Iceland’s limited production capacity shapes the reality of local designers, and ultimately, the number of Icelandic products available. Yet there is a handful of fantastic companies that produce anything from Icelandic woolen sweaters to pancake pans and high tech prosthetics. Our intern Florian Lohse took a tour around some of the most interesting local producers.

Varma is the biggest supplier of wool products for the Icelandic fashion industry. Florian visited the factory and interviewed Birgitta Asgrim, head of marketing and sales.

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Would you tell me a little about Varma?

Varma produces own products under the label Varma. In addition, we also produce wool clothing for other labels, like SpaksmannsspjarirGeysirCintamani and Vík Prjonsdottír.

Varma is a fusion of different companies, all working with Icelandic wool. Based in Akureyri, Glofí is the biggest company behind Varma and produces mainly woolen accessories like gloves and wool caps. We also work with lambskin, of which 90% is exported to international fashion houses in Europe, Milan and Paris. We also make our own products from it – I think we are the only ones in Iceland doing that.

Three years ago, we built up a sewing workshop here in Hafnafjördur. We wanted to use it for prototyping purposes, but our production rates have grown a lot since then.

We plan on expanding in fall, buying new machines and hiring new staff.

 

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It seems like your business is booming at the moment?

Yes, indeed. Icelandic wool clothing used to be popular in Iceland, but the whole industry almost disappeared 30 years ago, because of the synthetic fleece materials. But since the crisis in 2008,

suddenly everybody went back to the roots, started knitting themselves and wanted to use and wear local materials.

Many designers and labels started to use wool again, like Geysir, Farmers Market and Vík Projonsdottír.

There is also a growing number of fashion design students, many of whom would like to experiment with us.

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What kind of difficulties do you face due to your location in Iceland?

We are doing quite well, but of course we sometimes feel that Iceland is no nation with a big industrial history like England or Germany.

The instability of the Icelandic Krona makes importing materials and exporting products complicated. It was more profitable before the crisis. Most of our cost assessments with distributors have to be done on an annual basis, so major exchange rate variations can cause trouble. And shipping costs are high, of course. But on the other hand, energy is very cheap in Iceland, which is good for us.

The small size of our country is a major reason for our industry developing slowlier than elsewhere. We are so few and our companies are so small, that it is difficult to compensate hard times. Not everyone survives that.

Icelandic wool is very en vogue right now, but this will change again. And if it changes, we will have to deal with it in the right way.

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Do you always have designers involved in the development of your own products?

No, not always. The designs of some Varma products are actually very old.

The classic scarves are produced in the same manner for the past 20 years. We cannot really tell who designed it originally.

We just readjust the colors sometimes. At the moment it is orange.

We have cooperated with designers, so far with Laufey Jónsdóttir  and Sigga Heimis. Blik by Laufey Jónsdóttir was a pattern-based line of clothing that was inspired by an old seaman’s tale. In 2011, Sigga Heimis worked with us on a product line of both clothing and furniture that featured Icelandic sheep skin as material. That was the first time we produced furniture.

At the moment we are doing something else: We formed an in-house design team of sorts, consisting of me, our knitting master and four more collegues. Together, we decide on the next products to be produced under the label.

Many of our own designs are actually done by our knitting master.

He has been in the business for more than 20 years and knows endless ammounts of patterns and how to realise them.

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Does it pay off to bring in designers?

It does, more and more so. I think Icelanders used to be a bit reserved toward unconventional wool clothing and preferred the classics. Since many young designers like Mundi have dared to use strong and uncommon patterns on woolen products,

it seems like Icelanders are becoming more daring in their choice of style.

We recently experienced increases in sales of our older designer-products, which are still available of course.

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How important is the Icelandic market for your business?

The tourists used to be our largest group of customers up until recently. Nowadays, it’s the Icelanders themselves!

Our new collections are targeted more on our Icelandic customers.

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Read the first post in the series here and stay tuned for more producer interviews!

 

Images and interview by Florian Lohse