Words: Melanie Schönthier
In the 103rd issue Heida Birgisdottir is Dedicated, founder of the all-girl clothing company Nikita, who will tell us how she helped develop snowboarding in Iceland, why she founded a clothing company for women and why pink is not always a girl´s favourite colour.
If you google “Nikita”, you will get hits for the correspondent Luc Besson movie, Elton John’s world-renowned song and the former Russian head of government Nikita Khrushchev. But they all lose to the website of an Icelandic clothing company that started with a few hand-made individual items in the middle of the 90s and has become one of the most popular brands “for girls who ride” today.
Heida Birgisdottir founded Nikita and luckily didn’t follow the advice given to her by some big snowboard companies. “Before we started Nikita, we actually mentioned to a few of the leading companies that we believed that there was a need for a new all-girl clothing brand but they said we were wrong,” Heida recalls and adds: “We love proving that we were right!”
This girl from Iceland was always swift to get on new ideas: “I used to ski a lot as a kid, loved the snow and the mountains but I always felt that there was something missing in skiing,” Heida says. In 1987, she found out what it was. As an exchange student in the States, she saw a snowboard for the first time on a ski trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming: “I knew immediately that this was what I was looking for!”
But Heida was not only one of the first female snowboarders in Iceland (and its very first female surfer!), she also co-owned the only snowboard shop in Reykjavik, which was founded by her boyfriend Runar Ommarson in 1990 – back then there were only four snowboarders on the whole island! She soon noticed that things for female riders started to improve with companies like Burton, Gnu and Sims producing women’s boards, “but the clothing was still just guys’ stuff in extra small”. Everybody who was a girl snowboarder 15 years ago knows what this meant: hoodies that were way too big, pants that were way too baggy and skate shoes that were way too chunky.
Girls who loved snowboarding, surfing or skateboarding looked like boys, even though they didn’t want to. Like Heida. Runar remembers: “Even though we asked for it from the companies we were importing goods from, we never got the one thing we kept asking for: street clothing that Heida – and our potential girl customers – liked. This was a very serious problem. As everybody knows, girls have to have new clothing pretty often!” The solution: Heida started to design her own clothes. “I always had the need to create something and wear it,” she says. “In school I had been making my own jewellery and sold some of it. When I found out that there was no women’s clothing available, I simply started making my own.” In the beginning she only made her own t-shirts, jackets and pants but soon more and more girls in her snowboard shop were starting to enquire about this cool ‘label’. Heida rented a little studio and the first 25 individual items she makes were sold out within 24 hours. The first extended line followed but there was still no name for the ‘label’. Only in 2000, when Heida sold more than 1,000 items in one season, did she pick a name. “‘Nikita’ was chosen. After all, it looked good in print and everyone in the world could easily say it.”
Nikita’s triumphant course through the European snowboard, skateboard and surf scene started. Runar and Heida put all their money into the company, rented a stand at the biggest sports fair, Ispo, got snowboarders Minna Hesso and Natasza Zurek to join the pro team, and coined the slogan “For girls who ride”. The idea that none of the bigger snowboard companies had believed in was finally bearing fruit.
“First we received only a few letters from girls, then tens of hundreds from all over the world, thanking Heida for designing the clothing that they had been looking for but couldn’t find. Girls seemed to agree with Heida that there was a big need for a new line of clothing that combined their favourite sports and fashion,“ says Runar. “A general misunderstanding about women and design was that products designed for them have to be pink. This, we have found out, is not true. We repeat, not true. Of the first 100 items designed by Nikita, none was pink and girls still really liked them.”
Today Heida and her team of designers work on seven different collections each year that range from streetwear to technical outerwear and party wear (Nikita Selekzion), and even to a small men’s line, Atikin. But Heida wouldn´t be Heida if she didn’t look for new challenges and projects all the time. In 2006 she decided that it was time to organise a contest for girls only. Since then, pro riders such as Marie-France Roy, Erin Comstock and Vera Janssen have become regular visitors to the Nikita Chickita that has one stop in the USA and one in Europe. Being an amateur contest, it allows everybody to participate and offers the chance to get a sponsor deal with Nikita. Of course, Heida shows up to cheer on the girls but also goes riding herself, which, she admits, unfortunately doesn’t happen too often any more. “I didn’t ride much the last two winters because first I was pregnant and then had my son Frosti but in a ‘normal’ year I ride over 50 days per season. My favourite is doing a combination of freeride and backcountry and then build a backcountry kicker and hit it until I can’t any more.” She finishes: “Being involved in the action is more fun than just looking cute on the sideline. Who says you can’t do both anyway?”