gul&Blå had become much more than a mere clothing label. To the young, Gul&Blå represented pop culture and a liberating life style. The company allowed itself to be guided by the spirit of the age – Love, peace & understanding. The brand became a stage for the young and creative. Models, pop stars and other celebrities wanted to associate themselves with the cool lifestyle inherent in the Gul&Blå label. Stores began to pop up in other cities. In the 70’s, a young Christopher Lambert (aka Highlander) worked part-time in the first Gul&Blå store in Paris.
In Stockholm, the iconic Mickey Mouse prints used by the label were soon to be found everywhere, even underneath exclusive mink coats on fashionable ladies in snobby Östermalm. Andy Warhol, opening one of his first exhibits in Europe at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, accidentally spotted an ankle-length leather coat from Gul&Blå. He was so smitten with the coat that he traded in ten signed Marilyn lithographs in exchange for three coats.
During the 80’s, Gul&Blå began to get parts of their collection manufactured in Japan. Together with the Japanese manufacturer, the process of stonewashing jeans was developed.
– At first we had to explain to our customers what happened with the jeans when we washed them and how they changed, says Lars Knutsson. We had a pair of jeans on display in the store, so we were actually able to show how they turned out after being washed.
Stonewashed jeans soon became part of the collection and a new trend was born. Grease and Fonzie hysteria now prevailed. Gul&Blå latched on to the 50’s nostalgia trend and added a touch of the 80’s in their innovative design. Jeans now appeared in black for the first time and the models were called Fonzie and Marilyn.
During the 80’s the company expanded further to approximately 30 stores in Sweden, Norway, Germany, Finland and France. As stores grew more numerous, collections became more diversified. Maria remembers how the rapid success ended up making it difficult to manage the label:
– In addition to designing and producing we also had to take care of the administration. In those days, we processed all receipts and kept statistics manually. It was almost unbearable.
Statistics were important. By cutting down on expenses resulting from large stock and big sales, Gul&Blå would be able to focus on producing superior quality. A decision was made to turn the stores into franchises. Maria and the other founders now had to produce entire collections to meet the demand from their own stores.
– In the end everything got very complicated, said Maria.
In the early 90’s, Lars decided to focus on Stockholm. In 1995, nearly 30 years after its birth, he passed the company over to new owners.
– Gul&Blå emerged in a time when things were changing fast, says Lars. There was an unbelievable creative zeal and so many doors to kick in. It’s no doubt difficult for young people today to understand how things were. T-shirts did not even exist back then. We had the privilege of introducing them to Sweden. Of course, if we hadn’t done it, someone else would have done it eventually.
Christer Bork chooses to run Gul&Blå through the years by only having four of his own stores and consistently says no when he on numerous occasions get the offer to sell to other retailers. The turnover is low but stable and profitable through the years. Christer does not spend a penny in marketing and gets equally surprised every year when new 16 year olds appears to buy jeans.
In November 2018, Christer Bork sells the brands Gul&Blå, Puss&Kram and Fonzie to a new owner group that start up Gul&Blå once again with the focus on web and resellers.
Gul&Blå is presently set for a worldwide relaunch. With an important brand history, a strong collection and competitive prices Gul&Blå will be the leading Swedish denim brand on the international market.
Gul&Blå is a traditional denim brand inspired by contemporary Swedish culture and by its own legacy from the glorious days in the 60’s and the 70’s. Standing on the brink of a new era, we are set to win the hearts and minds of the future.