Meet the Luxury Avant-Garde Nordic Designer Breaking Down Gender Norms

Meet the Luxury Avant-Garde Nordic Designer Breaking Down Gender Norms

Interview by Claire Valentine

Nordic designer Barbara í Gongini brings an obsession with sustainability and a futuristic approach to gender norms to her namesake line, which combines an avant-garde sensibility with luxury materials and designs. We spoke with the artist about why sustainable practices are so important in a fast-fashion world and designing for men, women and everyone in between.

Where are you from and where are you based now?

I grew up in the Faroe Islands, a remote archipelago of 18 small islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Iceland and Norway with a population of about 50,000 people. Our heritage is deeply rooted within the Viking period. We even have our own language that only a few people know how to speak. It's a dramatic place to live, with steep coastal cliffs, grassy heathland and a lot of mist and rain. We decided to locate our headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is a very openly creative city.

You've had a career that spans 20 years. What are the main changes you've seen in the fashion industry since you first got started?

Compared to the past, the focus of the industry in regards to sustainability and corporate social responsibility has become more and more important. We have been fighting for it since we started the BARBARA I GONGINI brand. For us it was never a question of "if" or "if not" to start a sustainable business. Coming from a place which is so close to our natural surrounding, it was a very organic step to take.

When did you start the BARBARA I GONGINI line?

We officially started in 2005. The absolute first collection I created consisted of collected scraps of fabrics from previous art projects which were morphed into a fashion show. At that time, no one had really heard about such an approach. Since then, social responsibility, animal welfare, etcetera have always been in our core. We are aiming to be the absolute front runner in the Nordic Hemisphere in regards to sustainability.

What role does sustainability play in your line?

We recently were invited by the European Commission in Brussels to the High-Level Conference on Responsible Management of the Supply Chain in the Garment Sector to hold a speech about the perspectives on engaging in responsible supply chains. We recognize the obligation to ensure that suppliers are operating ethically. We expect our suppliers to consistently provide an environment which protects their employees' health and safety and basic human rights by complying with their national employment laws and regulations in regards to minimum age of employment, freely chosen employment, health and safety, terms of employment, etcetera.

How do gender norms play into your design process? Why is it important to you to defy traditional standards?

Unfortunately, there is still is a clear necessity to manifest that same-sex relationships are the norm, even though it's old news. It is therefore important to state that the freedom to love whom you choose is just a basic human right. It would be a more colorful world if it would be fully embraced.

We are not too focused on creating for a perceived female or male body. I think there is a need to celebrate the feminine, there is a need to celebrate the masculine and there is a need to celebrate everything in between.

We therefore highly appreciate the crossover of the collections. Throughout all of our collections, there is a fluid continuity within the items, which you can perceive as feminine or masculine depending on the way the wearer styles it. As a designer, I wanted to explore this fluidity. The middle ground is always a crossover.

Who are your clothes for?

We started out with a conceptual approach to fashion, which has always appealed to a more mindful audience who were open to explore our different design concepts.

What other designers are you inspired by?

There are a lot of designer that I adore and admire. Usually designers that are very inventive, creative and who design with a very personal touch in their designs. When the front runners of the avant-garde revolution came to Paris Fashion Week with their Japanese design tradition, I immediately felt that I had a lot in common with their intellectual approach. At this time I was sitting in the Faroe Islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and it made a lot of sense to me. It's a way of life and being. It's about applying this intellectual approach to my surrounding -- in this case the Faroe Islands.

What does avant-garde mean to you?

Avant-garde by definition is for the very few. It has been a concept that since the beginning that has been in a constant flux. For me it is many things, mainly that there is a layer underneath the layer. It is about awaking the senses to discover and to reflect. Designs should always echo this approach.

What's the difference between BARBARA I GONGINI and the subline Norðan by BARBARA I GONGINI?

Compared to the highly conceptual Mainline, the newly launched subline Nor ðan by BARBARA I GONGINI is more toned down and accessible. The line is broken down to the essentials, where the absence of noise is crucial, thus rich on subtle details.

The subline contains a silent reflection of the BARBARA I GONGINI DNA and features a contemporary, timeless look, which contains trend elements in addition to touching on terms like street, rock and tailoring. Aligned with a clean and untouched nature, the new Nor ðan by BARBARA I GONGINI collection focuses on a sustainable take on clothing.

The foundation of Nor ðan is also aligned with the imaginary journey in the North and is therefore based on textures of basalt rocks, mist, soil, seawater, moss, rust and driftwood. Rough linen, heavy cotton, silk, wool, leather and blends of recycled materials from various fibers are joined in synchronized symbiosis. The color palette lies within a northern spectrum that mimics nature in all its shades.

How do you incorporate interdisciplinary art projects into your work?

We are flirting with the conceptualism of fashion. This incorporates sounds, dance, theater, visuals and installations. All these crossover disciplines are creating a natural symbiosis. All my projects are very dear to my heart and a personal journey. The latest Module Modular Collaborative Film & Installation during Paris Fashion Week was a highlight. We collaborated with different forces from the Nordic Hemisphere, and it visualized a transformation from primitive to futuristic. We refer to the utterly human ability to comprehend – a mindful appreciation of being an animate entity. It was an expression of the moment, when the mind is free to let the body express itself.

What are you working on next?

It will be a project launched during Copenhagen Fashion Week in the beginning of 2018. It will consist of multiple pieces that will eventually merge into one. Nowadays in the fashion world no one takes risks anymore -- we therefore want to approach our presentation in a different, disruptive way.

What advice would you give to young designers today?

Back when I was starting my business, I had no clue how to get the business side aligned with the design side, nor how to connect with a talented team that supports your vision. I therefore was balancing these things myself, making all the mistakes that small businesses can do.

I can only say: Be very driven by your own design force. To the point where you can apply a new angle to the design scene. Do something different. Do not follow trends. Look into sustainability and build up your brand on these pillars. This is the future. Dig deep into how to build up your business case and make sure that you pick a very strong team that supports you on your way.

See the BARBARA I GONGINI lookbook below:

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