The diary of a fashion designer

Auguste Petre

Interview with Icelandic fashion designer STEiNUNN


From February 7 until the end of March, the Latvian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design is hosting a very special exhibition titled The Weather Diaries. The project, created by artist-curator duo Cooper & Gorfer (Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer), celebrates fashion and design from Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

The exhibition evokes a quite logical interest about northerners, their traditions and the way they tend to keep those traditions alive with the help of fashion and clothing. Through design, these artists tell us stories about the history of their nations and reveal their own individual experience. One of the most special works of art included in The Weather Diaries is the large-scale installation The Space in Between (2013-14) by Icelandic artist STEiNUNN. A written statement by the artist herself accompanies the piece: “My son was born with a disability. It is as if his thoughts disappear into his body. The electrical cords that should move these commands are not there. The enzyme that holds the nerves together is not there. So, there is a lot of space in his body for these messages to go into.”

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir is an Icelandic fashion designer and crafts enthusiast who, in spite of the carelessness of the present day, has managed to stay true to traditions and avoided becoming a clothing manufacturer. “Clothing is not fashion,” she says. Fashion is something else – something beyond the apparel we wear every day. It might sound presumptuous (what about streetstyle? What about all the influencers, bloggers and contemporary fashion experts?), but I have to admit that Steinunn is right. Fashion has always been something more than just style, because it has a consistent relationship with art.

Over the years, Steinunn has built an unimaginable career: she has worked as a designer for Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Gucci and La Perla; she has curated and participated in many exhibitions; she has taught at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, etc. But in the end she is the founder of the Icelandic fashion label STEiNUNN, a knitting admirer and a great mother.

Your installation The Space in Between is on view in the Weather Diaries exhibition along with other creations by Nordic fashion designers. How did this project begin, and how did you become involved with it?

To answer your question, I first have to mention the Nordic Fashion biennale, which started in March 2009, when I was the director of the Icelandic Fashion council. That was also the beginning of DesignMarch, in which I had taken part since the beginning. Anyway, the Nordic House organised the Nordic Fashion biennale, where people from Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands showed their work, and it was the beginning of a wonderful thing. When the second Nordic Fashion Biennale was organised, we decided not to have it in Reykjavik but somewhere outside of it, in order to introduce this work to other people. So the next biennale was held in 2011 in Seattle.

I have been extremely fortunate to participate in this organisation, whose goal is to make sure that fashion gets seen in a different way. That fashion is seen not only as the catwalk, but that there’s also an art-related aspect to fashion. I believe that in today’s world we’re losing the craft. A lot of craft. And at the biennale I wanted to highlight this aspect through photography. I met Cooper & Gorfer when they first came to Iceland, and I brought their work to the Nordic House and said that we have to put together a photographer and a fashion designer to make an exhibition. I think Cooper & Gorfer’s work is not just photography – there’s something deeper to it. Of course, at first the curators at the Nordic House said no, but when I brought up the subject for the second time, they agreed! (Laughs.)

That was the beginning of the third Nordic Fashion Biennale, and Cooper & Gorfer named it The Weather Diaries. They both also curated the project and chose the designers. When they called me and said that they had chosen me to be a part of it, I was extremely honoured. They told me that they were going to push me, and I was happy about it – I like to be pushed. I like to be brought to a new dimension, brought to a place I’ve never been to before.

I’ve always been extremely fond of string art and particles. I find it extremely interesting how even when there’s just one particle, it seems that there are a thousand. Even as a kid I loved snow, which is a particle. I think it’s very beautiful, because snow leaves everything completely white, and you can actually see it happening. The world changes, and it’s magical. So I decided to work with that.

As I understand, you’re very interested in this different kind of approach to fashion. To you, fashion is not just clothes…

I’m writing my thesis on this subject at the University of Iceland, and when you start taking apart the definitions of clothing, then basically it’s something we wear every single day, something that’s a part of our daily life. Every day we dress up for the “theatre” we participate in. And then there’s fashion, which can be a lot of things but not everything. For example, fashion can be architecture or it can be a concept. In my opinion, we can talk about fashion when there’s this true fashion system in place, where collections and designers, buyers, people, advertising, stores and so on are put in one box. According to this definition, we don’t have fashion on those little islands.

Why is that so?

We don’t have a proper fashion system. We don’t have the industry, we only have clothing. So, you can talk – and most people do talk – about this subject, but the truth is that we produce clothing. And clothing can’t be something special.

This is where my relationship with craft begins. Craft is what makes a piece of clothing for me. I’m holding on to the craft but not holding on to fashion. What interest me is a beautiful fabric and how it has been made – those are timeless pieces. And if everybody would turn their gaze to that, then fewer pieces of clothing would be made and we would all get to know the craft. And therefore we would be able to talk fashion.

Don’t you think that turning one’s gaze to craft also means returning to traditions?

It was Walter Benjamin who wrote about the metaphor of the fold. That at the precise point of the fold on the cuff there is the dialectics of history. That is where we find the material, and it all transcends from the past going forward. So yes, clothing is something that we’ve studied for hundreds of decades and it has changed, no question about it. But we always take something with us. I want to look at the clothing I produce today as related to craft.

I come from a home where knitting was very important, and that is an old craft. For most people, when they think about knitting, they think of old grannies, of something boring, but I learned to knit when I was nine. Later, I began experimenting and took knitting to new levels.

How did you learn to knit?

My grandmother taught me. But she didn’t teach me how to knit from books. She taught me various stitches, she taught me samples, and by doing that, I learned all the different stitches. And then it was up to me to create another world. And I did.

When I went to fashion school in New York, I became the first Icelandic student to graduate from it. I went to a very well-known school called Parsons School of Design, and actually my knitting got me where I wanted to be. Because I could knit almost anything – I knitted my way through school, I made money from it, and all of a sudden I was working and doing different projects. It just became this world that I had created without even knowing it. I even became the biggest cashmere producer in the United States for many, many years. There was no limit to where I could fly with my knitting.

Do you believe it was because you based your creations on the tradition?

Yes, I based everything on the tradition, but I also took it forward. I always wonder what I can do to change the patterns. It’s like Walter Benjamin and the metaphor of the fold – I took the past and moved it into the future. Further and further with every season. And when you do many collections for many seasons, you move quickly. It became kind of a test of how far I wanted to go. 

I was extremely fortunate to land jobs with really big fashion houses, and the people who hired me also believed in me. They let me fly and be experimental, and that’s the key when you hire somebody – you have to let them shine. You have to see what’s in them and how far they can go. I went far, and with that little craft of knitting I created a whole world. Once again, I have to remind people that knitting is not just a grandmothers’ thing. We actually use more knitted fabrics in our wardrobe today than we can imagine: t-shirts, hoodies, socks, underwear fabrics, beanies, you name it! Once when I was teaching, I asked the audience who was wearing a knitted t-shirt. It turned out that everybody was wearing something knitted. I think it was Calvin Klein who changed the meaning of knitting when he took underwear and changed it from boxer shorts to a knitted fabric. You don’t find many boxer shorts in the stores today; mostly you find knitted fabrics.

People are demanding more comfort, so somehow the fashion world is changing. If you look at it over the decades, the way we dress and the use of materials has changed extremely. 

You’ve worked with some very big names in the fashion industry. How did your collaboration begin?

The fashion world is very small. First, I worked in New York, and then that fashion house moved to Italy. When I had no job, I wrote to my previous boss saying that I was looking for a job, and he invited me to come over to Italy. There I worked for another big fashion house that was kind of in the beginning of bringing their house back. It was all as simple as that. But I already had some kind of reputation, so it wasn’t like I came to the job without any knowledge or experience. I came with extensive knowledge about working with factories, knowing how the system works and what needs to be done. It became fun, and we led the company to new life.

However, I have to say that, as an employee, you’re usually in the middle and you don’t really see the things that you’ve created. Because you haven’t had space for this information. At the time, I was doing both menswear and womenswear, which means four collections a year. When the collection you’ve been working on is finally finished, you’re already on to another one. Only later do you have the chance to look back and see the good things as well as the mistakes that are best not repeated again.

But later, after working in New York and Italy, you decided to move back to Iceland?

Well, after working in the industry for two decades…(laughs) and after flying to Italy every other week for eight years, you begin to think, well, is it worth it? I could have easily gotten a job with somebody else, but starting my own company became a bigger challenge, and I do not regret it. I think it’s the best thing I ever did, and my former experience has helped me a lot. I know a lot of things about production and high-quality fabrics, but to make it all work became a challenge. Honestly, the biggest challenge ever. Much bigger than the other ones I’ve had, and I kind of like that.

Was it also because, as you mentioned previously, there was no fashion system in Iceland?

Yeah, I was building my own system. I’m the co-founder of the Icelandic Fashion Council and the co-founder of the textile department at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. In Iceland we can make a difference, and I know that I’ve done so. We’re still too small to have a definite fashion system – we don’t have fashion shows, and fashion designers tend to give up after a few years. I’m one of the few that hasn’t given up; my company is 18 years old, and I’m still continuing to produce. I see my company as a long-term thing, and from my experience I can say that you can’t build a company overnight. Overnight success takes eleven years, and anybody who’s barely out of school and suddenly successful…well, look for them after two years. I’m not kidding you. Build your company on strength and do it slowly, and overnight success will take eleven years, and then it will work.

Another reason why I decided to stay in Iceland was because my son is disabled. He’s now 23 years old, and my installation in The Weather Diaries is about him. There’s actually a lot behind the work. The fact is, he is the most beautiful creature on earth – he’s never angry, and he only does nice things. He can be sad, and I can see that in his face, I can read it in his body, because he doesn’t speak… But he’s really not the problem; the hardest part is taking care of him when you’re dealing with wheelchairs and so on. Actually, the body brace that I’ve used in the installation comes from my son. So, the work is about his pain.

Another reference in the installation is the shape of the hat, which comes from an Icelandic national costume from 1858. The interesting part is that when people look at the work, they all think it’s something dreamy or just beautiful, but instead I see the piece as the process of me setting it all up. For example, the dress is not just taken out of a box and hung up – it’s woven on the spot, one particle by one particle, every single time.

Do you always participate in this installation process?

Always. That’s how I take care of my son – it’s painful, but in the end you only face the beauty. My son is not diagnosed, which means that he doesn’t have a disease. So, he doesn’t fall under any category within the medical system. I can’t go to a bookstore and find a book about a disease that does not exist. Our future has been a void, but we decided to be creative! (Smiles.) Because nobody can help you.

And the thing is, with this piece I’ve opened up the conversation about disability on a different level. I don’t like to use the name of a disease to define somebody; I don’t do that because fifty percent of disabled persons are not diagnosed. And mentioning this in a museum makes people stunned. They walk away, they can’t deal with it. Some people are interested, some people cry. And it’s not related to me – it’s something that they have inside themselves.

You know, my son’s friends at school seem like two-year-olds, and who doesn’t like a two-year-old? (Laughs.) And you want to know something? When you have an 18-year-old in a wheelchair, severely disabled, and you smile at them and they smile back… It’s probably the biggest emotion you get through your body.

Somehow I use this exhibit to get the word out. That’s how I like to operate. Today I’m more about showing that, well, if I can open up a discussion about disability, it means that I’ve done something good within society. Do people like my clothing? Not everybody, and that’s okay, because we all have different tastes. I don’t need to have the same aesthetic perception as everybody else – I wear black t-shirts, sweaters and jeans everyday. I don’t care for other things.

But you do care about fashion.

I do interviews with very famous fashion designers in New York, and they say the same thing. When you work with clothing every single day, often you just want to get out of that noise… And I’m talking about the visual noise of bright colours. I don’t want to show up wearing a bright orange sweater, because it creates visual noise. So you just tend to take yourself out of it.

That reminds me of painters who also dress in black.

I rest my case. And why do you think women working in haute couture wear white suits? They put on something white in order to resemble a canvas in the colourful and noisy atelier. I let my work speak for itself.

Do you sometimes get tired of speaking about what you’ve done in the past?

I think that people tend to be always moving, and I, too, don’t want to sit around in the past too much. If we’re talking about work, the problem is that I just can’t remember every single thing that I’ve ever done. Because there is a lot.