While Denmark and Sweden are well-known luxury design destinations, you might be hard-pressed to name even one name in Icelandic furniture or fashion – this small island just of the Arctic Circle, population 320,000, just hasn’t made the same splash as its Nordic neighbors.
But that’s changing.
Reykjavik Fashion Festival (RFF) in March – Iceland’s first real step towards a structured fashion industry, now in its ninth year – showcases fledgling designers keen to launch their brands on the world stage.
Held simultaneously, DesignMarch is an annual exposition of work by Icelandic designers. Exhibition spaces range from Scandi-design-focused interiors store Epal to the new Marshall Building – a former herring factory, now home to a honey-toned restaurant, gallery space for emerging artists and a permanent exhibition-cum-studio space for Ólafur Elíason.
While visiting Iceland to explore both events, I had the chance to meet Iceland’s First Lady Eliza Reid at a champagne reception she was hosting for DesignMarch at the President’s Residence Bessastaðir, where she was very outspoken about the country’s dynamic creative culture.
“Because it’s a small society, people have to wear a lot of hats and you become less limited, in a way. If you want to design a new chair, people aren’t necessarily going to say ‘when did you study furniture design or textile design to be able to do this?’ They look at your ideas first,” she says.
The First Lady is used to appreciating Icelandic ingenuity with an outsider’s eye. Born in Ottawa, she met her husband Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson – now Iceland’s President – at Oxford University, England, where they were both studying. When Reid won a dinner date with him during a fundraising raffle, it turned out to the first of many; later, Reid proposed to him over champagne and dinner at one of their favorite restaurants.
“Visiting, you can see what an inspirational environment we are in,” she adds, going on to list hiking, swimming in geothermal swimming pools and checking out Reykjavik’s increasing number of standout places to dine among her favorite activities.
I would have to agree. The events I’d been to that week illustrated how far Iceland’s chilly climate and dramatic landscapes – moss-covered lava fields, plunging glacial-melt-fed waterfalls, geysers and geological activity – influenced local fashion and design, from silver embellishments to represent ice on the runway to hand-knotted rugs featuring volanoes in relief. And while dining out between DesignMarch and RFF fixtures, it became clear to me that Iceland’s culinary scene – previously overshadowed by its neighbors Sweden, Norway and Denmark, home of former Best Restaurant in the World noma – is having a moment.
New Nordic 20-seat restaurant Dill was just awarded its first Michelin star, offering a prix fixe seven-course menu of dishes such as smoked haddock, potato and local yogurt skyr, based on foraged ingredients, in a former stables.
Grillið at the Radisson Blu is still a go-to for white tablecloths and haute cuisine; at Fiskmarkaðurinn (“Fish Market”), set over two cosy levels of a town house, Head Chef Hrefna Rósa Sætran selects fresh ingredients bought directly from farmers and fishermen, offering local fare such as robata-grilled minke whale with horseradish and redcurrant, soy ginger sauce and smoked puffin breast alongside Japanese hot dishes and sushi.
Iceland’s luxury hospitality scene, generally, is on the up and up, due in part to the rash of visits from celebrities Jay Z, Beyoncé and Bill Gates and social media shares of Iceland’s epic photogenic landscapes.
Building on it’s 2016 expansion, this summer Iceland’s legendary geothermal spa resort Blue Lagoon – named among 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic magazine – will launch luxury spa Lava Cove, set deep within the area’s natural lava formations; 65-room Moss Hotel will follow in autumn, where each room will open onto its own private balcony and mini-cove, etched into the edge of the lagoon.
In Reykjavik, hospitality stalwarts the Art Deco Hotel Borg and Icelandair-run Marina and Natura have been joined by the upscale Canopy by Hilton, where the DesignMarch opening reception was also an opportunity to check out its ocean- and volcanic-rock inspired rooms set across six art-filled houses, and the sleek 101, Kim and Kanye’s digs of choice when they’re in town.
Tower Suites, perched at on the 20th floor of a new office block, are the city’s most visually arresting accommodations: the almost unpronounceable names of each of the eight suites are taken from the mountains beyond the city and bay that they overlook, a jaw-dropping panorama visible from both the bed and tub in each room.
(The referral-only, ultra exclusive Trophy Lodge, nestled in the mountains beneath Langjökull glacier within Iceland’s famed Golden Circle, is owned by the same folks.)
Because I was there to explore Iceland’s creative culture I didn’t have as much time as I’d like to undertake a thorough expedition of Iceland’s myriad landscapes, so I cheated and took a luxury helicopter ride with local operator Helo. Options abound, but I recommend heliskiing, if that’s your bag, or flying over the Golden Circle to Langjökull, like I did, where you’ll see old Viking settlements and glacier-capped mountains before being able to stroll through a man-made tunnel inside the glacier itself.
Another recommendation? Iceland’s visitor numbers only look set to increase, so you better go now, before everybody else does.
Check out What’s On Iceland for itinerary inspirations or to book your experiences. whatson.is