Exclusive: Inside the making of Ostwald Helgason for Aldo Rise

Ostwald Helgason Aldo
Photography by Greg Kesser
Ostwald Helgason Aldo
Photography by Greg Kesser

See the Ostwald Helgason Aldo Rise collection »

Susanne Ostwald and Ingvar Helgason are staring intently at a swatch of woven raffia. Ostwald thumbs its subtle texture and pauses. “It’s missing emotion,” she says. Helgason nods. “It’s missing that fuzzy, fun, happiness…,” he trails off. “We need something warm, something unexpected.” Aldo women’s footwear designer Jackie Yermus produces a rougher weave of white with natural-toned raffia. Ostwald’s eyes widen. “This one is very emotional,” she says, laying it beside a pebbled orange, a grainy sky-blue and a shiny nude, also under consideration. “Yes,” she says, “they are very happy together!” She and Helgason exchange high-fives.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Ostwald and Helgason—the charming duo behind breakout fashion label Ostwald Helgason. For one thing, high-fives and happy talk are de rigueur when they’re around, as are discussions about balloon animals (the inspiration behind their spring collection) and Little Shop of Horrors (a previous jumping-off point). If there were such a thing as a fashion prom, they’d be a shoe-in for Cutest Couple (sorry, Kimye).

The two designers (she from Germany, he from Iceland) met in 2003 in London while working for Marjan Pejoski (the man behind Björk’s infamous 2001 swan dress), and launched their label in 2008. Their quirky contemporary designs went relatively unnoticed until 2012, when they began showing in New York. After that, everything changed. Their sporty mash-up of bold stripes, playful prints and punch-you-in-your-face colour were a hit with street-style darlings like Natalie Joos and Miroslava Duma. As the brand’s creative director, Ostwald is responsible for sourcing materials and choosing colours; Helgason manages the overall vision and brand direction. “My point of view is always very emotional,” says Ostwald. “Ingvar is much better at looking at the whole thing. I will happily get lost in stupid details, so I need someone to come in and tell me yes or no—most of the time it’s no,” she laughs.

When I meet the designers in Montreal, they’re jet-lagged and seemingly running on pure adrenaline. Having flown in from London the night before, the two are in town for a whirlwind 72 hours for a series of intense working sessions at Aldo headquarters. The goal: to nail down concepts, colours, fabrics and styles for their spring capsule collection for Aldo Rise.

Launched in 2010, Rise is the footwear giant’s foray into the frenzied world of designer collaboration. But, unlike your typical fast-fashion collab, which features established names, Aldo partners with up-and-comers to help bring their complete runway vision to life—shoes and all. This year, Aldo has pegged Ostwald Helgason as its newest rising star. “In the past, we’ve worked with up to 10 designers at a time, but this season we’re going to focus all our energy and all our investment unto this one label,” says Aldo’s creative director and VP of marketing, Douglas Bensadoun.

Working sessions take place at an old wooden dining table (complete with mismatched spindle-back chairs) in the middle of a stark white studio space. Known around the office as “the kitchen table,” it was once the actual kitchen table of founder Aldo Bensadoun. “Mr. B started his business at this table, and it always brought him luck,” Yermus tells me later. At the moment, Mr. B’s table is covered in the familiar clutter of creativity: swatch books, hastily drawn sketches, piles of ribbon, plus snacks (chocolate-covered almonds, trail mix) and a scary number of Starbucks cups and Monster Energy drinks.

The collection is made up of three concepts. The first is an “emotionally charged” colour-blocking story that mixes natural handcrafted textures with bright trim; the second is a celebration of stripes (the designers’ sporty signature); and the third features a subtle tone-on-tone ombré effect (representing their balloon animal muse). “We wanted to take something as fun and light as a balloon animal and develop fabrics that would replicate the texture, going from dense and opaque into light and see-through,” says Ostwald.

This season’s collab also features handbags (a first for Aldo Rise), including a boxy crossbody, a structured tote and (Ostwald’s personal favourite) a backpack. “Our customer wants something that really stands out, so in a way, we need to find the loudest possible version that is still tasteful,” she says.

After 72 hours, a dozen cups of coffee and a little of Mr. B’s kitchen table luck, a collision of bold, quirky, happy, loud and fuzzy gels. “You have to mix things long enough until they create a rhythm, a melody. They start to sing together,” says Ostwald. “It’s really just about shovelling it along until the right thing happens. And when it does, it’s a beautiful moment.”

Ostwald Helgason for Aldo Rise hits stores and online on April 22, 2014.