They’re growing a new fashion empire built on responsible values. But Ganni’s co-founders still suffer from climate guilt

Leah Dolan, CNN

When asked how they turned Ganni into the formidable fashion brand it is today, husband-and-wife co-founders Nicolaj and Ditte Reffstrup’s modest answer hinted at a kind of serendipity. “There was never a big strategy to it,” Nicolaj told CNN over Zoom ahead of the label’s showcase at Copenhagen Fashion Week in August. “It was a little organic and random.”

But back in the aughts, before Ganni’s frolicsome offering of poplin collared dresses and knee-high chelsea boots became an unofficial uniform for western women in their mid-twenties and beyond, the company dealt exclusively in cashmere. Then owned by a friend of the Reffstrups, the pair took over in 2009 and widened the brand’s remit with the help of just a couple of employees. By 2020, they had an average full-time staff count of 112 and had become one of luxury e-commerce site Net-a-Porter’s top-selling brands. Today, Ganni boasts more net sales in the US, Canada and Europe than in the Nordic countries themselves, with its first stores soon to open in China.

“That feels pretty Ganni-ish,” said Ditte, who also serves as Ganni’s creative director, of the brand’s spontaneous beginnings. “We kind of stumbled into it.” Much of the so-called “Ganni-verse” can be described this way, with an air of effortlessness infused into the brand’s DNA: From the candid-style marketing campaigns to the couple’s own home, nestled in a leafy suburb in Copenhagen’s old town.

On the eve of the Ganni Spring-Summer 2023 runway show, a number of writers, editors, runway models and influencers were welcomed into the Reffstrup property. The 1950s-inspired checkerboard dining room floor — beautifully incongruous against the teal wall panels — along with the miscellaneous chairs and mis-matched tableware was a masterclass in “happy accident” elegance: As if the eclectic smattering of gorgeous side plates, wine glasses and water tumblers were laid down last minute.

The brand’s Spring-Summer 2023 show had a similar off-the-cuff feel. Inspired by Copenhagen’s famous cycling culture, the open-air runway began with a BMX performance by Danish world champion Malene Kejlstrup, who sped across the ramps while a remix of The Prodigy’s “Out of Space” blared through the speakers. Scrawled on the pier floor were giant, pastel-colored chalk letters spelling out the collection’s title: “Joyride.”

The looks on show were grab-and-go festival outfits, like the cowboy boots tucked into tracksuit bottoms and a raincoat exposing a triangle bikini bra. It’s commercial rather than couture, of course, but watching the sunset parade of monochromed models styled in orange, lilac and aqua ensembles was all the more gratifying knowing these pieces could end up in your wardrobe, rather than just on a magazine cover. The festivities, attended by Gen Z YouTube influencer Emma Chamberlain and model Mia Regan, were also open to the public in a welcoming gesture rarely seen at fashion weeks.

This approach, along with a semi-affordable price point (ranging typically from $175 for a bag to $235 for a dress), is likely why Ganni seems to have developed regular customers into dedicated fans. With over a million Instagram followers, far surpassing its Scandinavian competitors and even similarly priced international brands, the label has forged a cult-like community within which feverishly-devoted customers happily brand themselves “#Gannigirls” — a tag with over 90,000 posts on the app and 3.7 million over on TikTok.

“I’m very proud that very early on, we decided it was also important for us to show real people,” said Ditte. The brand still regularly reposts selfies of customers modeling their new wares, helpfully showcasing what each print, colorway or neckline looks like on a variety of body types and ethnicities. “If we found the right picture of a girl that had a good energy and looked good in Ganni, we would post her. We were not afraid of showing a girl who only had 400 followers.” A spot on the label’s grid is a valuable incentive for fans to keep posting, tagging, and maybe even buying — ultimately driving Ganni’s engagement higher and higher.

“We never use the word sustainability”

But even with at least four years of exponential growth under its belt, the brand can’t take its success for granted. In a ceaselessly shifting fashion landscape, how can Ganni continue to fortify its empire?

Perhaps, by doubling down on ethical best practices, something more and more consumers are increasingly keen to see.

In March 2020, the Reffstrups applied for B-Corp status: a rigorous certification process and ranking that assesses a business’ social and environmental impact — from wildlife to worker’s rights.

“(The B-Corp certificate) levels the playing field and makes it transparent as to who is doing what,” said Nicolaj. “Only then can you drive unified progress, because right now a lot of brands are waiting for other brands, and big companies are waiting for other big companies — nobody wants to be the first ones to commit to it publicly.” Currently, only a small percentage of clothing companies have achieved B-Corp status, including Chloé — the first luxury label to have its sustainability efforts verified — as well as Patagonia, Sézane and AllBirds.

According to Ganni, its Spring-Summer 2023 collection is “97% responsible,” using a mixture of upcycled materials, recycled fibers and off-cuts or natural dyes. In the brand’s 2021 responsibility report, the Reffstrups said their label has achieved 30 out of the 44 planet-positive goals drawn up by its own board of environmental advisors — a group led by ex-Chloé green chief, Aude Vergne. Ganni had intended to fulfill its “Responsibility Gameplan” by 2023, but proudly notes it will be completed a year earlier than expected. The team are also experimenting with a new fabric made from sequestered carbon, or harmful excess CO2 captured from the atmosphere.

Yet despite all this, Ganni shies away from calling itself sustainable. “We never use the word sustainability,” said Nicolaj. “We realize that because fashion lives off of newness basically, and more consumption doesn’t make sense from a planet perspective. Generally we’re a little embarrassed to be in the fashion industry, or I am at least. So I go to work everyday with a little bit of a bad conscience.”

Their ultimate goal is to produce successful collections while being “climate-positive.” It’s a tough ask, especially when a brand’s visual language and sartorial output skews trendy over timeless. But the couple see their mission as something bigger than Ganni.

“We’ve had these conversations many times, you know, ‘should we just quit what we are doing?’” added Ditte. “But we are at least trying to do it as responsible as possible, and we are trying to change the industry.”

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