Katja Geiger, under the brand Katja of Sweden, became world-renowned for her clothing designs characterised by elegant simplicity, in keeping with Scandinavian design culture. Her collections were greeted with great enthusiasm by both the press and customers. She also achieved huge success on the export markets in Europe and the USA.
Katja Geiger was born Karin Hallberg in 1920 in Skromberga Ekeby, near Helsingborg and the mining district of Höganäs. She studied at the University College of Arts, Craft and Design and Beckmans in Stockholm, and in 1946 attended Parsons School of Design in New York, one of the world's foremost learning centres for textile design, where she also came to the attention of Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor. A cluster of successful designers grew up round the school's premises in Manhattan, and the environment was marked by creativity in endless forms of expression.
Following an article in the New York Times Karin became famous overnight. Edwina Sheppard, influential fashion writer for the New York Times, was full of praise for her. Shortly afterwards Karin appeared in her first TV interview on NBC. The name Katja of Sweden had been born. The brand had its own area in exclusive department stores. A showroom on Broadway was furnished in refined Swedish design using natural materials, and this caught on as a sensational innovation among buyers from the many chain stores.
Early on during her time in the USA Karin Hallberg met and married film actor and director Rod Geiger, and the two of them set up home outside New York. Thanks to his connections with the film world she designed costumes for a number of film productions.
From New York to Paris and London
Katja of Sweden became a design concept moving ahead with great strides. Katja stated in Dagens Nyheter in 1950 that her studio in the Bronx was currently employing fifty seamstresses, but that they still couldn't keep up with demand for all the new designs. She created a stir in Paris, was a hit in London, and international press agencies reported from her shows.
Owing to a variety of factors the family moved in 1953 to Huaröd in Skåne, where a Swedish company was set up employing local seamstresses. The following year Karin entered into a collaboration with Malmö Mekaniska Tricotfabrik. The factory had previously solely manufactured simple, functional underwear. Now the company got the opportunity to produce ready-made clothing of wool and cotton jersey in the latest designs, easy to wash and both shrink-resistant and wrinkle-free. Blouses, skirts and dresses presented in two to three collections per year were manufactured here for almost 20 years. Soon the remuneration for Katja was higher than that of the company's MD.
Katja of Sweden represented functionality and easy care, a concept encompassed by the 3 T's in Swedish: "Tvätta, Torka, Ta på" (wash, dry, wear). This worked well on markets outside the USA, but in the USA it encountered resistance. Such easy-care clothing must be cheap and poor quality, was the objection raised by her American partner. Another quite unexpected complication from using jersey as the basic material was that the garments looked like shapeless pieces of fabric on the hangers. It was not until they were put on and filled out by the curves of the body that they came into their own and showed off their elegant drape.
In bed with film stars
In 1975 the collaboration with the Malmö company came to an end and Katja of Sweden once again focused on the US market. The design work took a new course, and a company was developed with its own collections of home furnishings, bedding and ceramics in the USA. Macy's department store in New York went in for "Katja shops", and textile company Cannon Mills manufactured terry cloth of her design under licence. TV commercials featured actors Bob Hope and Larry Hagman contentedly tucked up in bed between Katja sheets (although not in the same bed!). Her large design studio at New York's Hudson River West was located in old industrial premises, a setting taken from a Woody Allen film.
Prior to the new USA venture Katja's Swedish company had gone through a lengthy tax lawsuit back home with numerous twists and turns. Finally in 1996 the tax authorities in Sweden wrote off their sizeable claims against her.
Katja of Sweden's professional career meant that she was not just famous and appreciated at home; her designs had been a hit in countries all the way from Japan to France, as well as opening the door to the world of global stars within art and film.
Perhaps we have not fully appreciated the achievements of such female designers as born entrepreneurs? Katja of Sweden and Ebba von Eckermann worked in a business world where the link between personal creativity and commercial application was very close. It was not possible to achieve international success without strong visions, motivation and presence from the company's central figure. Such successful entrepreneurship was built on quality products, based on sound handicraft know-how paired with modern design. This required close ties to a skilled and flexible workforce in Sweden, something that has subsequently become increasingly difficult to build up here due to high labour costs. In addition, these pioneers in modern design took individual responsibility for international contacts, fashion shows and press previews and showrooms – activities that today require a whole team of people.
Their efforts within many different fields alongside design duties are worthy of admiration, and they can therefore be viewed as pioneers for our current successful female entrepreneurs within the fashion world.
Anita Lignell Du Rietz
From the magazine Företagsminnen published by the Centre for Business History.