Not unlike the chapter in Gone With the Wind where Scarlett O’Hara makes a robe out of Tara’s green velvet curtains, Victoria Ladefoged’s grandmother used to transform old drapes into stunning dresses. The drapes were leftovers from the bookstore she owned, and Victoria reminisces her elegantly wearing them around the shop. Both her grandmother and mom were efficient sewers; turning drapes into dresses wasn’t done out of need, but because the fabric was nice and on hand. Working with textiles that haven’t just been cut off a fabric role was something the Danish fashion designer grew up with, and remains the area in which she excels today. For almost a decade, Ladefoged has collaborated with DFD (United Danish Steam Laundries) where she utilises used aprons and bed sheets and incorporates them into her garments. With strong design vision and state-of-the-art tailoring skills, she has created a brand in a league of its own – so much so that this year, Ladefoged was awarded the innovation prize at Harbin Fashion Week in China. We met up with the idiosyncratic designer to learn more about her unique universe.
Although the visionary designer graduated in womenswear from Royal College in London, Ladefoged was always inspired by menswear. After her graduation, she returned to Copenhagen to apprentice at a men’s tailor. Her plan was to stay for a month or two, but realising that it was quite a short timeframe, she decided to stick around until she could sew a tuxedo on her own. “It took two and a half years,” she notes with a smile and adds: “I wasn’t aiming to become a men’s tailor, but I liked the technical parts and the contemplation of knowing a craftwork.” Later, she became designer for the men’s line at Annhagen, and is now co-owner of Sort Slips Hvidt Slips, a charming shop situated in the heart of Copenhagen from where her clothes are sold directly. It is also here in Skindergade, between The Round Tower and Copenhagen Cathedral, that DANSK pays her a visit.
“Running this shop has made me a better designer,” she states. “Observing people trying on the clothes is a great gift, it’s inspiring and helps me to keep track of what works out well and what doesn’t. I used to design a lot of crazy, a bit too exaggerated clothes. But after I’ve seen people trying it on I’ve reminded myself to take it easy a bit. My customer group is super broad and quite fun. I have recently sold the same model of jacket to both a twenty-year-old Chinese woman and to one of my older male customers – I don’t know how old he is, but I know he’s a great-grand-dad.”
“It is an important part of my design vision that the clothes are durable, that I can guarantee that. It’s not just a practical thing, it’s also a feeling; it is heavy, it is nice, it lasts. It is a crucial part of what I do, a main element, that when you hold the clothes in your hands you know you can keep it both ten and twenty years.”
Inspired by Bauhaus and Russian constructivism, Ladefoged’s designs are not about diaphanous fabrics and airy looks: “My things are weighty so they appear quite bombastic. I like the heaviness. Heavy ideas and heavy clothes. It’s a lot to travel with, though. I almost couldn’t carry my suitcase on the way to the fashion week in China,” she exclaims with a laugh. “My designs are not overly feminine but more masculine. I like all things oversize. I love making things that are different, still with references to classical looks. I love kimonos and shirts and feel very inspired by them – at least when it comes to the technical side of things.” In perfect line with the past life of DFD fabrics, Victoria loves uniforms and work clothes and has always been inspired by them in her designs. “It is significant for my designs that everything has a function. This is also the reason why you like a uniform – everything has a purpose, it makes it somehow feel more real. The decorations I do are fabric-on-fabric. I make some details but I don’t add decorations as such. The details occur when I have the fabric between my hands. The materials inspire me; a pocket or the way the fabric falls or curls in the seam. I’ve always thought that you should go with your obstacles. If there’s a hole in the fabric, you apply something to it and turn it into a design detail. There are indeed a lot of obstacles working with this kind of fabric but with those, some gifts are also given to me.”
Ladefoged began collaborating with DFD in 2009 but pursued similar projects even before. Bringing materials from other industries to the fashion scene is part of her design DNA and something she has always enjoyed doing. “The shorts made of dishtowels,” Victoria says and points towards the window display, “was something I started making during my time in London. My designs are about provocation and humour. I find a lot of nerve in that element. However, my thought has always been that if you use this kind of fabric, the handcrafting should be done very well. The materials are not exclusive. They definitely have something, but they are not exclusive. So it has to be well made. I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast of a dish towel and great tailoring.”
In order to work with pre-used fabrics, one has to keep a gentle eye on the materials in order to make sure that they are not damaged or fragile. After ten years of designing with the same textiles, Victoria knows them more than well, and even though she could dream of employing seamstresses in the future, her high standards for durability exclude the possibility for outsourcing. “It is a challenge when I get contacted by companies from Japan who want to sell my clothes and I have to tell them that they can’t,” she says. “It is an important part of my design vision that the clothes are durable, that I can guarantee that. It’s not just a practical thing, it’s also a feeling; it is heavy, it is nice, it lasts. It is a crucial part of what I do, a main element, that when you hold the clothes in your hands you know you can keep it both ten and twenty years.” Sewing takes time and the slow working process does not necessarily align with modern dreams of growth: “I think it is a paradox that I want to sell as many clothes as possible and at the same time the way I work is super slow,” Victoria notes. She continues, “it is hard to accept being a smaller company. In some ways, the goal always seems to be growth. After all, it’s one of our driving forces as human beings. It’s not even just about economy, it is also about seeing something growing bigger. So, I have to repeat for myself that it is okay to be a small company and that the growth can lie in something else.”
“I’m confident that we are in the beginning of something that will become revolutionary.”
Besides attending traditional fashion weeks Ladefoged’s brand has been showcased at Green Fashion Week in both Rome and Milan. Designing on the premises of the textiles and on the basis of the available resources was something she did long before sustainability was the talk of town, but she is not afraid of taking part in the discussion. “When I started designing clothes in the 90s there was no such a thing as sustainable fashion. Of course, similar things were done, but it was more of a Margiela thing, you know, bringing old sewing mannequins and duvets to the catwalk. It was more an examination of materials and the stories they told. That was where all this started for me. Now it has suddenly moved into another context because of the environmental aspects. I didn’t start doing this because I wanted to make sustainable fashion. As a designer you want to be respected for your designs. It is my designs that make the clothes interesting,” she states, then adds: “but the more knowledge I gain, the more important the matter becomes to me. So yes, I definitely want to be part of the debate.” Asked to elaborate on her views on future solutions Ladefoged says, “I hope that buying and wasting will become uncool, that it will get this notion of embarrassment. Once shopping was fun to talk about, like driving around central city in one of those enormous four-wheel drives. Shopping is kind of from the same period of time, and I think it has become distasteful. A big issue is that sustainable fabrics are insanely expensive. If design school students want to use them, it’s almost impossible due to both availability and price. And likewise, if established fashion houses wish to rearrange their production it’s a very expensive process. I understand why companies doesn’t just snap their fingers and change everything over night. It can be the cost of their business,” she says. “Common among the sustainable fashion designers I’ve met is that they are striving. They are struggling to get it up and running. At the same time, I’m confident that we are in the beginning of something that will become revolutionary.”
Although born out of only very few different fabrics, Victoria Ladefoged’s designs are all unique, all with exclusive features. Browsing around her two-room en suite store, every single item invites you to take it off the rack to study every subtle detail; the layers, the shapes, the seams. “I love the fabrics and they perfectly fit the designs I’ve always dreamed about making. If I could order them in meters I would. Sometimes I dream about a nice wool, but apart from that I couldn’t dream of anything else work with. I’ve been designing clothes in the same fabric for ten years now, I guess that says it all. Working within such a tight frame has made me a better designer. It demands of you to constantly reinvent yourself. I definitely don’t miss selecting fabric at Première Vision.”
Words by Anne Ulrikke Bak
For more information, see Victoria Ladefoged