Representing the creative future

GANNI’s alternative grind

The duo behind Copenhagen-based brand GANNI talk us through their community-driven business strategy

“You just wake up and grind.” In any other context, these words conjure up terrifying images of WeWork office spaces and Silicon Valley startups, including motivational neon signs and branded coffee mugs. From the mouths of Ganni founders Ditte and Nicolaj Reffstrup, however, “the grind” gains a new meaning, one rooted in collaboration and open exchange.

The husband-and-wife duo founded the brand in 2009, continuing a small cashmere sweater label. With their shared backgrounds in tech and buying, an appreciation for non-hierarchical processes and good products came easily. Ganni had to feel welcoming, first and foremost, a brand where all customers would feel at ease.

The approach varies drastically from luxury heritage houses, which strongly believe in exclusivity as a founding principle, and where communication is always top-down, whether that’s in-store or inside the design studio.

Ganni’s strategy is polyphonic, and commercially beneficial too, proven by the organic #gannigirls campaign on Instagram, which sees fans spontaneously share Ganni fits. Sustainability is an equally natural fit in this narrative, though by no means an easy journey. One day before presenting their FW23 collection at Copenhagen Fashion Week, Ditte and Nicolaj explain why sustainability frameworks can be a bitch, what it means to kill your darlings, and how sports metaphors can be a source of inspiration. Welcome to Ganni’s alt-grind.

You’re presenting your FW23 collection tomorrow. I heard you collaborated with a young Danish artist called Esben Weile Kjær [editor tries to pronounce the name and fails miserably]?

Ditte: It’s something that really drives my creativity and inspiration in general – I love working with different talents across a variety of industries. From the collabs with different brands to the projects with younger artists, working together gives me energy.

Nicolaj: I just want to add that Ganni has always been about collaboration. It’s really core to our DNA to work with a lot of different people, both internally and externally. It’s a brand that doesn’t carry the name of the creator, it’s always been a team effort. That might be a Danish thing, but the way we work is very democratic, with flat hierarchies. It’s always a “may the best argument win” approach. Ditte always uses football metaphors, which might sound strange…

“Fashion always felt like a club you weren’t invited to unless you looked a certain way. I wanted Ganni to be the opposite.” – Ditte Reffstrup

D: …It’s so people understand the approach. I used to play soccer, I started at the age of five and it was a big part of my childhood. Early on I learned the importance of team play – you can’t win unless you do it together. Ronaldo or Messi cannot win on their own, even though they are the best players.

When we started, I knew I wanted the brand to be inclusive. Ganni had to be a brand that made you feel welcome. I have been working in fashion for a long time, and I always felt like an outsider. It’s something I noticed with others too, friends of mine who would feel too intimidated to go into a luxury boutique. It always felt like a club you weren’t invited to unless you looked a certain way. I wanted Ganni to be the opposite.

It’s especially nice to hear you include your own team in your vision of inclusivity.

D: It’s about recognizing people’s skills and understanding how you can combine them for optimal results, rather than only giving attention to the person who… scores the goals, you know? If you approach it in the right way, it also fosters healthy competition within the team, and with external teams.

“In the creative world you do see people get a lot of attention with projects that are shallow fairytales, they just know how to make noise.” – Nicolaj Reffstrup

Nikolaj, you mentioned a “let the best argument win” approach. Do you have any advice for young people presenting their ideas for the first time? If you know your boss is hearing twenty different ideas in a day, how do you make yours stick?

D: When you meet people who believe in their own ideas, you can feel it. Don’t propose something only because you think it’s what your creative director wants to hear. If you do that, you’ve already lost. Also, don’t be scared to fail. Sometimes, you just need to go for it. If you don’t take a chance, you’ll never score the goal.

N: It’s important that you get a sense that people are genuine in what they present. I admit, in the creative world you do see people get a lot of attention with projects that are shallow fairytales, they just know how to make noise. But if you want to deeply collaborate with others, you need to get a sense that what they stand for is genuine. It can’t be shallow, otherwise, it crumbles in the long run.

D: Another piece of advice I would give to everyone who wants to work in fashion: it’s important to gather diverse experiences. Don’t just aim for design, try to work in retail or production as well, so you know who you’re designing for and who the consumer is.

“Coming into fashion, I quickly realized it was all about appearing bigger than you were, and arrogance was a tool to sell yourself.” – Nicolaj Reffstrup

Both of you have alternative backgrounds, that is evident when you say things like “we let everyone in the room speak.”

D: It’s the DNA of the brand. Ganni is a platform, a community.

N: It’s definitely our Danish culture, but also our professional background. I came from a tech background and it’s funny to see the cultural difference: tech is – or used to be at least – about open source, which means that programmers are always sharing their creations – it’s extremely collaborative and super dynamic. Coming into fashion, I quickly realized it was the opposite, it was all about appearing bigger than you were, and arrogance was a tool to sell yourself. I don’t say this negatively necessarily, but Ganni could never do that. We ran the company as you would a tech company, completely flat and open. Because of Ditte, we brought that understanding of why you need to be a team player.

Could you give more concrete examples of that?

N: I took a lot of management tools with me from tech, one of them is called SCRUM, for example, a method for running projects. Instead of setting up a massive project plan that determines your actions for the next three years, we would gather everybody in the company, daily or weekly, for around 15 minutes, and let everybody share what they were working on and planning to do. That way, everybody could align, you always knew what everyone was doing, and there was a high degree of knowledge sharing. We became a singular organism moving in one direction, rather than an army led by a single general. The method installs a sense of pride and boldness in people, they’re no longer scared to speak out when they have an idea.

That sounds very different from most fashion houses, which tend to be extremely siloed and hierarchical.

N: That is what we hear from a lot of the people we work with, especially those who come from luxury.

“If you knew how crazy the journey would be from the start, you probably wouldn’t do it… ” – Ditte Reffstrup

Ganni was first launched in 2000 as a cashmere before you took it over in 2009. Could you explain how such a take-over works? Was there an infrastructure in place, and was it easier than starting a brand from scratch?

D: This is something we talked about a lot at the start – why did we do this, why did we not start our own brand from scratch? Everyone had a perception of the brand which we had to rework, so that was one of the challenges we didn’t expect. When we took over the brand, it was owned by someone who was working on a lot of other projects at the same time, the office was in a corner of his private apartment, and there were three employees, one of whom was working part-time, so it was basically like starting from scratch – we just had the name.

N: The cashmere brand was simply an opportunity that allowed us to start our own business, rather than a business we took over. We spent the first few years trying to get rid of old stock, it was terrible. I wouldn’t recommend it. It was pretty random, but then again, it often is.

I’ve participated to many brand launches. I love it, I get so much from it because the older you get, the more you realise you need the feedback from the young. So young entrepreneurs ask me for advice on how to get started with their business and I need to tell them, there often isn’t really a plan. Everybody is looking for that one great idea that will solve everything, but it doesn’t exist. You just get up every day and you grind. You grind and you think, I can’t do another day of this, and then you get drunk and you have fun and you forget about it, and the next day you grind through the day hungover. And suddenly a year has passed, and you’re not exactly where you hoped you would be, but you realized you did make progress, and you learned a lot. So you get up and grind again. And slowly things fall into place and things become somewhat smoother, because you’ve accumulated knowledge and a bit of revenue, and suddenly you’re a business. Don’t wait for the lightbulb idea, just start hammering.

It’s encouraging to hear that you don’t need to have it all figured out from the start.

N: Sometimes you build the bridge while crossing it.

D: If you knew how crazy the journey would be from the start, you probably wouldn’t do it… Wait, maybe don’t write that. [laughter]

Was there a “big break” moment? A time or a design that pushed a sudden increase in sales or press attention?

N: Many! But it wasn’t the typical case of KK wearing one of our dresses and tripling sales overnight, we never had that happening for us. It was a steady grow. But there were moments that helped us realise we were onto something. We had our fair bit of celebrity moments, but frankly, they don’t necessarily turn into sales.

When we did our first show, we picked this three-star business hotel that everybody had forgotten about in the city center, and the address on the invite must’ve worried people because the hotel was so shabby. But the hotel has a tennis court at the back, where we distributed vodka-infused slushies served by good-looking men in tennis shorts…

That usually does the trick.

N: Right? Everybody got a little tipsy, and the sun was shining, and we did something that was quite new at the time – we left the models on the runway after the show and allowed spectators to engage with them afterwards. The reactions were spectacular. Justin O’Shea was interviewed and called it “epic” which he reshared on his Instagram. That was one of the first moments where I thought, okay, we’re doing something right.

In those moments, you have to remember to step back and look at what you achieved. Both of us have a tendency to do the show and then we forget to take it all in. We’ll be on a research trip the morning after fashion week is over. We don’t stop and reflect enough. It can be very therapeutic to do so, it’s a mental cleanse and helps you to move forward.

D: The thing is, you really need that moment of reflection, but it can be difficult to give yourself time because I’m so afraid to get distracted. If you focus too much on how great an achievement is, you could lose focus. I learned that in sports: if you spend too much time celebrating a win, you lose the next match. Actually, coming back to soccer, I was playing in a team and we were winning a lot. We started thinking we no longer had to practice, we got arrogant, and then we started to lose to even the weakest teams. That is why it can be difficult for us to enjoy our success.

“It’s much easier to get your business off the ground by sticking to the categories you are known for. It’s not until you become a relatively big business, and especially when you have your own store, that you need the broader offering.” – Nicolaj Reffstrup

Ganni owes part of its international success to its wide range of products, allowing retailers to curate a unique selection while remaining within the image of the brand. Was this combination of “boutique” style and wide product range your vision from the start? Both on a design and a business level? 

D: It came very naturally with my background as a buyer, I knew that you need a broad offer. To me, everything comes down to the product. If you want success with a wholesaler, you need to have a diverse range of products. That doesn’t mean you need to introduce shoes and bags on day one, but you do need a selection that translates the story of the brand. If Liberty makes a selection for Ganni, they will be thinking about their customers and what they need, so we need to cater to their audience, which might be more grownup and needs suiting alongside the maxi dresses.

The design direction also comes from the way I dress. Yesterday I was in a hoodie, looking like I just came back from a festival, today I dressed up in a suit jacket. That is why I love fashion, you can dress for your mood.

N: Most big brands get their turnover from very few product categories. Just look at your own purchasing habits: even if you really like a designer, you won’t buy an entire wardrobe with them. It’s much easier to get your business off the ground by sticking to the categories you are known for. It’s not until you become a relatively big business, and especially when you have your own store, that you need the broader offering.

When it comes to sales, how do the different channels (direct retail, wholesale, and e-commerce) interact with each other? Are any of them priorities for you at the moment?

N: They are all a priority, being an omnichannel business. For a while, direct-to-consumer was very hyped, it was where all the venture money was going. But it’s a little sad not meeting your customer out there. Through wholesale, you get to meet a different customer, and you understand their perspective on your brand. Then our own stores are a great communicative tool.

We’ve been on a bit of a journey with our own stores, they were terrible at the beginning. We didn’t have a budget at the start, so they were so basic they didn’t really reflect anything, the generation after that was too stuffy, too luxury, because we had the idea that Ganni was about portraying high fashion at a low price point, so I guess we were obsessed with having our stores looking like luxury stores, we really only nailed it when we started taking cues from our own home. That felt so right and now it’s a great place to meet customers.

“I’ve been working in fashion for so long, I know how easily the fairytale can end. If you push too much, you get punished and people no longer want to be associated with you. It’s really a balance.” – Ditte Reffstrup

Trend cycles in the TikTok age are increasingly fast, which heavily impacts modern and community-driven brands, like House of Sunny, for example. Ganni has managed to escape this trend cycle of hype. Why do you think your customers remain engaged with the brand?

D: It’s because we have a more holistic approach. I’ve never been trend driven. I remember once doing something that didn’t feel right, only because it was on trend. I think it might’ve been neon colours or something, and it just didn’t perform, because costumers felt it wasn’t real. When you’re chasing a trend, you’re already too late. If it doesn’t come from you, it never works.

Your approach to social media and community creation feels super organic. Is it ever stressful to stick to the rhythm?

D: Definitely! It’s something we worry about every day, but because we grew our socials so organically, we have a very natural relationship to it. I’ve been working in fashion for so long, I know how easily the fairytale can end. If you push too much, you get punished and people no longer want to be associated with you. It’s really a balance.

It feels like you take the same approach to sustainability, approaching it with care rather than jumping on the bandwagon after the trend.

N: In many ways, yes. I’ve been very much involved with the climate change agenda for 25 years. When we started Ganni, I wasn’t aware of the environmental impacts of fashion, so I had a lot to learn. Since 2013, we’ve been catching up on becoming the most sustainable version of ourselves. But I don’t know if anybody really cares.

D: The good thing though is that journalists are starting to ask every time. A few years ago, it would have been half of the interviews, and it would be forced in at the end, but now it is the focus of journalists. For me, working on the creative side, it has been a fantastic journey. In the beginning it sucked, because there were so few options available, but now we have developed this amazing sourcing team, that is focused on bringing us the most innovative fabrics. They don’t bring us anything else, and I can really see the difference, there is so much to work with now.

Three years ago, we tried to fade out virgin leather, and it was a big thing in the design studio, because everybody loved working with the material. It’s easy to work with and provides that luxury feeling. It took us two seasons and then the mindset changed. That’s what great about fashion – we know how to adapt.

What do you mean when you say the beginning “sucked”?

N: What people don’t realise is that, when you work with sustainability on a profound level, it’s super complex and requires a lot of investments – it’s certifications, licenses, it’s people to run it, it’s consultants. And you also kill a lot of great product. You get this cool shiny denim material and you have to say goodbye to it. There are products that we have to kill because you can’t get alternatives for the material. Then there’s the design for circularity guideline, that we adhere to, which severely limits the creative framework. If you want to do it right, it’s really tough.

D: It was tough, but now we’re back to fun, because there’s so many nice materials.

Do you bring that same level of dedication to sustainability to your brand partnerships? The ones you did with Juicy Couture, Levi’s, Vestiaire Collective, and Ahluwalia, for example.

D: Very early on, we decided that if we did a collab, it always had to be sustainable. There was one brand – and I think I might have been crying on the way back home from that meeting – that would have been such a good collab, a massive success, but we couldn’t do it because it didn’t align with our principles. Now I feel proud that I let it go. Some of the brands that we have been working with have discovered sustainable alternatives because of our partnership. The collaborations allow us to share our knowledge on sustainability.