Monday, October 14, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch and the Fairy Tale of the SwedArt Band

Entrepreneur Margareta Lidskog is no stranger to Hollywood events, and her line of bracelets/leather bands now graces the wrists of the entertainment industry elite. But when Benedict Cumberbatch was frequently seen wearing a silver “Swedish band . . . my friend gave me ages ago . . . for good luck,” her business – and by extension, the popularity of traditional Lapland artists who make this culture-based art – gained new fashion stardom and a fandom of their own.

In many ways, Margareta Lidskog’s success story seems like a modern fairy tale. In the past few months, her business, SwedArt, has exploded in online popularity and, consequently, international sales. Her inadvertent benefactor is rising international star, Benedict Cumberbatch – the man recently touted as the Toronto International Film Festival’s “It” man starring in opening gala The Fifth Estate (as well as two other highly anticipated films) and the forthcoming recipient of BAFTA Los Angeles’ Britannia award as British Artist of the Year. When Cumberbatch was frequently photographed wearing what he described to a reporter as a "Swedish band, a silver band my friend gave me ages ago, which is for good luck,” his fan base took notice. Fan sites like Cumberbatchweb discussed the actor’s fashion statement. Fans began asking what he was wearing on his wrist and, more important for Lidskog’s business, where they could get one. Word traveled rapidly throughout fandom about the small company specializing in unique, wearable cultural art.

Lidskog and her friends/partners in Lapland collaborate regularly and design jewelry together. The business side of her creative company, including jaunts to Hollywood, takes up most of Lidskog’s time these days, especially since the flood of Cumberbatch-inspired orders. To assist her, in the past two years she has trained an “invaluable young lady who lives near the Arctic Circle,” but “designing new styles is [still] something I love doing. We are a small team, and we work very well together.”

These Sami artists follow traditional methods to craft each handmade piece, adding, for example, silver beads or swirled patterns of pewter thread to the vegetable-tanned reindeer leather. (Lidskog reminds me that reindeer are not an endangered species, and “everything from the animal is traditionally used for different purposes.” She also has used alternate materials for bracelets requested by vegans.) Lidskog takes online orders of items listed in her catalog, but the B12 Sami band in black leather is the one that Cumberbatch’s fans, now called the CumberCollective, want to wear. From her home base in Boston, Lidskog makes bracelets as often as time permits and forwards some orders to the artists back in Sweden.

Making jewelry is more than the Lapland artisans’ livelihood; their art makes its wearers aware of the historic significance of the friendship band and the culture it represents. Lidskog includes a printed history with each purchase. This document explains that the “indigenous Sami (Laplanders) have lived in northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia for 10,000 years” and today “17,000 Sami live in Sweden but only 3,000 still have reindeer herding as their livelihood . . . . Skilled Sami artisans have been embroidering with spun pewter wires on reindeer leather and textile for hundreds of years.”

During the past few years, Lidskog has begun introducing Sami jewelry to Hollywood through gift lounges preceding important industry ceremonies. She notes that “there are gift lounges prior to all the major film festivals and all the major award events in a bunch of countries. Some are held over three days and others just one day. After my company did the Emmys in 2010, I have kept getting invitations” to showcase the jewelry line around the world--“places like Dubai, Paris, Cannes, Toronto, and Los Angeles.” Although larger companies with bigger budgets for promotions can more easily afford to send representatives to far-flung festivals, SwedArt, like many companies represented in gift lounges, is smaller, “and organizers like to present new, cool, up-and-coming, and unique products from small companies.”

Such industry-related gatherings are “held by many different companies, often started by people who have been in the entertainment industry for years and are well connected with actors, producers, agents, stylists, and media. Some have worked with events planning for celebs for a while or are still doing that as well. Without connections, it´s probably hard to attract the right kinds of celebs, because agents only want their clients seen at the best organized and best publicized events.”

To date, Lidskog has accepted two U.S. invitations to gift lounges scheduled before major awards shows--the Golden Globes and Emmys. These occasions are often “exclusive in the sense that only nominees, presenters, well-known stylists, and top media [are invited].” Often a charity element is attached to the gift lounge, “so we were required to gift a certain number of products to charity. I think the organizers of by-invitation-only gift lounges often invite around 500,” although fewer may RSVP to attend, and some famous guests may simply show up.

As might be expected, gift giving to celebrities can become expensive. The hierarchy within gift lounges begins at the low end with a company’s product being included in a gift bag. Lidskog explains that, in the events in which she has participated, the organizers suggested that a business send at least 100 products, “plus pay a few thousand dollars, [but] there is no personal representation” accompanying the merchandise. The next higher level of product placement “is usually a table presentation, but no company representation is allowed.” From there, the next levels include both a table and one or more representatives. Tables “with a rep or owner present often start at $5,000. After that, it´s a bigger space [and] several reps, and it can cost $15,000 to $40,000 for a big sponsor.”

Lidskog managed to negotiate down the fees so that having a table and two representatives would be affordable for her small business. She learned that it helps to have a unique, highly coveted product to display, because organizers may consider negotiating prices if they really want to include something new and cool. She also had help from her two children, who work within the Los Angeles entertainment industry.

“When A-listers arrived at my table, I would whip out a more exclusive bracelet from my extensive collection of over 100 different styles. I had a nice assortment displayed on my table, but those were teasers and for display mostly for media and stylists. I was able to stay within my budget for how much I gave away, and I was proud of that. My kids were a big help because they were excellent at guiding me about how ‘big’ the celebrity approaching my table was so I could prepare for their visit to my table.” Lidskog admits that “I´m terrible at remembering names and who was in what movie or show,” and her children’s assistance was much appreciated.

When one of the famous approached Lidskog’s table, “an escort introduced the guest to me”. Usually that escort was carrying “a huge bag that was filling up with swag. Some [guests] even came with their own cameramen, and I was interviewed on camera several times.” Being close to the stars comes with rules, however, and Lidskog could not ask a Hollywood heartthrob for a phone number. “At the Emmy event, we were strictly forbidden to ask the nominees and presenters for their contact info, but we were encouraged to ask media reps and stylists for their business cards.” Photo ops, on the other hand, were expected. “Each event had three to five professional photographers covering the tables to make sure at least one photo was taken of each guest with the product. We were not guaranteed to get a photo of each guest with our product, but I did, and I was happy about that. The guests are very well aware of the fact that our payback and purpose is to get their photo with our product.”

Lidskog found that the majority of famous people wanting to check out the jewelry were “easy to chat with” and “friendly and relaxed. Some wanted us to be in the picture as well, and there were many laughs. If a celeb or important guest said something I could use later for marketing purposes, I asked my assistant to write it down.”

Publicizing SwedArt is key to her job, but Lidskog simply gets a kick out of seeing guests enjoy the jewelry. A benefit of these bracelets/bands is that they can be custom sized, and Lidskog loves “meeting people with tiny or huge wrists, because they always have trouble finding bracelets to fit their wrists. I love seeing their happy faces when I tell them I can custom make any size and that I might even have their size in stock. At the Emmy event, the smile of talented Quinton Aaron, from the movie The Blind Side, was priceless when I placed an XXL bracelet around his wrist that was a perfect fit.”

Candy Spelling also “said she loved” the bracelet she received. “She asked very sweetly if she should hold up her hand so that my SwedArt sign would be visible in the picture”. Such encounters not only are good for business but create lasting memories. Lidskog says she fondly recalls that meeting “every time I take my grandkids to the playground near Bel Air,” a few minutes away from the house where Spelling used to live. (Another “pretty special” memory is “a kiss on the check” from “charming and handsome” Eric Roberts.)

Among the company’s famous clientele is Sheryl Crow, who Lidskog met before a concert six years ago. Crow bought several bracelets, which she can be seen wearing on tour. Look closely on television and in movies, too, for more SwedArt. Lidskog “designed custom pieces for Drea de Matteo, worn in Desperate Housewives,” and Rachel McAdams wears SwedArt in The Vow.

Then the CumberCollective arrived. “For a small company like mine, I felt that I had been very lucky to be able to have that many celebs wear SwedArt jewelry already. . . . And then along comes Benedict Cumberbatch,” and his fans “are even more excited” and appreciative of the bands.

Before this year’s Emmys, Lidskog considered sending Sami bracelets with a friend who would be working with gift bags in the hope that Emmy-nominated Cumberbatch might visit the gift lounge and learn more about the band he has so elegantly, if unexpectedly made more famous. She decided against relying on serendipity and learned later that Cumberbatch did not make it to this year’s ceremony because he is filming The Imitation Game in England. Nevertheless, Lidskog would like for Cumberbatch to know more about the band he so often has worn in public and contacted the actor’s London agency to present a thank-you gift of additional styles of Sami art.

Despite meeting A-listers and knowing they wear her bracelets/bands at home as well as in public or on screen, Lidskog is humble when discussing her business. “My company is just me, a couple of Swedish artisan friends, and my husband helping out”. Nevertheless, she estimates she has sold “thousands of bracelets to more 30 countries, maybe even close to 40 now. Orders are coming in on my computer around the clock, seven days a week. Right now, it´s a lot of ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’ bracelet/band orders,” but the business also benefits from repeat customers pleased with their initial purchase.

In addition, the celebrity factor plays a role: “I do know for a fact that many of my customers are impressed, intrigued, and even feel part of the excitement around my participating and being able to tell stories about the celebs I met in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. I love sharing stories”. Still, much of the company’s success can be attributed to “the passion and pride I feel for my bracelets and the ‘journey’. Even people who have never seen or heard about these tribal bracelets will often buy one after they have stopped at my table at a show, listened to me talk about their interesting origin, and heard me explain why so many celebrities shown [on my] posters wear SwedArt.”

Like most fairy tales, this story has a happy ending for everyone. Fans from Pac-Asia, North America, and Europe now sport matching bands that are becoming a tangible symbol of their fondness for Cumberbatch. Their wrist art also marks them as fans of SwedArt--and supporters of artists thousands of miles away.