A self-taught fashion designer, Faroe Islands native Karen Sissal Kristansen (Sissal as she prefers to be called) took out the trophy (and cash prize) of this year’s Blue Fashion Challenge, creating a highly technical and futuristic jacket and travel bag made from fish skin leather, and a hooded seal-like dress made from seaweed jersey.
A marketing consultant-cum-designer and the founder of Shisa Brand, we interview Sissal about life on the Faroe Islands, her experience working with bio-materials and her favourite moment of the entire fashion challenge.
On making garments with fish skin leather:
“Working with it was much easier than I thought. It’s unlike [ordinary animal] leather because when you cut leather, it moves a lot and you really have to have the same skin because if you mix it, it behaves very differently, whereas with fish leather, it seems to be much more consistent in quality and easier to work with. It’s extremely time consuming to work with though – whether you work with the naturally-treated fish leather or the glossy type – but it’s not difficult. You just have to plan your production and do the math, and you’ll be able to create a routine that is less time-consuming and workable.”
On the Faroe Islands’ fishing industry:
“I think it’s very difficult for people to understand how to live in a country like this [Faroe Islands] because they live in their own countries and they can grow vegetables. Like Denmark for example is an agricultural country. They can grow corn and stuff like that. They can actually live off of the earth.
We can’t do that. Our climate is different. We live off of the ocean and have to rely on our fisheries. That’s the only way we can live. We can grow potatoes and carrots but not much because of the soil and the weather. So people can’t understand how dependant we are on fishing. Every time we need produce like fresh beans or things you put in a salad, we have to fly it in. You can’t just ship it to the Faroe Islands because it’ll be rotten by the time it reaches here. So we have to put it on a plane. Think about all that mileage! People forget about this, but this is not sustainable either.
I eat fish like five times a week; it’s a big part of my diet and that’s because it’s what we can farm from the ocean. We do raise sheep but we don’t have that many. Plus I think eating fish isn’t that bad. Not like eating [red] meat five times a week.
Now we have people who come here from other parts of the world, from countries with lots and lots of land to grow things. They tell us how we should live. And I think, Please look at how our country is. We can agree on the issue of whaling, but stopping the fishing industry will just kill our country.
I think there needs to be a cultural understanding and a respect of people’s culture and traditions. Like for example in parts of the world, some people don’t have access to water. But here in the Faroes we have so much of it, its abundant so we don’t have to worry about it as much. So of course we approach water differently, but do respect and understand what our global neighbours are going through. And I think that’s very important, to respect other people and how they live but also remember we can’t take away livelihoods of people without providing other sustainable options.
I think the issue we have to concentrate on [as a country] is overfishing. We have to consider the fishing stocks and be grownups about it and not just fish as if there’s no tomorrow. From a global perspective though, we all have to treat the oceans well and we also have to stop polluting.
On being a solopreneur:
“I launched Shisa Brand five years ago but I’ve been working in marketing – which is what I studied – so I can purchase the yarn but I’ve been working in the business more and more and taking on fewer marketing clients so I can focus on my label. I only take on clients if I really want to. But the other day I bought my first industrial machine [with some of the prize money] so now that I’ve bought a machine at that price, I’m going to have to sew a lot [laughs].”
On the week long challenge:
“It was so amazing I get goosebumps just thinking about it. The atmosphere was good from the very beginning. It wasn’t like Project Runway where they really compete and talk badly about each other. It was nothing like that. Actually you know in those reality shows when someone gets voted out and then everyone says they’ll miss that person? I would think, Yeh yeh don’t be dramatic. But then when this ended, in my thank you speech I was like: I’m going to miss you girls! And I thought afterwards, Oh my goodness Sissal you’re doing what you almost always laugh at!
The atmosphere was so good though. We were supporting each other, we learned from each other, we asked each other for advice. There was no ugliness. It was supportive and helpful and just so wonderful. And the four guys from NORA [the organisers] were so helpful, running around trying to assist but they had no idea what they were doing with the sewing but they tried so hard and managed so well.
After the challenge we created a closed Facebook group called the Blue Fashion Family because we see each other in that context because what you experience together is so stressful and hard. But I was genuinely happy from the beginning to the end.”
On her favourite moment of the entire week:
“Besides when I won of course, it was the moment when Tommy Ton was taking photos and I got the model in the ocean wearing my creations. Her expression was so clean and when I put the hood on, I was like. Oh my goodness you are a seal! But in a good way. She was such a great sport and it worked out so perfectly. So that exact moment when she was in the ocean, that was the highlight for me. I felt really proud of my clothes and also my model. The ocean would have been freezing cold but she didn’t complain. She was so professional. That entire moment was just perfect.”
On winning the challenge:
“I never expected to win. I’m a knitter really and some of the designers are really really good. They have portfolios that shows just how good they are and I’m not a designer by education, I’m just self-taught so I never thought I was a real player in this. It was my personal self doubt I know but I didn’t think I could win.
But then you couldn’t really work out who would win because it wasn’t until Saturday – because the challenge ended on Saturday – when you could see everyone’s designs, and actually the day before was the first time you could see what people were doing because that was when the silhouettes started being put on the dolls.
People from the Faroes did praise my design but people say nice things to be polite. And although I really liked my design because I stayed true to what I like, I still didn’t think I had a chance of winning because I was up against some really good designers.
So of course when I won, I was thrilled because I didn’t expect it.”
Proud of where she comes from, Sissal is a passionate advocate for the Faroe Islands and defends the region’s 1000-year fishing practices, although acknowledges the industry has to find sustainable ways to operate if it is to continue to provide its traditional food for a thousand more years.
“I’m ready to join the movement to help people make sustainable choices. There is a Greenlandic quote that says: I eat seal, and use the skin. But now what I say is: I eat fish, and use the skin.”
Sissal is putting her money where her mouth is. She has already used half the prize money on an industrial sewing machine and will use the rest on buying fish skin leather.
For more info about Sissal or her Shisa Brand, visit www.shisabrand.com.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.