How the Per Breiehagen Holiday Concept Took Over the World

Jacqui Palumbo

In 2007, when Per Breiehagen sent out the Christmas cards he’d created of his three year old daughter, Anja, dressed as an elf, he had no idea that it would become the basis for national and international holiday campaigns for years to come. He and his wife, Lori Evert, had dressed Anja in traditional Norweigian clothing: a Stakk dress from Ål, where Breiehagen was raised, reindeer shoes from the Sami people in Northern Norway, and an elf hat to evoke the holiday spirit. Breiehagen photographed her in the snow near their house in Minnesota with a plastic reindeer, added a winter scene from Norway, and sent the cards out to their friends and family, unprepared for the overwhelming response they were about to receive.

Encouraged by the feedback, Breiehagen began to imagine a much larger project. Born and raised in Norway, his childhood had centered around the fairytales and lore that are rich in Norwegian culture. Stories of elves, trolls and other creatures have inspired his narratives, instilling a sense of magic and mystery in his imagery. “Growing up in a storytelling tradition, these mental images would always be there and certainly influenced my creativity,” he says.

Breiehagen sought out other props that would complement the traditional Norwegian clothing. He ordered custom made ski replicas based on the 1840 Telemark model from Sondre Norheim along with a wooden snowboard with leather straps in the same style. He also began to experiment with compositing North Pole and Antarctica landscapes with images shot on location in Minnesota and Norway. When the plastic reindeer would no longer suffice, he brought Anja to Norway to interact with real reindeer. Authenticity was important in the charm of the series.

The first round of images went to his agency, Getty Images. Within a year, the elf girl series had been picked up by agencies in South America, Northern Europe and Asia for a variety of advertising and editorial campaigns. In 2009, AT&T commissioned a holiday campaign based on the images. The series took on a different tone, using several boys and girls for talent with less Norwegian influence but born from the same concept. In 2010, McCann Erickson Creative Director Chiara Calvi came across the series while searching for campaign images for Italian baby brand Chicco. Calvi says that the elf girl was everything she was looking for. “The spirit of Christmas, the genuine side of happy childhood and the magic of winter. I fell in love with the elf, the perfect character to represent Chicco’s philosophy: Happiness is a journey that starts when you’re a baby,” she explains. Anja’s elf girl character became the official holiday messenger for the multinational brand.

This year, Calvi and Breiehagen worked together to create an exclusive set of images for the 2011 Chicco holiday campaign. Breiehagen worked from his own layouts as well as hers, a partnership which he believes helped the project to further evolve. Other people on the project include Evert, who is an independent stylist, Breiehagen’s sister, who sources native clothing and custom props in Norway, and digital retoucher Brad Palm. While Breiehagen does much of his own retouching, he requires Palm’s expertise for complicated composites and final touches. With the skill set of Calvi and Palm as an addition to the series, Breiehagen says he has been able to raise the bar and explore his more challenging ideas. “The creations are definitely getting more elaborate and refined,” he says.

The Chicco holiday campaign will represent the baby brand’s 400 locations around the world. The images can be seen on billboards, on television, in print and on their Web site throughout the holiday season. Breiehagen has prepared for the upcoming years with a library to work from that includes tens of thousands of images of Anja. Along with future campaigns, the library was also used to create a Christmas book. Breiehagen and Evert are actively on the hunt for a publisher. Anja is getting older but Breiehagen hopes her legacy as the little elf girl will continue to represent a timeless holiday spirit.

To see more of Per Breiehagen’s work, please visit his Web site.


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