Christina Ledang is a Norwegian designer based in Oslo. Her clothing blends high end and street, something she grew to love during her education in London and her time spent in Canada. She returned to Oslo in 2008 teaching and styling before launching her own label in 2012. It has come full circle for her and her newly renovated studio space opened last year is right next to the apartment she grew up in. Having had an eye on the location for years it is exciting for us to see Christina finally settle into the space she wants to be in as she continues to develop her brand. We persuaded her to let us in during the renovation process to speak about supporting the local community and the developments in the Norwegian fashion industry that Christina has experienced both through her teaching career and as a designer.
Having had an interest in clothing since her teenage years Christina remembers having a book where she would sketch figures adorning different types of clothing. At the time she did not realise what she was doing was fashion drawing but looking back she can see it clearly and the things she drew were interpretations of what she wanted to wear and how she wanted to look. Despite this she actually had her heart set on being an actress but after not getting into drama school, which turned out to be a blessing, she chose to explore her other passion which is design choosing to complete her BA in London. Recalling multiple trips to Italy growing up, Christina understood the fashion scene there to be high end and traditional whereas what she wanted was something more “edgy” and “street” that London was able to offer.
First attending London College of Fashion, Christina ended up completing her education at Middlesex University which she felt at the time was a better programme and a better environment for what she hoped to achieve with her studies. London can be a tough place for a poor student but one bright spot during her second year was meeting her, now husband, Simon (Best day of your life he says with a big grin) a Canadian who was on a working holiday visa at the time. Upon graduation there was some interest to stay in London but with Simon’s visa expiring and at the same time being fed up with London her told her “I’m going home”. Christina who also shared similar thoughts about the city and its difficulties replied with “Yeah, me too”. After returning to Norway the plan was for her to visit Simon for the summer on a visiting visa. Life and love changed this and one summer quickly turned into two years in Montreal where she worked under his name starting her first brand 'Ledaigle', a combination of both their last names.
The label was very street and mostly revolved around t-shirts with prints and some handmade goods which she sold in two different stores. This was more of a way to express herself and one tee she recalls was a woman holding her butt which she had repurposed from a porn image. She laughs as we ask if she has any left and why she has not put it back into production! Simon also remembers some zipper earrings she made and a couple of dresses which was fun for them to sell. It was a small scale thing and her first taste of the business side of fashion which she would eventually get back into establishing her own line back home in Oslo.
The plan was to always return to Europe and originally, despite being fed up when they left, the pair wanted to move back to London to work in fashion. However once again the universe pushed her in the right direction and the decision to move back to Norway was based off two phone calls. Christina did not have a job to go to in London, Simon did not have a visa and with no financial backing that dream was proving difficult to achieve so she picked up the phone, firstly calling the English embassy but unable to get through and pushed through to an automated information system she hung up the phone in frustration and put through a second call. This time to the Norwegian embassy. She remembers how nice the lady was explaining information over the phone and asking them in for a meeting to go over the details. She decided then and there that they were moving back to Oslo.
With no design plan at all as they returned to Oslo, Christina remembers struggling to find fashion related work as the industry was tiny and even if there was jobs she had no idea where to find them. Being in Oslo 10 years ago she also does not remember a lot of Norwegian brands and eventually started working as a stylist, getting the chance to style the opening show for Oslo Fashion Week. At the time it was small scale and she was able to create some things as well joking “It was not very good and I think the opening show, which I did, was the best part to be honest”.
Originally Christina and Simon would be in Oslo for a bit and then leave for somewhere bigger. However now with Christina and Simon both running their own businesses it would be difficult for them to leave. She admits she would still love to live in a bigger city, “Paris” - she says, and that if she ever moved back to London she would have to be very rich. “I have always said London is for rich people and gay men. If you are gay and rich even better” - she laughs. Life is not all bad in Oslo and the city continues to grow adding more and more opportunities while remaining a very easy place to live and raise a family. Living in a bigger city could make things much more difficult but Christina feels that even though Oslo has its benefits it still has a small town mentality in many ways which can be limiting at times. This is slowly changing with the influx of foreigners to the city and she has seen a definite change in attitudes towards the creative culture since returning home 10 years ago. The diversity that immigration has brought to the city as well as the ability to be visible is challenging the typically conservative Norwegian society which she feels is a good thing. She laughs that there is still too many Norwegians in Oslo for the city to change completely but there is definitely more happening in the creative and culture scenes now which is a great plus for the local community.
After a brief conversation about how the landscape of the fashion industry has changed in Oslo she concludes that around five years ago was when things really started to happen for independent designers. There was some small brands around at the time but no one really knew of each other which changed as F5 Concept Store came into existence. Alex Marthinsen, one of the founders, was a former student of Christina and approached her with their idea around the same time she launched her first collection. The idea was to collect a number of up and coming Norwegian designers under one roof in an effort to push Norwegian design. She really liked the initiative that the brothers had and actually ran one of her first studios in the basement of their old store. She remembers after becoming part of the F5 family that a number of other brands started coming by wanting to be part of it, which brought in the magazines who started to give some press to these up and coming brands.
Christina is still teaching the same workshop that she taught to Alex many years ago at SoFi which she juggles with her work for Pudder Agency as a stylist. She is however more selective these days as she focuses on her own brand taking assignments that she feels are fun and free, even if it is unpaid for an independent. It is amazing how she finds the time to run her business, work two jobs on the side and fit in family time. I asked her how she manages to do all of the things to which Simon says again with a grin “she has an amazing husband, he's a star”. The two are constantly joking and both being entrepreneurs as well as parents to two little girls put it down to great planning and support both for one another and from family. Being self employed they are at work all the time and when they get time together they tend to talk about work. Although talking about work may seem boring to some, this kind of relationship has been extremely beneficial to them both as they can discuss the going on within their respective business in an open platform. Ultimately being able to learn and grow through each others positive and negative experiences along the way while having the understanding of what it is like to be at work all the time where your day can flip on its head at any second. This is something they admit would not be so easy had one of them gone down the road of a regular job, the 9-5 lifestyle, which leaves you with a lot more time on your hands. For Christina having the kids at work is a natural part of her day with her oldest Charlie coming to her first shoot at 2 months old and Maxime at 5 weeks old. Charlie loves to be in the studio with mum and loves to go to dads work as well where she “talks with all the boys” in the bike shop. “She does not want to go home, really, the jobs are set up for the kids” she laughs.
On top of all this she has recently completed a commercial design project for a large company creating new uniforms which were rolled out all over Norway in late 2017. It has been a hard and challenging task for her but she feels it has complimented her own label perfectly. The commercial design is very direct to customer and Christina feels the exercise was very good in helping her be realistic while having to consider the client or customer at all times. Often she would have to think about a lot of things that she would not normally consider in her own label. This helped with broadening her holistic knowledge of design and the restrictive framework of commercial design has helped her with her own label as she is fully able to vent her creative energy into C.L.E.A.N. The balance has worked for her and she also found it interesting to see that kind of business world where people may not have an interest in fashion, but they have an interest in what they wear.
“Everyone who says they don't care about clothing is lying, I think people who don't care about clothing care more about what they wear in the end."
Creating a uniform that someone is supposed to wear everyday is not a small task and “you can't just throw anything at them and expect it to be okay” she says. She needed to create something that satisfied both the employees and management. A process that helped with the educational side of design as she had to explain to people who don't work in the industry why she was doing things in a certain way, translating or describing it so it is understandable for these people while still managing to get her point across. This proved to be a very practical learning exercise for her in developing her verbal skills.
Being put within these strict frameworks has actually helped her to become less stressed and more focused with her own brand. She feels more relaxed than before and the environment helped to change her strategy to get where she wants to be as a brand with the first step in this process being the opening of her showroom / office / shop in Spring 2018.
Christina and Simon have their businesses 5 minutes walking distance from each other which was somewhat planned to make it easier with the small amounts of family time they take for each other. Growing up in the apartment building next door, a place where her mum still lives as part of the “Grunerløkka Mafia”, Christina has had her eyes on the spot forever having passed by it a number of times and thinking to herself “if it ever became available I will jump at it”. Then one day her mum called and suddenly it was available. She emailed the same day, got a date to see it and then had to write an email explaining why she was right for the space and what she could bring to the community. The landlord is very pro Grunerløkka and she and Simon laugh that she did have to name drop a bit and negotiate before finally getting the space. As luck would have it Christina was in Italy when she got the news that her application had been accepted and on the same day received notice that she was being evicted from her previous space, effective immediately, which she had no prior knowledge of. Being kicked out of one building and into her dream location has been a huge step for her to finally be able to fully commit to a location that provides the space for the versatile business she wanted to have and make it happen for C.L.E.A.N.
The family are big advocators of small business and the benefits it brings to a community and although they are doing their bit for the community they don't think it is easy to set up in Oslo. “The risk is all yours” and she thinks it is difficult to find information and also where you would be able to get financial support in general. In the fashion world especially it has been difficult to find support and Christina thinks it would have been helpful had been more financial support, which was easier to get, as small business is one of the most important parts of making a city diverse and cultural. Both her and Simon know a number of people that have received money and are now bankrupt or have closed down their company when the funding stopped. She believes that at times a good application rather than knowledge of the industry and what is good and not good can get you money. The limited funding that is available could be used more selectively and in order for the support to function the deciding panel should not just be reading applications but need to have someone who understands the industry, asking the right questions in an interview and perhaps offer more help to a budding small business owner than just money.
For her it has been beneficial to have the guys from F5 Concept Store and that network there to discuss certain aspects of design and production in some ways. “You do have to be gutsy and at times you do have to close your eyes to all the financial issues that may come about” she says thinking back on her journey. Common with other designers we have interviewed they don't feel like the support is there and fully functional right now, it is mostly within the community and designers helping each other. If you have to look very hard for help and then the process ends up leading to a short question and answer session, is this really help?
In the fashion world, as well, you are on your own and you do learn from your own mistakes. This is something that she has also experienced and “it is pretty scary to start your own company” especially as she did not have a solid plan in place to begin with. This can also be a good thing, she continues, as you do not see all the dangers and can have a bit of blind confidence. Now “after five years, my famous five year plan, I am slowly starting to feel on top of things” .
There is a big misconception between what it is to be a small business owner and what the general public thinks being a small business owner is. For her and Simon they enjoy being part of the Grunerløkka community and the small business culture that is there. It would be much easier to get a 9-5 but the world needs small business to create the community feel and they are liking the things they are able to do to give back to the community that Christina grew up in. Even if things are changing in parts of Oslo, Norway, as a country, is a large with many small communities in hard to reach places. Even if people in these remote locations want to support independents the only thing they have available is the local mall and the things you find there are the big chains and brands which makes it difficult for people to access products except online. The mentality is changing and Christina has received a number of emails from customers expressing support and how they want to help small business with their decisions as consumers which is encouraging.
Christina has now finished renovating her studio space which she soft opened in December. Right now she is taking some much needed vacation and family time before launching her Spring/Summer collection along with the official opening of her C.L.E.A.N studio in Spring 2018. Her approach has now changed and the clothing will be available direct to market straight after her Spring showcase as she feels this is what the industry wants and what feels most comfortable for her.
All photography by Ronja Penzo
You can currently find C.L.E.A.N at F5 Concept Store, Ensemble, Luck Oslo, Oslo Velo as well as in her own studio and online store.