This is an unusual story about entrepreneurship. It begins 20 years ago when a young, newly in love couple named Tina and Lasse go backpacking in Peru. They’ve known each other for just six months and the only plan for these two young academics was to return home with some great experiences in their backpacks. They cannot, however, refrain from packing a few throws in their luggage when they fly home to Denmark. They are still very much in love, not only with each other but also with Peru and the alpaca wool. This trip was the start of a business venture, namely Elvang, and a close partnership that has now existed for 20 years. Both privately and professionally.
The couple are now married, have three children and currently live in Majorca. Their company has grown bigger and bigger with each passing year, and in 2022 Elvang is a textile company and lifestyle brand that not only includes throws and cushions in alpaca wool, but also a wide range of other products such as bedclothes, towels, rugs and mufflers. And although the Peruvian alpaca is still at the heart of the company, Elvang now also produces products in cotton and linen.
But let’s go back to the beginning: Tina and Lasse Elvang were never even supposed to start their own company when they came back from Peru in 2002. They were both well under way with their careers – Tina was working at the Danish Institute for Human Rights and Lasse had a degree in economics and worked as an economist for Sonofon – and they had no dreams of becoming independent. Certainly not in the beginning. But when they accidentally stumbled upon these beautiful rugs at a market, they were sold. The same applied to their family and friends when the couple presented the rugs as gifts on their return home. This got Lasse thinking, so he analysed the market and discovered that nobody was selling alpaca throws in Denmark. There were actually very few exclusive rugs available at that time. He visited a number of design and décor boutiques and, as the response was surprisingly positive, mailed the factory that produced the throws in Peru. Contact was established, and luckily Lasse could speak fluent Spanish due to his stay as an exchange student in Spain, which made the communication and dialogue a lot easier.
A subsequent visit to the factory convinced Lasse that all was as it should be: no child labour and no hidden agendas. The quality was top-notch and, with a backpack full of samples, Lasse returned home to visit several retailers and attend trade shows. The reaction was so encouraging that the couple spent all of their holiday and leisure time on coming into the market with their alpaca throws. They had a feeling from the start that Denmark and Scandinavia would not be able to bear the amount of sales alone, so they immediately focused on exports to the rest of the world. A few months later, orders were arriving from Germany, Italy and America... and then the couple were busy.
“We lived in an apartment on the fourth floor and received an order of throws weighing 600 kilos. These had to be carried up to the apartment, which also served as our warehouse. We needed help from all of our friends, and that pretty much sums up how inexperienced and ill-prepared we were,” say the couple and continue:
“We had not even defined that Elvang should be a ‘brand’. We were ambitious and saw a clear potential but had no long-term goals or fancy business plans. It was a process, which just kind of evolved.”
They were busy years, as they still had their jobs on the side. But it was worth the effort, and two years after that first backpacking trip to Peru, Lasse quit his job and invested himself wholeheartedly into the company. Tina followed suit two years later and the couple haven’t looked back since. The collection started with cushions and scarves and, slowly but surely, the range has grown. The same applies to the target group. The roles were distributed quite naturally from the beginning - and strictly divided: Lasse was responsible for sales and finance, and Tina for product development and branding. The couple worked closely together but each had their own responsibilities, which is probably why there have never been any problems as regards to both working and living together. When the kids were old enough they also helped out in the warehouse, and the company gradually developed into a family project.
But Elvang’s DNA has remained unchanged, despite the success, expansion and somewhat larger product portfolio. It’s still about social commitment, credibility, integrity and respect for both the climate and people. In simple words, it’s about Fair Trade. Elvang makes sustainable, responsible choices, and is therefore classified with the ultimate Fair Trade certification at WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation) at the very highest level. This ensures that the products are always manufactured under ethically decent conditions. Tina and Lasse Elvang do not compromise when it comes to their values.
“Social responsibility and the environment have always been our most important concerns. This is not commercially or strategically based. We do business with Peru because we want to help. We have had a strong bond with the country since 2002, and presently support 300 families by virtue of our production at the local weaving mills. Our latest initiative involves ‘repurposing’. It is a natural step for us to allow used products to return home to Peru where they can provide value to the local community. This is why you can now donate/send your old Elvang products to our head office. We will then ship these products to Peru, where exposed, vulnerable, single women sew the textiles into bags, purses, dolls and stuffed animals, etc., which they can then sell at local markets. We ourselves contribute with samples and any surplus stock,” says Lasse Elvang.
Elvang has used recycled alpaca wool in several of their ranges for many years, which means that Elvang Repurposing is totally in line with the vision of extending the lifespan of materials.
What is the main difference between 2002 and 2022?
“It’s quite obvious that EVERYONE is thinking about sustainability now. Nobody was when we first started. We created Elvang with sustainability and fair trade in mind. The majority of our throws have, for example, always been manufactured from recycled alpaca wool, but we didn't market ourselves specifically on the issue of sustainability. It is only within the last 10 years that companies have started to use this for marketing purposes. These days sustainability is a requirement and a given,” say the couple, who can't help but smile at the fact that they were - somewhat coincidentally - ahead of what is probably the biggest ‘trend’ of our time.
During the coronavirus lockdown – like so many others – they discovered that you could easily run a business form home, and why not take advantage of the opportunity for mobility, flexibility and free movement of labour? The digital nomad culture suits the Elvan family very well indeed.
“It's not like we have to sit in the same office day in and day out. So we decided to take a year out of the calendar, rent a house close to Palma, get the kids into a British school and work from down here. Some days we sit in a local café and work – often with other Danes who live down here – it’s a much-needed change and also provides the children with a global perspective,” the couple point out. The family will be returning to Denmark during the summer. So the year in Majorca has passed, and new projects need to be launched. The couple is unable to reveal the nature of these but one thing, however, is certain, and that is that Elvang only works with a good conscience.
Tina and Lasse Elvang, aged 49 and 53 resp., have two daughters aged 17 and 11 resp. and a 14-year-old son. They are based in Sorø, Denmark, but have taken a year out of the calendar and currently live just outside Palma de Mallorca, from where they operate their business. Elvang now has agents in a number of countries, a turnover of millions and export to 25-30 countries. 85% of the turnover is primarily from export to the Scandinavian countries and Germany, but America has also become a huge market.
The alpaca’s wool is often described as being stronger than mohair, finer than cashmere, smoother than silk, softer than cotton, warmer than goose down and providing better warmth and body temperature regulation than thermal knitwear. Alpaca wool is considered one of the most luxurious fibres in the world, due to its quality. Alpaca fibres are strong and thin, but at the same time stronger than ordinary wool. They are also smooth, which is why there is virtually no fluff formation. This means that the products look new for a longer a period of time. Alpaca chiefly live in the Peruvian Andes, where climatic conditions are harsh. The temperature can fluctuate by up to 50 degrees within the space of 24 hours. It is the alpaca’s wool, which allows it to withstand these fluctuations in temperature. The history of the alpaca can be traced back to more than 6,000 years, long before the Incan Empire
Elvang's products are manufactured, i.e., in recyclable alpaca and sheep wool, as well as organic cotton, the latter being sustainably produced at a GOTS certified factory in Portugal. GOTS stands for “Global Organic Textile Standard”, and guarantees that the products are manufactured in accordance with environmental and responsible standards. Elvang’s textiles are hypoallergenic and contain no harmful chemicals.
Article posted in the Danish magazine Liebhaverboligen, August 2022.
Written by Charlotte Ravnholt