Veteran designer Steinunn on the past and present of Icelandic fashion
Steinunn Sigurðardóttir is a woman who takes care in the details.
Running her fingers down the back of a long gray jacket of her own design, Steinunn looks the garment over with a discerning eye. It is mid-day in her new studio not far from the old harbour, and the space is bright; freshly painted, raw, white.
“Look,” she says, her voice underscored by a sense of marvel that persists throughout our conversation: “Just a simple jacket. But see the finishing on every seam? You could own this for thirty years.”
Thirty years, likewise, is about how long Steinunn has been studying her craft; after graduating from Parsons, she spent sixteen years designing for some of the world’s biggest names in fashion—including Gucci, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Ralph Lauren, among others—before moving back to Iceland to work full-time on her own label—STEiNUNN, founded in 2000.
“It takes years to build a good designer,” Steinunn says. “It doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve been through hundreds and hundreds of collections. I’ve been in fittings on anything from leather to fur, to underwear, to evening dresses. For fashion designers, everybody thinks it’s easy. It’s not. You have to know your textiles. You have to know your patternmaking. I really want people to start knowing the difference.”
Knowing fashion history is key
Understanding the difference, of course, requires knowledge of, not only textiles and patternmaking, but largely, also, fashion history. “You don’t have to love everything that was done in the old days, but at least know the story,” Steinunn says. “Learn from the story, and then move forward. I think that’s the key.”
As curator of a new exhibition at the National Museum titled “Fashion – Gorgeous Gowns,” and featuring an overview of Icelandic fashion—particularly ‘model’ dresses—in the years 1947-1970, Steinunn is indeed grappling with questions concerning posterity in fashion.
“I always talk about this piece,” Steinunn says, referring to a red, embroidered two-piece suit in the show, “because the woman who owned it was a farmer in Hveragerði, around 1947. And sixty-some years later, I mean, you could wear that today and still look spectacular.”
It is not only in terms of the quality of fabrics and textiles that garments stand a chance of lasting; it is also the “mark of good design,” Steinunn says, “how the piece stands up to time.”
“The exhibit kind of shows how women, actually, made an effort. There is something about the preciousness, that you put care and effort into everything you owned, the value of that, you almost want to grasp that today. They seemed to have taken a lot more care in choosing what they were going to wear. They planned this. They went to find the colour and the fabric. This took a long time,” she says.
“We are used to going on a Friday afternoon and buying something to wear and going out the same night, which I understand. But for me, that raises the questions: Where is the value of things we own? Is everything just throwaway? I’m hoping that an exhibit like this will open people’s eyes. Make fewer. Buy fewer. But leave them behind. I want your grandchildren to be able to say, ‘Oh, my grandmother owned that dress, and what a fabulous dress.’”
‘Fashion’ thus highlights not only what has been preserved, but also what we have lost. “There was a lot of elegance here,” says Steinunn. “Today you’re not finding that same kind of elegance.”
Despite the fact that Icelandic women had few resources to work with, they were able, with expert skill, to imitate high fashion looks from the major fashion centres of the time, like Paris, and New York.
“You can see the influences, if you just go through fashion history. You can see how we actually wanted to be part of the outside world. I found images from Irving Penn or Cecil Beaton and lined them up in the right year in order to see the influences. In some cases you can see the lack of good fabrications. There’s one dress in the show which looks almost couture made, but it’s made out of a curtain fabric,” Steinunn says.
It’s about resourcefulness
“So there’s little bit of naiveté in all of this, which is kind of beautiful. Their resourcefulness intrigued me. And maybe that is the Icelandic fashion.”
This resourcefulness plays into Steinunn’s views about fashion in general, which she describes as a refined sense of eclecticism. “It’s how they mix it, that makes it so fantastic,” she says. “That for me is fashion: how you take pieces from everybody and mix it into your own. I own the throwaway pieces, but I also own the pieces you would never let go. And you should mix them together. How somebody else mixes differently from the other: That is fashion.”
In fact, Steinunn is hesitant to admit to there being much fashion in that sense in Iceland today—that is, to there being a calibre of taste that can compete with that found in big cities abroad.
“Icelandic women today, they’re not looking for elegance in the same way that you can see in a big, urban city. They are good at mixing old dress with new. The kind of ready-to-wear fashion… definitely not couture fashion. I don’t think we can talk about Icelandic fashion, per se; it’s more of a street fashion. For me it lacks a little bit in the knowledge of textiles. And that’s what menswear fashion is picking up today. So there are twists that we need to catch up on.”
“I always find it interesting to see how everybody starts to dress the same way, how we seem to follow. Always we try to find a trend in Iceland. And I want Icelandic people to drop that. I want them to be more… eccentric.”
In the end, what Steinunn has done with this exhibit is the same thing she has done in her own designs: honour a craft. “Do you know how many women have actually thanked me for this exhibit?” Steinunn says. “That surprised me. I learned from my grandmothers and I dedicate my career to that fact.”
Steinunn says fashion tells a story as well as any historical document. “Why shouldn’t it be in a museum?”