Oi Polloi

Interview: Fjallraven designer Elisabet Elfa Arnarsdottir

Published: Mon Nov 07 2016

Fjällräven has been an Oi Polloi favourite for years now — in fact, their jackets were some of the first things we stocked back in the original Tib Street shop many moons ago.

Considering it’s such a big part of Oi Polloi, it seemed a bit strange that we’d never interviewed anyone over at Fjäll to get their take on things. With that in mind, I pestered designer Elísabet Elfa Arnarsdóttir to find out what it’s like working at the Swedish outdoor company…

First things first, how are you today? What’ve you been up to?

I’m doing well today. I had an amazing weekend away with my colleagues in the north of Sweden which was very rewarding and inspiring.

You work for Fjällräven as a product designer. Can you tell us a bit about what that involves? What’s an average day like there?

The days vary vastly throughout the season. We have two seasons here at Fjällräven, spring/summer and fall/winter. Most days include product review, in sketch or prototype format. This can be anything from sketches, fabric, trims or colour. Then I’ll meet with the team and discuss what’s going on and how to move the season forward.

Although more and more people are wearing Fjällräven in England now, in Scandinavia it’s everywhere. What are your memories of the brand growing up?

My memories of Fjällräven are very limited since I come from Iceland which is not in Scandinavia and the exposure of the brand there was very limited.

I came across Fjällräven as I dug deeper into sustainability. I wanted to work in the outdoor industry and it was important for me to work for a brand that cared for the environment and that was working towards minimizing its impact every day. Fjällräven fitted that profile perfectly.

In my head the Fjällräven headquarters are hidden away somewhere in a remote Scandinavian valley miles from civilisation. Am I right? Where abouts is Fjällräven based?

Fjällräven was founded in Örnsköldsvik by Åke Nordin and the head office is still there. Örnsköldsvik is in the north of Sweden, on the Höga Kusten (The High Coast) which is very beautiful. We also have an office in Stockholm, where R and D, product development and marketing sit.

This might be wrong, but it seems that people in Scandinavia are a lot more ‘in tune’ with the great outdoors then people in England. Things like going for a walk or a bike ride are just normal things that people do, rather than in England, where it’s more of ‘an activity’. Why do you think this is?

After talking to my friends and co-workers from the UK we came to the conclusion that in Sweden and Iceland we ask, “What outdoor activities are you into?” not “if”. Here it is so normal to enjoy nature and what it has to offer that we take it as a given. The norm here is to commute by walking, biking, running or taking public transport, even if it’s 10 or 15km away. 

A lot of Fjall’s stuff is fairly simple and straight forward compared to a lot of outdoor companies. Your stuff is sturdy and made to last, rather than the super-lightweight high-tech outdoor stuff that some companies make. What’s the reason for this? Do you think some of the stuff used on outdoor clothes are just gimmicks to sell products?

Well, I’d say each to their own. We build durable products that will last a lifetime. We want to inspire our customers to repair rather than renew and to wear in, not out. Our garments function well in the outdoors and have been put to the test by our expert team and customers since 1960. We create products for their functionality, we want to minimize our impact on the environment and one aspect of that is to ensure a long lifetime of the garments and another is easy reparability. We also want to make sure they have their own long-lasting aesthetics.

What is the main thing you’re looking for when you design a product?

The main thing I look at is its functionality and sustainability. I like to create products that push the limits and evolve us as a brand and help us move forward on our path to less impact.

Maybe a similar question, but what do you think makes a good design?

For me good design fills a purpose or solves a problem. It is functional and has been thought through and given form out from its functions. A good designer listens, researches, takes expert’s and user’s ideas into account and cooks all of it into the best functioning product.

Where do you lot look for inspiration?

I look for inspiration in nature. As I come from Iceland I grew up with the mountains in my back yard. The feeling of the outdoors, the calm, the beauty and the unforgiving elements play a big role in who I am and how I create products and get inspiration. I believe nature and people are connected. Maybe this is why I feel so free in the outdoors. I’m most like me when I’m out here.

In my head Sweden and Iceland seem fairly similar. Am I right saying this? What are the differences?

The nature is quite different in Sweden and Iceland. Iceland has almost no trees, and one of Sweden's biggest industries is forestry.  In Iceland it is possible to see open landscapes and far distances. Iceland has many volcanoes, and Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajölull. We have many fjords and mountains and in that aspect we resemble Norway more than Sweden.

The thing no one expects about Iceland is that it’s warmer there than in Sweden during the winter, but Sweden has warmer summers. It is the ocean and its currents that affect the temperature in Iceland, which rarely goes below –10 or above 20°C. The people in Iceland and Sweden have many similarities and so do the languages. We all come from the same culture about 1000 years ago.

The biggest difference I’ve come across in people is that Icelanders are more straight-forward, while Swedes make sure everyone agrees and are more politically correct. A good example is that an Icelander loves or hate something but a Swede is generally more subtle and likes or dislikes something. I think this come from the nature in Iceland and how dramatic it is. In Icelandic we have an adjective “hrikalega fallegt” it translates to “horrifyingly beautiful”. I think that describes our nature precisely. It’s beautiful, but with the open, rough landscapes and the fast changing weather you are reminded of how small you are and how quickly things can change.

I think this is also were Icelanders draw their creativity from. Everyone does something creative — writing, music, painting, knitting, sewing — I could keep going, everyone has their unique thing.

I was in Iceland for a few days this summer actually. I suppose it’s probably a bit late for this, but have you got any recommendations for things to do over there?

My recommendation would be to go and see the nature. I’d recommend seeing a smaller area and travelling by foot or by horse. Get in touch with what Iceland really is. Feel the wind in your face, smell the ocean, spread out your arms at a mountaintop and enjoy.

We have many beautiful hiking routes, both close to the capital as well as in any corner of the country. The south coast is the most explored by visitors, so I’d recommend going west or north.

Going back to the clothes, you lot do a lot of work to minimalise your impact on the environment. Why is this important to you? What do you lot do differently?

It is important to us because we want to protect nature as our playground for future generations. We know that resources are limited and that with modern-day consumerism they won’t last much longer. The Global Overshoot Day this year was on the 8th of August. This represents the day this year that we (humankind) used up all of earth’s resources for the year. If we don’t care for the environment there will be no environment for us and future generations to use our products in. 

We at Fjallraven work hard to minimize our environmental impact and try to find better alternatives for new and exciting products and processes. We source fabrics with the aim of having as much organic and recycled content as possible.

You have just released the Re-Kanken bags that are made from old bottles. Maybe a bit of a stupid question, but where do you get the bottles from? And do you reckon this sort of thing is going to become ‘the norm’ anytime soon?

We know that to make one Re-Kånken it takes 11 P.E.T. bottles that come from recycling centers in Taiwan.  We make sure we source from a supplier that can prove the origin and traceability in the entire production chain, as well as live up to our code of conduct and chemical guidelines. But recycled polyester is not that revolutionary, what’s also important to mention is the dying process.

Instead of the conventional dying method which dips the fabrics into baths of heated water and dyestuff, we use a method called SpinDye®, which add the colour already at the spinning stage and ultimately eliminate the need for water baths. This has given us a reduction in the amount of water, energy and the amount of chemicals. This helps us minimize the total impact of the product immensely, not just focusing on a recycled source. It is my hope that this kind of impact reduction production method and others like it will be the norm in the future.

Maybe a tough question to answer, but what do you think the future of outdoor clothing looks like?

The future of outdoor clothing I think will become more versatile and will integrate into our society even more than today.

I think connecting with nature, and not just Wi-Fi, is important. We need to ensure that our future generations have an understanding and respect for nature and the planet and I believe the best way to do so is teaching all children the basics of outdoor life. And our brand mission is to help and inspire more people to get out in nature, that’s why we have events like Fjällräven Classic, which we’re expanding to the US and Hong Kong next year.

What do you get up to when you’re not designing outdoor clothes?

I try to get out there as much as I can. If I have a few days off I try to escape the city and camp somewhere. I really like trad climbing and randonnée skiing so those activities are high on my list. But I also hike/trek and kayak quite a bit. The days do tend to get long in the office but I get out there every chance I get. For me it’s really important to teach young people the joys of being out in nature. To help them see that nature is worth protecting and preserving. That’s why I also work as a scout leader. And it gives me the opportunity to be outside every week.

Being a scout leader sounds interesting. How did you get into this? Have you got any good tips for starting campfires?

I initially started in the scouts because my friends were in the scouts already. I later started as a scout leader when I was a teenager in Iceland. It is there that I fell for the outdoors. In Iceland it was easy to choose and decide what we did and nature was close at hand. My scout organisation had a cabin in the mountains just 30 minutes from the capital where we spent countless weekends. We mostly hiked and abseiled, I hadn’t gotten into climbing then but it was a good start. Today I’m a scout leader for teenagers here in Stockholm and we are planning a winter trip where we will go over everything concerning winter camping and we hope we’ll be able to see the northern lights as a bonus.

It is always good to know how to start a fire. Since we have no forest in Iceland I learned this only a few years ago in Sweden.

First make sure you have wood. Start taking it apart with an axe, or a robust knife. Making cuttings from very small, that the first small flames can lighten, and to bigger wood blocks that can go on later when the fire has gotten life.

When your cuttings are ready you take a piece of bark from a birch tree and scrape up the outside, and then use a fire steel to spark the small wood scrapings and start a fire. Make sure to shelter it from the wind at the start. Then you need to be quick and add the smallest wood pieces to it. As it catches life you start adding bigger wood blocks.

Brilliant. I’ll try and remember that. Have you got any wise words you’d like to add?

Do what you love and then you never have to work a day in your life again — I don’t know who said it but I truly believe it! Also get out there and explore, chase your dreams and don’t take no for an answer.

See the Fjällräven stuff here.

Photos by Paul Wennerholm.