“I always thought my life was like slipping on a banana.”
I met Ursula in 2013 in Stockholm, on a studio shoot for the swede shirt maker Eton. I was then
doing their video campaigns. Ursula was styling the project. I remember the moment she entered
the studio – all in black, wide-brimmed hat, long oversize shirt, wide, ankle-revealing pants, men’s
shoes. A shooting set is a sort of a parallel universe; creative people moving in space, doing what
they’re best at, seeking, soaking in and making beauty. Being the intense introvert that I am, my
camera is a shield and at the same time a medium, protecting me from the world opening a gate to
its heart. While there, it’s easy to identify my allies. Ursula was captivating, and soon we started
chatting. At the end of the day, I thanked her for “sharing time and space with me,” which made her
laugh. Over the next couple of years, we traveled around the world together twice a year to shoot
Eton’s campaigns. I am not sure we ever became friends, but every moment I spent with her was
unforgettable. I admire her imagination, her personal touch in style and styling, and her feather-light
Fast forward to an overcast summer day in Stockholm, July 2019, we meet again. We had kept in touch through social media and stayed loosely aware of each other’s work. Ursula, who started as a fashion model at the age of 20, became a stylist shortly after and made a name for herself in the Scandinavian fashion scene. Now, at 53, she is in front of the camera again, modeling.
It is normal for friends to ask “how are you doing?” after not seeing each other for a long time, but when these friends are creative freelancers, the question often vaguely refers to one’s work-life situation, since in that world the two often leak into one another. Despite the opportunity to portray herself as a successful star in this interview, Ursula opens with a confession of her recent downtimes, the same ones every freelancer knows all too well. Over the next two hours, the fear of aging and becoming obsolete will also hovers above us, but the story in its whole, told by Ursula, doesn’t leave room to feel pity. Things are basically going just well and everything falls right in place.
We start with an update on the circumstances that brought her back to modeling. “I used to get random proposals to model, something I haven’t done in 30 years, and I didn’t know what to do with it, so in the spring of last year I went to Nisch model agency and asked for their advice, they said ‘we don’t usually take part-time models, but go ahead and take some pictures of yourself and send it to us’, and so I did. A couple of months later, while on a summer holiday in Italy, I got an sms from the agent at Nisch saying ‘Balenciaga wants you for their next show’. I was laughing out loud to my boyfriend. I could hardly take it seriously and didn’t believe it would really happen. Then in autumn I went to Paris for the casting and I got to do a show and it was fantastic!” After this runway show, Ursula was casted again for the spring campaign and then again for the fall, to be photographed by Jean-Pierre Attal. In between, she was shot for one editorial on Masses Magazine, with photographer CG Watkins, and another one on Indie magazine by Driu Crilly and Tiago Martel.
“The Balenciaga team was so nice! So interesting how they work. Everyone is so kind. Really good vibes.” Ursula’s name-dropping routine seems to be motivated purely by a desire to give credit to the people she admires, who helped her, or just did a great job. She seems ultra-aware and appreciative of the interdependencies in what we usually call “the network”. It is great to be Ursula’s friend, I note to myself.
Ursula keeps pointing at how one thing led to another in her life, without having a very clear goal or a major force pushing her to achieve something. “I always thought my life was like slipping on a banana. This is how it always felt to me, although in fact there got to be some sort of a conscious path. I always got to places by being open. My strongest tool has always been my own intuition, the feeling for what works and what doesn’t. It is very individual and it’s always very easy for me to tell. I know when it’s right for me. I don’t put a lot of thought into it. It’s pure feeling. This sensibility is my only compass.”
“I never thought I’d be a stylist. I wanted to be an actress. And I wanted to be a photographer. When I was 14 I started to buy this magazine called Et Cetera, and they published works by Christer Strömholm and Anders Petersen. I loved that so much. I started school for photography and quickly got bored by all their irrelevant assignments, so I just quit after half a year and started to work in a second hand store. I was working since I was 16. Never went to school.”
“So why did you eventually choose styling of all things?” I ask. My question makes her smile and take a long pause to find an answer. Eventually, she says: “I’ve always liked this game of dressing up, from early on when I was a girl, putting clothes on and then going out, showing up. I used to go on vacations with 2-3 suitcases full of clothes, and I was changing 3 times a day. I was simply passionate about clothes. Not so much fashion at that time. just clothes.” She is telling me more about her experiences after starting to model again: “So interesting to come and do this as a grown up. When I was 20 it was all different, I was anxious about so many things: Do I fit in? Do they think I’m sweet
enough, or cool enough..? trying to play all possible roles but being yourself. Now, going there, knowing who you are, you can just enjoy it. It’s suddenly becoming a very easy thing to do because I know who I am and I can’t be anyone else than me. Take it or leave it. And I can’t even try to ‘look pretty’ because I’m not a little girl anymore. That makes it so comfortable. I’m comfortable with myself, who I am and how I look, with my lines, I’m comfortable in my body.”
“No aging anxiety whatsoever?” I ask.
“It helps having role models around, seeing other women aging gracefully” she replies. “I really hope to not have to interfere, although I totally respect and understand why women do that. And of course, the moment I started modeling again, I started to think if I should start using this or that cream, which I never have before! No sunscreen, no cream… I’m lifting weights. cross training, once or twice a week, but that’s not new. It’s just this little devil in your head that asks you to start and look at things that didn’t matter before. So yes, actually it can fuck your head. It’s very interesting. I’ve always been skinny, but now I start to think if I should take more care. I never noticed or cared when I gained a couple of kilos, it never mattered. So yes, I deal with it, but I don’t want to change anything. I don’t want to look different.”
I ask her what she thinks has changed, objectively, in professional modeling during the last 33 years. “I think the biggest difference, and that depends of course where, but for me as a Swedish girl – girls today are a little bit more secured and aware of their rights, especially after #metoo,” she replies. “Back then, I was often advised to go and hang out with some old men (probably 30 and 40 years old who looked really old to me) in order to get jobs” she says in disgust.
“I don’t think that girls are seriously asked to sit on somebody’s lap to get jobs today. Or at least, it’s less of a norm. But it is really matter of the last couple of years. Otherwise I assume it’s pretty much the same.” Social media is one element that started to play a role in the last decade. We spend time dwelling on this topic. She says “Models are now obliged to be active on social media as a part of their work for the agency, this is probably another thing that has changed. But that’s not special to models. Artists, football players… they all have to do it. It’s like everybody is so “into business” doing PR, nobody has fun anymore!” she says laughing. We are sitting in her apartment’s kitchen, where she moved recently. It’s a smaller apartment than the one she had before, which she shares with her 15 year old son, Aron. It’s hard to ignore her cat Karlsson, meowing in the background in protest. “He wants to go out. We’ll take him later to the little park across the street. I want to show you my little farming bed”, but we keep on talking. Her place is beautifully curated, yet feels effortless, warm, and livable. No signs of OCD. Objects laying in display: a toy car which was the first present she gave to her son, a little shrine for her mom who passed away, with her photograph, a neckless, a cross (“she was catholic”), and her mother’s watch. “My mom was an Ascéte. Everything in our house was clean, tidy and perfect. I’m not like that. I love things but always things with meaning, things that have stories. My parents divorced when I was 6. I never really got to know my dad but I suspect that I inherited some of his own qualities in regard to aesthetics, not my mom’s” She speaks about her home and her general approach to styling in a similar manner. The word “Feelings” often comes up. “I need to feel it’s right, or even perfect in that sense, but I don’t like the look of perfection. I like when things have soul. I want to see feelings in the clothes, in fabrics. It’s all more than just things, they are all there to give me energy, otherwise these things are useless and boring.” Ursula is now the fashion director in Scandinavian Man, a new, thick, ad-free, bi-annual magazine, where she says she gets a lot of freedom to do what she wants, and she loves it. Because our joint work had also been related to men’s fashion, I ask about her personal affiliation to the subject. “I always liked men’s clothes. Even back when I was 15 buying second hand, men’s shoes, oversized men’s pants and shirts. I always had men’s clothes on and never thought about it.” I ask her why. “It’s kind of weird” she’s saying, “but I feel very feminine in men’s clothes. When I have big man’s pants I feel ‘petite’, feminine and comfortable. I also really like the quality and texture of men’s clothes.” In 1990, a year after she started to work as an assistant in Elle magazine, she was asked by Café magazine to style a men’s suits story in LA. Michel Comte photographing Harry Dean Stanton
“I was really unsure as I had no professional experience with it, but I put it together, sent it over to LA.. That was my first fashion story. They totally broke it down and I was furious, but I guess it was still cool. From there on I started to have more of an eye on men’s styling.” “But I also love feminine clothes!” She says. “There’s definitely a little princess in me. I have these two sections in my closet.”
“I always want to develop and do things differently, but I kind of end up doing the same thing in a slightly different way. It’s like falling in love with the same kind of pants, seeing this one on sale from Comme des Garçons, with this thick brushed twill and thinking “I’ve got to have it” even though I have 5 or 6 similar chino’s in my closet” she laughs. “Some things you just love and a little obsessed with.” I try to ask something about the future, where things are going for her, personally and professionally. She says “When I was younger I always put my relationships in first place. I was hiding. I don’t feel I need to hide anymore. I’m very secure being me, and I know I’m good at what I do… but I always had a hard time stepping forward. I feel it’s time for me to be present.”
Interview and Photos SHAI LEVY