Amsterdamøya: Where the Streets Have No Name

Port’s fashion features editor, David Hellqvist, reflects on an unusual journey to the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to shoot Scotch & Soda’s A/W 17 collection

There are at least 12 places in the world called Amsterdam – but ask around and most people will only know one: the Dutch capital. Other Amsterdams include a town in eastern South Africa, a remote village in Ohio, USA, and a French island smack in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But the most outlandish one, the trickiest to reach and, ultimately, to survive on, is Amsterdamøya, a small island close to the North Pole.

Part of the Svalbard archipelago, Amsterdamøya is today Norwegian territory, but the island was discovered by Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz in 1596. Svalbard covers a relatively small area: it’s roughly the same size as Ireland, but its hostile weather condition and remote location a mere 650 miles from the absolute top of the world, means only 2,500 people reside here.

I’m writing this from the canteen on M/S Gamle Mårøy, a 199-ton boat anchored just off the Amsterdamøya coastline. No one lives on the island, except for polar bears and walruses. We’re here because Dutch brand Scotch & Soda have dispatched a film crew to the northern hemisphere’s rooftop to shoot its Autumn Winter 2017 campaign. I’m tagging along to observe and document the expedition. It’s a long journey, in more ways than one. Not only have people travelled far to come here but it’s a diverse group of individuals to start with: I count French, Turkish, Swedish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Brazilian, Portuguese, Norwegian and, of course, Dutch nationalities among the directors, photographers, technicians, stylists, assistants, guides and models.

Built in 1959 to ferry people around the local villages of northern Norway, Gamle Mårøy dutifully carries us between fierce icebergs and desolate beaches decorated with stranded logs that have floated all the way from Siberia. We eat and sleep on the boat; altogether there’s 26 of us onboard, plus the six-man crew. The sailors, all serious and experienced seamen, have had to get used to living with make-up, hair straighteners and drones scattered all over the boat. It is, to say the least, a trip defined by organised chaos.

But in a way, the whole set-up is ‘on brand’ for Scotch & Soda. The Amsterdam-based label (the Dutch Amsterdam, that is) favours an eclectic mishmash attitude to fashion: different eras, places and cultures are merged into collections that speak of a sartorial freedom, as well as a ‘free mind’. If that sounds a bit ‘happy hippy’ it’s because Scotch & Soda is a spontaneous brand, not afraid to see where the wind them. It’s a brand of the world, and for the world. And in this case, it’s taken us to Amsterdamøya because Scotch & Soda firmly believes that Amsterdam can be everywhere; it’s about more than just canals, bikes and clogs. Travelling is about the journey not the destination, as the old saying goes.

Though when you’re at Latitude 79˚ 45.403’ N and Longitude 11˚ 00.819’ E, a metaphorical stone’s throw from the actual North Pole, the destination does have some impact – especially for the four armed guards that are here to protect us from attacking polar bears. We never see a bear but we get close to a group of walruses resting on the beach, and on our way out we spot whales in the distance. Here you see animals you only read about in books.

The models are not necessarily dressed for this sub-zero climate (there’s no Gore-Tex or fleece, instead the Scotch & Soda garments are layered up to keep them warm and dry) but it doesn’t matter: “You’re living on this island, but only in your dreams,” the photographer says to one model when explaining the character he’s playing. Loosely, the models take on the roles of explorers and adventurers, all characters in Scotch & Soda’s AW17 universe. It’s not for real – but the place, the climate and the island of Amsterdamøya are very much real. Here, there’s tension between fiction and reality; the role-play is acted out but there are potential real life consequences. The Arctic can be merciless; it doesn’t take prisoners.

Scotch & Soda could have filmed this elsewhere and just called it Amsterdamøya. Iceland, for example, is a lot closer to home and it looks similar in certain places. They could even have used a green screen in a studio to add the effect of Svalbard’s brutally monochrome landscape. We’ve made the journey because there are certain things you can’t fake; one morning, while filming on Gamle Mårøy’s upper deck, it starts snowing. Heavy flakes bounce off the rolling waves and soon cover the boat. Sure, it’s July but this is the Arctic – normal rules do not apply here. But even in the toughest of circumstances the film crew pushes on: Paolo Martins, Scotch & Soda’s art director, calls it “a sensible nonsense”. It’s a state of mind, the ability to make something out of nothing. 

To reach Amsterdamøya you first fly into Longyearbyen, the biggest town on Svalbard. It’s the world’s northernmost airport for commercial airlines. From Oslo, it’s a three-hour flight, but it’s worth it just to fly in over the mountaintops, fjords and glacier. The town sits on the east coast of Isfjorden, and when I land, at 1am, it’s as light as lunchtime. It takes some time getting used to, but we’re all happy we’re here in the summertime, rather then in deepest winter when you never see daylight and you need a headlamp to go to the supermarket. Longyearbyen is beautiful place, in an eerie way. A lot of the area is classed as a cultural landmark and there’s lots of abandoned equipment scattered around from when the island was a vital centre for coal mining.

But Svalbard’s mining days are long gone. Today, tourism is a big part of the financial eco-system up here and Ny-Ålesund, another Svalbard village, houses a research lab for 150 international scientists, which keeps the economy going. It’s here on Svalbard that the Global Seed Vault store a million seeds from all over the world in case a global emergency wipes out the existing ones. Its closeness to the Pole is also of interest to the Russians, who all live in a separate settlement on the island called Barentsburg.

The remoteness here is intense, and once we‘re on Amsterdamøya the silence is deafening. The only thing that brings back reality, except for the hushed chitchat among the crew, is the roaring diesel engine onboard Gamle Mårøy as she slices through the waves on the 17-hour trip back to Longyearbyen.

At the breakfast table on Gamle Mårøy there are ongoing production meetings and creative meetings; the film crew plot their storyboard while the print photographer works out who can have what model and when. At the back, the kitchen crew is still laying out breakfast while simultaneously preparing snacks for the film crew stepping ashore, and planning tonight’s dinner. The food cooked by the chef is local, fresh and tasty; we eat red snapper fish, deer and elk – we even try seal meat. It’s like a small-scale society on the boat, governed by Captain Odd Oliver Torkildsen. Everyone has a specific job that’s carried out with precision – there’s no room for mistakes.

Inside the canteen it’s warm and cosy, but on Amsterdamøya there’s mostly wet moss and endless mountain peaks covered in snow and ice. Looking around, you sometime see another boat on the horizon, perhaps a fishing trawler, but there are no other fashion brands out here, that’s for sure. As the film crew covers yet another scene, the rest of us wander off to admire a group of beached walruses. In the water they are surprisingly agile but on land they can only crawl a few metres before having to lie down for a long break.

The Scotch & Soda brand, although over 30 years old, is like a curious and creative kid. Their want for adventure and discovery is a beautiful and child-like quality, which makes for playful clothes with a relaxed aesthetic. You can tell endless trips and adventures inspire and shape the collection. And when you’re shooting your campaign in the majestic shadow of a glacier you can’t help feel proud of Amsterdam, whatever Amsterdam you happen to find yourself in.

Photography Elizabeth Toll