How Cold-water Surfing in Arctic Norway Inspired One Designer's New Accessories Line
Getting the hang of surfing — the paddling, the timing, the take-off — is hard, period. Add freezing temperatures and a heavy wet suit and the process becomes exponentially harder. But for cold-weather surfers, that’s part of the appeal. And for Devi Kroell, a fashion designer known for her namesake line of Italian-made handbags and footwear, it was a challenge that took her to the Lofoten Islands, a remote archipelago in Arctic Norway.
When I asked about her December surfing trip, she said that it felt like a natural next step. “In the north,” she told me, “you have to focus on the essentials to survive.” Kroell had been thinking a lot about what it means to really focus on the essentials — Manufacture III, her new "slow fashion" accessories line, eschews the bells and whistles of haute couture in favor of functionality and smart product design. “I was at a stage in my life where I wanted more purity, less clutter,” she said, describing her new creative direction. “It’s strange, but I saw a lot of parallels with the Arctic.”
Kroell was first inspired to take the plunge back in 2017, after watching the film Under an Arctic Sky at the Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary, directed by noted adventure photographer Chris Burkard, follows a group of surfers as they chase the frigid swells off northern Iceland. She had never surfed before — the surf scene in warmer climes held no appeal. But Burkard’s film stirred something within her. “It was so hauntingly beautiful, so different from anything I’d ever seen or experienced,” she told me. “Wading through waist-high snow to get to the beach, fighting to get into the water. I was mesmerized.”
So last December, she set off from her home in New York, joined by her 12-year-old daughter, Kiki. They enlisted tour operator Go Surf to coordinate lessons with Shannon Ainslie, a transplant from South Africa who coaches the Norwegian national surf team. As for gear, Kroll's discerning eye came in handy for scouting sustainably made products. Though water temperatures hover just above freezing, she says that you won’t need much special equipment — “just a great wetsuit, at least five millimeters thick.” Kroell loved her suit from Matuse, a California-based brand that manufactures stylish suits out of a limestone-based rubber. She also recommends Firewire, a company founded by 11-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater that makes boards and accessories using materials like wood, recycled plastic, and renewable algae-based foam.
When they touched down in Leknes, the Lofotens’ second-largest town, on the island of Vestvågøy, the pair couldn’t believe their eyes. About 100 miles above the Arctic Circle, the archipelago is a growing destination for an in-the-know set of cold-water surfers. “The landscape is so beautiful, it was actually an inspiration for the movie Frozen,” Kroell explained. “There were incredible fjords, mountains plunging into the sea, and fishing villages with colorful wooden houses on stilts over the water.”
In fact, these islands are home to some of the northernmost fishing settlements in the world, many dating back millennia. Kroell's home base was the Nusfjord Arctic Resort, a collection of 20 restored fishermen's houses, known in Norwegian as rorbuer. Each has been converted into a cabin and decked out with vintage and recycled furniture. Nusfjord is also one of the oldest fishing villages in Norway, just a short drive from the rock beaches of the Vestfjorden sound — and some of the most dramatically beautiful surfing spots on the planet.
So how did Kroell feel being out on the water at the top of the earth? Not exactly comfortable, but she did find the experience life-changing. “At times, your wetsuit will get flooded with icy water,” she said. “But I actually loved that. It’s electrifying — my own type of cryotherapy.” She's already dreaming about when she can visit again to fulfill her next dream: surfing at night under the Northern Lights.
“I really got to know my innermost self,” Kroell explained of her winter adventure. “It’s just you against the elements. The feeling of riding an Arctic wave, in those temperatures, with that alien scenery, made me feel so grateful for that moment.” Sure, she had to try a few times to get her balance. But “once you’re able to stay upright,” she said, “you’re hooked for life.”
A version of this story first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Making Waves.