COPENHAGEN — Inside the centuries-old Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, doyennes of Copenhagen’s fashion scene gathered. Apollo Bar, a trendy restaurant housed within the school, was that evening’s location for a party hosted by Ganni, a homegrown megabrand celebrating its new art film series directed by the Danish “It” girl Emma Leth. Clutching whimsical striped boxes of popcorn, women from various creative fields — dressed in pastel track suits, tinsel sweaters and running sneakers — sauntered through the historic, wood-paneled rooms.
Such is a typical magpie Thursday night here, where a close-knit community of fashion designers, artists, restaurateurs, interior designers and creative types have collectively drawn significant attention on the Internet for their “Scandi 2.0” style: colorful, mismatched fashion, expressive interior design and experimental cuisine that is a far cry from Scandinavia’s reputation for austere, minimalist style.
Copenhagen — along with Seoul and Mexico City — has become the latest creative hub to grow repute on Instagram. These cities’ unique aesthetic sense, cultural pride and innovative panache are attracting hip-seeking visitors — joining the list of chic destinations for Millennials in a world that is increasingly interconnected.
Restaurateur Frederik Bille Brahe, founder of Apollo Bar and the nearby Café Atelier September, said social media has helped Copenhagen’s creative community to thrive. “The generation before me had to travel out, they had to move to Paris, New York or London,” he said. “With social media people are now capable of communicating success on a broader level — it’s brought attention to Copenhagen in a way that we can now live in Denmark and be part of an international market. You are starting to see new centers.”
The attention generated by Copenhagen extends beyond just designer clothing; the Danish lifestyle encapsulates many of the fashionable behaviors of our time — with healthy eating, biking, mindfulness, comfortable fashions and a cozy attention to home design making the city a well of aspiration.
Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah), a Danish term denoting coziness, has in the last five years become an international phenomenon, added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2017. Outside Denmark, the term has grown distorted, becoming a catchall term for decorating with a certain thoughtfulness — further propelling the country into a position of aesthetic influence.
In the U.S. and parts of Asia, the Danish “It” girl has begun attracting a level of attention similar to the “French Girl” phenomenon. Sought after for their nonchalant approach to fashion, women including Emma Leth, Pernille Teisbaek and Trine Kjær have amassed hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, their style-conscious fans clamoring for a glimpse into their beauty habits and lifestyle hacks.
With miles of bike paths and an economic system that extends free education and health-care services to its citizens, Denmark has spun a utopic lore — quickly creating an international obsession for Danish culture, designs and personalities. The country, with a population of 5.6 million, is now welcoming some 20.6 million visitors a year — with that number projected to grow 3.9 percent annually.
WWD ventured to the Danish capital, visiting studios, shops and galleries to investigate how the Internet and a social welfare system have helped create a thriving creative capital.
Beginning of the Movement
While Denmark had always been regarded for furniture design — and in prior centuries for its porcelain and performing arts — its ascent to the hipster zeitgeist is relatively recent. In the early Aughts, it was Stockholm that set the creative tempo for Scandinavian design.
Denmark’s cards began to change with the 2003 opening of René Redzepi’s restaurant Noma. Named the world’s best restaurant, Noma was the initial seed, many say, in the growing demand for all things Danish. The restaurant’s kitchen eventually trained a new generation of chefs who left to open independent culinary projects throughout the city — turning Copenhagen into a hotbed of Michelin-starred destinations.
The fashion, art and design industries picked up speed soon thereafter — establishing a tight-knit, interdisciplinary creative community. The group’s distinctively friendly, non-competitive attitude is the runoff effect, some say, of life lived in a balanced society.
Denmark has ranked within the World Happiness Index’s top three countries for the last seven consecutive years and has the world’s second-lowest poverty rate, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s index. The country’s social welfare system, some feel, has emboldened the creatively inclined.
“It’s actually quite spoiled to be able to think, ‘I want to be a creative person — I want to create something.’ That is crazy privilege,” jewelry designer Sophie Bille Brahe said of the local mind-set, where the state covers school and health care as well as livable stipends for those whose salaries fall below a certain threshold.
These circumstances, teamed with today’s global connectivity, have led to something of a watershed of creative projects based in the Danish capital — now flooded with new fashion labels, cafés, boutiques, galleries, chefs and artists. “The components have always been there — we’ve had the framework of a very balanced society with a lot of confident and content people. The food scene has played a major role for us with Noma and its spin-offs. Then we had a couple of TV series, some great actors — it’s not that just one lightbulb went off. A lot of things coming together at the same time has drawn a lot of attention to Copenhagen,” Nicolaj Reffstrup, cofounder of Ganni, told WWD whilst seated in the fashion label’s showroom.
“The world seems to be going crazy and, across the board, Scandinavia is one of the few calm places,” he added.
In a reaction against decades of minimalist design, Copenhagen is charging forward with a new brand of eccentricity — creating a look sometimes referred to as Scandi 2.0.
This colorful, expressive movement is evident across the full spectrum of the arts — like the home accessories available for purchase at interiors emporium Hay House; floral arrangements by designers like Poppy Kalas and Christian Ravbak that are on view at restaurants across Copenhagen; outerwear by Saks Potts; candy-colored hair clips at the shop Pico, and hand-blown glass light fixtures and trinkets by the artist Helle Mardahl.
The success of Ganni — a brand whose bold, trendy designs earned it a majority investment from LVMH-associated fund L Catterton — can be traced to its founders’ longing for a new paradigm in Scandinavian design. “I remember I was traveling a lot and people would say, ‘Oh you are from Scandinavia; you must be androgynous.’ I couldn’t recognize myself in that or my friends. I felt like something was missing out of Copenhagen and there was this other way of dressing and being a Scandinavian. I wanted to show that,” said the brand’s creative director Ditte Reffstrup.
These stories can be heard throughout Copenhagen’s design studios. Mardahl, a former fashion designer and fine artist who trained at Central Saint Martins, has recently experienced success with her sold-out range of “Bonbonniere” glassworks. Though small, the candy dishes encapsulate the Scandi 2.0 movement with their mismatched colors, freeform shapes and air of casual refinement.
Mardahl characterized the recent change in Denmark’s style imprint, saying, “The interior wall color in Denmark had been white for years and years. We have turned that upside down. Everyone has pink and color on the wall now. I think we are starting to get a bit proud here and believe in the style being created. We all like very similar things and we are proud of the influence it has on people.”
“Everything here was very minimalistic and now there is a new break with girls like Saks Potts and me. We like to make our own rules for how we want to express ourselves in the fashion scene,” said rising fashion designer Emilie Helmstedt, who is based in the Copenhagen district of Freetown Christiania — an anarchist community established in 1971 — and who this year took home the Magasin du Nord Fashion Prize for emerging design.
There are countless other players in the Scandi 2.0 movement: bedding purveyor Tekla; goldsmith jeweler Orit Elhanati; fashion designer Stine Goya; vintage dealers Paloma Vintage, Jerome Vintage, and Time’s Up Vintage ; interior design emporium The Apartment; ceramics house Tina Marie Copenhagen, and airy cafés like Mirabelle and Sonny — all working in tandem to craft a fresh identity.
Rise of the “It” Girl
The Danish “It” girl — with her vintage clothes, running sneakers and pastel fur coat — is Copenhagen’s equivalent of Tokyo’s Harajuku girls — a highly visible urban style ambassador. In the last five years, she has become an online sensation for Denmark — drawing the attention of international press looking for visual freshness.
These women, like Emma Leth, a Balenciaga muse and actress, or Rosemarie Vind, the daughter of a former royal court lady-in-waiting, gallivant across the grids of Instagram’s discover page — often dressed in homegrown fashion labels as a further play into Copenhagen’s supportive, creative ecosystem.
While onlookers are perplexed by Denmark’s inventive approach to style, much of it is simply rooted in practicality. In a country that often reaches biting temperatures and where biking is the primary mode of transportation, fashion does not come at the expense of comfort and warmth. It often entails a medley of bright and pastel colors, vintage finds and an ornate hair accessory — worked into an ensemble including roomy pants and athletic sneakers.
“Danish girls had a chill colorful way of dressing with layers and sneakers and I think other people saw it as a nonchalant, interesting way to dress. In Denmark, we bike everywhere. We need comfortable pants and a sweater and a scarf and somehow that style has translated into a bigger thing,” said model Caroline Bille Brahe (née Brasch Nielsen), who has worked with Chanel and Valentino and recently opened a pop-up vintage store — CBN Vintage — in the back of her husband’s café, Atelier September.
Her summer wedding — with its fleet of confectionery dresses by Cecilie Bahnsen and a boat ride on the Nyhavn Canal — was a viral affair, even drawing attention from People magazine and the Daily Mail. Similarly, Leth’s June wedding — for which she wore a sheer lace column, her lavender lingerie visible underneath, and a mammoth Jacquemus straw hat in lieu of a veil — inspired an outpouring of international headlines and drew hundreds of thousands of impressions on social media. Instagram Stories from these events were something like modern soap operas — with women tuning in for cinematic portrayals of the romantic, good life.
The “It” girls’ style can now be seen across Copenhagen, with women adopting elements of their play on embellishment and silhouette as they commute to the office or bike to after-work activities.
“It’s a new archetype that’s appealing. The French — we all know they don’t eat too much, they are really elegant and wear their little Chanel bag and a miniskirt even when they go on their little motorcycle. There are certain things they are very good at. Danish people are good at combining practicality with something a little different,” said Barbara Maj Husted Werner, founder of the multibrand store Holly Golightly.
“I think it’s a very relaxed approach to life and from the outside, that can look easy. Danish girls have a certain lightness,” Sophie Bille Brahe said of the style.
A Fashion Industry on the Rise
Copenhagen has become a remarkably hospitable city for rising fashion companies — particularly considering how few there were 10 years ago. Labels like Cecilie Bahnsen and Saks Potts are among the brands that are quickly climbing through the ranks, with Copenhagen’s best multibrand stores in a race to uncover new talent. They pay homegrown designers a 50 percent advance on their orders to help finance production costs — helping nurture labels as they get off the ground. Each season, Copenhagen Fashion Week attracts more visitors — with bigger names and international editors flocking to meet the city’s new talent.
Bahnsen’s brand, a 2017 LVMH Prize finalist, was developed as haute couture you can bike in. “It’s couture and has a lot of crafts, but even though it’s a beautiful silk dress, you can jump on your bike — it’s not minimalistic, it’s not over the top; it’s just in-between,” the designer said of her voluminous, feminine creations.
Though Bahnsen had worked for designers in London and Paris, when it came time to start her own brand she decided to head home to her native Denmark. “I studied in London and worked at Erdem and with Galliano in Paris. I wanted to move back to Denmark and establish a Danish fashion brand. Denmark is so known for architecture and furniture, but not as known for fashion. I wanted to start a high-end brand taking romance from Paris, edginess from London and the minimalism of Denmark to do something different and international,” she said sitting in her sunny studio, situated on a peaceful brick row street close to the Øresund waterway dividing Denmark and Sweden.
“I think because of Instagram and social media you can start a brand anywhere,” Bahnsen added. “The idea of being in Paris, London or New York is not as important as it once was because you can be seen anywhere.” Keeping things local, Bahnsen collaborated with 14-year-old Margrethe Hjort Hay — daughter of the Hay House founders — on custom beaded embroideries for her spring 2019 collection.
In the city famous for its Hans Christian Andersen tales, it’s uncanny that many of Denmark’s designers — from Sophie Bille Brahe to Orit Elhanati — cite storytelling as an element in their success. Helmstedt, for instance, launched her line for spring — with a range of candy-striped silk pajamas and caftans to be worn on the street. It was the storyline and wonderland-type sensibility, she said, that caught people’s attention.
“Helmstedt Studio is a room I created for dreams — it’s a fairy tale that didn’t exist before, a universe I create,” she said. Helmstedt’s debut collection was inspired by a fairy tale in which a boy dives into his bathtub to discover a magical ocean. Her runway show was staged with streamers of plushy fish, a spread of oceanic printed silks, headwear that blurred the line between bucket hat and shower cap, and scallop shell bikini tops.
“It’s really simple shapes, not meticulously done, but it’s emotion and pattern and color — I have been interested in that all along,” Maj Husted Werner said of Helmstedt’s collection, which she bought for Holly Golightly and intends to heavily promote to its clientele. The shop has become something of a destination for Copenhagen’s style-inclined, with city residents keeping a close eye on its inventory as a marker of up-and-coming labels.
But not everyone is interested in joining the Copenhagen clique. Enter relatively new fashion designer Sofie Sol, who launched her dress line in 2017, with a single flouncy style made in 50-plus quirky dead stock fabrics. Her collection was picked up by the store Mads Nørgaard two months after her college graduation and is now carried in stores across Denmark, as well her own recently launched e-commerce site.
While Sol attended fashion school in Copenhagen and is well acquainted with the city’s haunts, she maneuvers outside its creative network — preferring to start a new community of her own. “I’m not part of that crew — there is a circus in Copenhagen,” said the designer, who employs her friends from university. “I know them for sure. We have been at the same parties, it’s great to also look at people from afar. It’s super easy to be a part of the crew here. I just want to do things a little differently.”
Culture of Hygge and Taxes
All of the coziness and free creativity come at a cost. Denmark’s social welfare progressive tax system — in which the average citizen pays 45 percent of earnings to the state — is what enables its extensive public programs.
According to the OECD, “Denmark ranks above the average in many dimensions: work-life balance, social connections, environmental quality, civic engagement, education and skills, jobs and earnings, health status, subjective well-being and personal security.” The agency ranks Denmark as fifth in the world for social spending, at 28.68 percent of gross domestic product. This sizable investment fosters hygge, as well as a more equal creative class.
In countries with lower social spending, creative careers come with a high overhead. An arts university education in the U.S., for example, can cost $200,000 — excluding living and housing costs — plunging artists deep into debt even before attempting a professional career.
Because of the support its citizens receive from the state, becoming an artist in Denmark carries a lower financial risk. Creatives feel that has accelerated its arts community. “In Denmark, we are very privileged to be supported by the government, even going to school we get money every month; it gives us peace to be in a creative environment and not struggle as much,” Helmstedt said.
“It’s pretty good here because there is help to be found — it’s not like America where it’s life or death,” said Maj Husted Werner. “Here, if someone doesn’t make money for a while the system will help you. It makes it possible for artists to get started — it’s a long road. That goes for everyone who has to start their own thing and doesn’t have the capital help in the beginning.”
Maria Foerlev — founder of the gallery Etage Projects, which shows interdisciplinary art that explores notions of function — explained that Denmark’s equal opportunity enables a certain optimism. “We all have relatives that need to go to the hospital — they can go and not worry. You can go to university here and have a decent education and it has nothing to do with your parents. They can’t buy you a place at university, it is impossible. That really makes everyone believe that anyone can do it.”
Hygge, which is implicitly a result of comfort and trust in one’s surroundings, is an integral part of Danish culture. But its definition is hard to pin down. Helmstedt attempted to explain it, saying: “I think hygge is what we here in Denmark do. It’s kindness, it’s relaxed, it’s a place for love as well — it’s just a connection between people or a group and you get that vibe. It could be keeping an open mind or also sitting on a couch with a loved one or having a moment that is very peaceful and relaxed. It’s just the way people in Copenhagen communicate with each other — it’s very kind.”
According to Bahnsen, hygge is a contributing factor to the success of Danish artists — affording them a certain peacefulness. “The pace is slower here. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere here and you get more done in the time you work because you are less stressed. There is something about calmness that gives you the time to make the right decisions and think about what you are doing,” she said.
For all its incentives, the system is not perfect. Foerlev was quick to caution of its pitfalls: “There is a bad side. I love when you go to the U.S. — you reward people who are ambitious. I don’t feel like you do that in Denmark.” Saks Potts cofounder Cathrine Saks concurred: “If you work a lot and make extra money, you have to pay that much more [in taxes]. Some people feel it doesn’t pay off to work a lot.”
In that vein, it must be noted that Denmark is not the fully enlightened utopia of Bernie Sanders’ fantasies. Similar to the French Girl fad, Danish “It” girl imagery solely promotes an image of white beauty — an indication of Denmark’s ethnically homogeneous population. Denmark, like many countries, is experiencing a new wave of right-wing politics, with its government taking a particularly resolute stance against immigration. Last month, its policies incited global outrage and U.N. oversight, with Denmark’s immigration minister Inger Stojberg devising a plan to send some 100 stateless migrants to live on a remote island previously used, among other things, as a research center for animals with infectious diseases.
But now that it has considerable momentum, how will Copenhagen continue to prosper? With a small population, Denmark is reliant on international business for sustained growth.
“The internal market is only five million — if there is no tourism, most of the restaurants in Denmark would have to close,” Frederik Bille Brahe said of the country’s economics.
“It’s very different being based in Copenhagen. If you want to create a global brand, you don’t have the whole market to do so. It’s not like our competitors that get to build 50 million or 100 million euro of sales in their home markets like in France or the U.K. We have five million people — you become a local hero to some degree but there is only so much business,” Nikolaj Reffstrup said of the business dynamics.
With that, Copenhagen has learned to outwardly market itself. It is presently the top tourist destination in the Nordic region, with 46 percent of Scandinavia’s overnight stays, according to the country’s national tourism board.
Visitors are flocking from far and wide. Foerlev said about 80 percent of her sales at Etage Projects are shipped to the U.S., while Bahnsen said international sales of her collections far outweigh domestic trade — with Japan being her biggest market.
“Internationally, we have been lucky for some people to kick in the door, which means a lot for several more people. Etage Projects showing at Art Basel, The Apartment interior store hosting clients from all over the world, Hay Design going to the Salone de Mobile,” said Maj Husted Werner.
“We are all helping each other here,” Foerlev said. “Here you really are friends, and maybe that resonates with the world right now. Hygge and cocooning — I feel like people want that in the world.”