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Letter From Copenhagen: A Fashion Capital in Waiting

As capital of the only Scandinavian country connected to continental Europe, Copenhagen has long been considered the gateway to the region.

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As capital of the only Scandinavian country connected to continental Europe, Copenhagen has long been considered the gateway to the region.

And that’s now true for its fashion industry, too.

Copenhagen’s twice-yearly fashion week has become the largest industry event in Northern Europe and a showcase for designers from neighboring Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and elsewhere.

“We stand a chance if we work together,” asserted Eva Kruse, executive director of the Danish Fashion Institute, striving for Copenhagen to become the world’s fifth fashion capital after Paris, New York, Milan and London.

In 2005, Denmark’s apparel industry, known for high quality at reasonable prices and its knack for furs and knitwear, overtook furniture and design to become the country’s fourth largest export industry.

Emboldened by fashion’s growing contribution to the gross domestic product, investors are broadening their traditional focus in industries like information technology and energy to dabble in local labels.

“Ten years ago when you went to dinner parties, there were the money men and the IT guys,” recalled Peter Ingwersen, founder and chief executive of high-end ethical apparel brand Noir. “Now it’s the money men and fashion designers.”

Already this year, Icelandic investment group BG Partners acquired a 50 percent stake in Danish fashion chain Metropol, while Danish private equity fund Axcel took a 60 percent share of Danish jewelry manufacturer Pandora. And the number of international brands investing in retail space here has rocketed.

“Copenhagen has moved from C list to A list,” declared Henrik Wessmann Jensen, ceo of property development group Oskar Jensen, who for the last three years has attracted high-profile fashion brands to the city. His latest catch is Abercrombie & Fitch, which will open its second European flagship here in 2009 in the Kobmagergade district, where a further 43,000-square-feet of retail space is being developed. That’s good news for about 30 international labels said to be scouting Copenhagen locations.

In a bid to differentiate Copenhagen, which boasts the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe, Strøget, Jensen is turning his attention to homegrown talent. There are plans to open the first stores for Noir and its diffusion line Bllack Noir within two years, and locations for other national brands will follow. “It’s very important for a city this size not to look like every other city,” Jensen said. “When you go to certain cities, the only difference is which side of the street Prada or Giorgio Armani is on.”

Other projects include an origami-like building designed by French architect Manuelle Gautrand at the end of Strøget, boasting 21,000 square feet of retail and a Michelin-star restaurant on the top floor.

There are also plans for an Art Deco-style Grand cafe, designed by Alfredo Häberli, opening in time for fashion week next February.

Schaumann Properties is also developing 300,000 square feet of retail space in Hundige Storcenter in the south.

In a further sign of fashion on the rise, the Danish Design Council awarded its annual prize to designer Jørgen Nørgaard — the first time it has gone to a fashion designer. The industry also handed out 15 prizes at its first fashion awards this year by Dansk magazine, a glitzy event attended by 200 key players.

Unlike Paris or New York, where fashion shows have clashed with events like the Super Bowl or the Rugby World Cup, fashion ranks as a national pastime for uberhip Copenhageners.

At showtime, taxi drivers carry runway schedules and shows are beamed live to department stores, hotels and cafes, which extend business hours during the week.

And the 50,000 fashion week attendees bring gold to the service industry, injecting 194 million kronor, or $40.5 million at current exchange, to the local economy each session, for a total of 390 million kronor, or $81.4 million, each year.

While it awaits nine hotels in the next few years, the Danish Fashion Institute is considering bringing in hotel ships next year while some brands book rooms in nearby Sweden for customers.

City center retailers report sales spikes anywhere from 10 to 100 percent during fashion week.

Rasmus Storm equates the fashion crowd’s verdict on his concept store, Storm, with the effect of media reports on stock value. “Good reports boost value, bad reports damage it.”

Natalia Aricò Sigvardt, commercial manager at Illum department store, concurred: “We always try to look our very best during these periods, which is great timing as new seasons have just started and no signs of last season’s products are visible.”

From the days of fierce competition, Copenhagen’s three main trade fairs now work together to coordinate both the runway show schedule and transport. This August, 55,000 buyers are expected for 45 runway shows (up from 40 in February) and 2,300 brands.

Novelties include an extended denim section at CPH Vision plus an increasing focus on upcoming designers. “Major retailers do not travel to see something they have in their own backyard,” said organizer Jan Busch Carlsen.

Boutique fair Gallery, meanwhile, will show between 30 and 40 brands for the first time, including Lundgren Windinge and Beck Söndergaard, and stage first-time runway shows for Swedish label Cheap Monday.

Faced with continued low turnout of U.S. buyers, Gallery ceo Christian Gregersen plans to promote the show in New York within the next two years.

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