As Olafur Eliasson’s waterfalls and Sigur Rós’ world tour continue to garner headlines, it’s clear that Icelandic culture is attracting more attention than ever before. But the country’s haunting landscapes inspire more than just atmospheric melodies and installations—they’re also a driving force behind its thriving fashion scene.
“The Icelandic fashion industry is fairly young, but it’s growing rapidly,” says Ingvar Helgason, one half of the Icelandic-German label Ostwald Helgason. “Thanks to the amazing work of Linda Björg Árnadóttir, who runs the Iceland Academy of the Arts’ fashion design department, there are some really strong graduates with solid knowledge of the international fashion scene. Also, boutiques like Kronkron and Liborius are very important, as they take on local designers and teach them how the market works.”
The local industry’s support has clearly benefited Helgason, who, along with Susanne Ostwald, has created a respected label best known for its trompe l’oeil prints and futuristic silhouettes. Although the duo cites the Ballets Russes as its reference for fall, the incorporation of nature-inspired elements—whether it’s a deer fur print or heat-insulating neoprene fabric—points toward Helgason’s native land and its reverence of the outdoors.
Another label influenced by Iceland’s natural side is Steinunn, which, in May of this year, became the first fashion brand in 15 years to win the influential Torsten and Wanja Söderberg prize for Nordic design. A Parsons graduate and former protégé of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Tom Ford, Steinunn Sigurd creates pieces that are at once minimal and elaborate, multi-layered and weightless. She manipulates fabrics with an artist’s hand: lightening a sculptural wool coat with kicky fringe detailing, folding fragile chiffon into intrepid origami shapes, and incorporating jacquard patterns into her signature knitwear that pay homage to Icelandic crochet artist Hildur Bjarnadóttir. “When the weather here is really bad, I find myself making bolder statements,” she explains. “The clothing that comes out for winter reflects this psychological need to stand up to the elements.”
Along with these boldface names is a crop of designers who may still be simmering under the radar, but are no less visionary in their approach. Recent graduate Sonja Bent injects a shot of glamour into her knitwear, creating visceral, origami-inspired cocktail dresses and clutches, while illustrator Asi Mar’s E-Label and Eyglo present a subtly urbane style of neutral-toned womenswear. Designer Sruli Recht takes a more conceptual approach with cerebral creations that reflect glamour’s dark side, such as a ‘bearskin’ rug that comments on the commodification of animals in fashion, and a line of unisex boots crafted in whale foreskin, kangaroo and buffalo.
Club kid favorites Naked Ape and Mundi, meanwhile, have cornered the market on blindingly-patterned streetwear and slouchy cotton pants, while pioneering the field of accessories design is Hidden Goods designer Hrafnhildur Guðrúnardóttir. She’s mined Iceland’s tradition of storytelling and myth to create a collection of otherworldly handbags, inspired as much by other cultures as her own. “Icelandic design is unique because there’s no precedent to follow,” she explains. “My heritage—or lack of it—combined with Iceland’s geographic isolation has allowed me to design independent of any set tradition. On the other hand, it’s also been a challenge having little framework and not much of a foundation to build on.”
If Guðrúnardóttir or any of her contemporaries have stumbled along the way, we’ve yet to see it. With an intelligent sophistication that belies their physical isolation, we predict these designers will soon be making a statement to rival their art world counterparts on the world stage.