Maybe it’s the fact that their tiny island country was the first in the world to have a woman president (Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who served from 1980-1996) or maybe it’s the new necessity that everyone, women and men alike, channel their strengths and entrepreneurial spirit in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown. Maybe Viking women are simply badass. Whatever the reason, Icelandic designers are keen to use the power of fashion to empower the modern Icelandic woman and to make sure that that empowered woman looks phenomenal as she helps to rebuild the country.
“In Iceland the women are really independent. We are just proud of being women,” Una Hlin, the head designer for the brand Anderson and Lauth, Reykjavik’s first atelier told me. Her show, at this year’s Reykjavik Fashion Festival, featured highly tailored, almost masculine garments with fine feminine embroidery. “When I wear a great suit I feel empowered, but I also know that sometimes you need to think like a man and act like a man and so I tried to put the feminine with the masculine into this year’s line,” she said, while wearing a finely tailored blazer herself and looking completely at ease.
When Elinros Lindal and Katrin Maria Karadottir started their fashion line, Ella, out of a suburban garage a few years ago, one of their motivations was that they didn’t like the way that fashion was talking to women. “It was telling them that they weren’t thin enough or young enough and we just kept thinking, ‘hey, women can lead countries. You aren’t going to tell them what to do or what to be,” Lindal said. Karadottir, the brand’s designer, looking every bit empowered in a sleek black suit that she wears at least three times a week, chimed in. “You can never think the client, the woman is stupid. We have faith in the intelligence of women, and that is what has been working for us.” It has been working for them. The top lawyers, bankers and female Congresswomen shop at Ella. During the last election cycle, the female candidate for president wore Ella almost exclusively. The women go there, they talk business and they buy finely tailored dresses and suits made of bunny soft Loro Piana fabrics. The trick of empowering today’s woman, both the older set and the fresh-faced new feminists taking on the mantle of Sheryl Sandberg’s revolution, is to remember that a woman doesn't need to behave like a man to get ahead and they certainly don’t need dress like them.
“We’re not trying to make women men,” Lindal told me, sitting underneath a sign in her store that reads: “Mission: We think we can empower women through every single Ella piece we make.” Karadottir added: “I’m a trouser person. I don’t have much time to choose my wardrobe. I want to wear something that I feel comfortable in, but I don’t want to look like a man.” Just that morning an Icelandic interview finished up her questions to Lindal by asking when she would do a men’s line. Lindal laughed. “Men want this power too. They want a piece of the pie. But surely, what we are doing empowering women, that will ultimately empower men too.” With all the recent talk about empowerment, and the constant struggles we still see women face every day in America, it begs the question: Is Iceland a better place to be a woman? “There is less of a gender gap. I don’t know if we are genetically different, but we have a better environment as a woman. I think we all feel entitled to be heard,” Karadottir said. “When we were young women we had the first woman president and that made us realize that nothing is so intimidating.” Karadottir told me a story about her mother who would buy a whole sheep and then use every single bit of it to make food and clothes. “Why wouldn’t she be able to run a company?” Karadottir said. “She ran a home with no money.” I spent a lot of time backstage during the Reykjavik Fashion Festival. I can attest to the fact that it had an air of civility and respect that is often lacking Lincoln Center tents during New York’s fashion week. It may be the case that Iceland is a better place to be a woman designer, or a designer at all, if only because of the intimate nature of the design community in the country of only 320,000 people. “It is because if someone succeeds from our small country it is just better for all of us,” explained Rebekka Jónsdóttir, of the label Rey. “The pettiness people associate with the fashion industry is not alive and well in Iceland. The women here support one another.”