It feels like me and Ronja have been exploring the surrounds of Oslo in the past few months, discovering little by little all the places that add up to make this city an interesting and diverse place to be. One place we are not too familiar with is the industrial district in Oslo’s east, a place where you would be surprised to find some of the country’s most fashion forward wool clothing being manufactured by Elisabeth Stray-Pedersen.
Elisabeth is an inspiring woman who has been hands on in her approach to continuing the strong wool culture in Norway and with it actively becoming engaged in supporting local trade and small business. The factory is home to her brand E S P as well as Lillunn, a sixty year old company that produces speciality wool items. Lillunn was founded by Unn Søiland Dale who was inspired by the traditional use of wool blankets. Elisabeth tells us the unconventional story of Unn, her life in Paris, collaborations with leading fashion houses and other things that were considered strange for a Norwegian woman to do at that time.
In 2015 Elisabeth was presented the opportunity to take over Lillunn and the factory; ‘Everything just fell into place and I felt like the only reason for not taking over the factory was my own fear of failure, so I had to go for it.’ The process of becoming a factory owner, acquiring another brand and being full time with E S P is challenging and ‘A learning curve’, as she describes it. With wool being such a versatile fabric it is cool that Elisabeth decided to keep Lillunn and use the fabric in a traditional sense as well show more contemporary styles with her E S P label. Sometimes the old inspires the new and she is currently running a ‘Bring your own blanket’ up cycling project, ‘This is actually an old blanket from my parents summer house, that I was allowed to have’ she says showing us a repurposed coat. If you are thinking you would like to have your own custom jacket you can bring your own blanket down to Prinsens Gate 24 where E S P is having a pop up shop alongside footwear label Since Oslo.
She tells us that she was never really that interested in wool during her education, but upon reading the book Cradle to Cradle during her MA she gained a deeper understanding of the lifecycle of fabrics and a presentation by the Woolmark company showcasing a wool coffin sparked her interest further. She dug into her own closet and realised that the pieces that had stuck with her the longest were all wool products. Using Norwegian crossbred lambswool, Elisabeth is now Woolmark certified and the wool has been Nordic Eco labeled.
Last year the E S P brand received a healthy amount of press at fashion weeks worldwide which she feels was due to her runway show. ‘There is this hype and a lot of people wanted to borrow things. I had some jackets on Gigi Hadid and that really helped... There was this girl who walked into the store the other day, picked up the coat and said, “I’m going to have it” she didn’t tell me but I felt like she knew about it, she had seen it before.’ It is interesting to see how that marketing works and Elisabeth is currently in the period of another learning curve with her pop up shop. Being in the store most days she has become surprised at how quickly people buy things and also the sales process with the end customer. ‘I normally have to think about things a lot before I buy’ she laughs, ‘I want to say; "Are you sure you can wear this to all your shoes?” This is also because I put so much effort into the designs and it would feel really bad if people weren't happy.’ Having previously sold business-to-business she says she has missed the feedback of the end customer and also the opportunity to speak about the brand with the people that drop by who know nothing about E S P.
Although not producing menswear items, Elisabeth tells us she has been working towards more unisex collections and a lot of the pieces are able to be worn by men. Also, which I did not know, they do customisations and custom orders. ‘If you want to change the length, sleeves or pockets, it is something we do for a lot of our customers.’ There is potential in the menswear market, but there is also a challenge in balancing growth, company management and finding the time to design things. Right now it is almost a break from office work when she manages to find the time to sit down and design. Getting inspired is a thing that can’t be forced and allowing herself to get trapped in a design hole is ‘Something I just have to go with’ even if it happens to be late at night.
The biggest thing on her mind during our visit was her pending trip to Tokyo. E S P had been chosen alongside four other Norwegian brands to travel to Japan with Norwegian Fashion Hub in an effort to showcase Norwegian design to the Japanese market. Last time she visited Japan, she travelled alone for a short work trip and felt a bit strange doing some of the things she wanted to do...But this time she will be celebrating her birthday and ‘We will be going to Karaoke’ she laughs!
E S P is currently available at F5 Concept Store, Shoc, Studio Bazar in Oslo and Takashimaya Style & Edit in Japan.
All photography by Ronja Penzo