Áslaug Magnúsdóttir wears a lot of hats. When she talks, she’ll transform from a shrewd businesswoman to a staunch activist to a forward-thinking consultant to a good old fashioned fashion-devotée—often mid-sentence.
A veteran of the fashion world known for co-founding Moda Operandi, the luxury direct-to-consumer webstore that more or less changed the game for high-end retailers, as well as her early work at Gilt, another game-changing webstore that brought luxury flash-sales to the online world, you can’t help but desperately want to know Áslaug’s next move. She has a finger firmly on the pulse of fashion. If there’s anyone who can predict the next wave, it’s Áslaug.
Today, she’s wearing a sweatshirt from her new brand Katla, which debuted earlier this year with a mixture of everything from cosy separates to gorgeous flowing sundresses. The print is a play on the traditional Icelandic butter logo; the word smjör being replaced by Katla. On the back reads ‘Áfram með smjörið”—an old Icelandic saying that translates to “On with the butter.”
“I interpret it as ‘Take action! Or ‘Move!’” Áslaug explains, sitting back at her kitchen table, a cup of coffee in her hand. And perhaps, there could be no better catchphrase for the brand.
Katla takes responsibility
“I wanted to try to create a brand that was as holistically sustainable as possible,” Áslaug says on the origins of Katla. “As I looked at the industry, there are many people trying to do beautiful sustainable brands, but it’s such a small part of the landscape.”
And there were even fewer brands, Áslaug noted, that were focused on being entirely and comprehensively sustainable. “When I started this, people said to me, ‘Try to focus on just doing one part of sustainability really well,’ like focus on environmentally-friendly fabric or ethical labour practices or animal-cruelty free. But for me, that didn’t really ring true,” she says. “I felt like if I’m creating something new from scratch, I may as well try to do it as well as I can from a sustainability standpoint.”
“We have said that a fashion item loses its relevance after five to six months and then it’s discounted and no longer relevant and has to be taken out of the store. That’s a message that needs to change.”
Because the fashion industry, she explains, is a large culprit in global pollution—and one that is often ignored by the general population. “The fashion industry is the second most water-polluting industry in the world and is responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions—worse than airlines and ships combined,” she says, a note of incredulity in her voice. You can tell the statistics bother her, no matter how many times she’s shared them.
One of the largest contributors to fashion’s enormous environmental impact is that overproduction has become accepted as a necessary and integral part of profitability. “[For your average brand], every season there is a 30-40% overproduction of clothing. That’s because of the system we’ve created around how you sell fashion. Manufacturing is typically happening months in advance of a season, often far away and without acknowledgement of what the end consumer is going to buy. So brands kind of take a bet—they don’t want to have too little so they end up always having too much of certain things,” Áslaug says. “A lot of it gets thrown out. There’s, unfortunately, a lot of inventory that is burned every season. Things do get put on sale and there are outlet stores, but there’s still a significant amount that gets leftover and that’s a lost opportunity as well: If you have to put a big percentage of your fashion on sale, clearly you were overproducing.”
The focus on seasons and trends, she continues, also contributes to this. “We—[the industry]—have said that a fashion item loses its relevance after five to six months and then it’s discounted and no longer relevant and has to be taken out of the store.” She pauses. “That’s a message that needs to change. And more and more people are rethinking that.”
Katla’s ethos of transparency
No doubt, Áslaug is one of them. From Katla’s inception, Áslaug has ensured that every step—from designs to consumer life—has a foundation in sustainability.
For design, Áslaug decided to forgo temporary trends and instead focus on pieces that would stand the test of time. Sustainability did not have to become a liability; in fact, it was easily compatible with this ethos. “I wanted to create something that was beautiful, that I wanted to wear, that’s fashion, but at the same time has this timeless element and has quality. It lasts, and you can wear it again and again,” she explains. “We’re not making gowns that you’re going to wear just once. It’s things you’ll keep in your wardrobe for a long time.”
In production, Katla is careful to use environmentally-friendly fabrics or completely animal cruelty-free textiles as a rule, rather than the exception. As for manufacturing, the brand has opted out of the aforementioned overproduction model, instead favouring a mixture of on-demand and small-batch manufacturing.
“We’re not just saying it’s sustainable. We really want to show you why.”
“We try to move as much as possible to on-demand, which means that we are not building inventory, we are making the garments as [orders] come in,” Áslaug reiterates. “I realise that for that to be a feasible business model, you have to be able to do it really fast, so we partnered with factories in the US that can do that in a two to three-day turnaround… and we have tracking numbers on all the items. ”
She promptly points to a patch on the sleeve of her sweatshirt. It has a QR code, and above that, an embroidered number that says KF001.
“You can go and type that on the site and see the history of the garment. Like where did the garment come from? Who manufactured it? What are the environmental certifications tied to the fabric?” She says, smiling. It’s clear that now we’ve come to a facet of Katla that Áslaug is particularly proud of—a personal flair that distinguishes Katla from the pack.
But perhaps what most distinguishes Katla from the rest of the sustainability-driven brands is their resale-recycling program.
“We tell customers ‘please don’t throw the garment away if you decide not to use it, send it back to us, we will pay for your shipping, and we will give you a 20% credit for the original purchase price towards your next purchase’ So that’s an incentive to send it back. And then, if it’s in good enough condition, we resell it,” she explains. “Then, you can see in your tracking number the digital passport of this garment. We don’t use people’s names, [but it shows] the first buyer was in Reykjavík then it went to New York.”
“It provides another level of transparency,” she continues. “We’re not just saying it’s sustainable. We really want to show you why.”
Áfram með smjörið!
Áslaug’s growing interest in sustainability over the years has also mirrored an internal interest to reconnect with her country, which she’s also sought to showcase in Katla’s designs.
“I had been working in New York and London, in big cities, and barely ever going out into nature, ” Áslaug says. “Then I started a few years ago coming back [to Iceland] for longer periods and reconnecting with nature … and I realised—wow, this was an important part of my life as a child and I lost touch with it. I found that it grounds me. It makes me stronger to be in nature. So I kind of rediscovered Iceland in a way.”
She brought his newfound enthusiasm to her work in Katla. “Iceland is one of the countries at the forefront of sustainability in terms of our energy consumption. People are very aware and have this love for nature here. So I thought it’s a good time [for Katla] and there’s nowhere in the world you can get more beautiful photographs!” She bursts out laughing. “This is where I’m from! It’s time to embrace it. When I was young I was trying to get out of Iceland and now I’ve finally learned to love it in another way and bring that to the world.”
And perhaps, there’s nothing that better represents this journey—both external and internal—than the butter sweatshirt. It’s an iconically Icelandic reference and one that has strong associations for Áslaug.
“This was in my home. We had this in our fridge every day,” she says. “The sentence ‘Áfram með smjörið’—I thought, oh my god, yes, that’s hysterical! It’s so Icelandic and it’s so relevant for what Katla is doing.” She smiles. “Take action! Move!”
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