Sweden Unlimited. The downtown digital agency located in the heart Soho attracted my eye with a first-ever Marc Jacobs Daisy immersive take-over inside an Uber.
I sat down with the founders, Alex and Leja Kress, and discussed everything from fashion to data.
Let's dive right into it!
Q: I'm intrigued by how you started. Could you tell me about the electronic pop band and what it was like in NYC then?
Leja: In the mid-90s, Alex and I met Richard who is my husband. The three of us were approaching 30 and thought about what was it that we wanted to do. Richard was already in a band called The Nerve and Volume, and Alex and I were completely obsessed with music when we were teenagers, bands like The Cure and New Order, The Smiths, the cool English bands.
I bought an old 80s Casio keyboard, Alex bought a guitar with a bunch of fuzz pedals, Richard didn’t really know what he wanted to play because he always was more of a singer, but we found an old vintage Casio digital guitar which had nylon strings and a built-in drum machine. We just started playing and we were kind of terrible,
Alex: Terrible, kind of good…
Leja: We were all thinking about the music that we were interested in the 80s. Not like everyone in New York was talking about this sound, just everyone was on the same page thinking about New Order and about electro.
Leja: There were bands like Actress, Airy Weapon. There was a band called Russia which is funny. When we started our band we needed a name. When we started our band we needed a name. We knew we wanted to start with an “S” because all of our favorite bands started with an S, like Stereolab, Spiritualize, Spacemen 3, Spy Drum, The Smiths…we gotta be in the S section and a good friend of ours, Jack kind of looked at us and said you guys kind of look like Sweden, and it just clicked and that became our band name.
We never really took it that seriously. We performed at art galleries, fashion shows, and all the local clubs. It was always much more of an art project than a serious band.
Q: What kinds of cultural shifts did you see in New York?
Leja: We have been here since 1999. In the 90s, when we started playing and going out a lot we definitely saw a big shift. That was when the gentrification started. I think that the late 90s were the last time New York really had a soul.
Alex: It was a golden time.
Leja: I always think of Y2K, it was the end of the century, the Millenium.
Alex: I’m not sure if it was that we turned 30 that year..
Leja: We shortly after got married, started having kids that we really got serious with our agency but maybe that's the way we look at it. But I think that there was a bigger shift happening then.
Leja: The Internet was starting as well, and we were really early adopters of it. It seemed like the world became smaller. We didn’t need to seek out your sub-cultures so much anymore. The world was brought to you so maybe there was less of a sense of needing an identity. You could identify with people in Japan or in England very easily with technology, whereas before you had to find it, locally.
Q: It's incredible that your agency grew with the early days of the Internet. How did you become an agency and work in luxury and fashion?
Leja: We went to NYU in ’93, graduated there weren’t any jobs. It was a really tough time to be in NY to make a living. Our parents would call us and ask, “Did you get a job yet”.
Alex: Learn to type!
Leja: We were like ‘what?’ We didn’t have computers. We wrote all of our papers on word processors and we would shoot pool every day and kind of complain and say we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.
In the mid-90s we met Richard and slowly started learning about Photoshop and we bought our first computer and we got our first email account, which was an AOL account but this was really before there was anything else and we just saw the world starting to shift a little bit and it was very exciting to us. When we graduated there weren’t as many creative opportunities as there are now, so you kind of just struggled as an artist.
Alex: You also found those like-minded people. There were so many cool artists and designers.
Leja: The three of us just knew a lot of fashion designers, really just because of our social lives, the way in that Richard, our creative director, and my husband, was that he was part of a collective called Bernadette Corporation, which was a group of fashion designers, artists, and what they did was they put on fashion shows and art shows. Everything was much more about bringing people together and experiences, rather than just a website or a blog. So we, Alex and I modeled for a lot of those shows, so that’s how we all met, just being in that scene together and as we saw, you know we got really excited about technology right away, and we saw that internet was ugly, we are not going there.
Leja: But it was actually Richard first, he had no background in this, he actually had no design background, he was really an artist. And he thought, what if a website could look good, why can’t it look good? So he started teaching himself how to start a website. I taught myself how to code, I picked up Dreamweaver, at macro media coding platform at the time.
Leja: So we suddenly had a little roster of cool young fashion designers who needed websites. We really were the only ones you could only go to in New York. There really wasn’t anyone else. Alex joined us about a year into it. And we were just like 3 people working out of our apartment. The thing was we had a connection with these designers. They thought well, they get me so I think they can do this for me.
Leja: A lot of them were afraid of technology because of the associations they had like the IT guy, someone who doesn’t understand them creatively, we did, but we also got interested in the technology of it.
Alex: A lot of these brands have never thought of doing ecommerce. We would just help them with all of that stuff. How do i crop it? What’s dpi made of? Photoshop. We helped them check their email and get online? We loved being those problem solvers for creatives.
Q: What are some exciting projects that you can share?
Leja: We have been really interested in changing up the verticals we work with. We launched a site for a network of fertility clinics, called Prelude Fertility. That was really exciting because the branding company that was working with them approached us because they specifically wanted a lifestyle and fashion take on the fertility business which is known for being very depressing experience and very confusing and shameful, like a lot of women feel shameful in going through with that process.
Leja: What they are looking to do and really change the way people think of it as a really positive experience anymore of a lifestyle choice. they approached us to do all the design and content creation to uplift that medical experience, into a being more a lifestyle experience.
We did different types of copy, photography, and showed different types of family, from gay couples to women who have chosen to put off childbearing, lifestyle photography that is represented and not cheesy or off-putting, we are really proud of the launch.
Q: What is the key ingredient to winning new business in fashion and lifestyle brands?
Leja: Focus on common sense.
We [at Sweden Unlimited] are very vibey, we understand nuance and emotion. You have to make that emotional connection as a brand or you’re going to die. If you don’t mean something to people there’s absolutely no future for you. Using your gut and instinct is overlooked a lot the time.
Alex: At the same time, it's good to have someone from a different discipline and apply analytical thinking to that brand. Brands are becoming more analytic with data and users more so now than before because they have only relied on gut thinking.
Leja: The dream person is someone who has both - who can craft an analytical and an emotional connection to users and with brands.
Q: Thinking towards the future of a Sweden Unlimited, what is the legacy that you want to leave behind?
Leja: We have spent so much thinking about in caring about the projects we are doing that we often lose sight of it. We don’t need to be as involved. We were pioneers that we want to be. We did pave the way for agencies to be really focused on fashion and lifestyle. We are women in digital. We are 'women in digital' even before it became a hashtag.
As women in digital in the 90s, it didn’t even cross my mind that we were starting an agency, my mother was successful in interior design. It just felt very natural. We have always had a voice.
Alex: Plus we don't have ESP, so we learn to move on from mistakes we made. You can’t get them all right, you move on. You try.
Below are more photos from their office in Soho.