Elísabet Elfa Arnarsdottir grew up in Iceland. Playing outside and exploring the country’s vast wilderness was part of everyday life—and so was wearing functional outdoor clothing that had zero style. So Arnarsdottir made her own. Now, she’s making clothes for the world. As a product designer in Sweden for Fjällräven (pronounced Fyall-reh-ven, by the way), she created the wildly popular Abisko Trekking Tights that debuted last year, sold out almost immediately, and won a BACKPACKER Editors’ Choice Award as well as accolades from gear reviewers throughout the industry. The tights were inspired by the frustration many women have always had with leggings: They’re too comfortable to ditch, but too flimsy to last.
How did you get into design?
Elísabet Elfa Arnarsdottir: I fell in love with the outdoors when I was a young Girl Scout in Iceland during the late '90s and early 2000s. In Iceland, the Scouts are co-ed, and we were a big group of young boys and girls that could not get enough of the outdoors. The Scouts had a cabin in the mountains that we had access to and we were there almost every weekend. [But] I felt the outdoor clothing available to women wasn’t very flattering. Even though some of the apparel was functional and comfortable to wear, the cuts were quite square and oversized, and not the way I wanted to look, especially as a young teenager who wanted to impress the boys a bit, too! In Iceland, every child learns how to sew at school, and it was always one of my favorite classes. My solution was to cut apart the hand-me-downs passed on to me, and even new things I bought from known outdoor brands, and sew the pieces back together with the shape I wanted. When I got a little bit better at it, I started going to the fabric store to buy fabric in order to make my own designs.
How did the Abisko Trekking Tights come together?
EEA: At Fjällräven, we are privileged with a long development time for our technical products. I started working on the tights in 2014, and we launched them in 2017. We changed them quite a bit from the beginning to the end and did a lot of prototype testing—somewhere near 10 prototypes, maybe even more. We changed the fabrics, and then wanted to make them more trekking-oriented, so we added pockets. We tested them with people in the office as well as our professional test team.
How do you know when a product is ready?
EEA: I think it’s a gut feeling. As a designer, I sometimes feel it’s never ready as I always see some small way of making it better. I think a good way of looking at it is that a product is ready when all parties on the team are pretty much satisfied. Even though I am the designer of the product, I’m never alone and I couldn’t do it without my team—we all play an equal role. Though with the tights I still felt like, “We’re ready. Let’s go.” With other products, sometimes it feels like “Ah! Just five more minutes! Please!” It differs from product to product.
What’s your favorite piece you’ve worked on?
EEA: The Abisko Trekking Tights, for sure. They have a real special place in my heart. They are the first big product I worked on, and a bit unique in the market. They were a dream product for a designer to make. After the tights, I think it would be the Keb Down Jacket we made for Fall/Winter 2018. It was a new challenge for me. We set out to make the best jacket in the most responsible way possible. We used ethical down (Fjällräven Down Promise) and recycled materials, incorporated a repairable construction for durability, and included a repair kit in the jacket. I love the type of products where the sky is the limit, as well as the products that you learn a lot from by going through the creative and development process.
Fjällräven is almost entirely PFC free, and in general many European countries are ahead of American brands in terms of sustainable design and manufacturing. Why do you think this is?
EEA: Even though sustainability isn’t written in a lot of people’s titles at Fjällräven, everyone works on it to some degree. I think Sweden is one of the leading nations when it comes to sustainability. It has been ingrained in the way of life and education to see nature as a finite resource that we have to take care of, and that it is all our responsibility as a community. The Swedes always have a mentality of wanting to do better. I think a lot of the things that are considered “sustainability-focused” in other parts of the world are not called that here. You don’t consider them to be “sustainable,” because the sustainable way is the norm. Lastly, having a sewing machine at home is common. Fixing your garments and making sure that they’ll last you a little bit longer is also something that is normal here. I think that is such a beautiful thing. The most sustainable product is the one that you can have for a long time and use as many times as possible. And when it reaches the end of its life for you, you can pass it along for someone else to wear. Today, when I buy clothing, I ask myself, “Will you wear this garment 30 times or more?” If the answer is no, then I don’t buy it.
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This article was originally published in Day 3 of The Daily (summer 2018).