FAR AWAY IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC, ICELAND HAS LONG BEEN NEGLECTED BY BIG INTERNATIONAL BRANDS – EVEN H&M ONLY GOT ROUND TO INVADING REYKJAVIK THIS YEAR! BUT SUCH CONSTRAINTS INSPIRE CREATIVITY AND WHAT’S ERUPTED IS A THRIVING INDEPENDENT FASHION SCENE.
A bit of background info: in a country where the population of sheep is double that of the 330 000 human inhabitants – there’s a lot of wool. Bred in isolation and exposed to extreme conditions for centuries, the inimitable Icelandic sheep produces wool with two distinctive fibres: fluffy, warm, insulating fur close to the body and long, water-repellent fleece on the outer surface. Established in 1896, the Álafoss wool factory just outside Reykjavik is the birthplace of Iceland’s wool industry, which to this day continues to spin high quality local yarns as well as hand-knitted lopapeysa – the iconic Icelandic, circular yoke sweater. For a modern twist on domestic woollens check out Farmers Market, Geysir and Vík Prjónsdóttir.
Iceland is also home to the only fish leather tannery in Europe: Atlantic Leather, turning salmon, cod, perch and wolffish skin – by-products of the local fishing industry – into luxury, eco-friendlier leathers, sought out by big brands like Gucci, Prada and Nike. As the largest renewable energy producer in the world, almost completely run on geothermal energy and hydropower, Iceland, like most of the Nordics, is a permanent fixture in the top five most eco-friendly countries on earth. It only takes a quick glance at the Reykjavik Fashion Festival and Nordic Fashion Association websites to see just how dedicated Scandinavia is to sustainable living.
Specialising in ethical clothing that isn’t a shade of beige, Usee is a design studio based in Reykjavik rethinking the use of industrial waste materials through their candy-coloured rave garms and upcycled accessories. “We want to put humour into our clothes and make you smile while wearing them,” said Helga and Halla, the designers behind the brand, whose creations include: “Trousers made from curtain fabrics, fluffy organic cotton velour leggings – they are super comfy – and we started working with a glass company here to make jewellery from discarded mirrors.”
As Sara María Júlíudóttir of Printavik points out: “Since we are so small here it’s really easy to start something and get exposure but it’s also difficult because we don’t have easy access to materials and production – plus importing is expensive.” This is evidenced by Usee, who started off “only working with discarded and second-hand materials, producing everything in our studio with a zero-waste policy. After taking part in ethical fashion fairs abroad we realised that to expand we had to change our production methods – but still keep our radical sustainable approach.” Usee achieved this by incorporating organic European fabrics and moving some of the production to the Netherlands, to maintain good working standards and keep transport/carbon footprint to a minimum.
This past summer, along with a few other local artists and designers – including the similarly eco-minded Tanja Levý and Kolbrun – Usee opened the collaborative DIY concept store Ypsilon in downtown Reykjavik, where everything from the shop fixtures to the background music and promo videos were created together. Júlíudóttir observes that where once Icelandic designers seemed to keep some distance between themselves this “has been changing in recent years with a lot of collaborations” – and this spirit is embodied in projects like Ypsilon and Kiosk: another co-operative fashion store stocking cool local talent. The increasingly tighter-knit design community has no doubt been propelled by the power of the internet/social media and the resulting international exposure.
A long-time driving force of the Reykjavik DIY design scene, Júlíudóttir was behind the much-loved Icelandic streetwear brands Forynja and Naked Ape, currently working almost exclusively with the screen printing collective Printavik, adorning T-shirts and other surfaces with magical Icelandic sigils. “I believe everything is energy and that these symbols are powerful, especially when they are made and used with a strong intention,” she says. “My partners in Printavik have such strength and everything becomes more magical when we mix our skills. With them, I can do things I was not able to manage on my own. André and his husband Ragnar, are the perfect partners in crime since they share my screen printing fetish.”
Iceland’s supernatural landscape has long inspired designers beyond its waters too, from William Morris, who fell in love with the country’s utilitarian craft traditions, to Björk collaborator James Merry and his highly Instagrammed vintage sports sweaters embroidered with the native flora. As Iceland continues to be one of the hottest (or should that be the coolest) tourist destinations on the planet, we can expect to see much more from this remarkable island.
Traveller’s tip: If you find yourself in the land of ice and fire this winter, temperatures can effortlessly drop to -10°C, so make sure to pop into 66°North or Cintamani – two homegrown outdoor clothing brands committed to keeping you warm whilst looking out for the environment. Trust Icelanders to know a thing or two when it comes to styling it out sustainably in sub-zero climates!
Title image: Usee