It’s a cold November morning in Copenhagen, and still so early that the city is all quiet, slowly picking up speed and welcoming the new day. I’m meeting with the Danish designer Henrik Vibskov in his studio on Papirøen, a hotspot for start-ups, designers, and street food. As I enter Den Plettede Gris, the little coffee shop linked to the Vibskov Studio, I’m greeted by his staff and offered a cup of coffee while they announce my arrival to the designer. Having never met Vibskov before, but read countless interviews and followed his work for years, I was very excited to finally meet him in person, and to cut a long story very short: I was not disappointed. This tall guy standing in front of me introduces himself, and welcomes me with a presence and calm that takes me a little by surprise.
As Vibskov leaves his office, he wraps a colorful wool sweater around his neck as a scarf and asks me to follow him. We make our way into his studio, currently filled with small painted sculptures for an exhibition, and he goes over to light his wood burner. I’m sent out to get more firewood, and as we sit down to begin the interview, the fire is blazing before us. Coffee in hand, and after finding common ground in the Norwegian National Ballet, and the love for the very particular warmth coming from a fireplace like this, we begin the interview.
Henrik Vibskov got his first drum kit when he was ten years old, and when I ask him about how his interest in fashion and design started, this is where he begins his story. Steadily growing increasingly aware of the different social codes connected to different kinds of roles and identities in society and how they are perceived, he became interested in how this all affected us and how it was interpreted by brands. In terms of what to wear or not to wear, what to read, watch, listen to, and what not to, depending on what environment or group you were connected to or associated with. He saw how brands flirted with these different identities, making it their own to appeal and tap into the codes around fashion and clothing. Vibskov describes himself as being thrown into the world of fashion, and that fashion was something that was perceived in a different way than how he saw it, and he wanted to show that there were extra layers and dimensions, completely different ways of doing things, to be found in the creative process of fashion. His driving force, the conceptual approach to fashion where layers of culture, ambiences, fabrics and inspiration is aligned, was born.
Vibskov describes fashion as both an interpretation of our historical references, as an important way of communicating with the world around us, and as a quick and important reflection and critique of society. Fashion is constantly changing, and although he designs pieces that are meant to outlast trends and current ideals about colors, shapes and patterns, he appreciates how fashion can very quickly comment on the world around us. That fashion can have the role of social criticism, a constant reflection not only of society, but of the people and their identities being shaped by, and in contrast to it. What we wear becomes a uniform, and “how we appear” becomes the signal pointing to who we are, sometimes regardless of the ambition behind the outfit we put on. These borders are created by society, interpreted and changed by the wearer, and utilized by the fashion industry.
Henrik Vibskov is known for creating pieces that are a little bit out of the ordinary, and he gives the brand the avant-garde label. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t fly that well in Scandinavia, where minimalism rules, and we prefer to not stand out – at least not as much as some of his items require. Anyone who is familiar with the Vibskov aesthetic would probably not be surprised by the fact that only as little as less than 20 percent of his collections stay within Scandinavia. Most of his designs do much better abroad, and when I ask him what he might think is the reason behind this, he answers that his decision to start showing at Fashion Week in Paris is one of the main reasons he is now recognized internationally. He now shows during the men’s Fashion Week in Paris, and Fashion Week in Copenhagen, biannually.
Vibskov underlines that when staring up as a designer in a country like Denmark, it’s incredibly important to recognize that it might not be possible to do exactly what you want to do if you don’t consider the global market from the very beginning. Your ideas and ambitions can quickly be killed here if you are not aware of the huge market around the world that might carry a much greater appreciation for what you are doing, so seeking approval and gratification here might not be the very best way to go. He tells me that the fashion industry has been going through a range of changes since he first began his journey, and the two major elements he highlights are the change in openness and support for young talent, and the opportunities that the global market offers for designers with a narrower scope than the general idea of fashion. There are more positive opportunities for designers in Denmark right now, and with the introduction of the global market in a common playing field, the opportunities for young talent arises in a way that it hasn’t done before.
Vibskov, also commonly known for his controversial and art-dominated runway shows, is in reality far more than that. He engages in projects that reach far beyond the domain of fashion and the creation of collections and shows, and has, among other things, created the new costumes for the Norwegian National Ballet’s version of Swan Lake, he teaches, and has had exhibitions in some of the biggest art venues in the world. Where many people see fashion as art, Vibskov emphasizes that the question of whether fashion is art should rather be answered by highlighting the strong parallel that sometimes exists in the processes that both art and fashion go through, rather than saying that fashion in itself is art. He himself didn’t seem very interested in being labeled an artist, even though he manages projects that stretch far beyond fashion, and has exhibited in venues like the MoMA, and Grand Palais.
When talking to Vibskov it quickly becomes very clear that he highly values his team, and he describes them as a big “family” where ideas are developed, and projects finalized, and walking into his studio that is exactly the impression that you get. It’s a very welcoming environment, where people are not necessarily confined to one role, but rather their role is shaped by the person and the project in front of them at that point in time. They do yoga together every Thursday, and it’s easy to see how this family environment makes it easy for him to draw inspiration from everything around him, because they are all constantly curating an environment where ideas are cared for from the moment they arise, and followed into a more solid form that can shape the foundation for an exhibition, a runway show, or a collection.
When it comes to sustainability Vibskov might not be the most clear and transparent, and he says that it’s because different collections demand different things, and instead of going for a consistent profile he has chosen to prioritize a bit differently. Talking to him about his different projects it appears as if he really goes all in when he does go for the truly sustainable approach, but sometimes to such extremes that it doesn’t really work out the way he’d planned, in terms of design and quality. Vibskov explains that 60-80% of his production is currently in Europe, and the rest of the garments are produced in China. For some of the items, he makes so few pieces that they are created locally in his own studio, but most of the production happens abroad.
When choosing the fabrics he works with, what is important is not only how it fits with the current concept for the collection, economy and logistics, but also production. Sometimes, choosing a 100% sustainable or organic fabric might not be the best choice for the collection and he is well aware of the compromise he sometimes makes. Vibskov underlines that the demand for a more sustainable production line would be easier to satisfy if customers were open to what comes with that kind of production. Sometimes things can appear less perfect, because we are used to a product that has gone though a highly chemical process, that in many cases is much easier to control than a sustainable product.
He refers to two big projects he did in Africa and India, that were completely sustainable, where things were handmade, with the natural flaws that that might entail, but he experienced difficulties selling the items because of these minor imperfections. Another point Vibskov makes about sustainability is one that is often overlooked, namely how many items brands both make and order for each collection. The volume of pieces that are ordered and sometimes left unsold by the end of the season, is something that plays a large part in his decisions on what fabrics to use and how many items to order. Given the expectations from customers, it might be risky to order a lot of something that is sustainably handmade, or in a sustainable fabric that pushes the boundaries. Ordering too much and ending up not being able to sell it, is according to Vibskov one of the most important things in terms of sustainability that the brands should think about as overproduction is a real problem in the fashion industry.
He is fully aware that he might be missing the mark on some of the parameters concerning sustainability, but he is also indulging properly in others. When it comes to his designs, he wants to create items that are of high-quality fabrics, and designed in a way that make them both last for a very long time, and also for them to be worn by both men and women and with a design that will outlast the current trends running the market. Buying an item from one of his collections most likely means that you are treating yourself to a statement piece, something that you feel expresses your identity, or maybe even helps to express it in a way that you desire. The value of the garments increase in a way when you look at it like this. You won’t be looking for a replacement any time soon, but will most likely enjoy the items for a decade or longer.
For Vibskov, sustainability is defined by a product having additional and deeper value. Meaning that it’s an item that fulfill more than one purpose, something that speaks to you on an individual basis, something that can take part in your personally curated collection of pieces that you want to care for and keep. It’s about valuing what you buy, and being critical about where and how it’s made, while still satisfying you aesthetically in a way that makes you love and cherish what you buy in a way that you would otherwise never do. He tells me that he himself is a very boring consumer, that he is very critical and often buys more than one of something when he finally finds an item that he really likes and that he mostly wears the same things over and over again, valuing comfort above all else. That said, he does indeed have a very particular style, one that you can see reflects his identity and attitudes towards things.
This attitude towards sustainability is one that is often overlooked in the discussion, something that in reality should be talked about a lot more. Curating a wardrobe, a collection of items that says something about you, that reflects who you are, is much more chic than following trends. So when Vibskov creates these great pieces that some might say have a touch of avant-garde, he is not only putting out biannual collections for us to purchase and enjoy, but providing us with the opportunity to carefully select the pieces that we’ll want to keep. And keep for a long time. This is present in the materials he chooses, in the lines, cuts and seams, and in the ambition and thought behind the items. So even though Vibskov complies with the biannual model of the fashion industry, his work exudes longevity in the most essential and powerful meaning of word: his aesthetic is one of unified development and continuous expression.