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December 17, 2017
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Bullet Proof Handkerchief by Sruli Recht. Photograph courtesy of Sruli Recht.

Young, experimental, exploratory: all words that could characterise today's Iceland - and not just their recovering economy. With designers turning out inventive pieces ranging from Reykjavik harbour-inspired pants to a piecemealed polar bear rug, the fashion industry has emerged as a key player in the country's future. 

In 2008, the economy of the almost 320,000-person nation hit rock bottom. GDP dropped 10 per cent, unemployment increased sevenfold, and the outlook was grim. Since then, however, the government resigned, banks were nationalised, responsible parties were incarcerated, and the Icelandic people have begun rewriting the constitution. The nation is starting afresh, and with it, a budding fashion industry appears to have risen out of the volcanic ash. 

The nation is starting afresh, and with it, a budding fashion industry appears to have risen out of the volcanic ash.

While the country has an extensive history of creativity in music, art and literature, the fashion industry only started to take shape in the last couple of decades. Explains Halla Helgadóttir, the Managing Director of the Iceland Design Centre: "We don't have this long tradition of fashion design here…30 years ago nobody would like to buy an Icelandic design piece in Iceland." Indeed, through the '70s and '80s, fashion was imported, because says Helgadóttir, it was just "cooler."

In recent years, however - and well before the economic meltdown - a design industry began to materialise, particularly after the Iceland Academy of the Arts started to teach fashion over a decade ago. But it was only when the crisis hit that the sector started to gain more visibility and direction because, explains Helgadóttir: "we weren't focusing on our strengths [before the crisis], we were focusing on being bankers and getting rich." She continues, saying that the "crisis has brought it all out…[it] made us focus on different things and see different things, and of course start to work on them better." 

As such, many people who might have otherwise been tempted by more certain professional success, instead began to channel their talent through creativity. Hilda Gunnarsdóttir, the designer behind the label Milla Snorrason, reflects on the last several years: "It's definitely a good time to start a business as there is probably nowhere to go but up and there are not a lot of job offers anyway so you kind of have nothing to lose."

Experimental Iceland Fashion Design Economy
Bullet Proof Handkerchief by Sruli Recht.
Photograph courtesy of Sruli Recht.

Meanwhile, as the nation works to kick start its economy, a new appreciation for all things Icelandic has grown in popularity. More and more, the country's consumers are supporting locally made products, just as designers continue to find inspiration in the world around them. Adds Gunnarsdóttir, whose A/W 2012 fashion line was inspired by the Reykjavik harbour: "I'm very fascinated by the specific Icelandic aesthetic and I plan to investigate further and incorporate it into my designs." 

In fact, if there's one common theme between the nation's designers, it's that they love their land, and draw from it to create their pieces. Farmers Market, a design company started in 2005, looks to their native roots, in which, they say, "for centuries, man and animals have cohabited in harmony challenged by harsh nature." The result is what has been called "revitalised Icelandic traditional design" - modern products that utilise domestically produced wool and other raw materials, and are meant for both city and country life. 

Natives aren't the only ones who discover inspiration in Iceland either. Press darling Sruli Recht was born in Israel, bred in Australia, and now finds design nirvana in the isolation of Europe's second largest island. Averse to paying much, if any, attention to trends or fashion, his pieces instead focus on design and function, all whilst transmitting subtle social commentaries. Ranging from dolphin-skin leather to translucent lambskin to bulletproof handkerchiefs, his creations incorporate local textiles and, despite being controversial, serve as a source of pride for the country's industry. Says Helgadóttir: "We look at him as one of our fashion designers here…He is working with Icelandic materials in a way that we have not done ourselves before, which is very interesting." 

Experimental Iceland Fashion Design Economy

Milla Snorrason A/W 2012.
Photography by Héðinn Eiríksson. 
Make-up by Steinunn Þórðardóttir.
Modelling by Bríet Kristinsdóttir. 
Styling and direction by Erna Bergmann  
and Hilda Gunnarsdóttir.

Now, with the economy on the mend, it appears that Iceland's future - and, in parallel, its fashion's future - should be as lush as the nation's verdant countryside. But, of course, obstacles still exist: among other challenges, the private sector remains deeply in debt, and purchasing power is still on the rebound. Meanwhile, the fashion industry lacks the resources it needs for ambitious designers to get their businesses off the ground. 

The government is slowly starting to take notice, though, especially given recent data showing that the creative sector is more of an economic asset than probably anyone anticipated. The study, commissioned by the Consultative Forum of the Creative Industries, revealed that the sector turned over more than one billion dollars in 2009, generating 6.36 per cent of the economy's total VAT. Not only has its revenue remained relatively constant throughout the last few years, but jobs have increased too. 

With the report citing further benefits such as added cultural value, increased quality of life, and encouragement of tourism, additional government support for the industry is likely; it is just a matter of time. Adds Helgadóttir: "We have been working on a design policy with the government, and we are hoping that the government will focus on speeding up this process, helping these companies to get on their feet earlier."   

In that same news-making report, the author quoted the words of Pétur Gunnarsson, in his article for the daily newspaper Fréttablaðið: "The Icelanders' destiny is to be a creative nation. Transplanted out of their homelands in days of yore onto something of an unknown planet, they had to create everything anew…"

And that's exactly what they're doing: reconstructing their nation while experimenting, exploring and creating anew - financially, fashionably and otherwise. They honour their heritage as they bring it with them into a very promising future.

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