This week I set out on my first international travel in almost exactly one year – an inspiration trip with coworkers from our Converse Women’s All Star design team. Leaving my 7 ½ month old baby for the first time was difficult but we were headed to Iceland, which had been a dream destination of mine for a long time. After just 3 ½ days there, not only had I fallen in love with the unique little country, but I was struck by the recurring theme of womanhood that seemed to find it’s way into almost every aspect of the trip. Maybe, as a mother, I’m now more sensitive to this sort of thing, but through the kindness of some amazing local women and the impact of some incredible scenery, I’m leaving Iceland feeling more inspired and empowered than ever before.
Our whole trip was made possible by Elly, our tour guide extraordinaire and prime example of the impressive multi-faceted kind of woman that the Iceland seems to cultivate. Elly grew up in Reykjavik, but is also very worldly, having lived abroad for many years and now working as a stewardess on Icelandair. For our entire trip she filled us with fascinating information on Icelandic history, heritage, and its natural sciences – all given with a deep sense of pride and a great sense of humor. In addition to being a flight attendant and licensed tour guide, Elly is also a member of the volunteer rescue team, trained in mountaineering, and is a mother of four grown children! If that doesn’t make you exhausted just reading about it, you can start hating her right now because, as you can see below, she’s also drop dead gorgeous and virtually ageless.
In the dark morning hours when we first arrived, Elly took us swimming at a nice public pool, a popular activity in Reykjavik, where we Americans modestly dodged the opportunity for some womanly bonding in the communal showers. All refreshed and ready for some coffee, Elly then introduced us to her friend – one part of a sister-team who owns the adjacent café, Systrasamlagi∂, which also carries high-end beauty products, teas, and yoga gear. We would quickly learn that Elly couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone she knew! After some shopping and lunch, we were lucky enough to attend the opening of an all-women photography exhibition at the National Museum of Iceland, featuring past and present photos of Icelandic life from the last 140 years. For the final stop of the day, we visited the Icelandic National Art Gallery to see the dramatic works of Kristín Gunnlaugsdóttir, which “applaud the female sexual energy.” This is when I started noticing a trend!
The following day, Elly accompanied us on an adventurous glacial snowmobiling excursion and a tour of the famous Golden Circle geologic features. This was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life and it was amazing to feel connected with such pristine natural surroundings that are so steeped with ancient stories. At Gullfoss waterfall, one of Iceland’s most famous landmarks, we learned about Sigridur Tomasdottir, a farmer’s daughter who is credited with fighting to save the falls from the threat of a hydroelectric power plant being built there in the early 1900s. She is just one of many remarkable women in Iceland’s exciting history – a list that, more recently, includes Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the world’s first democratically elected female president. A divorced single mother and woman’s rights advocate, Vigdis remains revered by all of Iceland, even in retirement.
The next morning, Elly had arranged a meeting for us with Elínrós Líndal, creative director of Icelandic fashion house, ELLA. We were met by a tall beautiful blonde – a single mother with a degree in psychology, an MBA, and a love for fashion, who explained how she grew her company from a garage upstart into the socially and environmentally conscious luxury brand it is today. It was quite an honor to hear Ella speak, especially after telling us that she will be president of Iceland someday. This was a lesson she was teaching us – to make an affirmation of your goals so that your attitude and actions will follow suit and guide your path. Instead of worrying about the latest fashion trends (or “fast fashion”), Ella explained that her brand represents the idea of “slow fashion” – high quality classic looks that promote respect, confidence and independence. Through a series of core brand values, the mission of ELLA is to change the world by empowering women, but the most inspirational part of our meeting was to witness how Elínrós, herself, truly personifies the mantra of her company and is another shining example of a dynamically successful Icelandic woman.
That afternoon we met with two more inspiring women: Brynhildur and Gudfinna, the co-founders of the design collective Vik Prjónsdóttir. In 2005, after graduating together from the Icelandic Academy of Art, the two women formed Vik based on their shared appreciation for the ancient myths of their culture as well as their commitment towards its current environment. Each piece in their collection is based on a traditional story and it is made locally out of sustainable Icelandic sheep’s wool, but the resulting pieces are anything but old-fashioned. Featuring quirky color combinations and bold patterns set on re-imagined everyday items, the award-winning brand has found great success in its unique offering. It was a pleasure hearing their passion as the ladies told us about each piece and described their design and development process. When they showed me a few ways to wear the Swan shawl, I just couldn’t resist and bought one on the spot – ah, the power of storytelling!
Over the course of the day, Elly introduced us to even more amazing Icelandic businesswomen including the designer of the label Skaparinn, who gave us a tour of her couture design studio and the owner of the shop Insula, which sells wool pillows in a stunning array of colors, amongst other well curated design pieces. Even as I type this recount of my trip, the Icelandair magazine in my seatback pocket is displaying the headline: “The Design Issue: Read About Four Up-and-Coming Women Designers.” Inside, the article begins, “These ladies represent the new generation of [Iceland’s] emerging design aesthetic: colorful, punchy, drawing on striking elements from the nation’s history, pop culture and their own sense of quirk.” Coincidentally, while warming up with a coffee at one of Reykjavik’s nice bookshops earlier in the day, I encountered a book entitled, “The Icelandic Woman: Powerful, Unique, Independent.” It’s exciting to make the connection of how this special strength that has been engrained into the DNA of women from Iceland for centuries is finding new outlets in the design and fashion worlds. If I can internalize any amount of these Icelandic sensibilities, I will be coming home not only a better designer, but also a better woman – and whenever I need a boost of inspiration, I look forward to returning here for more!