Fashion:
Soulland

Based on the illustrious Kings Road in Chelsea, the multi-faceted Bluebird is a treat to the senses. Comprising a bar, restaurant, café, patisserie, wine cellar and clothes store, every segment of the business is distinct, defined and striking.  Visiting their Shop at Bluebird back in October, the store’s soft-spoken and unassuming atmosphere immediately resonated, and as I browsed through the brands on display I noticed how each label has space to breathe and to express itself. Vast, airy and unassuming, the Bluebird’s spacious design allows you to immerse yourself in each brand’s world before floating to the next, whilst decorative birdcages and blossom-esque lighting cement the store’s character throughout.

All this in mind, it quickly made sense why the store had been chosen to host a Pop-Up Shop for Soulland’s F/W13 Collection. Passing under the archway into the space, it was easy to browse through Soulland’s mix of cultural clothing and contemporary menswear with no distractions, and with a lot of talk buzzing about the brand from all corners of the fashion sphere, some quiet enjoyment was long overdue.

Sat confidently on an enclave between street-level and high-end, the brand is not too unlike its founder Silas Adler, a 27-year old from Denmark with little formal training beyond the lessons he learned skating the streets as a teen. Now creating collections that sit comfortably alongside labels from Carhartt and Clarks to Ralph Lauren and Raf Simons, Adler’s label is a fascinating example of the deconstruction of fashion hierarchies that has taken place in recent years. Just six years younger than Adler myself with an equally uneducated enthusiasm for the sartorial, I was eager to ask for his personal opinion on the landscape right now, and the Shop at Bluebird presented an ideal environment. What follows is a conversation between myself and Adler recorded on my phone. With topics darting from skateboarding to streetwear via Franz Kafka and Bromance Comedies, I can say quite confidently that Silas Adler has a firm grasp on the world as he sees it.

Halfway through the conversation we were joined by Adler’s partner Jacob Kampp-Berliner, the business side the of Soulland world, who in turn provided his own unique insight. Unfortunately, however, technology was not on my side that day and that segment of our interview was lost. I have subsequently woven parts of the conversation that I recall into the interview and can only apologise sincerely to Jacob for my inability to press record. Rest assured, the conversation is far from over yet, and I have every plan to pick up where we left off next time. Enjoy.

First off, you’re here in the UK. Looking at labels such as Norse Projects, WoodWood and yourselves, it seems that whatever Denmark and Scandinavia is putting out, the Brits are eating it up. I was wondering how you felt about that; what do you think draws us to your product?

I think if you look at the men of Denmark and Britain they share a lot of similarities. One thing in particular is the way we involve ourselves in subculture during our youth. You find a passion, maybe music or sports. As you grow up, you put that to the side, but it’s always there. Very often it returns in later life and your passions are reignited. I think that’s something that plays a big part, and it’s a great place to develop shared ideas of what menswear is.

You touched upon the idea of growing up, having interests and passions, and then maybe maturing and putting it aside before coming back to it. When I look at Soulland there seems to be a strong element of youth, a nostalgic theme where you dig into the past and take your own inspiration. What were your influences growing up, and is that a strong part of your work? Do you feel yourself ‘going back’ when you create your pieces?

I wouldn’t necessarily consider it ‘going back’. For me, with my passions and interests, I never really put them aside completely. Growing up, skateboarding, I didn’t skate as much, but it was always an important part of how I viewed life, cities, my job, and so on. Everything I did was based on what I learnt in skateboarding. I think it’s very important.

Also, I want to do menswear that is in some way classic, but that still has a twist of humour, nostalgia – reference to styles of the past. I’m really trying to create in a way that is so subtle that if you don’t necessarily understand the reference you will understand the garment anyway, but if you understand that reference, there’s even more for you to enjoy.

In another interview you talked about your skateboarding roots and the idea of there being “skateboarders for the masses”, the mainstream, and then you have “skateboarders for skateboarders” like Lucas Puig and Chewy Cannon. You seem to be more inclined towards the skaters for skaters, and that scene has always had a sense of independence and the nitty-gritty. Is that something that you feel is present in your work?

Definitely, and I would say that in skateboarding right now, for the first time since the mid-to-late-90s, there’s a really strong opposition in how the skateboarding business should be. There are a couple of instances where skateboarders are taking back the power, you know, and showing that it doesn’t have to be about street league and big handrails and contracts with Nike SB.

Take Polar, for instance – they’re from Malmo, which is close to Copenhagen. One of their main guys is one of the kids from Copenhagen. I remember him when he was 12 years old. I like how they’re showing this form of skateboarding that… for European skateboarders, that’s how you do skateboarding. It isn’t necessarily about what sells more or what attracts the most attention. People are saying, ‘Okay, let’s start to think about the longevity’, it doesn’t have to be all about making the money.

I’m instantly thinking of brands like Palace, or Lucas Puig’s Helas. After the commercialisation of the 90s, there now seems to be a movement of skaters saying, ‘Hold on, no, we can do the business side as well as the sports.’

Yeh, it’s something in Europe that’s always been a bit different. Europe was never really the economic hub of skateboard world. It was California, always! But now you can see that Europe is inspiring some of the pros that we grew up with, for the first time in 20 years, to think differently.

Suddenly people are saying, ‘Well, maybe we don’t need to be a company that’s part of a company that’s part of a company that… sells milk.’ You’ve got Fucking Awesome, 3D, even Alex Olson who left Girl Skateboards. For the first time, someone that was a Girl skater, riding for one of the most loved skateboard companies, came out and said, ‘Hello? These guys are here to make money too.’ I think it’s important. It’s healthy for skateboarding to start having this discussion.

So if we’re talking about the balance of business and the nitty gritty, let’s consider events like the recent collaborations between high-end fashion brands and the sneaker companies, or the story of brands like Visvim and Supreme. More than ever, there seems to be a blurring of the lines between high fashion and ‘street’ fashion. What sort of a role do you think Soulland plays in that landscape?

I think that a lot of the brands you mention started a few years before Soulland. I’m sure when they started out they saw themselves as ‘in a box’. Supreme’s an interesting one. I remember the first time I went there it was because it was a skate shop. It was surprising to learn how important the brand was for different to so many people.

In that sense, when Soulland began those lines had already begun to blur. We decided maybe to work with the blur – to play in the grey area. It’s a very hard decision to put yourself between two worlds, because you have to work doubly hard to convince both parts. But now we work pretty closely with Colette, for instance, an institution that has possibly the largest selection of high fashion in the world but is also really good at representing street culture as well.

In Scandinavia we also work with ‘classical’ department stores but then we’ll also work with a team like the guys at Goodhood, who have a personal interest and are good at collecting and presenting the brands from a scene. If you look at fashion media, fashion retail, all those aspects, there’s a huge generational shift now. A lot of young people are coming into the scene and the older generation is taking a step back.

With all these young people taking on these important roles, of course you’re going to see that blur, that change in perspectives. I think this is very important for high fashion and for classic fashion, for new attitudes to come in, to say, ‘Okay, you’ve done this for many years and it’s worked.’, but to also allow that change to happen and to allow the new influences to come in.

I mean you’ve got Opening Ceremony doing Kenzo now, completely flipping that coin. You’ve got Alexander Wang doing Balenciaga. One of the most classical French fashion houses bringing in an Asian-American designer to do their designs! You have to say ‘Okay, it’s different now.’ The rules are changing and for us, the kids, I think it’s important, instead of being afraid or threatened, to say, ‘Okay. Let’s see what we can get out of this.’ I think soon you will see a young, interesting, creative designer being assigned as creative director for H&M, Topshop, Uni-Qlo, one of these major high street brands. That’s my perspective. Within 2 or 3 years, someone very relevant in our scene, a St. Martens graduate for example, will be appointed as Creative Director of one of these companies.

So let’s develop that point then. You’ve had your product appearing in shops like Goodhood and The Shop at Bluebird, but you’ve also been stocked with stores like Topman and ASOS. With the big companies indulging in your product just as much as the arty eccentrics, would you ever consider working with one of the big high-street labels? Can we expect to see the ‘Soulland Formula’ appearing elsewhere?

In terms of collaborations, I’m open to all ideas, but nothing is certain. We’ve come close to doing very ‘classical’ collaborations, like a sneaker, that we’ve ended up turning down because the set up just wasn’t right.

On the other hand, we’ve had some unlikely collaborations where the set-up was just right, you know? I mean, right now we’ve got a collaboration with Goodhood out, and that was just a pure ‘homeboy’, family thing, you know? We have so many similarities with how we grew up. They’re from Edinburgh and Manchester respectively, and I love the music scene of Manchester – The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Oasis, the dance scene – it’s a city with a rich musical history.

Kyle came from Edinburgh as well, and being a skateboarder in an environment that isn’t the most welcoming is something I can relate to. I was living in Sweden when I started skateboarding, and it was the mid-90s and people had never seen it before. I can really relate to where those guys are coming from and it was so obvious to do. We wanted to do it for a very long time.

Otherwise, we don’t have anything in the pipeline, seriously. I’d love to say we had something that we’re keeping secret but we don’t have that. In the future, I’d love for Soulland to do more collaborating with people instead of companies. To work with people from a different scene and see what we can do with them.

Like rolling around town and looking for a spot.

Exactly. We have talked to some people, but for now it’s like… we have so many other things going on. We’re launching a website in three weeks, we’re opening a store in Bangkok in February, we’ve just signed with two new agencies for new markets and we’ve opened a store in Copenhagen recently. We’re doing four collections a year now. It’s a lot of work and we’re still a small team. Sometimes we have to be able to just say ‘No’. You’re young, so everything is interesting.

Not always about the notes but the spaces in between.

Exactly.

I’d like to talk about the brand name. It’s always stuck with me as being very broad and open-ended. On the one hand it’s very upbeat and liberating but it’s also quite pensive and somber. Would you care to elaborate on where the name came from? What kind of an image are you trying to convey?

The funny thing is, the name was never about an image or a message or anything. It’s a code. Many of my friends whom I’ve known for many years haven’t been able to crack it. Soul-land. The island Denmark is a part of is called sjælland (sea-land). If you take ‘sjæl’, that means ‘soul’ in Danish, and ‘land’ of course means ‘land’. So it’s a one-on-one translation, but the official translation of sjælland is ‘Sea Land’. So Soulland is really an ‘incorrect’ translation; a manipulation. So basically, it’s just like… it’s like where we’re from.

Like your own twist. Calling Chicago ‘Chi-Town’, or London ‘LDN’.

Exactly, but it’s never really been a secret for me. I get this question from Danish journalists and friends back home. Sometimes I get people coming over to me like [scratches chin and stares at floor] ‘…. Fuckin’ brilliant. Now I understand! I’ve been thinking of it for so long.’ and I’m like, ‘… It’s Sea Land. It’s the island we live on!’

I look at your recent runway video that you shot in the middle of the forest. There’s this strong balance of that same thing; the somber; the serious; the pensive. But then the forest setting makes you think of life and nature and colour. I’ve always felt that dichotomy of the greys and the vibrancy.

And that’s so important with Soulland, the mixture – the inspiration from high fashion and classical menswear. If you take a photo for a lookbook it has to be so good that you won’t say, ‘it could have been better’. But at the same time, you have to have those touches that make it real and personal – the small embroidery inside the jacket that says, ‘420’ – if you don’t know what it means, hey, too bad.

Sometimes the meaning isn’t necessarily ‘for you’.

Exactly. If you look at skateboarding and the early streetwear scene, and the turn of the millennium in New York streetwear, everything was a closed scene. Some of the magazines and articles, I like them because it’s not like they’re trying to tell me who someone is. They go above that and they talk to the person on the level. If you don’t get what they’re talking about, it’s not for you.

Like the guys at Goodhood say, ‘For Those That Know’. The unobtainable. Saying the same word in your own slang.

Exactly, and if you can mix that with a simple button-down shirt that everybody knows how to wear, it’s something special, definitely.

Okay, so, 1985: Silas Adler is born. A youth spent skateboarding with the independent mindset that the skateboarding community is known for. 2002: You start Soulland. 2006/7: Jacob joins the brand. After so many years of independence, what was it like having a second input? Was it difficult adjusting, or was it a relief to have someone to share the workload with?

The thing with myself and Jacob is that we were already friends who had met. I seem to remember being at a nightclub in Copenhagen, both alone perhaps? [Jacob nods] Yeah, and you know, we start talking and get a few drinks etc. and the night went on, we went on to another place… maybe some girls came with us… [Jacob laughs], but I don’t know, it never really felt like a step. It was natural you know?

I guess whenever you look at a duo you get interested in learning how they work together. I’m not going to try and pigeonhole you guys into some Bromance Film like Dumb & Dumber [they laugh], but is there a noticeable dynamic in the group? Do you have different roles?

Jacob: Well, the thing with Silas is that he knows what he likes. When it came to me joining Soulland it was much more on the business side. Around 2008 we began to really push for the next step and it was necessary for us to build a plan, a strategy. There are times when it’s important to have a team that you can consult with, but there’s a lot of instinct as well. When it comes down to it, if Silas wants to do something, he’ll do it. There will be many times when we will consult with each other and discuss the ‘right way’, but if Silas has his vision and wants to get it done, we’re going to do it.

Like skating around for a spot again. Once you’ve found that spot, you’re not going home until you’ve landed that trick.

Silas: Exactly, exactly. You know there are all these trade shows – I attend one or two every year – but there’s one in particular called Premier Vision, and you can go there and you can pay somebody and they’ll give you the trend reports. They’ll give you the colours, you can get the fabrics, find out where to source them, get the connections for the manufacturers, you can do all of that. I go there, I thumb through the booklets sure, but that’s not what I’m about. I think it should be about what you want to do. It should be personal.

Another thing is the risk of becoming dependent upon these trade shows. If you go to P.V. and pay all the money for all this ‘information’, you might assume upon your product being a hit. If it isn’t, you’ll feel cheated. You’ll want to know why it went wrong. You’ll hold others responsible.

I think it’s important to keep making my own decisions, and to maintain that level of control. That way, if something goes wrong, I can go back to it and ask myself, ‘Okay, what did I do wrong?’

As we’ve discussed already, Scandinavia seems to be dominating menswear right now.  I’m interested in getting an insider’s perspective – is there something that people are missing? Are there designers or brands that deserve more attention?

Well, I wouldn’t want to say that they’re necessarily unknown, but there’s a knitwear company from Denmark called S.N.S. that was started in the 1920s, I think, and they still use the same old machinery and techniques. The product is just amazing. But you know, they’ve been in Dover Street Market, they’ve collaborated with Comme des Garçons, so you can’t really say they’ve been missed, but they’re definitely worthy of more attention.

Stepping away from classical, ‘easy to understand’ menswear, you’ve got a few Danish designers who are stepping more into the avant-garde, the crazy. Those brands that you’ve mentioned are doing so much good work. There’s this one designer called Asger Juul Larsen who is making amazing collections. Of course, I might not wear it personally, but it’s fascinating watching him and seeing what he creates.

When we go back to Denmark, we’re not always aware of how much of an impact that we’re having. Copenhagen is smaller than East London, you know! That way of thinking is important. I think one of the most dangerous things for Danish menswear is for us to think we are too important. We need that mixture of daring to do new things, but remembering to stay modest and humble.

That being said, if you take a look at menswear and womenswear in Denmark, then look at the Top 10 Clothing Store lists of whatever, there’s always at least one of these brands in there. There really is something going on here, and people can’t ignore it.

When I look at elements of pieces, such as the recurrence of specific features and techniques, I’m reminded of a brand like Neighborhood, who will introduce new elements into a season and then experiment over following seasons before retiring them and introducing new features. Take your embroidered shirting and use of all-over patterns, for example. Is this a significant aspect of your design?

Absolutely, it’s about that personal involvement again. If you take the designs from the current season, they take their inspiration from classic Japanese baseball cards, but it’s not just about taking these things and using them. I could very easily have taken those designs, scanned them into a computer and put them on a shirt.

What I did, however, was to draw each of the designs myself. All of the designs and graphics that you see were drawn by hand – it’s my interpretation. It’s important to mix the original influence with your own reinterpretation. Way back in Spring/Summer 2012 we did a button-up shirt with a blown-up print of a rose, and that was our first exploration into that. It worked well and we liked the outcome so we’ve kept experimenting with it, but it’s about mixing the old and the new in every sense.

I look at the tiny imperfections and the organic feel of pieces, like the script text embroidered across the shirting, and I’m reminded of the Japanese principle of ‘Wabi-Sabi’ – appreciating how the imperfections make something unique.

I remember watching footage of Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garçons being guided around a knitting factory, and she had smuggled a screwdriver in with her. As she went around the factory she was secretly taking screws out of the machines. You know, the imperfection brings with it something unique, and that’s what you’re looking for to begin with, right?

Like slub cotton – at face value it’s an imperfection, but a charming one.

Right! If you’re too focused on perfection, you’re losing something else that can be just as valuable when you’re creating.

Drawing things to a close, I didn’t want to ask one of those corny ‘What’s next’ questions, but I suppose I’m interested to know how you see the next few years for Soulland. 

I think it’s important to remember that ‘development’ doesn’t always mean growth. It’s good to sell more, to be in more stores, to expand collections and so on, but development takes many forms and it’s important to appreciate all of them. Otherwise, I just want to keep creating and to do things as naturally as possible.

http://soulland.com/

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