A Conversation with Hanna Andersson Founder, Gun Denhart
Gun Denhart started Hanna Andersson in 1983, after struggling to find clothes in the US that matched the quality she was used to from her native Sweden. While Gun sold the company years ago, she and her story will always be at the heart of Hanna. We caught up with her recently to chat about Hanna’s beginnings, the values that set it apart, and the work Gun does today.
After Gun’s second son Christian was born in 1980, her family moved to Portland, Oregon. She loved the clothing her older son had worn in their native Sweden, but she couldn’t seem to find any baby clothing in America that was to her liking—neither the design nor the quality met her standards. “It was all baby blue and pink and synthetic," she says. She was particularly horrified to find that children’s sleepwear in the US was treated with flame retardant, making it scratchy and uncomfortable. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to put my baby in that,’" she recalls. “So I had friends and family send clothing from Sweden and that’s what we put our son in." Soon people were stopping her on the street to ask where the colorful clothing was from, and that’s when she and her husband had the idea to make a business out of it. Hanna’s very first ad in 1984 captured attention with the words Why are Swedish babies so happy?
Quality and durability
“We were really lucky that the vendor we found made clothing of very high quality," says Gun. “We didn’t have backgrounds in clothing or mail-order business, so we were lucky enough to find our first vendor by looking in the phonebook. They were very close to where my parents lived in Sweden, and they took a chance on us."
What differentiated the clothes from the beginning was the high-quality cotton and the long fibers, which made it more durable. The dyes that they used didn’t fade—even after many, many washes. “One of the things that I hated about American clothing was that you wash something a couple of times and it fell apart," Gun recalls. “I was not used to that in Sweden, where things lasted longer." They also used flatlock seams, which requires special skills and an expensive sewing machine, and makes for a smooth seam that doesn’t rub against the baby’s or child’s skin. “It’s more comfortable to wear and it lasts longer than something with a single thread," explains Gun. “You can’t unravel it by just pulling on a thread."
Hanna clothing was also made with details to fit kids longer, like cuffs that could be turned down until a child fit into them perfectly. “We had a phrase we used: ‘First you grow into it, then you grow out of it.’ You can buy them a little baggy, grow into them, and then you grow out of it. We had kids who could wear something for 4 or 5 years."
Made for play
“We said, ‘let kids be kids.’ We didn’t like the idea of making adult clothes into children’s clothes. I wanted my child to be able to move and not be so careful with his clothes, and to have clothes that were easy for parents to care for." She wasn’t interested in making fussy party clothes. “I had boys and it’s probably different with girls," she laughs, “but I saw precious woven outfits that were expensive and complicated and they didn’t appeal to me."
It was also important to Gun for children to able to dress themselves—so they made hannas easy to put on and take off, crafted with buttons big enough for a toddler to grasp. “I didn’t come from the fashion industry, so fashion wasn’t the thing I focused on at all," Gun explains. “I focused on clothes that kids wanted to wear. My son took whatever was in the drawer and put it on, and if the colors maybe didn’t go together, it didn’t bother me." It helped that the bold, primary color palette was gender-neutral and easy to mix and match. “Of course it turned out that bright crayon colors wasn’t always what girls liked," Gun smiles. “So we had requests over and over for pink and purple. I don’t like pink and purple, but you have to listen to the customers—so we added them after about five years."
Growing up in Sweden
Gun notes that in her experience, children in Scandinavian countries spend much more time outdoors than American kids. “I always said if you don’t go outside when the weather is bad, you don’t go outside in Sweden. You think the weather is bad in Portland? There’s much more bad weather in Sweden." She tells of childcare centers in Norway that were almost exclusively outdoors, with only a small indoor space for changing diapers, “and otherwise the kids might spend six hours outside. I think that’s pretty amazing. Not everybody does that, but the kids there do spend a lot of time outdoors and they’re dressed for it—even if it’s rainy or cold. I’ve found that here, people don’t take their kids out in the same way. We had more access to nature so I grew up wanting to be outside, and I think that’s part of Scandinavian culture." She also notes a lack of helicopter parenting: “You become independent much earlier in Sweden as a child. We walked to school from first grade and crossed the street with no one hovering over us."
When asked what is inherently Swedish about Hanna clothes, she answers, “Simplicity—that’s what I think is Swedish about it."
Designing the clothes
At the beginning, Gun says, “we took what our vendor was making and sold that." Over time, they began working with a local designer in Portland who helped them gradually change the designs, “so we went from buying off the shelf to gradually doing all the designs ourselves—listening a lot to what customers wanted but at the same time keeping the Swedish sensibility." The iconic long johns instantly found a following in the US, especially in colder communities like New England. And some other Hanna products that have become favorites, like the baby pilot cap, were new to customers here. “It’s cold out!" says Gun. “No one had seen anything like that here, and people weren’t used to putting caps on little babies. We sold them not as a fashion statement, but because it was functional."
Hannas didn’t start off organic, so what initiated that decision? “As an environmentalist, I wanted for us to sell products made out of organic cotton because it was better for the people working in those communities." Though organic was considered too expensive at the time, Gun decided to research it by going on a trip to California to visit organic cotton farms. These farms used no herbicides and pesticides, but natural practices—like manually placing bugs on plants as a method of biocontrol. “I have such strong memories of this trip." She learned that neighboring farmers that were not organic would spray up to 17 times in a season. When she visited a site where non-organic cotton was treated, she witnessed a man jumping barefoot on the cotton, exposing himself to toxins by working so close to the crops. “Seeing the conventional way of growing cotton made me say, ‘we have to go organic.’" It was the potential health risks that sealed the deal. “I think it’s a human rights issue," she says. “We can’t have people get sick making clothes for us."
How “Hanna-me-down" became the soul of the company
Gun admits that while sustainability became an important part of the brand over time, it wasn’t initially the top priority. “People didn’t talk about environmental impact in the same way we do today," she explains. One thing that eventually took Hanna in that direction was the “Hannadowns" program. “If you look at a picture," Gun says, “how do you know if it’s a high-quality product? How do we get customers to trust that it is?" To prove it to their customers, they made an offer in their second catalog that if a family didn’t have someone to pass their used hannas down to, they could send an item back for 20% credit. “This changed us as a company, because it worked. People realized that we stood by our product." Gun and her team donated the second-hand hannas to a home for abused mothers. “It opened up my eyes to the fact that there were kids in America who didn’t have clothes," she says. “It became the soul of the company. It inspired us as a company to give profits to these organizations as well, and then we started to volunteer and make it possible for our employees to volunteer. Over the years we gave away a couple million pieces of clothing. The hannadowns program changed us as a company and it certainly changed me as a person."
When Gun eventually sold the company, rather than start a new business, she chose to deepen her involvement in non-profits, particularly for environmental and education causes. She shared with us a couple of the organizations that she supports here in Portland.
The women who started this giving circle came up with the idea of getting a group of 99 friends to each put up $1100, totaling $100,000, to give to a cause of their choice. As of 2019, their award impact has reached half a million dollars. “They are becoming a force," says Gun. “And what is exciting to me is not only does the community get a donation, but these now 500 women are learning about the needs of their community."
Gun is co-chair of this organization, which focuses on an ecological region stretching from Alaska to Northern California. Gun shared some of the work they have done to change local food systems, including pairing farmers with local restaurants in a sort of speed-dating service. “That was the kernel of the locally grown food movement that has since exploded."
She has been very active in Ecotrust’s efforts to improve school food. “The school food today is so much better than it was 15 years ago." They have helped local schools put in new kitchens and get volunteers to make food from scratch, and in some cases started gardens on site so the students would be involved in growing the food. “I talked to kids who started with this program," she says, “and it kind of changed their lives."