ICELAND HAD FEW DESIGNERS AND NO FASHION PRESENCE UNTIL THE GFC ROCKED THE TINY COUNTRY AND SPURRED NEW ENTERPRISE. NOW THE REYKJAVIK FASHION FESTIVAL IS SETTING AN EXAMPLE IN SUSTAINABILITY FOR THE GLOBAL INDUSTRY.
Reykjavik Fashion Festival is nothing like its fashion week counterparts in London, Paris or New York – nor does it want to be. As Iceland’s first real step towards a structured fashion industry, RFF has its own ambitions, and top of its list is to lead the international scene as the world’s first sustainable fashion week. Selection criteria for RFF’s six runway shows this year required brands not only to demonstrate creativity and the ability to show a full collection, but to prove that their designs were built on environmentally conscious pillars – an approach aimed at influencing how brands evolve, rather than simply showcasing designers’ work.
“My biggest dream for RFF is it becomes the leading fashion festival of sustainable causes,” says CEO Kolfinna Von Arnardóttir. “We have a loud voice in the Icelandic fashion industry, so when we decide to be conscious thinkers and encourage sustainability it is a big statement and affects the development [of the fashion industry here] in a positive way.”
The fact that Iceland has a fashion week at all might be news to some. While you’re probably familiar with music exports Björk, Sigur Rós and GusGus, this small island just off the Arctic Circle, population 320,000, is much less well known in design circles than its Nordic neighbours Sweden and Denmark. Many of its emerging brands are also extremely new. Of the six that showed this year – Anita Hirlekar, Inklaw, Another Creation, Cintamani, Magnea and Myrka – all except technical outwear brand Cintamani were founded in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when a lack of opportunities prompted designers to strike out on their own.
Reykjavik Fashion Festival was established in the same climate of austerity in 2009, which goes some way to explaining its start-up agility and renegade ideals. Eschewing twice-annual autumn/winter and spring/ summer fixtures, RFF holds a single festival in the Icelandic capital each March, avoiding a scheduling conflict with other fashion weeks and empowering designers to show whatever they want.
RFF is extremely accessible. Rather than limit attendance to a fixed roster of celebs, socialites and industry folks, a portion of the 600 seats per night for its runway shows, held this year over two consecutive evenings at Reykjavik’s harbour-facing Harpa convention centre, were available for public purchase. From the VIP launch party thrown by American social media magnate Oliver Luckett at his private home to the closing event at Iceland’s first microbrewery Bryggjan Brugghús in the up-and-coming harbour area, events had a strongly inclusive, community feel, with designers, editors, visitors and Iceland’s wealthy and fabulous mingling without affectation over jugs of beer and snacks.
Because Iceland’s population is so small and so isolated, RFF is one of the few international fashion weeks still deeply and almost exclusively rooted within its national work ethic, culture and setting.
Designers are pragmatic to a fault, happy to don many different hats and undaunted by the prospect of establishing an independent brand from scratch, often mixing formal training, heritage crafts and self-taught skills with unbridled creativity as their label develops. Case in point: hip-hop-culture-influenced streetwear brand Inklaw, founded by two high-school friends with zero sewing experience but ambition to make their own music-video-inspired clothing in spades.
Other designers not only create clothing suited to “the nature”, as they charmingly refer to Iceland’s weather and landscapes, but draw strong stylistic influences from it. In addition to the heavy wools, knits and furs that you expect to see in a country where winter temperatures plummet to −30°C, you also see the
country’s colours and textures – moss-covered lava fields, plunging glacial-melt-fed waterfalls, geysers and active volcanoes – and nods to the Nordic mythology they inspired explicitly reflected on the runway.
Myrka’s autumn-winter 2017 collection featured silver embellishments to represent ice and black silk as a nod to lava flows. Cintamani showed pieces that were not only designed for discovery of Iceland’s most extreme geography, but rendered in its colours – it may be the first time flame-red ski pants with suspenders have been sent down a catwalk without irony.
“Being an Icelander, you are always near nature and strong natural forces. This shapes us in being environmentally thinking, both as designers and consumers. We are proud of that element in our culture,” says Von Arnardóttir.
Iceland’s lack of resources – aside from the ability to generate geothermal energy – means its people are in the habit of making things and making them last. Many of the designers that showed this year developed their own fabrics – Icelandic families can trace traditions of producing textiles, as well as their lineage, back to the Vikings – and most instinctively focus on timeless investment pieces over transient fast fashion, emphasising durable, sustainable, natural materials and artisanal detailing over throwaway, mass-produced designs.
And while Icelandic fashion appears to have all the hallmarks of quality and distinctive aesthetics required to compete in the international market – every designer at RFF17 is focused on expanding into the larger EU, US and Australian markets, sooner rather than later – the local fashion industry is still so new that it’s unclear how resilient it will be when taken out of context.
The heavy materials and muted, earthy colours shown during RFF work well in Iceland, where a summer high of 22C makes national news, but it’s hard to imagine these designs working in warmer climates. The uptick in the value of the Icelandic króna – which plummeted in the financial crisis, giving designers a leg up – also means it’s going to be harder for brands to remain financially competitive.
As Iceland’s crop of designers continue to figure things out, most see the fact they are the vanguard for Icelandic fashion as a positive. There are no rules. There is no pecking order. Everything seems possible.
“We have an unwritten storyboard in front of us that we can do anything with and it is packed with opportunities,” says Arnardóttir. “Our greatest obstacle is being from a small country, but at the same time it can be our biggest advantage. We help and support each other. Each voice of the Icelandic designers is strong and equally as important.”
Cintamani Founded in 1989, technical outerwear brand Cintamani – think Patagonia, but designed specifically for the Icelandic landscape and elements – already has six stores in Iceland with retailers in Norway and Canada, but the AW17-18 collection, themed “Iceland from below”, was the inaugural collection from its new in-house team.
“Since this was our first collection we wanted to start from the core – all the colours and patterns come from the caves in Iceland,” says head designer Aðalheiður Birgisdóttir, founder and designer of women’s snowboarding apparel brand Nikita, which she sold in 2012. “Naturally, living in Iceland affects the way we design—we have a firsthand understanding of how to dress for the weather.”
Birgisdóttir brought her Nikita teammates David Young and Guðrún Lárusdóttir to work at Cintamani as art director and production manager. Together with tailor Selma Ragnarsdóttir, they spent 18 months developing the collection to stand up to Iceland’s extreme weather and active lifestyle. Combining Bluesign-approved and Oeko-Tex-certified sustainable materials and cuts designed for comfortable layering, the collection spanned everyday pieces such as pullovers and parkas to high-performance sporting apparel, realised in a colour palette inspired by deep glacial interiors and geothermal rock formations. Key runway looks included earth-toned pants and pullovers layered with light PrimaLoft jackets and fur-trimmed, mustardcoloured 3L Shell raincoats.
Myrka Channelling Norse mythological shamen and seductress Völva, Myrka designer Harpa Einarsdottír used a mixture of premium leather, wool and fur, adding obsidian black silk cashmere as a nod to Iceland’s inky black beaches, and metallic embellishments to evoke the country’s lava fields and glaciers.
“The impact of nature on the design is prominent – it’s easy to imagine wind and gushing water against moss and stone – and our print this season is inspired by the old Icelandic ghost story, The Deacon from Dark River,” explains the designer, shortly after the show.
Although RFF 2017 was the first time Einarsdóttir had made and showed a Myrka collection, it’s not her first outing in the fashion world. After her brand Ziska – the same moniker she uses when producing her signature macabre illustrations and characters in film, theatre and online games – won the Reykjavik Runway design competition in 2011, the designer went on to show Ziska collections during RFF 2012 and 2014. In 2013, she co-founded brand Another Creation with Ýr Þrastardóttir and Hrefna Sverrisdóttir, subsequently leaving to focus on her inaugural AW17 collection for Myrka which she previewed in a film at the Paris Fashion Week closing party at David Lynch’s club
“The impact of nature is prominent – it’s easy to imagine wind and water against moss and stone.”
Silencio last autumn. Now Einarsdóttir’s sights are firmly set on international buyers, specifically those for larger retailers such as Collette in Paris, Liberties in New York and DK Company in Denmark.
“The brand image of these leading multi-brand stores is very strong in the fashion industry and will help to establish Myrka Iceland,” says Einarsdóttir, adding that she plans to leverage e-commerce, analytic-driven approaches like SEO and paid search, and social media to build a full lifestyle brand offering accessories, footwear and furniture, within five years. “Other buyers around the world follow the buying strategies of these stores, looking at which designers they are picking up.”
Magnea Since establishing her eponymous studio Magnea in 2012, designer Magnea Einarsdóttir has stayed true to the brand’s fabric-first DNA, building each collection around textiles that incorporate Icelandic wool.
For her RFF17 runway, key looks in Einarsdóttir’s AW17-18 collection included fuchsia and moss-green silk-satin dresses and jumpsuits, featuring knitted woollen details made in collaboration with an Icelandic mill – detailing that echoes her early pieces, which were embroidered and knitted from a delicate mix of wool and rubber.
Magnea Einarsdóttir – a graduate of Central St. Martin’s in London and nominated for the prestigious Iceland Design Award 2014 and Reykjavik Grapevine Fashion Design of the Year in 2013 and 2015 – says her post-graduation plan was to get a “proper job” in the industry in London, but decided to pursue her own path after receiving recognition for her designs.
“I decided to say yes to every opportunity I got for a while, which led me to opportunities such as a design collaboration with Club Monaco,” she recalls. Her biggest challenge now is to secure a foothold in larger markets. “My vision is to offer a range within the brand, where some garments are fully produced outside of Iceland, still keeping the elements close and true to the brand.”
Anita Hirlekar Anita Hirlekar – named an up-and-coming Scandinavian designer by Elle DK and recognised by Italian Vogue among 200 international emerging designers – presented the standout show. Born in Iceland and educated at St. Martins in London, Hirlekar explores beauty in imperfections, combining inspiration from fine art with conventional fabrics deconstructed and reimagined to create technical womenswear rich in colour and texture. For RFF17, she launched her most extensive collection to date, exploring prints, accessories and new materials. Every piece in the collection was handmade, featuring chunky embroidery in shredded natural fabrics such as silk and chiffon, usually associated with eveningwear but repurposed to new effect by the designer.
“I try to challenge myself with fabrics, so I look into fabrics that I don’t necessarily love and I try to do something new with them,” she says. “I wanted to tear them apart, embroider with them, just to come up with something innovative.”
In terms of brand stories, hip hop-culture-influenced label Inklaw stole the show.
Despondent with the men’s fashion available in their hometown, in 2013 school friends Guðjón Geir Geirsson and Róbert Ómar Elmarsson decided that they would make their own. Geirsson borrowed his grandmother’s sewing machine and studied YouTube videos, making patterns from old clothes and adapting them into T-shirts, leather tank tops and hoodies. Elmarsson posted their ideas on Facebook and Instagram to gauge interest from their friends, but soon started receiving inquiries via social media from wouldbe customers in Australia and the US.
Since then, Inklaw – which now includes Elmarsson’s uncle Anton Sigfússon as CEO, new manufacturing hand Christopher Cannon and social media magnate Oliver Luckett as investor/mentor – has amassed more than 60,000 followers on Instagram and counts Justin Bieber, Coco Rocha, a swathe of European football players and pop stars among its legion fans.
Inklaw also put together one of the most entertaining runways. Known for capsule collections of made-toorder minimalistic, functional hoodies and tanks, their largest collection to date for RFF, The Statement, featured more than 30 streetwear looks, daubed with large “X”s and accessorised by futuristic goggles.
Ranks of models – including social media influencers such as Swopes and British celebrity Lady Victoria Hervey -- Snapchatted and Instagrammed live as they walked. Because a smoke machine would have put the show over budget, New York-based stylist Edda Gudmun – who works with Björk and avant garde designer Bernard Wilhelm – had models vape on the runway to create the same atmosphere.
Inklaw’s next step is to continue to grow their business. While Geirsson and Cannon – who also had no sewing experience when Geirsson hired him – still sew 90 per cent of Inklaw’s clothing from their Reykjavik studio, they’re looking to move manufacture to European factories, reducing their output from 2000 pieces a year to a few custom garments. “We want to keep the feeling of exclusivity, while being a household streetwear brand on the market, so we’ll divide the collection, offering limited edition pieces made in the old way, made to order,” says Sigfússon.
WHirlekar explores beauty in imperfections, creating technical womenswear rich in colour and texture.
Hip hop-influenced streetwear brand Inklaw was founded by two school friends, one of whom borrowed his grandmother’s sewing machine and taught himself from YouTube.