Ella Swenson wants to bring “old world craftsmanship” back to fashion.
In 2010, Swenson started Ella Sven, a clothing company, and launched a companion fashion line in the early spring of 2012.
While the company is based in Detroit, all clothes are sold online. The current collection features reworked and original vintage pieces with a focus on dresses, which Swenson calls, “an Ella Sven signature.”
The company name originates from Swenson’s family. “Ella” being her grandmother and “Sven” from her family’s last name before arriving at Ellis Island.
Swenson attributes her inspiration for the company to her days of antiquing with her mother as a child. “(My mother) always managed to find (her) way to the vintage clothes and gowns,” and it wasn’t long before she had amassed a collection.
She said she realized as an adult that the vintage clothes “were totally useless and un-wearable.” So she pulled out her sewing machine and went to work.
“There’s something so incredible about vintage — the details that are there you just can’t find today,” Swenson said.
Today, Swenson continues to shop at vintage and thrift stores, as well as estate sales to find clothes for her line. Additionally, customers will ship clothes to be revamped.
Though Swenson previously spent more time sewing the clothes herself, she now spends more time designing and planning the reworking of each garment. Local gown-makers are then contracted to add beading, buttons, lace and sequins on the garments. Each item can take a range of time to complete, depending on its condition. Swenson said she once did more than 15 hours of beadwork for a garment.
All of the dresses are one-of-a-kind due to Swenson’s distaste for the fashion world’s mass production. Swenson said she values unique clothing because “that’s something very special to have, that one piece that reflects you.”
The dresses range from $55 to $550. Despite the high prices of some of the pieces, Swenson said a college student would still be a great customer for her.
“I’ve been a college student before, I’ve been a career woman where I’ve been making money and can pick out whatever I wanted. I wanted to have something that was affordable for everyone,” Swenson explained.
She relies on a growing staff to help run Ella Sven, which includes gown makers, photographers, models and interns.
LSA sophomore Anna Fuller began interning with Ella Sven a year ago. She mainly assists with styling on photo shoots.
Fuller said through working with Ella Sven she “has a whole new appreciation for reworked art,” adding that she enjoys working with Swenson.
“You can really see her passion for it and it’s really driven my passion,” Fuller said. “Seeing someone who’s so genuinely interested and dedicated to what she’s doing is really inspirational.”
University alum Sarah Gibson acts as creative director for Ella Sven, which involves creating the ideas for the photo shoots and designing the sets.
Moreover, Gibson helped initiate Ella Sven’s photo shoots in unpopulated areas of Detroit.
“You see the abandoned building, see the beautiful molding and you transform it to make it beautiful,” Gibson said.
Swenson added that the city serves as a great background for her garments because they fit the “tousled glamour” of the clothing line.
“There’s something really offbeat about the fact that we’re shooting in abandoned Detroit, in buildings that are falling apart,” Swenson said. “There’s something disheveled and distorted about that.”
Though Swenson plans to continue shooting her line in Detroit, she doesn’t plan to stay in Michigan forever. Her long-term goal is to open a store in New York and eventually supply other stores with a similar vision.
Hoping to build a “fashion empire,” she said: “You can have good-quality merchandise that’s responsibly made for the same price as clothes that aren’t.” She calls this idea “fashion for a cause.”
Her more immediate plans are to add nearly 1,000 new items online, she said. While most current garments are smaller sizes, Swenson said that the new items will range in size and style.
Whether it’s in her impending collection or any future garments, Swenson explained she will keep the clothes “at a high fashion level where it doesn’t look recycled.” Through her use of old-world craftsmanship, Swenson wants to redefine the fashion industry.
“The fact that there could be a company that offers everything, and at the high fashion level with old world craftsmanship, that’s what I want,” Swenson said.