Bringing Indian spice to Swedish fashion

Business Profile:Indian styles with a Scandinavian touch: this winning combination has helped take interior design and clothing store Indiska from flower power trendsetter to the brink of international expansion, as CEO Sofie Gunolf tells Christine Demsteader.

Twenty years ago Sofie Gunolf was working as a weekend shop assistant at Indiska, a Swedish clothing and interior company which gives a Swedish twist to Indian design traditions. Today she’s president and CEO of the company her grandfather bought for 5,000 kronor, and soon Indiska stores could be seen far beyond Sweden’s shores.

Spanning 50 years and three generations, her clan has brought a touch of the alternative and exotic from India to Sweden. And Gunolf is determined to keep the business in the family, succeeding her uncle and grandfather in a role she never imagined would be hers.

“I had two months of ‘wow, am I sitting on this chair? What am I going to do?’” she says. “Then we started to build a new strategy for the future of Indiska. It was important to make sure we kept the soul of the company, because we have a deep soul.”

In June 2006, Gunolf became the third member of the Thambert dynasty to run the business, incorporating the family’s values into the company’s work . “Humour, warmth and uncomplicated; that’s our philosophy,” she says. “It’s how we do business, how we are with our employees and our customers. It’s the same values I had growing up. These, combined with the Indian influences, give us a deep soul.”

Gunolf personifies the Indiska trademark that she talks of; casual, relaxed and a far cry from the archetypal power-driven businesswomen in both appearance and manner. “If you came into my house you would be able to clearly see where I work,” she adds. “And I would say about 70 percent of what I have is from Indiska – honestly.”

In the last six years, Indiska has opened 35 stores across Scandinavia. “Often a family company is blind when it comes to realising how big it is becoming. Perhaps it needed modernising and it was the right time to bring in a new CEO.”

The Indiska story, however, dates back to 1901 when Swedish missionary Matilda Hamilton returned home from a 6-year trip to India and opened a shop on Regeringsgatan in Stockholm.

Travels took Gunolf’s grandfather Åke Thambert to India in the 50s. On his return he bought the shop with borrowed money from friends. The hippie and flower power trends of the next two decades made Indiska the talk of the town. And the style is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance today.

“We travel a lot nowadays. And people cannot take the India or the Orient with them home,” Gunolf says. “Our influence is from India but has a Scandinavian touch.”

Today, there are 82 stores throughout the Nordic region and the company has around 600 employees. Meanwhile, Gunolf has her own special relationship with her adopted country. “I love India; it has never felt like a strange place to me. It’s like a second home and the people are like relatives”.

During the last 12 months, Gunolf has performed countless interviews and is ranked as one of Sweden’s most sought-after inspirational speakers. The questions are pretty routine. There’s nothing Sweden likes more than a success story of a strong woman in business but hates less than the thought of human rights abuses.

“The work ethics of our suppliers are really important for us. It is vital to change the conditions of workers in India in China,” she says.

“We have a full-time employee visiting suppliers and undertaking controls. Everyone working for Indiska should be aware and know how they can contribute to making this easier.”

Gunolf knows the Indiska brand inside out. She worked her way up over 15 years to head the buying department before taking up the CEO position. She admits had her reservations.

“When I was asked, I said no. I really didn’t know what it was all about. What does a CEO do?” she says and laughs. “I don’t have all the knowledge but I do have what’s most important – knowing what Indiska stands for. Now I’m learning everything else and it’s not a problem to fill my time.”

Gunolf has never known anything else in her working life. A six-month spell away from the company was decisive. “I knew from the beginning that I was going to work here and I think I have the best job in the world. It was here I wanted to be educated. This is what I grew up with.”

“When I was young I thought my mother was working a lot,” she recalls. Gunolf’s divorce came through the same month she took up the CEO post and she has recently overseen the completion of a two-year renovation project at Indiska’s headquarters. She also has two children aged 11 and 8. Yet, she says, her own work-life balance is in order, most of the time.

“One week I work like crazy and the next week I am there to pick my children up from school,” she adds. “It’s stressful but I try not to work weekends. Maybe I am a workaholic though.”

The next step in Gunolf’s journey is to take Indiska further afield. There has been much talk about exporting the brand to England but Gunolf’s vision is to take the company back to it’s roots. “We will be looking at different countries over the next couple years,” she says. “But the big vision of mine is to take Indiska to India.”