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Philippe Arrived in Iceland Expecting to be Shearing Sheep for a Living But Now Manages His Own Pop-up Shop

By Sara McMahon

  • Philippe Clause came to Iceland in 2006. He lives in Seyðisfjörður on the east coast of Iceland where he runs his own design store.
    Photo/Daníel Rúnarsson 

In 2006 Philippe Clause moved from his home in Paris to Reykjavík. Back then he knew little to nothing about this rugged country in the far north, but reasoned that some fresh air and a fresh start would do him good.

 In 2012 Philippe moved again, this time from Reykjavík to the small town of Seyðisfjörður on the east coast of Iceland where he now shares a home with a dog named Títa, chickens Britney, Whitney, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Mariah and Freddie the cockerel. In summer Philippe manages a little pop-up shop where he sells his original crochet clothing to locals and tourists alike. 

First things first, how did you end up in Iceland?
“A friend of mine who I was studying with in Paris went to Iceland for three months and came back completely transformed both physically and mentally,” Philippe explains. “She came back with rosy cheeks and was happy. I wasn’t in a good place in my life at that time and when I saw how happy and healthy she was, I decided to follow her path. The next day I booked my flight to Iceland and a month later I arrived at Keflavík Airport.” Philippe adds: “I knew very little about the country at that time. I knew there were volcanoes, a lively music scene and loads of sheep. So when I landed at Keflavík I was wearing baggy pants because I figured I’d be shearing sheep for a living.”

Philippe knew no one in Reykjavík and he lived in a youth hostel for the first few months. He was also unemployed but that changed after a trip to Smáralind shopping centre in the suburb of Kópavogur. 

 “I knew very little about the country at that time. I knew there were volcanoes, a lively music scene and loads of sheep." 

“I went to the mall to buy a mobile phone and ended up wandering into the clothing store Zara. I had worked in the store as a teenager in Paris and decided to apply for a job, which I got. Five days later I had a little chat with the senior manager and told her I had some ideas about how to make the store more interesting. This resulted in me being promoted to store manager. All of this came as a big surprise to me because normally I‘m not that confident.“

Fast forward six months and Philippe had left his job at Zara and started a new one. He was now working at a trendy second-hand shop during the day and at night he served beer at the legendary bar, Sirkus. Many of the bar’s regulars were artists, the most famous of whom is without a doubt Björk, and through his friendship with them Philippe rediscovered his own artistic talent.

“I was surrounded by all these extremely creative people and eventually I started to allow my own creativity to break loose. My background lies within the arts, but I never really felt secure enough to showcase it to the public.”

It’s OK to be late for work
Philippe was born and raised in Paris and studied literature, drama and music at school. At the age of sixteen he left home because of the strained relationship he had with his father. He stayed on at school and took on two jobs.

“I basically had three jobs; I worked at Zara and McDonalds and attended school as well. I’d spend most of my time at school, work and commuting and in the end I became a burnt-out teenager in great need of a change. That’s why I left for Iceland.”
Philippe points out that it is uncommon for teenagers in France to work full time while studying. “Here it seems to be the norm,” he adds. 

“I was surrounded by all these extremely creative people and eventually I started to allow my own creativity to break loose."

Is Icelandic culture very different to what you were used to at home?

“Yes, in some ways. The work culture is very different for instance. Here it seems to be okay to arrive ten minutes late to work, which would be unacceptable back in France. But Icelanders are also very hard workers and it’s common that people work two or three jobs; in France you only have one.”

Philippe also discovered that nature and seasonal changes heavily impact the psyche and daily lives of Icelanders. During his first winter in Iceland he noticed how the people around him fell into an almost zombie-like state during those cold, dark days.

“I couldn’t understand why people slowed down during winter because I was still full of zest and vitamin D at that time. But now I get it,” he says giving a chuckle. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I quite enjoy being holed up during winter, especially in Seyðisfjörður. When the town gets closed off because of weather I think: Good, now I can stay inside, cook myself a hearty meal, read and relax. Of course the road closing down is a bad thing in case of an emergency, but I enjoy the solitude. Allowing myself to be lazy is the most beautiful gift I have gotten from my time in Iceland.”

Asked whether he prefers living in Seyðisfjörður to living in Reykjavík he says it’s impossible to compare the two.

“It’s like two different worlds. I love visiting Reykjavík because here I can put things into motion and I have many friends here. Seyðisfjörður is more relaxed and requires discipline from me; I need to wake up, walk the dog, feed the chickens and get to work.”

On an average day, Philippe will speak three different languages: his native French, Icelandic and English. When he first began to speak Icelandic, he noticed that the tone of his voice was different to when he spoke French.

“To me, the voice is the mirror to a person´s soul just like the eyes, so when I realised I had three different tones depending on which language I was speaking, I felt like a split personality. But now the difference is not as noticeable, maybe because I’m now closer to my true self?”

“Icelanders give an incomparable welcome. Usually warm and cheerful."

A warm welcome
Icelanders are often viewed by foreigners as cold and closed off, but at the same time Iceland was ranked first on the World Economic Forum’s list of the friendliest countries to foreigners in the world. So, do Icelanders have a tough exterior but a warm, gooey interior?

“Icelanders give an incomparable welcome. Usually warm and cheerful, the kind you’d get if you were lost in a snowstorm and knocked on the first door you stumbled upon and a kind woman would open the door, hug you, serve you hot chocolate and dry your clothes before you got back on the road. Then you’d head off again without really knowing that kind lady, maybe because you didn’t get to spend enough time with her, maybe because she doesn’t just open up to whoever.

“I get to meet many new people each day during the high season in Seyðisfjörður, and even though I’m not Icelandic, people are curious about my life in such a small and remote community. Sometimes I have to cut the conversation short, otherwise I’d end up offering whoever crosses my path my life story on a tray. It takes more than a warm welcome to get to know someone, but once you’re intimate with an Icelander, you are part of the family and that love is forever.”

"I get to meet many new people each day during the high season in Seyðisfjörður, and even though I’m not Icelandic, people are curious about my life in such a small and remote community."

Travellers sailing from mainland Europe to Iceland on the Norræna ferry come ashore in Seyðisfjörður. The town is also a popular destination for young and aspiring artists, attracted by  the lUNGA art festival that takes place in mid-July each year. The small town is teeming with life during summer and that’s when Philippe opens his tiny shop for business.

 It all started in 2009 when Philippe was trying give up smoking but the nicotine withdrawal only left him feeling jittery and on edge. A friend of his, in fact the same friend that had returned rosy-cheeked from Iceland seven years earlier, taught him to do crochet in order to try and calm his nerves. Five years later, Philippe is smoking again but still doing crochet. He designs colourful hooded shawls and scarves under the brand name Esualc (his surname spelled backwards) and has made custom pieces for the Icelandic musician Ólöf Arnalds, French artist Magiker and Thom Luz from the indie rock band My Heart Belongs to Cecilia Winter.

“I just started and kept on going,” Philippe says. “It‘s not an easy market; there are a lot of interesting things happening in the craft world here in Iceland. But I think I have a product that is well made and will be still fashionable in twenty years time.“ 

 

Philippe Clause, by Daníel Rúnarsson

 

Philippe and his dog Títa. Photo/Daníel Rúnarsson

In the garden behind his house in Seyðisfjörður, Philippe keeps a brood of chickens called Whitney, Britney, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Mariah and Freddie the cockerel. He has also adopted a little dog whom he named Títa La Poochon, as it is a cross between a poodle and a bichon frise. 

Are the animals good company?

“Títa has been with me for half a year now and has drastically changed my daily routine. She requires me to act like an alpha male, which couldn’t be further from my normal self.”

He’d been interested in raising poultry from a young age and once tried to hatch store bought eggs under his bed when he was a boy. “Of course that didn’t work,” he says and laughs. “The idea of raising my own food is very new to me. Before I got the chickens I had a flock of ducks called the Duckson Five. It was extremely hard for me to slaughter them, but in the end the ducks led a good and happy life and had a painless death, which is more than can be said for many store bought chickens.” 

Visit Philippe's website here: www.esualc.com

Find out who's Philppe's favourite Icelandic musician in the video below.

 

Philippe's favourite Icelandic music from Iceland Mag on Vimeo.

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