“If we can’t be ambitious, then I don’t want to play”

With an unparalleled drive and an anything-is-possible attitude, Eva Kruse has been instrumental in – and quite successful at – putting the Danish fashion industry on the global map. The CEO of the Danish Fashion Institute talks about ambition, teamwork, sustainability – and why the Danish fashion industry is so important

The afternoon sun shines through the leaves of old magnolia trees in the courtyard of the Danish Fashion Institute. Eva Kruse looks into the camera without hesitation and twists her head slightly. Her gaze moves without losing its intensity and her head twists again. Eva Kruse has had her picture taken before – many times. As CEO of the Danish Fashion Institute (DAFI), Kruse has become a public figure over the ten years she has spearheaded the organisation.

“In 2005, no one spoke about the Danish fashion industry, and the industry wasn’t connected with itself. But something started to happen – a few brands had international perspective, and it was around then that many of the now-important businesses were founded. DAFI was also founded at this time, and we rode the same wave, creating a synergy,” Kruse says, as we sit on a bench in the courtyard after her portrait has been taken.

Fashion is a gigantic industry in Denmark. According to a 2015 report by the organisation Danish Fashion and Textiles, it generated 38 billion kroner of revenue in 2014, with exports amounting to 22.7 billion kroner. While the fashion and garment industry has historically been a major factor in Danish industry, the sector only began attracting focus from the media, politicians, the public, and international players about 10 years ago.

Cue the foundation of DAFI, and with it, the rise of Eva Kruse. Soon after assuming her role, Kruse began speaking publicly about the industry’s international potential, advocating a role for Copenhagen as the fifth international fashion city, after New York, Paris, Milan and London.

“A lot of people misunderstood what I was trying to say back then. I don’t care about the exact number, but we have to aim high and be ambitious when we talk about vision. It would be weird to aim to be number eight. It’s just about saying that we want to be part of the international group of cities that you look to when you think about fashion. That’s still our ambition. And it’s more likely to happen now than ever,” Kruse says, noting that the number of international press and buyers at Copenhagen Fashion Week has never been higher.

“We need to maintain our ambitions. And honestly, if we can’t be ambitious, then I don’t want to play,” she says, laughing. “We can always discuss problems and cooperation and whatever internally. But if we don’t believe in the project, no one else will.”

In fashion by chance
Eva Kruse was born in Aarhus to “very political” parents, who raised her to be a political human being in the broadest sense of the word.

“My parents always told me that I could do whatever I wanted as long as I really went for it and paid attention. The only thing that wasn’t OK was to do nothing. You need to take action, have opinions and use them to achieve something.”

She was among the first group of students to attend the Chaos Pilot business school, an alternative 2.5 year project management programme founded by Uffe Elbæk, now leader of the political party Alternativet.

“We learned a lot about starting things from scratch, but it also fostered this kind of naïve belief that you can achieve anything you want as long as you work hard for it. I still have that approach to vision, work, and leadership.”

After graduating in 1993, Kruse entered the fashion industry almost by accident. She started out as a consultant before moving to TV and, in 1995, landed a job as host of a new fashion show on Z-TV, the old Nordic version of MTV. Despite little previous experience in the industry, she went on to shoot 75 episodes before leaving to start a fashion magazine that went under when its investor went bankrupt.The timing was serendipitous, however, as she soon learned that the new women’s magazine Eurowoman was looking for an editor-in-chief.

“I actually called them myself and said, ‘I’m the person you’re looking for’,” she grins. Her stint atop the masthead at Eurowoman, which remains one of the most popular fashion magazines in Denmark, lasted five years. After a break from the industry, she became international head of communications at Kopenhagen Fur, one of the world’s leading fur companies, where she started to work with DAFI as it was being founded.

A small group of fashion insiders were talking about creating a trade organisation. Kruse came on board with the support of Kopenhagen Fur and other major industry players, who supported its foundation and her participation. Kruse emerged as its natural leader after DAFI was founded on November 1, 2005.

“Someone has to commit fully and take it to the next level, otherwise nothing happens. I didn’t really get any salary at first, but some of the designers offered me some clothes for my children, and lunch and whatnot, and we sort of put the pieces together like that,” she says, reminiscing about occupying just a corner of a desk at the agency of her then-boyfriend.

“The first season, we only did a small guide and some posters for fashion week. The next season we landed a sponsor, we got City Hall as our official show stage, and we started doing the live broadcast platform that we still do,” she notes, adding that they were the first fashion week in the world with a live broadcast.

Over the past 10 years, DAFI has helped develop Copenhagen Fashion Week into a larger event, changing the way that fashion is debated and discussed. But while Kruse played an instrumental role in this development, she is quick to credit others.

“DAFI is a fund. It is self-owned, or you could say the Danish fashion industry owns it. If we don’t have good designers and members, we have nothing. Nothing here is mine. Everything is non-profit, and we’ve only come so far because so, so, so many people have put their hours and work into it.”

What is Danish fashion? 
When asked whether there is something special about Danish fashion, her lips move into a knowing smile. She’s heard this question a million times before, and her response explains why the Danish industry has become something to talk about – Danish fashion is, for the most part, democratic and accessible.

“I know that not all Danish designers agree with that idea, but I think it’s very positive. Overall, Danish designers don’t make fashion that excludes. It’s open and available to most. It’s not too pricey or abstract. That’s why there’s such a big audience, and it’s one of the reasons we have to be proud and believe in ourselves,” she adds.

This trope is often associated with the Danish welfare state and the way many Danes live their lives: most Danes of both genders bike, work, pick up their kids, go grocery shopping and go out at night wearing the same garments. This means that their clothes have to be flexible, accommodating and attractive at the same time.

It might seem obvious, but Danish fashion reflects Danish society in much the same way that French fashion still reflects its historic tradition of luxurious, impractical and often expensive upper-class couture. Or at least, this is one possible explanation for the democratic thinking Kruse has tried to sell.

“Overall, there’s quite a strong movement in Denmark toward selling a specific kind of Nordic or Scandinavian lifestyle,” Kruse notes, linking other creative industries to this commercial and cultural wave.

“If we look at Danish film, TV, food, architecture and design, they reflect Northern values and have been very good at positioning themselves as such. It’s been going on for years, but a lot of people internationally are buying into it. We could learn something from that,” she says, adding that René Redzepi’s restaurant Noma and the TV-show Borgen are perfect examples of cultural gates to the Nordic world. The whole notion of fashion as a cultural, physical, aesthetic product that responds to the world surrounding it is central to Kruse’s view and ambition for the Danish industry – and it’s something she’s been working on intensely for a number of years.

Photo: Kenneth Nguyen

Photo: Kenneth Nguyen

Sustainability, anyone? 
“Right now,” she says. “I truly believe we have an opportunity to become the leading country in terms of sustainable and responsible fashion. It goes back to our historical and cultural roots. We’ve always contributed a lot of development aid, taken good care of the weakest in our society and been environmentally conscious.”

Kruse argues we need a greater focus on how business affects people and the planet. On a global scale, the fashion industry is one of the world’s most polluting, water-consuming and labour-exploiting industries. As awareness of this has increased over the last couple of years, Kruse firmly believes that it’s time to take action.

“Right now, the fashion industry isn’t very sustainable or responsible, but I do believe it’s possible for it to become so. It’s difficult, and it’s a long process – businesses have to change their direction while rapidly producing consumer goods. It’s a very, very tough and complex process,” she says.

Together with its Nordic sister-organisations, DAFI has launched “Nordic Initiative, Clean and Ethical” (NICE) to promote a more sustainable fashion industry in terms of production, materials, waste, labour, and consumption. DAFI leads the process, and the NICE team work from their offices.

There is a lot of criticism aimed at the global fashion industry – and rightfully so. In April 2013, the Rana Plaza production facility in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 people. Many of the world’s leading brands (including Primark, Walmart, The Gap and Inditex, the Spanish parent-company of Zara) produced garments there, but as fashion companies traditionally don’t own factories themselves, no one company could be blamed.

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a leading international organisation working on sustainability issues, the Rana Plaza lawsuit and compensation for workers’ families have yet to be settled, and many global brands have shirked their responsibilities. One thing is certain, however: the catastrophe prompted international awareness of production and labour in the global fashion industry.

Add to this mix the ethics of consumption, the production of materials, the cultivation of cotton, the use of water, pollution, pesticides… the list goes on and on. So how do you fight a seemingly endless battle?

In 2009, NICE launched a biennial international conference on sustainable fashion, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, with Kruse at the helm. In its first year at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, it attracted more than 1,000 visitors from all over the world and helped increase political awareness of the ethics of the fashion industry. It is now the largest and most important event on the subject of sustainability in fashion.

“The summit is our flagship and the event that puts us on the global map. Copenhagen is the place where the international agenda-setters discuss change in the industry, and between the summits we work in the highest gear to help our businesses move in the right direction,” she says, explaining why all this work is needed.

“At some point, I believe we’ll have an advantage in the global market. That we’re at the forefront of producing responsible products that are equally desirable, beautiful, and fashionable. That’s the position we need to take. That’s the gap we have to fill.” M


By Moussa Mchangama

Facebook comments