Paris of the North

– NK’s French Couture Atelier 1902–1966
On display: 
17 Sep 202117 Sep 2022

Timeless elegance, exquisite craftsmanship and tailor-made dreams. On 17 September opens a fashion exhibition that transports you to the golden age of haute couture and the northernmost outpost of Paris fashion – the French Couture Atelier at the NK department store in Stockholm. 

The pearl grey salon was the most glamorous arena in Stockholm for the masterpieces of haute couture and the leading atelier in the Nordic countries from the turn of the last century to the 1960s. This was where exquisitely crafted tailor-made creations were made that serve as inspiration to this day.

 

Photo: Hendrik Zeitler/Nordiska museet

 

The northernmost outpost of Paris fashion

Scandinavian customers gathered in the salons of NK’s French Couture Atelier to view and order the latest fashion made to measure after Paris originals designed by Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. It was NK’s French Couture Atelier that spread international fashion in the Nordic countries.

The heads of the atelier were famous for their unsurpassed ability to adapt Paris fashion to local conditions. The aesthetic was strict and elegant.

A golden lift to heaven

Customers included royalty, high society, professional women and the stars of stage and screen. Princess Sibylla, Queen Louise Mountbatten, Astrid Sampe, Nanna Svartz, Greta Garbo and Zarah Leander were some of the ladies that ordered their wardrobe at the French Couture Atelier.

At the time, customers arrived directly at the sophisticated pearl grey salon via the legendary golden lift from the beauty and fragrance department on the ground floor. One ecstatic visitor described the elegant salon as a “branch of the real Heaven”.

 

Photo: Erik Holmén, Nordiska museet NMA0065332

 

 

One ecstatic visitor described the elegant salon as a “branch of the real Heaven”.

 

 

Photo: Helena Bonnevier, Nordiska museet

 

Meet the colourful customers and atelier staff

The exhibition invites visitors to a visual encounter with the legendary atelier and those who populated the two parallel worlds. On one side, the muted, pearl grey salon with its sophisticated customers, creators and top models. On the other side, the bustling atelier with its skilled seamstresses, tailors and embroiderers working away among clouds of chiffon and droves of tulle.

 

 

Photo: Erik Holmén, Nordiska museet NMA0099675

 

Fashion throughout the 20th century

You will encounter some hundred garments, from tightly corseted and floor-length to emancipated and miniskirted. The rise and fall of exclusive, hand-sewn couture reflect the arrival of modernity in Sweden. There is the little black dress, the professional woman’s power suit and tailor-made coat, timeless, romantic ball gowns, and unforgettable stage costumes.

You get close up to couture masterpieces from NK’s French Couture Atelier as well as spectacular original garments from leading fashion designers such as Chanel, Vionnet, Balenciaga and Givenchy. You will also discover forgotten professions, techniques, materials, processes and the art of ordering a bespoke garment.

  • Photo: Erik Holmén, Nordiska museets arkiv NMA.0053276
  • Photo: Helena Bonnevier, Nordiska museet
  • Photo Erik Holmén, Nordiska museets arkiv NMA.0100266
  • Photo: Helena Bonnevier, Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Helena Bonnevier, Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Helena Bonnevier, Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Hendrik Zeitler /Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Hendrik Zeitler /Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Hendrik Zeitler /Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Hendrik Zeitler /Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Hendrik Zeitler /Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Hendrik Zeitler /Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Helena Bonnevier, Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Helena Bonnevier, Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Helena Bonnevier, Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Helena Bonnevier, Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Helena Bonnevier, Nordiska museet
  • Photo: Erik Holmén, Nordiska museets arkiv NMA.0099289
  • Photo: Erik Holmén, Nordiska museets arkiv NMA.0038703

 


 

A historical treasure trove on show for the first time

Nordiska museet owns the largest collection of costumes and fashion in Sweden. Most of the objects and photographs in this unique exhibition on NK’s French Couture Atelier are shown for the first time. The exhibition is primarily based on the extensive NK archives, which has been kept at Nordiska museet since the 1970s. They include tailor-made garments, documentation, logbooks and photographs of fashion shows and the operations.

Included in the exhibition are about fifty garments that have been borrowed from the public and other museums. Via an appeal in collaboration with NK and Bukowskis auction rooms during autumn 2019, Nordiska museet were able to source new garments and hitherto unknown stories.

 

 

The whole story in a lavish fashion book

The exhibition is shown in conjunction with the launch of a lavish book (Swedish only) on NK’s French Couture Atelier by Susanna Strömquist, fashion critic, cultural journalist and guest curator at the Museum. The book (Swedish only) and the exhibition are the result of a major research task and collecting effort that contribute an unexplored part of the history of fashion in the Nordic countries.

 


 

Paris of the North – NK’s French Couture Atelier 1902–1966 starts on 17 September 2021 at Nordiska museet.
The exhibition and the book with the same name are a collaboration between Nordiska museet and Susanna Strömquist with support from Nordiska Kompaniet (NK).

 

 


Key terms

Haute couture is a term surrounded by myth, but it also has a very precise definition prescribed by law. In simple terms it is defined as hand-crafted Paris fashion. A haute couture garment is designed by the fashion house designer, made-to-measure and hand sewn – only in Paris. The original garments purchased by NK’s French Atelier in Paris are, in other words, haute couture. 

Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture is a trade association that decides what fashion houses are entitled to the use the term “haute couture”. The criteria include regular shows of original creations during the Paris Fashion Week, which is held twice a year, in January and July.


Couture is a term that describes a unique garment that has been designed and made-to-measure by hand, either by a Paris fashion designer that does not meet the requirements of the Chambre Syndicale list, or that has been made at a location other than Paris. The reproductions that were hand-sewn at NK’s French Atelier were couture.

Prêt à porter is a term that describes factory-made creations by fashion designers in standard sizes. It is a more accessible and less expensive form of designer fashion that was launched in the 1960s and which took over the trend setting role of haute couture worldwide.

 

Exhibition highlights

1
Balenciaga dress

Paris Original: Balenciaga

Purchased by Karin Ellhammar (born 1936).

Delivered 1960.

The iconic Amphora dress from Cristóbal Balenciaga in pink silk faille was part of the sample collection at NK’s French Atelier. Karin Ellhammar’s mother was a friend of Kurt Jacobsson, head of NK's French Atelier. He offered her to buy the dress at the end of the season. She wore it at the opening of the restaurant Operakällaren in 1961. By then it had appeared in the press a number of times, for example worn by the wife of the head of NK, Maj Kalderén. 

Object: loan from Röhsska museet: RKM 40-1999

2
Silver Lamé Sheath Dress

Silver Lamé Sheath Dress

Ordered by Karin Ekelund Sachs (1913 – 1976), celebrated actress during the 1940s and Swedish Radio drama’s first female producer in 1961. Married to the NK director Ragnar Sachs, son of NK’s founder, Josef Sachs. A regular customer for decades. Also known as “NK’s First Lady”.

Delivered May 1965.

Silver lamé evening gown in shifting silver tones. Draped over one shoulder. Made-to-measure for a dinner at the Royal Palace.

Object Nordiska museet: NM.0303210

3
Film Costumes for Greta Garbo

Film Costumes for Greta Garbo

When Kurt Jacobsson and Pelle Lundgren, heads of NK's French Atelier, engage Greta Gustafsson (1905 – 1990) in 1923 as a model at the Atelier she attends drama school in Stockholm. Shortly afterwards, the atelier makes her historic costumes (designed by Ingrid Günter) for Mauritz Stiller’s The Saga of Gösta Berling – her breakthrough as Greta Garbo. She moves to Hollywood, but she stays in contact with NK’s French Atelier. When in Stockholm, she likes to make a discreet visit to the salon, concealed behind dark glasses.

Object: loan from Swedish Film Institute: 2:44.