High fashion of the Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands are having a moment. For some, the lure is the utterly remote, craggy, windswept splendor of this sheep and lichen-strewn volcanic archipelago, situated halfway between Iceland and Norway. For others, the Faroes’ main attraction is its fashion.
Couture insiders from all over the globe are specifically fixated on a design studio and shop whose oddball name is Gudrun & Gudrun. Located in the capital city, Tórshavn, population 13,000, Gudrun & Gudrun produces some of the edgiest, most exciting and otherworldly hand-knit products in the world today.
These are wearables with the kind of daring urban allure that you’d expect to find in Antwerp, Berlin or Tokyo, but hardly in a foggy North Atlantic outpost that doesn’t even exist on some maps and whose main livelihood for centuries has been fishing. And where high-speed broadband is only a very recent arrival.
This knitting enterprise was founded by Gudrun Ludvig, the designer, and Gudrun Rógvadóttir, the business head. It sells its creations in 10 countries to 60 leading retailers including Isetan and United Arrows in Tokyo, Harvey Nichols in London, Sabine Poupinel and Mads Nørgaard in Copenhagen, Penelope’s in Brescia and Calypso in New York.
The two Gudruns have also run wildly successful pop-up stores in Oslo, Copenhagen and London while back at home, they sell their knits on what happens to have been the Faroe Islands’ first webshop. Their designs are also e-tailed at ShopStyle, Anthropologie, Ivo Milan and Luisa Via Roma.
But even more riveting, Gudrun & Gudrun’s daring venture – starting a fashion industry in a land where none existed before – has helped pioneer a veritable commercial, cultural and consumer revolution on the Faroe Islands where many of the locals proudly walk around in the two Gudruns’ knitwear.
It all started in 1990. At that time the Faroese economy was at a low point. Knitting, which for centuries was a local mainstay, was held in disdain. Additionally, the advent of Goretex put wool, the islands’ second biggest commodity after fish, out of favor. In fact, wool fleece had become so unsalable that it was set ablaze during shearing season in bonfires across the islands.
“Seeing this broke my heart,” says Rógvadóttir, back home in the Faroes for a summer holiday from her other career overseeing EU development programs in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Appalled at the waste and destruction of one of the most valuable commodities in a land of scarce resources, she was determined to see a Faroese yarn and knitting resurgence.
So she got together with Ludvig, who’d recently returned from an apprenticeship with the Copenhagen fashion designer-couturier Sabine Poupinel. Lassoing together a cottage industry of willing Faroese homemaker-knitters needing an income, the two began an artisanal sweater enterprise with yarn spun from rescued sheep fleece. Rough, untreated, undyed and vari-colored, the spotted sheep having grazed on unfertilized grass, this Faroese wool was unlike any other yarn in the world.
Ludvig was rated one of the worst knitters in her class at school. But she took to experimenting on giant knitting needles that gave her better control of her stitches and developed intentional “imperfections:” ballooning arms, careening edges, expectation-defying color and texture combinations, lace patterns with mega-holes and in some sweaters, a shrunken look. These weren’t faux pas. They were a visionary new take on hand-knit style.
It’s easy to see where Ludvig gets so much creative inspiration from. “How can you not be inspired living in a place where the winter sky you meet in the morning on your way to work is like a beautiful painting?” she says. Indeed, that North Atlantic isolation may be key, freeing her from fashion dictates and constraints.
To make their mark, the Gudruns knew that from day one they’d need superb pictures. So they spent their own funds on the best art photographers and the most ethereal models they could find, flying them to the islands to create alluring images.
That photography gamble was an instant success. Images of Gudrun & Gudrun’s rough-hewn knits immediately attracted attention in Japan, whose fashion enthusiasts, ever on the alert for the outrageously new, didn’t hesitate to place multitudes of orders.
But now, with their brand on fashion’s radar screen, two problems emerged: How to step up production and how to efficiently export the goods from a backwater that had no DHL or UPS. Rógvadóttir says that shippers didn’t know that the Faroe Islands even existed. The latter problem was solved by air-shipping in bulk to Denmark and then transporting further from there – the Faroes comprise a self-governing region that is part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
To increase their workforce, Rógvadóttir turned to the Middle East where she has been stationed with the EU, and “an amazing woman” who’d once headed the Iraqi police department and had organized a knitting workshop in Jordan that helped advance women’s empowerment. “Once they entered our small workshop and closed the door, they took off their scarves, shook out their hair, smoked a cigarette and smiled all over,” Rógvadóttir says.
More recently, a community of knitters in Peru has joined the Gudruns’ workforce, knitting in soft Peruvian alpaca, which has been added to their yarn repertory.
Then in 2007, the original Danish version of the TV police series The Killing was broadcast with its Detective Inspector Sarah Lund clad in a Gudrun & Gudrun pullover. Sales of the Killing Sweater, as it became known as, soon exploded in Denmark and then again in the UK when the TV series began airing there in 2011. And Gudrun & Gudrun attracted attention.
Fast-forward to 2017. While Ludvig stays put on the Faroe Islands developing new designs, Rógvadóttir spends about 80 days a year traveling to Jordan and Peru for production and to London, Paris, Tokyo, Florence and New York for sales. “Our ultimate wish,” she says, “is to open a shop in Tokyo. The Japanese understand our universe and they style our clothes amazingly.”
The Faroe Islands, meanwhile, which 20 years ago were bereft of all but the most basic shops restaurants, today have a booming economy that’s propelling it into the 21st century. “It’s happening quite quickly,” says Rógvadóttir. “This is a very good test market for a lot of different things, with a completely new openness. Young professionals are now finding it cool to be on the Faroe Islands.”
A Faroese tourist boom is also happening, attracting birdwatchers, hikers and restless contemporary been-there-done-that travelers. A spate of hotels and homestays await them. So do gourmet restaurants and a vegan eatery, while hip-and-cool little shops, Gudrun & Gudrun among them, are selling the sort of cutting-edge wares that would be coveted in Shoreditch or Williamsburg.
Nowadays, WiFi zones abound in Torshavn. All of the locals more or less have smartphones – and a posse of well-connected sheep roam around with digital cameras, creating an idiosyncratic Google Street View of the islands.
So yes, this northern archipelago is having a moment. But that moment could last a while, thanks in no small part to Gudrun & Gudrun. The Faroe Islands are now on the map.
Text: Linda Dyett