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In conversation with Søren Sand

The global triumph of Sand Copenhagen is unmeasured in Scandinavia. But what is the key to the brand’s success? In a rare interview, Søren Sand speaks about the early days of founding the first Nordic lifestyle brand, his collaboration with Helmut Newton, and the lifelong relationship with his wife Lene.

Words Konrad Olsson
Photography Jesper Brandt

Copenhagen, Denmark — Søren Sand looks up and points at the ornamented ceiling.

— Look, can you see? This building was built by a merchant in 1895 called Søren Samuelsson. He put his initials up there. ”ss”. They are also my initials! And look over there…

We walk towards the other end of the floor. It’s a typical grandiose, turn-of-the-century apartment that you find in Stockholm or Copenhagen, a kind of Scandinavian palazzo, with gold detailed doorways, high ceilings and enormous windows facing Sankt Annæ Plads and the big statue of King Christian x. The address is just around the corner from Nyhavn and a few blocks away from the Royal Palace. When we reach the other end of the room, Søren points up to the ceiling again.

— And here he put in his wife’s initials. Her name was Lisbeth Samuelsen, so it is also my wife’s initials. ”ls”.

I’m being given a tour of the future headquarters of Sand Copenhagen, the fashion brand Søren and his wife Lene founded in the early 80s. The couple bought the 2,500 square metre building two years ago, and the house is still undergoing massive renovations. Aside from housing Søren and Lene’s studio and office, when they are in Copenhagen, it will feature showrooms and meeting rooms for the company, as well as a lounge in the attic and a cellar big enough to host large parties.

— I wasn’t in the market for an entire building, says Søren. I was actually just in the neighbourhood to look at a place that we could stay in, when in Copenhagen. But then the real estate agent showed me this place and said:”you can buy the whole thing if you want!” It was a great opportunity.

Søren is dressed head-to-toe in his own brand — black jeans, white t-shirt, signature leopard slippers, and a slim linen jacket that has a special coating that almost makes it look like leather. He seems to be in a good mood and mentions that he flew in from his home in northern Italy the night before, as if I didn’t already know. Søren’s travel schedule has been a head achingly long e-mail topic between me and his assistant over the past few weeks. For the longest time, it was uncertain if there even was going to be an interview. In fact, Søren rarely gives interviews, let alone takes the time to do a photo shoot, so to be standing in his studio on a crisp Saturday morning in August feels almost surreal.

— I don’t know, he says, when I ask him why he so rarely gives interviews.
— Maybe I’m too shy – I’m a very private person. But I realise it’s important. You need to come behind the scenes. You need to know about the brand, how it came to life, the philosophy and the people and values behind it.

To say that Sand Copenhagen is one of Scandinavia’s most influential fashion and lifestyle brands is an understatement. One could argue that they were the ones that started it all. If you take a look at the big players in modern Scandinavian fashion today — from Acne, Filippa K, and J. Lindeberg in Sweden, to Mads Norgaard and Samøe & Samsøe in Denmark — they were all founded a good 10–15 years after Søren and Lene hatched the idea of Sand at their kitchen table in the Danish town Randers in 1981. And to say it’s been a success story is an even bigger understatement. The brand is currently available on all six continents, in 32 countries, with over 1,200 retailers and a number of own stores, including their concept store in Beverly Hills — they are definitely one of the biggest brands in Scandinavia.

But what makes them unique is not their apparent success, or that their clothes are seen on the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, and, lately, American singer Aloe Blacc, or that they are able to fund an entire building on one of Copenhagen’s most prominent addresses. It is the uncompromising way that Søren and Lene Sand are running the company — still being the sole owners of their brand, keeping their signature look, a kind of minimalistic yet glamorous Scandinavian offering, without looking at novel trends or other fashion brands. When I ask tSøren to describe their target audience, he answers:

— We see a modern, urban man, who is a bit laid-back. Someone who enjoys life, who feels good, looks good, and that has the same interests as we have.

I find this to be key to the brand’s success story. The Sand Copenhagen lifestyle seems to evolve straight out of the lives of Søren and Lene, the small town high school couple who now divide their time between their home and design studio in Como, Italy, and the headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.

— We are very much in love, Søren says, and we still do everything together.

Søren Sand grew up in small town, Randers, Denmark, with a father that worked as an engineer and a professor, streamlining the production of railroads, and a mother who stayed at home, taking care of Søren and his brother and sister.

— My father had a very inventive mind, but I never thought of doing the same thing as he did.

He met Lene when they were both in high school, and the relationship centered around their creative interests: architecture, furniture design, and fashion.

— I fell in love. We were on the same page about everything, talking about life, about the future, about art. We liked everything that was beautiful. When we travelled we took photos of everything we saw. And we had a passion for fabrics.

Søren remembers being interested in clothes at an early stage, dyeing his own t-shirts at age 15. After high school, Lene started working as a costume designer for a theatre in Aarhus, and Søren studied economics. After four years, they decided to start their own brand, or rather, make a clothing collection and see where it took them. It was 1981.

— It was women’s wear in the beginning. The fashion was a little bit alternative at the time. We went to these exhibitions and customers just queued up. Suddenly we were exporting to Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK.

During this time there weren’t any real fashion brands to speak of in Denmark. However, clothing production was a vibrant industry, with companies specialising in knitwear, outerwear, shirts and tailoring. But no one was thinking conceptually about fashion. Søren and Lene, inspired by Giorgio Armani, started to envision a brand that communicated more than just clothes — a lifestyle.

— In the early 90s, I was wearing Armani myself and thought he was really cool. We wanted to create something similar to that, something that wasn’t in the market in Scandinavia. The idea was that we would only work with natural materials: silk, cotton, linen, and leather. We were searching for the perfect product, so we started with the fabric. If you’re going to create something beautiful, you need to start with the material.

The strong focus on fabrics and colours is something that Søren comes back to several times during our conversation. He defines their collection as a combination of Danish design and Italian tailored quality, something that became even more apparent when they launched their menswear collection at the beginning of the 90s, with suiting, outerwear, jeans, and shirts.

— By then we had made a name for ourselves. Sand was a well known brand, so it was quite easy to expand the business.

How did you and Lene divide your responsibilities in the beginning?

— We were like yin and yang. We took all the major decisions together, but she was focusing on design, and I was more supportive, doing most of the sales. When we started the men’s line, it was obvious that I should take a bigger part in creating the collection. That’s when I started my creative process.

Søren Sand interrupts himself and apologises for not having served us any of the fresh fruits and danish pastries that have been carefully placed on the black table in front of us. It is hard not to think of the table setting — the black plates, black ceramic cups, and black napkins — as an illustration of Søren’s design sensibility. The table is custom made, designed by the Spanish furniture designer Patricia Urquiola, a friend of the couple who designed their previous showroom. In the corner of the room is a sofa that’s been designed specifically for the Sand flagship stores. And the entire studio is full of sculptures; most of them bought during the couples many trips.

— If you see a good sculpture, you need to buy it right away, Søren says. You don’t think, just buy, because otherwise you will never see it again.

You seem involved in every decision the company makes, and I would imagine this room as well?

— Yes. I can see straight away if something doesn’t belong. I have a passion for doing it perfect. It disturbs my eye if it is not in order. I think it has a lot to do with the way I grew up, surrounded by all this Danish architecture. There is a thoughtfulness to Danish design, everything needs be well-executed. When we move into a house like this, we are not just taking any random colour and putting it on the wall. We find a specific colour that elevates the experience, and the result is so much better. We feel that we owe the house to take good care of it. Thoughts are for free.

There is a story that’s fitting to tell here. When Sand Copenhagen was set to exhibit for the first time at Pitti Uomo, the now-Instagram-famous fashion fair in Florence, Italy, Søren had an idea for a Scandinavian statement. And what could be more Scandinavian than hotel room number 606 in sas Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. Arne Jacobsen designed the hotel in 1960 and room 606 remains intact today, and Søren borrowed the entire hotel room. He even borrowed the door, which was dismounted from the hotel in Copenhagen and installed at the stand in Pitti. The clothes hung in the closets.

— We wanted to communicate our Scandinavian collection, wrap it in the right way, and everybody loves Arne Jacobsen. It was just an idea I got in the morning. I get all my ideas in the morning. So I called the hotel, and they liked the idea.

That type of perseverance is essential to Søren’s method of presenting the brand. During the years, Søren has kept a close eye on everything that has had to do with the brand’s communication, especially the campaign shoots. When Scandinavian MAN visits their latest photo shoot a few weeks prior to the interview, Søren Sand is present and involved in the styling and look in the images, when shooting with the young model Alain Fabien Delon, the son of the famous French actor.

— Of course, we have an advertising agency, but all the pictures and communications are approved by us.

Throughout the years, Sand Copenhagen has used some of fashion’s most prominent models in their campaigns and runway shows — from Jerry Hall and Alek Week to Matt Duffie and Matthew Avedon. They also famously collaborated with iconic photographer Helmut Newton for a campaign shoot in 2002. Which was another one of Søren’s ”morning ideas” that ended up being one of the most expensive campaigns they ever did.

— He was a very nice man. We did the shoot in Monaco, where Mr. Newton was living. We had only communicated with his agent prior to meeting him, and we were instructed not to talk to him directly, but it didn’t take long before we stood together behind the camera. I asked him if he could make five rolls of color and five rolls of black and white. ”That’s not how I work. Color or black and white”, he said. We chose black and white. Mr. Newton used a tiny little camera, and he only took three pictures of every scene. After we were done, he said, ”If you want to see the pictures, come to Monaco Beach Club tomorrow. My tent is no. 314.” So I went there, to the little tent on the beach, where he had a little table with the pictures. ”There is coffee, there’s a croissant, here are the pictures. I’m going for a swim”, he said.

The Sand Copenhagen operation is a widespread affair. In addition to the offices in Copenhagen they still employ 25 back office people in Randers, where the first person they ever hired still works as head of customer service. They also have a design team of four in Barcelona doing women’s wear. And then there is Søren and Lenes design studio in Lake Como, Italy.

— We take the best from different worlds, Søren says when we leave the house by Sankt Annæ Plads, and head out to have lunch.
— We take the best out of Italy, and the best out of Copenhagen. We love to be in Copenhagen, but when we are on the flight back to Italy, we’re in a good mood. We feel very privileged. We have several holidays, but short ones, when we go to Ibiza or our house in Lugano in the Swiss Alps. We work a lot; you have to in this industry.

We sit down at a table outside Ravage Restaurant on Kongens Nytorv. We order a bottle of nice French wine. Søren and Lene moved permanently to Italy eight years ago, when their daughter was old enough to live by herself in Denmark (she is now working for the brand, in the PR department). When he describes their everyday life in Como, he talks about hectic days going between suppliers, manufacturers, and the employees in the studio.

— On a normal day I’m at the office at nine, and leave by seven. We do four collections per year, for both men and women. It’s a lot of work, but we enjoy it, we really enjoy it.

What is it like being from Scandinavia and working internationally?

— When I say I’m from Copenhagen, people always get a big smile on their face. Everybody has been to Copenhagen. It’s the same when you talk about Scandinavia.

Søren raises his glass of wine for a toast.

— I always use to say, if your hobby becomes your job, you aren’t working anymore. Take this moment. We are working, but is this a tough life? I think we are ok.

And then he takes a sip of wine.

Konrad Olsson is the editor-in-chief and founder of Scandinavian Man.

Søren Sand, photographed by Jesper Brandt in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Søren and Lene Sand in 1984.
Two years ago, Søren Sand bought a 2 500 square meter house in central Copenhagen, that is now being turned into the headquarters.
The Sand Copenhagen campaign photographed by Helmut Newton in Moncao in 2002.
Søren and Lene Sand still owns and runs the company themselves, just as they did when they founded it in 1981.