Inside Iceland’s Nightmare ‘Fashion Week’

In July, about twenty design students and recent fashion-school graduates from all over the world received e-mails inviting them to show at “Iceland Fashion Week.” They thought it was a thrilling opportunity (plus, there was the allure of Iceland’s natural wonders). Many that we spoke to worked around the clock preparing for the September 6 show, and others maxed out their credit cards to purchase flights from as far away as South Korea, Poland, Brazil, and Spain. But shortly after they arrived on September 2, they realized that Iceland Fashion Week was far from glamorous.

The first red flag went up when they found their accommodations — not a hotel, but a former NATO military base, abandoned in 2006, an hour away from Reykjavik and isolated among rocky fields. The first model casting was held in an aerobics studio of an open gym; the second was in a shopping mall. The first runway show was in a Lexus dealership that featured models with glitter Lexus symbols on their chests, the men in furry boots and briefs.

On the morning of the main event, the September 6 group show, two designers, Juan Hernandez Daels and Narelle Dore, drove to get a look at the stage and discovered what looked like a county fair for the small town of Keflavik, complete with stalls selling hot dogs and amusement rides. The runway was constructed from boxes of Icelandic Glacial water, stacked on the wooden pallets and still wrapped in plastic. A huge poster of a water bottle was behind the stage.

Iceland’s recent financial woes — a debt of 50 billion euros for a population of only 300,000 — were not to blame for this shill-friendly joke of a fashion week. The event is the brainchild of former Icelandic Models doyenne Kolbrún Aðalsteinsdóttir, and in no way officially sanctioned. Aðalsteinsdóttir, who goes by Kolla and has the demeanor of a drill sergeant, copyrighted the name Iceland Fashion Week in 2003. Her entire organization is comprised of four people, including a bus driver. Iceland’s fashion community boycotts her huckster presentations.

“She is unstable, disorganized, and has no one behind her,” says Gunnar Hilmarsson, the chairman of both the Icelandic Fashion Counsel and Iceland Design Centre. “You have to bring the unions, city, trade council into it. She doesn’t have that. This is a disaster, which is why we are looking into how to stop it.”

But the show, such as it was, went on. The bus pulled into the fairgrounds with the designers on the afternoon of the sixth. The seats in front of the stage were half-filled with townspeople, mostly women with strollers and their children. Fairground music could be heard piping in the distance. The water-bottle runway drew special ire. “I don’t want my clothes to be shown on plastic!” seethed Kaytee Papusza. “I mean, barf on my face five times. It’s disgusting!”

The Icelandic models were also freaking out. “I am trying to process this,” muttered one. Kolla’s “gonna get smacked in the face in a little bit,” another added. Meanwhile, Iceland Fashion Week director Andrew Lockhart dodged questions. “I haven’t had anything to do with this,” he said. “I don’t deal with the show.” (Lockhart, affiliated with Kolla since 2003 and a partner in the organization, has since severed ties with her.)

When Kolla finally arrived to finesse the situation, she inflamed it instead. “Have you never been in Milan Fashion Week?” she asked the livid group of designers. “It is just like this. Have you been to Paris Fashion Week?” She went on: “The situation is really good here! Everyone is really happy. The light is unbelievable! The runway is on the website, so everyone knew the runway before they came.” (The runway was not, in fact, on the site.) Kolla then tried to have Karelle Levy, the Miami designer behind KRELwear, who was loudly protesting, arrested for disorderly contact.

Catalin Botezatu, who earlier showed the questionable Lexus swimwear, was unswayed by the hoopla and commenced his runway show of sequined Carol Burnett Show–style dresses. Then it began to rain. Shortly after, the bus abruptly departed, leaving the designers and their collections in the downpour. (They lugged their things uphill to find taxis and return to the barracks.) That night, some of the designers staged a show at a Reykjavic discothèque, christened “Rebel,” so that their trip wouldn’t be a complete waste of time. The club, via Andrew Lockhart, charged the group $1,800 for the privilege.

Inside Iceland’s Nightmare ‘Fashion Week’