Cover Ditte Reffstrup and her husband Nikolaj (Photo: Lana Ohrimenko)

The Danish label Ganni, one of fashion’s most successful contemporary brands, has been hitting all the right notes lately. Its secret? Daring to care

As isolated and anxious as the rest of the pandemic-stricken world, Ditte Reffstrup, at her home in Copenhagen, had the song You’re Not Alone by Olive on repeat. Music, she says, was the one constant in a year of disrupted plans. “It has always been something I turned to for comfort or for a change of mindset,” says Ditte, who has been the creative director of the Danish contemporary fashion label Ganni for more than a decade. So for her fall-winter 2021 collection, she staged a three-day online concert in February with performances by local artists Zsela, Deb Never and Coco O that included a version of that hypnotic tune on the setlist. “I just wanted to reach our community with that song, to help them recognise that we’re all feeling the same way.”

Ganni’s community consists of a sizeable fanbase of self-described “Ganni Girls”, whose members include Rihanna, Priyanka Chopra and top Scandi influencers like Pernille Teisbak. They all fell in love with a style Reffstrup made famous: a boyish twist on girly, seersucker frocks grounded in a sense of Danish practicality that always seem to capture the mood of the moment. And Ganni is definitely having a moment.

Despite an unstable economy last year, Ganni ranked among Net-a-Porter’s top five brands of 2020, alongside Gucci and Saint Laurent. Speaking to Reffstrup and her husband, Nicolaj, who acquired a small cashmere apparel company called Ganni in 2009 and turned it into a powerhouse, it becomes clear that they owe their success to their ability to walk a line between cult and mass, to talk neither up nor down to customers, and—unusual for such a large company making relatively affordable clothes—their commitment to sustainability. Ganni has been able to sit comfortably on shelves alongside luxury brands despite the fact that most of its dresses cost about US$250, and the Reffstrups have no intention to hike prices. “We like to call it ‘hacking the fashion industry’, investing in responsible solutions and having a business model that allows us to do that,” says Nicolaj, who hails from a tech background and serves as CEO.

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Prior to directing Ganni, Ditte was a buyer for Copenhagen stores Pede & Stoffer and then Flying A, where she became an expert on customer preferences, like the exact sleeve length that would satisfy most women. But more significantly, she was able to spot a gaping hole in the market. “At the time there were only two kinds of Scandinavian style: the Swedish, super-androgynous one, or the Danish, super-bohemian style. But I didn’t recognise me or my friends in either of them; I knew there was a Scandi 2.0 style the world hadn’t seen before,” she says. From this sentiment bred dainty, Peter Pan collared dresses that were casually paired with storm-proof boots. One could easily see a cool Danish girl wearing that while cycling across wet, cobblestoned streets.

“Ganni was the pioneer of the luxury high street vibe,” says Justin O’Shea, the former buying director of luxury e-tailer Mytheresa, who put Ganni’s first collection on the site and inspired competitors to follow suit. “I remember the first Ganni show at a tennis court. To be very honest I was thinking it would be like all the other Danish brands—nice, but not groundbreaking. But then Epic by Faith No More started blasting and I remember putting down my mini champagne bottle and saying, ‘This is one of my favourite songs—it’s going to be awesome!’ And when all the great Danish models strutted out in these effortlessly cool clothes, I knew something special was happening with this brand.”

It was this same, self-assured style Ditte displayed from a young age, growing up in a fisherman’s town in Northern Jutland, when she’d drape herself in her mother’s Seventies dresses. MTV, she says, was her sole “window to the world”, and Madonna was her spirit guide. So it’s not surprising that there’s a heavy undercurrent of nostalgia in her work, especially in the latest collection, inspired by Nineties stage costumes, which saw the aforementioned singers jamming in metallic denim, a high-octane green jacket or boxy suits. “I’m really proud of our suits this season. We’re really refining what a Ganni suit could be: something still feminine but with more attitude in it,” says Ditte.

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Ditte also bonded over Nineties grunge with rising menswear designer and 2020 LVMH Prize winner Priya Ahluwalia when the two met in Copenhagen more than a year ago. “For me, music videos were a way to connect to my black and Asian heritage, and where I got to see them displayed in a positive way,” said Ahluwalia in a Ganni podcast. A dance party in the Reffstrup’s kitchen solidified their friendship and led to a bold collaboration this April, which also marked Ahluwalia’s womenswear debut. Ahluwalia lent her upcycling prowess to Ganni’s spring 2020 archive prints. “Priya is so crazy talented,” says Ditte. “She totally overdeveloped ideas; the second she came in she was like, ‘Woah, this is cool’, or ‘I want to work with that’, and she really taught our design team to see upcycling as an opportunity rather than a limitation.” The two labels are dropping a second collection this fall, focused on denim, and are in talks over more collections next year.

At a time when collaborations have become commonplace, Ahluwalia is only one of few designers Ganni has tapped in the past decade (others include Levi’s and Shrimps). “Nicolaj and I decided early on not to do collaborations unless they have a responsible angle to them,” says Ditte. “We’ve once even started a project, but because we were unable to use plastic from the ocean as we had intended, we put a stop to it halfway.” In May, Nicolaj was a guest speaker at the Fashion CEO Agenda forum hosted by Global Fashion Agenda, a nonprofit organisation that rallies the industry behind sustainability goals, where he shared Ganni’s goals for 2023—all 44 of them. “It’s about putting our game plan out there for everyone to see and holding ourselves accountable,” says Nicolaj. “Ganni Lab is a platform dedicated to sharing our journey to becoming impact-free, and we want to share our progress publicly, to be transparent with our community and share our shortcomings.” The brand, which already has a rental service for its more ornate styles, for one example, is also launching its own reselling platform this fall.

“Every day Nicolaj and I feel we can do better,” says Ditte. “I love fashion and I think I was meant to be in fashion, but one thing I still hate about it is how it’s often cool to be cruel. But I think it’s cool to be nice. Ganni is about making people feel good about themselves and having respect for one another.” The idea is clearly on her mind as she prepares for her next collection. When I ask Ditte to suggest a song that could be on its soundtrack, she chose Justice Vs Simian’s We Are Your Friends.