By  on August 12, 2008

COPENHAGEN — Denmark may have been the first European country to officially enter a recession, but the bright corals and pinks in collections during Copenhagen’s fashion week seemed to express optimism.

Despite sluggish economies, an estimated 50,000 visitors, including buyers from overseas department stores plus international journalists from Paris, New York and Beijing, attended the five-day event, which ended here Aug. 10.

It was held concurrently with a trio of trade shows, from mainstream brands at the Copenhagen International Fashion Fair, to streetwear, denim and young designers at CPH Vision and designer names at Gallery.

Confirming Copenhagen’s status as a showcase for Nordic design, Sweden’s Cheap Monday staged its first-ever runway show, while fellow Swedish brand Acne unveiled its latest women’s wear collection and Finland’s Marimekko showed a line of bold nature-inspired prints, marking the first runway show by a Finnish brand here. Denmark’s Day Birger et Mikkelsen, meanwhile, staged a theatrical show to rival Paris, commandeering the city’s main square to fete its 10-year anniversary with 1,500 guests that climaxed in a firework display.

Yet there are rumblings that rising inflation and sky-high housing prices will impact Denmark’s retail market. “The latest estimate was that 300 shops would close by year-end,” said Jan Busch Carlsen, director of the CPH Vision trade show, noting 560 fashion stores have opened across the country this year. “Whoever gets last on the train will have to get off very quickly.”

Many retailers here are trimming their number of suppliers, according to Michael Rand, managing director for Bitte Kai Rand. “In Denmark, there was this bonanza where everything was possible and it was very easy for new labels to get started. Now retailers aren’t taking as many chances,” he said.

“Before, I could sell anything,” said Ane Cecile Remvig, owner of Remvig, a 1,000-square-foot store carrying midmarket labels for 25- to 35-year-olds in Copenhagen. “I was bringing in labels nobody knows. Now I’m playing it safe.”

But some say Denmark’s economic problems have been exaggerated.

“We’re hearing [about recession] over and over again, but it hasn’t hit us yet,” concurred Anna Wallen, distribution and marketing manager for Swedish fashion brand Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair.

Indeed, while some labels fear zero growth this year, others expect sales gains of between 10 and 25 percent.

In order to spread risk, companies are expanding their international reach, opening their own boutiques to get their full margin, plus control their image and merchandising.

In Russia and China, where lower-priced brands like Denmark’s Bestseller have already gained a foothold, rising middle classes will likely offer potential for higher positioned Nordic names. “The main problem now is there’s either rich or poor in Russia and China, and Nordic brands are primarily in the middle market so they may not be able to penetrate yet,” said Carlsen. “Consumers there want Prada or a Mercedes-Benz, possessions that show their class. They don’t want to buy Rutzou, they don’t know what it is,” he said, predicting that within five years the middle market’s growth will allow more Nordic brands to enter that market.

Some are already there. Bitte Kai Rand has just entered Russia with seven accounts in Moscow, while premium Danish label Sand has opened three boutiques in Beijing this year and is scouting further locations in the city. It now has 40 stores and 1,000 doors globally and expects a sales increase of 10 percent this year despite a slowdown in demand for formal looks.

“Sales we are maybe losing on eveningwear, we’re gaining on jeans and tops,” said Sand sales representative Carsten Sondergaard. The privately owned company, whose annual retail sales approached 160 million euros, or $243 million at current exchange, is also expanding in Denmark, with a new shop-in-shop retail identity for 20 stores here by year-end before rolling out worldwide.

There’s also potential for Scandinavian brands to grow in Asia, according to Jay Bahn, director of planning at Seoul-based One Planning, who was scouting Gallery for new Scandinavian labels to introduce to South Korea. Starting with a 500-square-foot shop-in-shop for Bruuns Bazaar in Seoul’s Shinsegae department store next February, Bahn plans to introduce new brands every year.

Elsewhere in Asia, Marimekko has recently opened three stores in Japan, bringing its total store count to 80. “In 10 years, we aim to be totally international,” said president and chief executive Mika Ihamutolia.

To better market themselves in the fast-growing Baltic countries, meanwhile, the fashion institutions of the five Nordic countries have joined together to create Nordic Look, the first collaboration between the two regions, which will showcase Nordic brands during Riga, Latvia’s fashion week in November.

Larger companies are already moving into that region. “We are targeting Eastern Europe because those markets have the highest economic growth in Europe,” said Sune Bjerregaard, managing director of Jackpot, the third largest brand within Denmark’s IC Companys, which is to open 25 stores in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary over the next two years. Jackpot, whose sales came in at 60 million euros, or $91 million, last year through its 75 own stores and 1,300 doors, said its own store sales rose 25 percent for the period ended June 30. “We have not felt the recession yet,” said Bjerregaard.

Retail is booming in Eastern Europe thanks to new shopping malls, added Laima Kaconiene, fashion garment network director for 46-door chain Levuo, who placed orders at Day Birger et Mikkelsen. Levuo, the second biggest fashion retailer in Lithuania, expects sales growth of around 14 percent this year on top of 38 percent in 2007. “The clothing business isn’t going down; everyone wants to be fashionable,” she said.

High-end collections, meanwhile, are prioritizing the booming Middle East market.

After a first store in Dubai, luxury label By Malene Birger is opening two boutiques in Kuwait this fall, followed by Bahrain next February. As Danish brands like Wood Wood and Day Birger et Mikkelsenplus Sweden’s Odd Molly become more popular, the U.S. is taking note of Scandinavia, according to Juliette Gustavsson, co-founder of, who was scouting Gallery for Scandinavian names to sell to American consumers.

Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair just delivered its first collection to Barneys New York, while Eksempel started in the U.S. last season and Wood Wood has a host of new accounts lined up.

Sculptural looks, such as padded-shoulder dresses at Hope, emerged as a key trend. “The whole silhouette here is more forward looking,” said Torston Lange, founder of a German e-commerce site, mentioning box-shaped dresses and nylon skirts at Whyred.

Designers also injected bright colors, from corals to pinks and greens into collections, moving away from the traditional black-and-white palette associated with Scandinavian fashion.

Wood Wood was offering a 10,000 euro, or $15,000, racing bike among its spring collections, which feature hard cotton fabrics traditionally used in its men’s wear in khaki pants for women, and has seen no signs of a slowdown.

Also borrowing from its men’s wear lines, Acne’s New Standard women’s wear incorporates Italian suit and shirt fabrics, while the label also unveiled a bike, created with prestigious Italian bike manufacturer Bianchi.

After its New York location with Opening Ceremony this year, Acne is opening franchises in Vienna and Norway while the Middle East and Japan are in the pipeline. The label expects a 25 percent sales increase when it closes its books at the end of the month, according to chief executive officer Mikael Schiller.

“There are some department stores lowering their budgets,” he said, “but if you do good things, you can still do good business.”

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