It's Sunday, which for most of you hopefully means some time off work to relax, read a couple of inspiring articles and refuel for the week ahead. Like most of you probably already know, I'm editor of Less Magazine, a Danish Fashion Magazine on sustainable fashion. We just released issue 07, my very first issue as editor, and I though I'd share some fragments from the interview Malthe and I did with Barbara I Gongini with you. It's a nice little Sunday read, and a perfect introduction for the upcoming material backstage from her runway show during Copenhagen Fashion Week. Meeting Barbara and her wonderful team was such a great experience, and I hope it's not the last time I'll be collaborating with them.
The Relational Coexistence Between Faroese Roots, Japanese avant-garde Design, and The Responsibility Towards Sustainability
Words by Malthe S. Rye Thomsen & Sofie Nordahl
"Everybody thinks the Faroe Islands are so, so green. Very often it is the contrary, almost like living within a black and grey mist.”
- Barbara I Gongini, Designer of BARBARA I GONGINI
It is Friday morning in Copenhagen. The central part of the city is buzzing and alive. The inner part of Copenhagen has this commercial spirit and mainstream feeling, but when we take the harbor boat from Esplanaden to Refshaleøen in bright sunlight it all looks different. Refshaleøen is more industrial, at least on the surface. We walk along the road from the harbor in the direction of the industrial buildings. In one of these buildings the production of the avant-garde brand BARBARA I GONGINI takes places and this is where we are going to interview Barbara I Gongini.
Barbara was born in the Faroe Islands in 1966. She explains that she often hears people portraying the Faroe Islands as a green oasis, but she stresses that this is not the whole story to her birthplace. Barbara explains how in winter the window of light can be as short as just a few hours, and that it is dominated by dark and heavy rain clouds. Barbara tells us how she never wore a raincoat in the Faroe Islands despite the constant rain, and because of this she has a memory of always feeling wet. She describes living in the Faroe Islands as sometimes living in a gray and black, misty and rainy fog mass:
"You can hear the boats trying to navigate in this mass of black and gray. Wooh Wooh. It is a very particular sound. It is in our bones.”
The horns from the ships create an atmosphere of slowness; an everyday life where you go to school and go home, without seeing much daylight during winter. You just go to A to get to B, Barbara explains. There is a certain conformity about it. She describes how the capital, Thorshavn, is almost the shape of a pot and that it sometimes feels like the rain and the fog are contained in the pot of Thorshavn. When you look at Barbara’s designs, it’s easy to see that she is heavily influenced by the Scandinavian darkness, the moody winters, and melancholic undertones that define the Faroe Islands. “You are what you emanate from,” she says. “It’s very deep in my bones.”
A Diverse and Multi-Inspirational Approach to Design
Barbara never approached design in a way that it was supposed to be something specific. Her very first collections were made from scraps, and her CSR polity and non wastage ambition was established. When she designs her current collections, she is more concerned with what inspires her, what fits into her wardrobe concept, and where pieces from each collection can all be worn together. Barbara is inspired by her Faroese roots, Scandinavian women, and the avant garde tradition which was defined in the 90s all of which is visible through her black, and monochrome, expression. It all comes together with the underlying relationship to the Japanese avant-garde that pushes boundaries beyond the point of comfort, and the Scandinavian undertones are supported by the challenging expressions of the avant-garde. She naturally falls into this domain, and with her roots in the Faroese culture it is not surprising; you are a product of your upbringing, surroundings, and inspirational sources. Like her inspirational source in the avant garde’s intellectual and feminist pre-punk take on fashion, Barbara’s brand also has a similar political dimension.
It represents both a resistance against normative views on fashion and also a political urge to work against the way society dictates women's bodies and social injustice. She advocates free and unconditional love regardless of sexual orientation. It's in her DNA to resist the normative pressures and societal order towards the body and sex. At the same time, the brand's DNA also has a playful and explorative imagination towards how to style and wear clothing, mixed with a nordic respect for craftsmanship.
The development of your identity is shown as an expression of your web of interlocution, and for Barbara I Gongini, this goes for the identity of the brand itself, as well as its creator. You are affected by your roots, but there is also a great need to change and mold this expression. In an ever-changing time we need to acknowledge that we need to change and develop not only in relation to our personal development, but also in relation to the changes that our planet and our society are going through. Customers today are demanding more and more from the designer, and sustainability is becoming a bigger issue for many consumers, leading to an increase in the demand for transparency when it comes to the production of the items that they purchase. This has started to affect the approach of many brands and is indeed challenging the foundation of the fashion industry as a whole. For many brands, this means going back to their roots, and re-evaluating how they can interpret sustainability in their domain, to fulfill their responsibilities to the brand, the consumers, and the demand for sustainability.
The Scandinavian way of approaching design is very minimalistic; it references nature in its use of textures, colors and cuts, and is in many ways a good starting point for sustainable production, because it favors the natural and the raw. This is also how Barbara approaches design, pushing the limits even further with her avant-garde approach, still rooted deeply in her Scandinavian background. The Faroese culture insisted on playing a crucial role in Barbara’s life, and she is in no way trying to romanticize her roots and upbringing in the Faroe Islands. She talks about it critically, but also warmly and respectfully. She explains that she has this feeling of being so small, and that coming from a little society, deeply interconnected with nature, has made her very aware of the crucial connection to nature, and how we need to guard this connection, not just in design, but in life in general. “This is who I am,” she underlines.
Barbara I Gongini’s design has a very distinct look and most of her pieces are black with occasional white. She underlines that “there is poetry in black.” Black is part of the brand’s DNA and refers to both her roots in the Faroe Islands, and the Japanese avant-garde.
The Creation of Versatile Pieces
Barbara explains that she has been working from the idea of the square and the circle for many years. Once again, like her inspiration in Kawakubo, she is finding new ways to twist the conventional form into new possibilities and structures. Barbara explains her ideas, inspirations, and materials are a collective thought. She does not necessarily sketch her collections. Sometimes she uses draping – so the development of the styles are a mixture of the fabric and the possibilities they hold within her principles. Barbara emphasizes that experimenting with fabrics and shapes are a central part of the DNA of the brand. Over the years we have seen her experiment with different materials such as thin and thick cotton, wool and leather but also with more experimental fabrics such as technical silk etc. Barbara does not only experiment with fabrics; she has also tested out different prints and even though the black color is a strong part of the DNA, she has also surprised everyone with blue, green and yellow color shades.
We will argue that this experimental approach towards design and fashion opens up possibilities for a particularly close and special relationship to Barbara’s customers. A relationship where co-designing and co-production might be possible. The consumer and designer should exist in a close relationship, and what Barbara offers with her designs is a way for the consumers to take part in the final part of the design. This is constituted not only through listening to the demands of the consumers in terms of a more sustainable production line, but also in the design itself. Barbara makes pieces that can be personalized and worn in many different ways so the consumer has the freedom to shape it according to their bodies and personal style. We ask her how she comes up with these pieces: “I can’t think of a design; I explore it,” she explains. Furthermore, “the intelligence sits in another place, a non-verbal place. I draw the essence from another space - a deeper space within”. For Barbara, the design process is linked with intuition rather than intellect. You can set a direction in terms of shape, fabrics, tendencies, and stitching, but the design process itself happens between her hands, not in her mind. The design of the different pieces gives consumers a greater sense of freedom to interpret them.
Because of the combination of a strong brand identity and versatile pieces, the consumer receives something quite special. They are wearing something with a strong and clear DNA, and while taking part in the expression of the brand’s identity, they still have the freedom of creating the expression of the particular item by bringing their own personal spin into the mix. Not just in the aesthetic expression of the item itself, but also in the way the item is worn. The clothes can be worn in different ways, dressed up or down for different occasions, and it is a physical manifestation of Barbara’s ideas about design and fashion as a need for more substance and more versatile solutions.
Maintaining a good relationship with the consumer is important for any brand, but for Barbara it is more than that. Connection to her consumers is crucial for her production, and she wishes she could get more feedback from them. For Barbara, her designs all emanate from a need to create, and she feels inspired by seeing how her customers wear her clothes. She is often surprised by how experimental even her customers can be in how to wear her clothing. Barbara admires Scandinavian women. But she also feels that the essence of Scandinavian women is unexplored and subject to very unproductive body ideals that act as a constraint. The customer is important to Barbara, and she believes that her versatile pieces make it easier for a wider range of customers to wear them because they can be altered and worn in different ways to cater to different body types. This approach to design is a step in the right direction when it comes to turning consumers into prosumers and to, in many ways, inspire the customers to take a stand when it comes to the item in front of them. At a point in time where the rapidly changing trends are still the dominant contributor on the market, the rise of the prosumer underlines a demand for a change that will bring us closer to a new understanding of value. An understanding of value that connects us to what we purchase and makes us look at the items we wear in a new light. Not as something constantly shifting and to be replaced next season, but something that we can constantly change and personalize, something that will be a part of our wardrobe for years to come, something that we will maybe take a break from for a couple of years but then reinterpret and wear again. A piece of clothing that we will take good care of – because we understand the real value behind what we wear and the value of protecting the garment so it can be used in the future.
If you want to read the full story about BARBARA I GONGINI, and the rest of the articles and interviews in the seventh issue of Less Magazine, you can see it all right here.