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Feminine Fashion for ”Real Women”

While most fashion designers make blouses and sweaters with 17-year-old bodies in mind, Naja Munthe and Karen Simonsen Shargawi of Danish design house Munthe plus Simonsen make extraordinary clothing that real women can actually wear and enjoy.

The duo’s ambition is reflected in the brochure for the company’s fall/winter catalog. Among their models are Munthe’s mother, Lena, 57, and Shargawi’s daughter Amine Dorthea, 2. And Munthe and Shargawi, both in their 30s, wear their own designs every day.
”After having two children, you might not be as slender as a model,” Simonsen acknowledged. ”You have hips, a belly, generous thighs. We want to create beautiful clothing that normal women can wear.”
Despite this down-to-earth approach to fashion, Munthe and Simonsen have become designers to the stars. ”Lots of well-known people are wearing our clothes,” Simonsen said in a conversation at the company’s showroom in Copenhagen.
For instance, rock star Bryan Adams likes their clothing line so much that he volunteered to shoot the photos for their latest catalog. Recent celebrity clients include Australian singer Kylie Minogue and Ali Hewson, wife of U2 lead singer Bono.
Munthe and Simonsen met at art school in Kolding, Denmark, in 1994. ”Right from the beginning, we knew we wanted to make beautiful clothing for real women,” Simonsen said. It’s been a successful vision: Since the company’s founding in 1994 on a bank loan of 40,000 DKK (ca. $4,000), its revenues have doubled each year.

Femininity and romance
Minimalism is a word that doesn’t seem to exist in the M+S vocabulary. The M+S collections, now sold in more than 150 boutiques around the world, feature a feminine style from a softer, more romantic age. The clothing has a decorative style that mixes gauzy silk with prewashed demin, printed suede with cashmere knits, to capture a spirit reminiscent of Elvira Madigan. Sequins and rhinestones sparkle unabashedly. Flowers, leaves and grapevines are appliqued or embroidered on nearly everything. The highly ornamented garments bring to mind fairy tales and movies with happy endings.
Nor is the obvious influence of the psychedelic ’70s a coincidence. ”She’s definitely a hippie,” said Simonsen, gesturing to Munthe, who laughed at her friend’s description. ”Even though she didn’t live in the ’70s, she’s always been a hippie.”
Munthe makes no secret of her political views, which are decidedly left-wing.
”On my way here this morning, I decided that should you ask me how I vote, my response would be ’Red, dark red.’”
Interestingly, M+S doesn’t have a single man on the payroll, although it has about 40 employees.
”Oh, there’s a guy who comes around once in a while to hang a picture or something,” Munthe said. ”We’ve had male employees a couple of times, but only for a short period. It’s not that we don’t want to hire men, but every time we advertise for a position, it’s the women who come across as more confident, more professional and more likely to fit in here.”
At the same time, they’re something of a paradox, these Danish designers who create fashion that pays tribute to femininity and sensuality. Despite persistent assurances that they aren’t feminists, Munthe and Simonsen seized the opportunity to use their latest fashion show in Axelborg to raise money for the fight against breast cancer.
”We held a charity gala for the Danish cancer foundation, with T-shirts that we printed especially for the occasion,” Munthe said. ”And we convinced Helena Christensen and Bryan Adams to come and promote this event to help women with breast cancer. We’re not feminists, but this disease affects about one woman in ten, and if we want to change that, we have to do something now.”
The designers are prepared to market their principle-driven vision of fashion around the world, but say they are not prepared to make major compromises to get rich.
”It’s a decision you have to make early in life. Do you want to wake up every morning happy to go to work, because you’re doing just what you want to do? Or do you have to compromise and maybe make more commercial kinds of clothing because that’s where the money is?” Simonsen said.
Of course, most fashion designers say that they’re anti-commerical and will place artistic integrity before financial gain. But M+S seems to have found a way to make a good living without sacrificing their principles.
We’ve often been in situation where we had to say, ’No, we don’t want the money,” Munthe said. ”For example, Magasin Nord [a major Danish department store], which has six or seven stores around the country, inquired if they could sell our clothing. It would have been an enormous order—four or five million kronor per year. But we said, ”No, thanks,” because it would have been too commercial for us.
”We’ve had this company for almost eight years, and each morning when I wake up, I’m happy to go to work. It’s always a joyful playground and a good way to spend my life.”

Text: David Bartal
Potography: Courtesy M+S
To see M+S’s collections for yourself: www.muntheplussimonsen.com
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