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Turning Point | Ostwald Helgason

After several seasons of struggling to gain traction, Ostwald Helgason is firmly on the ascent. But how did the label go from false starts to a prominent and rising position on the global fashion radar?
Anya Ziourova wearing Ostwald Helgason | Source: Phil Oh/Streetpeeper
  • Suleman Anaya

LONDON, United Kingdom -- After several seasons of struggling to stage shows and increase traction with retailers, East London-based Susanne Ostwald and Ingvar Helgason's collection of simply tailored, playful women's clothes is firmly on the ascent. Following last week's well-attended and glowingly reviewed presentation in New York, this afternoon, the young label is showing its Autumn/Winter 2013 collection in London in partnership with Moda Operandi. Indeed, since last summer, when much-photographed street-style stars Anya Ziourova and Miroslava Duma attended the Chanel Couture show in matching Ostwald Helgason looks, the label has attracted a flurry of attention from influential fashion magazines and style blogs.

The buzz is backed by some impressive numbers: the label's Spring/Summer 2013 collection is being carried by forty-five stockists, the company just hired two full-time employees last month (joining a staff that previously consisted of one) and influential London boutique Browns tripled their order for the current season. What's more, the brand's sales agent, Rainbowwave, reports full appointment books for the Paris sales at the end of the month, when buyers (including stalwarts like Ikram and Louis Boston, as well as a number of retailers in the Middle East and Asia) are expected to place orders.

But how and where did things take such a positive turn? How did Ostwald Helgason, the fledgling label from Hackney Wick, go from years of false starts to a prominent and rising position on the global fashion radar?

If today Oswald Helgason is on the cusp of global success, a little over a year ago the label was on the brink of despair. In a matter of a few months the designers had lost the vast majority of their retail accounts. The British Fashion Council, not for the first time, rejected their request for a slot on the London Fashion Week roster, saying they weren't ready. The final blow came in the form of an email from NewGen, the Council's support platform for which they had applied, asking them to refrain from applying again.

This low point came in 2010 after the German-Icelandic design duo followed some misguided advice from advisors who did not understand the contemporary market. “We had no experience in running a business. We knew nothing about how to price things, about markets and management, so we took any advice we could get," said Helgason. "They suggested that we change our product and our prices rather than try to find a market that would actually suit us. They advised us to adopt a 150 percent markup. It didn’t make sense, because our product was very different from what a lot of other London designers were doing -- we weren’t doing high-end dresses. Our thing has always been fairly straight-forward, easy-to-wear garments, so none of our pieces could justify a designer price point.”

Alienated by the higher prices, which coincided with Ostwald Helgason’s decision to move away from the digital prints they had become known for, the vast majority of their stockists dropped the line within a few months.

2010 and 2011 were fairly grim years for Ostwald Helgason. The designers weren’t interested in showing off-schedule and, running out of options, they reached out to friends soliciting advice. A recurring piece of feedback seemed to be that London might not be the right fit for the label. The growing inkling that Oswald Helgason needed to broaden their horizons and consider more receptive markets was confirmed in a single verbal punch delivered by veteran brand consultant Paola Brandi: “I told her about our trials and tribulations with the BFC and she just looked at me and said ‘Ingvar you guys are barking up the wrong tree.’ I think that one sentence was the seminal moment that changed everything for us, because it gave us the final push we needed.” Brandi also asked the designers: “What is your market? Where do you sell? Who is interested in your stuff?"

The answer was unequivocal: “The Americans,” said Helgason. Suddenly, the picture was very clear.

All along, the strongest interest in Oswald Helgason had come from across the Atlantic. But the designers had never considered showing in New York because they thought the costs would be too prohibitive. "New York just seemed so inaccessible, big and intimidating. We associated it with the tents and multi-million dollar shows by people like Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs." But after Brandi's advice planted the seed in their head, the pair started seriously thinking about how to show in New York.

In December 2011, Helgason bought a plane ticket. And one phone call to another friend, former New York Times style editor Horacio Silva, got the ball rolling. A new phase had begun for the label: "20 minutes later I am cc'd on an email from Horacio to Milk Studios; within 45 minutes after landing in New York we had a presentation lined up! I just thought 'This is how things should function -- how efficient can things be!"

Logistics still needed to be hammered out, but here too, a few calls and emails opened doors and, quickly, a casting director, stylist and other eager collaborators were found. Similarly, the designers were impressed by how quickly small factories in Manhattan’s garment district were able to turn around samples for them, calling in staff to work on Saturday, something they say would have been unthinkable in London. Most importantly, however, presenting at Milk Studios, alongside some of New York Fashion Week’s young luminaries gave them the exposure that their work had so direly lacked back home. Oswald Helgason debuted at Milk Studios in February 2012 and have continued to show there, making last week’s presentation the label’s third in New York.

“We had never doubted our product, we were very confident. I think the move to New York was critical, not so much in that we learned how to improve our product but more that our product found the right place to be shown,” said Helgason.

The move to New York was by no means the sole factor in the rise of Oswald Helgason, but it clearly positioned the fledgling company to capitalise on a series of drivers that were coming into play, including the label's increasingly refined aesthetic, the growing importance of the premium contemporary market and a general return to minimalism that coincided with the duo's decision to drop prints and focus on colour, fabrics and texture.

As for London, while things are changing, not too long ago the city's support platforms were perhaps too focused on only the most fashion-forward, experimental designers. And perhaps things do just get done faster in New York, where a quick email begets a quick response, cutting through layers of bureaucracy and saving precious time.

But one thing's for sure. The market now seems ready for Oswald Helgason and, finally, so does London. If today’s presentation and a newly positive rapport between the designers and the BFC are any indication, the label is finally barking up the right tree.

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