Working between Copenhagen and Greenland, Bibi Chemnitz has pioneered a design identity for the people of the world’s biggest island, and given a unique creative voice to a community often neglected in the mainstream political conversation. As she continues to grow her vision of political streetwear internationally, we caught up with the designer and her partner David Røgilds – discussing Arctic summers, cultural heritage, and how to make it at Paris Fashion Week.
When DANSK visits Bibi Chemnitz, a delivery car has just dropped off a bunch of boxes in front of the brand’s studio in Brolæggerstræde, Copenhagen. While David carries them from the street to the studio, Bibi explains that the couple is in the process of finding a new workspace. “You think it’s easy [to find a place] but it’s not, and I almost can’t wait anymore,” she says. Although well-organised, the many boxes stacked along the walls bear witness that the business has grown to a size incompatible with the capacity of the space, a traditional central-Copenhagen basement.
Inuit designer Bibi Chemnitz started her namesake brand already a few years before she graduated from design school in 2005 with a degree in textiles. Later, she teamed up with David Røgilds, graphic designer and her life partner, and together they have made Bibi Chemnitz what it is today: an internationally recognised streetwear brand communicating arctic culture and life on the world’s biggest island. “We have been at this location for almost seven years” David says when we sit down around the big work table in the front room. “This used to be our shop, and then we worked in the back, but there’s not at all room for that anymore. And right now we travel too much to have a physical store. It takes too much. We’re in Greenland around five times a year, and travel almost hundred days annually. One of the great advantages of running your own business is flexibility, but you loose it with the fixed opening hours. We like sleeping in and working late, and it doesn’t make sense to us to sacrifice that freedom right now.”
Moving from Greenland to Denmark with her family when she was thirteen, Bibi Chemnitz has a profound connection to both places. The Arctic theme has been a cornerstone since the birth of the brand. “There’s an eternal story in the brand and in Bibi” David says. “We always find our inspiration in Greenland and the Arctic and there’s many angles to approach it from. We look at nature, culture and wildlife, and our collections are more or less themed. What I’m wearing now,” he says, referring to his long sleeved t-shirt, “is from our collection Home Sick. It’s a collection about longing; the longing for home or the longing out that you often feel if you have a home in more than one place.”
Defining their brand as ‘a streetwear brand, inspired by street culture but with a Greenlandic expression,’ what Bibi and David has done with Bibi Chemnitz is to unite a style born out of modern urban settings with some of the oldest and most extreme nature on earth. This constellation does not only conjure a playful, unique look, it also conveys some of the ideas important to the couple. “We want to communicate that Greenland is a modern society. And then we try to create something that the Greenlanders can be proud of on their design scene. If you look at it in a bigger, transatlantic context, Iceland and the Faroe Islands has quite strong design identities. Denmark as well, of course. On the contrary, it’s still hard to say what defines Greenlandic contemporary fashion. We’re less than a handful of designers that all have moved in quite different directions; and so the scene is only building up now.”
While many Bibi Chemnitz items are graced with inuit symbols, the Greenlandic flag or the motif of the island, the inspiration is not only pronounced in the decorative aspects. The materials fit an Arctic climate and the clothes is suitable for both mountain trekking and hunting. Bibi and David have worn their feather down jackets in -20 degrees Celsius and their collections come with both woollen underwear and socks. “We do two big collections a year, winter and summer. However, when exhibiting at CIFF this summer, people thought it looked more of a winter collection. Our designs are made for Denmark and Greenland where we experience more days with under fifteen than above twenty degrees Celsius. This means that even for our summer collection we make a pair of thermo pants and a feather down jacket. Actually, instead of calling the collections winter and summer, we ought to say it’s winter and winter light” David says with a smile.
That the clothes should come with a reasonable price tag was something the couple decided very early on; both young and having barely finished their studies they wanted to create something they could afford themselves. This philosophy has become part of the brands DNA: “It’s often been an issue on the fairs in Paris, that our items are too inexpensive for the customers that comes by. Bergdof Goodman for instance; when you mention your retail prices, they think it’s the wholesale prices. And so sometimes it’s tempting to sell at a higher price, just to get other buyers in, but we won’t.”
Most of Bibi’s family lives in Greenland. The couple celebrates christmas there every second year, but this year is not a year. “When we’re down here [in Denmark], I miss Greenland so much. We’re not going until February which really stresses me out. However, after three weeks in Greenland I also miss things about Copenhagen, like my workspace. Greenland is more about the great nature and the close friendships,” Bibi notes.
While Greenland has attracted global attention later years due to climate change and the areas geopolitical gravity, Denmark also experience a rising awareness of the importance of looking at the Danish-Greenlandic relationship. Earlier this year DR, Denmark’s public service broadcaster, aired a series of programs focussing on life in Greenland attempting to give Danes a better understanding of the most northern part of the kingdom. With their designs, Bibi Chemnitz and David Røgilds are constantly part of a conversation with and about Greenland. And sometimes being introduced to life in the Arctic can be overwhelming. As when the couple had bought a photo from a nineteen year old hunter from West Greenland and used it on a t-shirt. “It was a go-pro underwater photo of a seal he had just shot. Beautiful; the water was emerald green with the blood fading out in it. When we brought the t-shirt to Paris Fashion Week, the Asian buyers found it way too violent. But hunting is part of life in Greenland, and it is done with great respect,” David says and continues: “another thing that caused a lot of debate was when we printed the American flag into the silhouette of Greenland. A lot of people thought we encouraged Greenland to take on American values, but the story was quite the reverse. It was around 2014 and a time where Greenland thought they were to become rich on oil and minerals. Our aim with the t-shirt was to say to Greenland: You have the resources, don’t sell yourself to cheap, you have the power, think!”
Bibi Chemnitz is sold in twelve villages around Greenland; one retailer per town, to avoid competition between the shops. And the brand is highly popular in the north. “We have reached the point in Greenland where we can’t really expand more,” David says. “The Greenlandic customers are very loyal if you make something they can relate to and that they can’t find anywhere else.”
Bibi’s grandmother used to make Greenlandic national costumes. One technique very unique to Greenlandic traditional design is avittat; seal hide that you dye and shave. You cut it out in small squares and put it together in the mosaic patterns famous from the beautiful kamik boots. Unfortunately, just as most other native design around the world, Greenlandic and Inuit design has often been appropriated. Asking Bibi and David how they work around this, if there’s anything they wouldn’t touch, they seem quite bold about the issue: “We’re not afraid of touching anything because it’s ‘tradition’. You have to add things to keep traditions alive and make them evolve further. As long as you do it with respect. Sometimes people ask us, why did you do this, and then we explain our thoughts behind it,” David states and adds: “the traditional kamiks for instance, there is some embroidery on them that is actually german roses, something the missionaries brought with them. The Greenlanders thought it was a beautiful pattern and adopted it. At that time you didn’t have access to a lot of fabric, so you had to use what was at hand. This is one of the reasons we dare to go about it, to evolve it, because it’s always been that way. Everything comes from something that was before. And maybe we can do it in a way that others can’t,because Bibi is inuit, she’s Greenlandic and part of the tradition.”
Earlier this year Bibi Chemnitz dressed the 200 athletes of the Greenlandic delegation for Arctic Winter Games, a circumpolar sports event celebrating indigenous cultures, in the North West Territories in Canada. Bibi Chemnitz won an unofficial price for best design, and Bibi has become sort of an icon in inuit culture, David says. “She receives letters and gifts from people, also from Canada. They write that it is an honour that Bibi is part of the inuit people and that she represents them well.”
To Bibi and David helping out where they can is important and their hearts beat for Greenland’s young generations. This year they designed the official Operation Day’s Work t-shirt in favour of Greenland’s youth, and last year they held creative workshops in public schools. “Some of the biggest problems in Greenland are suicide and abuse of children, and those are often related,” David says. “In Denmark there’s too little focus on Greenland’s lost children. It’s hard to fathom as a Dane, that there are places in the kingdom where abuse is almost normal.” Bibi nods and adds as we end up our conversation “We need to bring focus to these things. The more we know about each other, the more we engage.”
Words by Anne Ulrikke Bak
For more information, see Bibi Chemnitz