Katja Geiger was a clothes designer who was also the woman behind the well-known fashion company Katja of Sweden.
Karin ‘Katja’ Geiger and her twin brother Lars were born in Ekeby in Scania in 1920. Their family also included two siblings from their parents’ previous marriages. Another sibling had been born but died in infancy. Their parents, Hulda and Anders Hallberg, were 40 and 50 years old, respectively, when the twins were born. Lars used to call Karin ‘Kata’ and soon the rest of the family followed suit. Anders Hallberg had trained at Konstfack (art college) and worked as a ceramics designer. There was a lot of interest within the family home in sewing, weaving, and drawing. Katja Geiger was considered to be talented in all these spheres. Her interest in design was already nurtured as a child and she was encouraged to develop her skills in shapes, colours and materials.
Katja Geiger’s father fell ill in the early 1930s and took early retirement. The family then moved to Landskrona. In 1935 Anders Hallberg died and the family moved to a home-croft area in another part of the town. Katja Geiger attended a girls’ school where her interest in fashion really took off. She always inherited her elder sisters’ clothes and wanted to be able to develop her own style. After completing her education at the girls’ school Katja Geiger applied to Konstfack and began training there in 1938. After just one week she changed her major from ceramics to textiles, and the well-known textile artist Barbro Nilsson became her teacher. Nilsson recommended that Katja Geiger visit Kulturen in Lund during the summer holidays and this became the start of Katja Geiger’s lasting interest in folk art. In 1940 Anders Beckman opened a fashion school and Katja Geiger decided to leave Konstfack and go there instead to continue her education. Whilst a fashion student she also worked as a fashion illustrator under the name of ‘Kata’ along with Eva von Zweigbergk and Pia Hård af Segerstad at Dagens Nyheter. The connections she made and work she undertook at the newspaper were significant for Katja Geiger and introduced her to the fashion world. During that period she also designed advertisements for the MEA fashion house. Further she was given the opportunity to create some designs for exhibitions and she gained much acclaim for a simple and austere bridal dress.
In 1941 Katja Geiger married Kjell Stensson, one of her former teachers from Landskrona. Three years later their son Anders was born. Her husband engendered an interest in politics and classical music in Katja Geiger. He, however, took no interest in her work, and this eventually led to their divorce a few years later. Katja Geiger had already met the man who became her second husband by the time of the divorce. This was the film producer Rod Geiger. They went on to have two sons together.
During the 1940s most of the students at Anders Beckman’s school wanted to go to Paris upon completing their studies. Katja Geiger wanted to go to America instead. In 1946 she travelled there with her friend and colleague Eva von Zweigbergk in order to attend Parson’s School of Design. The teachers there included Claire McCardell, who was very well known within the off-the-peg branch of the clothes industry. Katja Geiger was interested in industrial design and had ideas about simple clothing designs adapted to the modern furniture and architecture of the era. It was also this simplicity and ease of use, combined with modern design, which made Katja Geiger’s clothing famous. Once she had completed her studies at Parson’s, gaining top marks as the second out of 500 students, she began to work on her first collection. It was already being sold in 1949 at the most reputable department stores in New York such as Lord & Taylor, Russeks and Bloomingdale’s. Her collection was very popular and items from it could be seen in several American tv-soap operas, which further helped to popularise them and publicise them. It was at this point that Kata changed her name and became Katja, launching her trademark Katja of Sweden.
Rod Geiger’s work within the film industry led the family to move to Italy in 1952. In Rome Katja Geiger’s clients included the likes of Ingrid Bergman and Märta Torén. During her stay in Italy Katja Geiger fell seriously ill and decided to return home to Sweden during her convalescence. Her stay in Sweden resulted in the family deciding to settle in Huaröd in Scania and focusing on developing the Katja of Sweden trademark there. Huaröd served as Katja of Sweden’s base until 1975. The company exhibited at H55 in Helsingborg in 1955. That year the company also began to collaborate with MMT, Malmö Mekaniska Tricotfabrik. That company, which was in underwear, wanted to enter the fashion market by employing designers. The first collection which Katja of Sweden created for MMT used modern materials by famous creators such as Viola Gråsten, Göta Trägårdh, Astrid Sampe and Maja Isola. MMT was sceptical of Katja of Sweden’s simple designs in shapeless tricot which did not hang particularly well on hangers. However, the target audience of young fashion-aware women immediately took to the design. Katja Geiger would have preferred to work in cotton jersey which retained its shape after being washed and MMT was able to create such a material called 3T. The three ‘ts’ stood for Tvätta (wash), Torka (dry), Ta på (wear). This simplified the work with the basic design which Katja Geiger wanted. She made two or three collections every year for MMT. These collections found their greatest success in America and in Britain. In 1966 Katja of Sweden’s collection was shown in Paris, where it was also very favourably received. During the 1960s Katja became inspired by a journey to West Africa which resulted in her design called ‘The African Line’, using materials from Nigeria and Cameroon. In 1967 19 Katja of Sweden shops were opened in Saks Fifth Avenue department stores in various major cities in America.
During the second half of the 1950s Katja Geiger began to take an interest in designing shoes and thus began to work with the shoe company Gyllen Gripen. They created a collection of sandals in buffalo hide. Just like her clothes designs the shoe designs were notable for their simplicity and comfort. The shoes became extremely popular, particularly in America. Katja also collaborated with the company Tretorn which produced boots and cloth shoes.
During the 1970s problems arose in her collaboration with MMT, which had got a new owner who claimed the company owned the right to the name Katja of Sweden. At the same time the tax authorities were demanding money from Katja Geiger. MMT continued to produce products using the name Katja of Sweden until 1977 when MMT went bankrupt. Rod Geiger then repurchased the trademark. Following her fallout with MMT Katja and Rod Geiger, along with the banker Olof Forsgren and some Danish and German traders, set up the company Huaröd Design in order to sell Katja Geiger’s designs. The project faced troubles from the start and in 1977 Katja Geiger decided to move to America where she set up the company called Katja Products. She returned to her earlier interests in weaving and began to work with yarn, colours and patterns in cloth. She became an important designer for the textile company Cannon and produced cloths in natural materials which were notable for their striped- and checked-patterns, and geometrical figures in bright colours. During the 1980s she remained successful and expanded her range into cutlery, glass, and porcelain ware which was sold in department stores across all of America. She worked successfully with her trademark until 1996 when Rod Geiger fell ill and the couple once again chose to settle in Sweden. Katja Geiger then gave up her professional career.
Katja Geiger died in Tollarp in 2017 and, at her death, she was considered to be the first fashion designer who had very successfully launched Swedish fashion abroad.