Spiral racks, a table with jewelry and accessories strewn upon it, champagne stemware atop a marble bar. Jeanette Svensk Li's Mercer Island showroom is like a dream closet but with, thankfully, more bubbly. Equally effervescent is Svensk Li. The Sweden-born designer has made an impactful impression on the Seattle-area fashion scene since 2015, when she debuted Cute Like Mad at the Bellevue Collection's Independent Designer Runway Show—which she won this year, by the way. But her world wasn't always all about fashion events and collections. In fact, it wasn't explicitly about fashion at all.
Long before Svensk Li learned to refine her design skills, she'd done about everything else. "I'm one of those people who can't stop learning." Clocking in at over six feet tall, she was a model back in the day and saw a glimpse of the fashion world's "hectic, crazy side." She spent time in the tech sector for a while before going back to school—not to study design, not yet anyway—at the University College of London where she studied Egyptian archaeology. After that she moved to San Francisco but commuted to LA for small acting roles. Then it was back to Sweden, where she opened a pilates studio in Stockholm. Eventually Svensk Li and her family landed in Washington in 2008. Shortly thereafter, she was ready for another new challenge: design school. (When she's not designing, you might catch Svensk Li picking up Mandarin or Italian or freshening up her French in class at Bellevue College.)
"Designing has always been inherent to me," she says. "As a person, that's who I am." When she was young she'd have ideas floating around in her head, which turned into commissioning work from her mother. Eventually her mom taught her how to sew too. But it wasn't until much later at a bygone fashion academy in Ballard back around 2011 that Svensk Li knew she wanted to pursue design professionally. "I always have a thousand ideas in my head and I realized I needed the schooling to understand how to harness all that," she explains, "because seeing something abstract in your brain...you have to be able to translate that [into] something concrete."
Svensk Li's made those visions very concrete indeed and spun thought into silks, viscose, and a myriad of other luxe fabrics for her contemporary women's brand Cute Like Mad, which is best described as refined casual. Her designs flex from day to night with the easy addition of a statement necklace or heels. A backless blouse, obscured with a blazer by day, transforms into something evening-appropriate in a snap. In terms of color, the designer adheres to the familiar adage: One can never go wrong with classic black. Trends and Color of the Year, they come and go, but black is forever chic. And while "just black" may seem simple on the surface, Svenski Li's way with draping, silhouette, and fabric make Cute Like Mad pieces incredibly lovable and very wearable. Yes, including leather—which, like black, is always "in."
The thing about Cute Like Mad clothes and Svensk Li's own fashion ethos is that it's not only about what looks good and feels good, it's about what is good. "I need people to understand good quality and appreciate what they're buying so they'll be careful," she says. "I think we're so nonchalant about our clothes. We don't treat them well.... A hundred years ago we didn't have that many pieces of clothing so we really took care and didn't wash it every five seconds or throw it away after a few times." Amen. Svensk Li, rightly, wants her designs to last in her clients' closets, not in a landfill. Beyond fashion's waste problem, among others, she recognizes the industry's labor failings. That's why she works with a manufacturer in New York who treats its workers well. They're all adults, they get to go home at night, they're paid. "It's one of those things that I burn for." When consumers say they'd rather pay $50 for a dress, not $300 (don't we all?), well, says Svensk Li, "then they don't understand that somebody is actually not getting paid down the line."
All of that passion, from inception to execution, manifested itself at September's runway show in which IDRS alumni returned to show off more seasoned collections. And Cute Like Mad received top marks from an audience of fashion pros and fans alike. It certainly comes as no surprise. As Cute Like Mad models strutted down the catwalk, what struck me most was how everything was so accessible. Fashion is ambitious and aspirational and so often wonderfully fantastical—don't get me wrong, asymmetrical tulle ballgowns have their place—but what Cute Like Mad achieves is the ability to reach people. Most anyone could imagine themselves in a denim shift or knee-length leather skirt, or pink wool wrap with pockets! It doesn't require a stretch of the imagination: Oh, I'd totally wear that to work, to dinner, etc. And sometimes, especially in an industry that adheres to certain rules about who can wear what and when, people want designer wear that isn't so avant-garde—and I don't mean pedestrian. I mean people want to feel cute, perhaps like mad, but at the very least...cute as hell.