After working for Anna Sui in New York and Giles Deacon in London, Elisabeth Benonisen decided to move back to northern Norway. Here she designs a new line of handbags made of the regions own material: Fish leather.
– Should I build a career in London or I should establish myself at home?
Elisabeth Benonisen is seated in a blue sofa in the shop she runs in Bodø, repeating the question she asked herself six years ago. She had just landed a job working for the designer Giles Deacon in London, after completing her education at the Esmod School of Fashion in Oslo and working as an intern at Anna Sui in New York. Working with Deacon taught her a lot about all the aspects of the industry, but then she turned thirty and started to think about the future.
– I have very strong roots and I missed the landscape and the slow way of living her in Bodø. It’s exciting to live in London and I do miss all the creative impulses, but the pace is maddening and you spend a lot of time on logistics – just getting from A to B. In Bodø everything is nearby and life is slow. That represents a greater quality of life, at least for me. So I decided to go home. That´s when I decided to start my own label.
Moving to a coastal town in Northern Norway to pursue a career in fashion isn’t the obvious choice. In the centre of Bodø, Scandinavian high street fashion rule: H&M, Lindex, Morris. Interior shops stocked with Danish designs. But Benonisen enrolled in a local entrepreneurial course and got started. She named the brand Eben, a contraction of her own name.
– Why did you decide to make handbags?
– It really started with the material. I wanted to create something that represented both the region and the country. My grandfather was a fisherman in Lofoten and I grew up close to the sea. Both the Inuit people of Greenland and the Sami population have a long tradition of using fish skin and during the war people made shoes out of catfish skin in Norway, when there was a shortage of other materials. Also, fish skin is a left over byproduct from the food industry, which helps make my products sustainable.
– Are there any other designers using fish skin?
– I know that Givenchy have made clutch bags from fish skin and that Prada and Alexander Wang uses it for details on shoes, handbags and wallets. But I´ve never seen someone use it on a whole collection. I think it has wonderful structure and is great to work with.
In the shop in Bodø bags are displayed on shelves or hanging on the wall. The skin is tanned and dyed in Iceland, while the bags are sewn in Portugal.
– I havn’t been able to find handbag manufacturers in Norway, and Portugal is certainly not the cheapest country in that respect, but they are known for delivering good quality. Some items I create locally, such as the necklaces I design, which are done in collaboration with Drag Industries here in Bodø.
There are two things people are concerned about when buying a bag, says Elisabeth Benonisen. Firstly, it has to look nice. Secondly, it has to be practical. She puts just as much emphasis on one as the other.
– Whether a bag is practical or not has to do with straps, the ability to carry it in different ways and what kind of inside pockets it has. When it comes to the design, I try to create clean lines and shapes that can be used from one season to the next. The material itself actually dictates the form in one sense, there are things you can do with cowhide, for instance, that you just can’t do with fish skin.
In her shop, Benonisen also sells clothes from Norwegian designers Christina Ledang and Njork. When Ledang showed her spring collection during Oslo Runway last year, her models carried Eben handbags. All brands are represented by F5 Agency in Oslo who also sells the bags in their flagship store in Øvre Slottsgate.
– The fact that we work and travel together, for example to visit trade fairs, makes us stronger and more visible. I have just started to expand my business abroad and currently have one outlet in Sweden, one in Denmark and one in the Netherlands. A group from China have also expressed their interest.
While she started out, Benonisen worked part time as a nurse while establishing her own brand. As the brand has progressed it has allowed her to focus more and more on Eben, moving closer to her goal of making a living from it. She is still freelancing, but these days as a designer for a local manufacturer of casual wear.
– I would also like Eben to include clothes, but that is something that will have to grow organically. While I constantly try to improve the designs, I also work hard to build a business. Both of my parents work in a bank, so this is probably in my blood.
When Elisabeth Benonisen is taking about her line of handbags, she doesn’t use the word collections. Fast fashion is something she wants to distance herself from and therefore opts to make a more timeless base collection where models are gradually being introduced and others are phased out. Her handbags are never on sale.
– But I do arrange certain events for costumers where I make them a good offer, she says.
– What do people in Bodø think of the store?
– They seem to like it a lot. They often tell me it’s nice to have a concept store in town and I also have a lot of tourists visiting. A town is dead without small shops such as this. But so far, I’m the only fashion designer here. For now.