Why Nordic culture continues to influence American retail

January 3, 2018

One morning this past October, Ecco’s creative director Liam Maher was preparing to discuss the inspiration behind his Danish footwear company’s latest collection at Agern, an upscale restaurant in Grand Central Station.

The selection of venue was no accident. The Scandinavian restaurant has been critically acclaimed since it opened in August 2016 to much fanfare — so much so that the difficult-to-please New York Times food critic, Pete Wells, gave it three out of four stars, calling the experience “not so much a cuisine as a philosophy.”

Similarly, Ecco — which specializes in high-quality, simple shoes in basic colors — is known for a minimalist aesthetic that mirrors the ethos of its region. For the countries that comprise Scandinavia — including Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — minimalism isn’t just a passing fad, but an ingrained societal practice that influences their entire way of life.

Thanks, in part, to the influence of companies like Ikea and zeitgeist-y concepts like “hygge,” Americans are increasingly looking to emulate the Nordic lifestyle, and fashion brands are responding. Today, its signature, utilitarian approach to design is influencing U.S.-based companies, while also laying out a runway for several Nordic brands to launch in the market.

Nordic culture takes over U.S. retail
As consumers continue to gravitate toward simpler living, Nordic culture has maintained momentum in the U.S., inspiring designers to try their hand at Scandinavian-influenced design. Take Off-White’s Virgil Abloh, for example, who did a collaboration with Ikea last year, lending his streetwear eye to the brand for products like a special-edition bag and also rug collection.

“The Nordic countries have a long history as an egalitarian, environmentally conscious, healthy and balanced part of the world,” said Frederik Thrane, creative director of design and concept at SKAGEN, a minimalist Danish watch company that sells at Bloomingdale’s. “They also have a reputation as some of the happiest nations in the world. To me, part of this happiness is anchored in well-designed societies. The way Nordic societies are designed is not dissimilar to how Nordic products are designed. Work-life balance is closely related to balanced product design.”

Following the explosion of hygge in the American market, fashion has increasingly become allured by the movement, prompting a fresh take on comfort and basics. For brands, it has served as an easy cultural movement to capitalize on, since achieving peak hygge seems to require an ample assortment of scented candles, cozy socks, fuzzy blankets and instant hot chocolate. Kevin Harter, vp of fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s home department, said hygge influenced in-store displays during the 2016 holiday season, telling Time he curated assortments of Hudson Park blankets, Volupsa candles and Ugg pillows.   

For other retailers, this has led buyers to seek out Nordic brands to feature on their shelves. As a result, American shoppers can hardly walk down a street or college campus without seeing a sea of Fjallraven backpacks or browse luxury e-commerce sites like Farfetch without stumbling upon styles by a Scandinavian designer such as Astrid Andersen or Henrik Vibskov. The movement is even trickling down to mall stores and teenage consumers — last month, counterculture retailer Hot Topic announced it will begin selling items by Tulipop, an Icelandic lifestyle brand.

Making room in the fashion market
In September, Paris Fashion Week launched Swedish Fashion Now, as a means of giving visibility to emerging brands by inviting them to debut their collections at a showroom visited by buyers and fashion press. Emma Ohlson, secretary general of the Association of Swedish Fashion Brands, told Glossy in a previous article that part of the effort was to challenge the perspective that Swedish design is only minimalistic.

“As with many countries, we have an abundance of cultures and inspirations,” she said.

While there isn’t yet a segment of New York Fashion Week dedicated to Swedish style, the global focus on the country continues to influence the American market. Take H&M’s offshoots for example: the upscale, minimalist concept stores Cos and & Other Stories, which have been expanding in the U.S. And Acne Studios, the Swedish luxury fashion house founded in 1996, continues to introduce related concepts to American consumers. Known for its denim offerings, in March, the company announced plans to pare down its denim styles to just three per gender — baggy, straight and skinny — to simplify the business model and reduce waste.

“By minimizing the assortment, you’re making those few items that much more important,” Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, said in a previous article. “When you try to be something for everyone, you end up being nothing for anyone.”

A studio display for Swedish Fashion Now during Paris Fashion Week in 2017

To a certain extent, the rise of Nordic culture has also influenced American companies like Everlane, which has succeeded in forming a business around selling a small, curated collection of basics in muted tones. It has also permeated American streetwear, with popular sites like Highsnobiety and Hypebeast increasingly featuring sportswear and lifestyle companies based in Scandinavia, including Copenhagen-based Wood Wood and Norse Projects, and the Swedish snowboarding and skateboarding company WeSC. 

“The essential principles of Danish design — modern utility inspired by nature and that expresses truth through materials — are consistent in some ways with an underlying idea of modesty,” said Ecco’s Maher. “No individual personality is a more powerful engine of inspiration or attraction than nature itself.”

Translating societal practices to design
Maher, the creative director of Ecco, said much of the company’s aesthetic is derived from the “Law of Jante,” a way of living that encourages living humbly and modestly. Its 10 rules serve as a foundation for “the essential principles of Danish design, modern utility inspired by nature that expresses truth to materials.”

“No amount of clever design flourishes are more meaningful than letting the best materials do the talking in your designs. No personal creative agenda should overshadow the final design functioning in the lives of the real person who will wear it,” he said.

For Ecco, this translates to a design approach that prioritizes quality materials (primarily well-crafted leather) over flashy designs. The brand maintained this mindset when it entered the U.S. market in 1991, nearly thirty years after it was founded in Denmark. Ecco stayed true to its simpler aesthetic philosophy when it came to the states, Maher said, only shifting strategy by introducing new products, silhouettes and materials that the team felt would better appeal to a North American demographic.

A promotional holiday post by Ecco

Sticking to its roots has paid off. The brand has posted increased profits and record sales for the past seven consecutive years and continues to expand to new regions, including Latin America. Maher said the growing appeal of Ecco, particularly in the U.S., can be attributed to not just a shift toward minimalist design, but also a changing attitude toward office wear.

“In recent years, Nordic design and style have been most notably shown in the trend of Casual Friday,” he said. “The democratization of style in the workplace aligns perfectly with the doctrine of minimalist design, or design that is based on the notion that nothing exists on a product that should not be there.”

Thrane, the creative director of design and concept at SKAGEN, echoed Maher, and said his intention is to make long-lasting products that can be used across years and seasons. Looking to the future, he anticipates a continued influx of Scandinavian culture in the U.S., particularly as sustainability becomes a growing concern globally.

“There is a growing global awareness around issues of equality, the environment and health, and what values we believe in,” he said. “I think the ideals Scandinavia holds resonate with many people in the U.S. and globally.”

Image courtesy of SKAGEN