All for one, one for all
All for one, one for all. United we stand, divided we fall — In The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas wrote those famous lines to describe the collective feeling of unity that his main characters have towards each other. From the pages of a French literary classic to a modern day independent fashion company, the Musketeers mindset is key to understanding how Danish fashion designer Henrik Vibskov and his team work. Henrik Vibskov is the modern day reincarnation of a Renaissance Man: drummer, artist, filmmaker, father, fashion designer. The list of things Vibskov does is endless. His eponymous label has delivered experimental clothing and accessories to a select niche of clients worldwide for 15 years. Scandinavian MAN was allowed exclusive access to Henrik Vibskov and his team to follow their creative process from the design studio in Copenhagen to the runway presentation of the AW18 menswear presentation during Paris Fashion Week.
Words Tsemaye Opubor Photography Peter Gehrke
15 December 2017 08.45
There’s a gale force wind this morning. If this were a spaghetti western, the tumbleweed would be rolling across a deserted road. Instead, en route to my meeting with Danish designer Henrik Vibskov on Papirøen I happen upon another kind of weed. A few small plastic bags of what appears to be marijuana are on the sidewalk. They seem to have been blown out onto the main thoroughfare by the powerful gusts of wind where I am walking from Christianhavn tube station towards Papirøen. They likely come from the cannabis selling stalls of Pusher Street in nearby Christiania, the self proclaimed autonomous free town known for its Green Light District.
Countless Danes cycle by me, oblivious to what I’ve spotted on the street — they are in their morning zone, headed to work and elsewhere. A few have children nestled in the wooden boxes attached to the front of their bicycles. Most have grim, determined faces as they tuck their chins into their outerwear and peddle straight into the mighty headwind.
I feel for them, it’s hard going with all the wind, even for pedestrians.
I’ve arrived at Den Plettede Gris on Papirøen, the small café on the little island that also serves as Henrik Vibskov’s headquarters and studio.
I’m a bit early for my appointment with Vibskov, (’Vibs’ to those who know and love him) so I go into the back rooms behind the café where the fashion design team sits, to see who is already at work. I’ve interviewed Vibs a number of times through the years and I’ve met his team in different cities around Europe. Like favourite cousins that you don’t see often but are always happy to meet, every time Team Vibs and I are together there is plenty of laughter and hugs all around.
”When you work here you see it all and do it all; design, cooking, painting, cutting wood, whatever is needed.”
Vibs arrives at Den Plettede Gris. He drove to HQ today he tells me, saying the wind would have made his kids miserable on the ride to their nursery had he taken his bike. Vibs is carrying a loaf of black bread under his arm that’s for the team breakfast, and whatever is left can be eaten at lunch as well, he says.
The barista has called in sick today and the replacement hasn’t arrived yet so Vibs stations himself behind the espresso machine and starts taking orders from the team. Skinny white, flat white, Americano, double espresso, caffe latte… if coffee were a duel odds are high that Vibs would fall on his sword, but luckily this morning he manages to deliver the desired beverages… eventually.
He laughs and says working in fashion is easy in comparison to the pressure of making the first coffees of the day for his team.
Even though Team Vibs is busy putting the puzzle of the Paris Fashion Week together, there is always time for the team lunch.
It’s business as usual around the long table in the design studio: Jenny and a very pregnant Anna work on the production side of the brand. Together they are planning the logistics of the lookbook shoot and coordinating with the brand’s production suppliers to receive the necessary samples in time. Cristina is taking calls and sales orders while Judith and Marie are discussing possible outfit combinations for the lookbook. The design team tells me that Klara has said her tearful goodbyes to Team Vibs and is moving back to Iceland, and Julie has the day off.
At the same time, preparations are underway for the Paris presentation of the men’s and women’s AW18 collections due to be held in mid-January, four weeks from now.
Vibs is simultaneously listening to the music that has been sent by a Norwegian composer as a soundtrack for the show, while calling Paris to discuss venues for the presentation and answering the countless emails that have dropped into his inbox overnight.
Team Vibs is still waiting for the first samples of the collection that will be shown at the Paris presentation to arrive. DHL will deliver a few boxes later in the day. Various interns come in and out of the design room. Siri, team member and architect, has a few technical questions about the structures that need to be built and that will be used in the presentation.
In spite of all the comings and goings the vibe is relatively calm, all things considered.
The Vibskov HQ and studio is tiny and the little team of 15 people, which includes the 5 interns and Anja the accountant, sit cheek to jowl, finding workspace wherever they can. While Vibskov’s name might be on the labels in the clothes, he is not one for a flash corner office with a view.
The Three Musketeers spirit of Team Vibs means that Vibskov himself is nestled wherever he can find a space at the long table in the main design studio space, which is located between the stockroom and the kitchen. Today he is sitting next to Anna, but when I ask for a few minutes of his time, he tells me to follow him and brings Jenny along to help fill in any gaps in his answers. We go into a little niche, nestled between precariously perched stacks of boxes and an archive of past collections.
Vibs has surrounded himself with a team of dedicated people; strong women (and a few men) who help him to define and refine his vision. For a small brand like Henrik Vibskov, it is a credit to his leadership style that there are a number of team members who have worked with him for over a decade, since almost the very beginning of his journey with his label. A few of the newest members on the team were once students that came from design schools around Europe for six-month unpaid internships and after graduation and a few years of working for other brands, were hired by Vibskov and returned to the fold on Papirøen.
So why does Vibs show in Paris as a Scandinavian designer?
— It all started a bit weirdly. It wasn’t a goal or part of my business plan when I started my brand, to show in Paris. After graduation from Central St. Martins in London, and my return to Copenhagen I got a lot of interest in my first collection but you couldn’t buy the stuff anywhere. I was invited to present an edited capsule of my first collection at the Hyères Festival in France. I met Sarah from the Colette store there, and a few other key people that were part of the hip Paris fashion crew. They all said I should show in Paris.
I also met the president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode at the Festival and he also encouraged me to show in Paris and said he would find some people to help me.
— All of a sudden a press office contacted me to say they were interested in helping me to organise my first show, and that’s how it started. I’ve been presenting the collections in Paris ever since. This presentation is some kind of anniversary, I think its my 30 th show in Paris, which means I have been doing this for 15 years now.
Vibs explains that there is a different set of expectations for labels that are showing their collections in Paris.
— Since Paris is the biggest fashion week in the world, Paris Fashion Week has a completely different set up than fashion weeks in other places. Everybody is here and just getting them to the shows is a huge effort. We always invite around 800 people, and usually somewhere around 500 people show up.
Henrik Vibskov on Papirøen.
Luisa, a German intern who is a knitwear design student, comes into the main space to announce that it’s time for lunch. At Vibskov HQ there is a rota system for team lunches. Everybody takes turns preparing the meals, including Vibskov (although he admits he isn’t as diligent at following the rota schedule as the rest of the team) and there is always a warm vegan or vegetarian dish on the menu, as well as breads, cheeses, salads and fruit. Preparing food and eating together is part of the Team Vibs equation, and certainly a key component to the success of the Vibskov brand. It’s hard to imagine many internationally renowned head designers on the official Paris Fashion Week schedule that fraternise with their interns, much less cook for them.
Although the brand’s headquarters and workshop are housed in different rooms and buildings due to the cramped nature of the operation, mealtimes are spent together breaking bread. It’s a moment to pause, enjoying some of the famous Danish hygge and taking time to decompress from the workload.
— Lunchtime is always good here. It’s different eating food we’ve made together, much nicer than bringing your own food to heat up in the microwave, says Vibskov.
”People are so afraid of standing out or not being in their comfort zone.”
After lunch Vibs takes me to the Vibskov workshop space, a two-room garage next door to Den Plettede Gris where the sample construction for the structures that will be used during the Paris presentation is underway. The howling wind outside has made the workshop bitterly cold, so Vibs loads the old fashioned wood burning stove with recycled wood and fires it up. Torsteinn is painting dowels and Louisa is using the knitting machine to knit some sample trims that she will be sending off to the production sample makers at the end of the day.
It’s much quieter and more contemplative in the workshop; a welcome contrast to the noise and movement in the design office. Now I have Vibs’ undivided attention.
*How would you describe the AW18 collection and the inspiration for it? *
— The name of the aw18 collection is Please Analyze, Volumize, Moisturize Me. The inspiration for this collection came during a trip to Kanasawa, Japan.
— I saw an art piece by Jan Fabre: The Man Who Measures the Clouds. It was very poetic, and the idea of measuring something that couldn’t be measured became an important idea and inspiration for this collection. I discussed this concept with the team about how we try to measure everything just to be able to make sense of things. For instance size, height, weight, distance, and time.
— The idea of measuring, analysing, comparing and categorising things can become bigger than the subject itself.
You’re the definition of a Renaissance man in the modern age: designer, artist, musician, dedicated father and partner, and an entrepreneur. What makes you tick?
— I like when there is a lot going on. It makes it fun for me, and it’s important for me to keep passionate and to keep trying things out. If things are too static I get bored.
— Sometimes the ideas I come up with fail, or I later think that they’re stupid. But I believe that failure often leads to something else. Many times I do things and people say:
’What the fuck was he thinking?’ They get confused. But in this industry, it’s good to challenge things a little bit. There are millions of brands across the world and many of the things that people do look similar.
— I think it’s important to remember that where you can make a change, you should at least try. People are so afraid of standing out or not being in their comfort zone.
You have a very lean organisation and very high ambitions. How do you make these contradictions work?
— I never believe that something is impossible. I always find a way to make it possible. Even very complicated things can happen in the end. I wouldn’t be where I am today, producing the work that I do without my beliefs and creativity.
— Also I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without my team.
— Everybody here gets a lot of responsibility, I trust the people I employ. Team Vibs is like a family and there is a family spirit when you work here — of everyone helping out. Not only do we have the team working but, sometimes, their friends, parents, boyfriends or girlfriends help out if we need extra people.
How did you put together your team? Why do they stay?
— At the very beginning of the brand I was doing everything by myself. My first employee actually hired himself. He got fed up with seeing me doing everything so he said: ’Henrik shouldn’t we just say that I’m coming in on Monday?
— After that I found some of the team members that were initially working here as interns. They got to know us, and in a way it helped them to grow into the job and our way of doing things here.
— Nowadays, the team plays quite a big part in finding people to fill the roles that are needed. They usually come up with suggestions by telling me:
— Henrik, maybe we should have a person who does this or that, in order to share the workload?
— I have a core set of people who have worked with me for around 10 years and then new designers that have worked with me for 4 years or less. I think they stay because they get a lot of respect for their work and ideas, and because we are always challenging ourselves.
— There are no limits or set boundaries for what I expect a production manager, or a knitwear designer, an intern or anyone else in the team to do. Here we do cool stuff all the time and everyone gets to come up with suggestions, give an opinion and join in. When you work here you see it all and do it all; design, cooking, painting, cutting wood, whatever is needed. This is very different from how fashion brands usually work I think. For instance, some of the team will be part of the installation and performance at the Paris show.
How has your brand grown since you started?
— I have two stand alone Henrik Vibskov stores, one in Copenhagen and the other in New York. We sell my own label and also a selection of stuff that we think is cool. I also sell my men’s and women’s lines, accessories and collaboration pieces in around 40 countries, at close to 200 stores.
— I think there has been a pendulum swing in the other direction finally. People feel safer and more optimistic, so more and more people are interested in wearing colour. You don’t buy Henrik Vibskov pieces if you are in a dark mood.
The last daylight has disappeared and many of Team Vibs’ members are turning off their computers and leaving the office. They have children to pick up from nursery, or family members that are arriving to stay with them during the holidays. Vibs is in a hurry himself. He has promised his partner that he will pick the children up from nursery and cook dinner for them today since she is off to a Christmas party with her workmates. So he needs to go grocery shopping and find something that is quick to prepare for his hungry buccaneers. — My kids go crazy if their dinner isn’t on the table five minutes after we get home from the nursery, he tells me. We say our goodbyes after planning the next time we will meet, which will be in Copenhagen after the holidays just before leaving for Paris Fashion Week.
Backstage preparations and performance rehearsals at the venue in Paris, Lycée Turgot.
15 January 2018 09.00
On this visit to Papirøen there is a different mood.
Bulldozers are moving back and forth at the end of the road, just a few steps away from Den Plettede Gris and in the distance, a wrecking ball swings again and again. A massive building structure falls like a house of cards. The final decision has come that Den Plettede Gris will have to close its doors, and the Vibskov headquarters and workshop will have to move. The island is to be developed into a luxury housing area, and all of the businesses and offices must leave.
The deal has been in the works for years, and now it’s happening. The popular street food market located on the island has already closed its doors, and only the architecture practice and the Vibskov HQ and workshop spaces are left.
Vibs takes me to watch the work being done. He’s preoccupied by the move, which was initially scheduled for February 1st but has been moved back to sometime in March instead.
— I don’t like this kind of change, and I really hate moving too. I’ve looked at all kinds of spaces for us to move to and nothing really feels right, he says when we return to HQ for breakfast and a coffee.
Inside Vibskov HQ, you can feel that the pressure is on.
The sound of the demolition work going on outside is ominous. It’s a relentless aural backdrop, an industrial soundtrack loop of the wrecking balls and jackhammers.
Ch, ch, ch, ch, chaaaaaaanges.
It’s less than a week until Paris Fashion Week.
In addition to all the work left to be done, today is the day that Vibskov must have his portrait taken for the Scandinavian Man magazine covers. Vibs is not really one for having his photo taken, and his face is a bit grim when a mountain of black cases of different sizes is delivered to Vibskov HQ. It’s the equipment that our photographer Peter Gehrke has ordered for the cover shoot.
Gehrke and his assistant arrive in a cab. Vibskov welcomes them and makes an off the cuff remark about all the equipment stacked in the café, wondering if it is indeed a still shoot or whether we have actually tricked him into a feature film production.
For half a heartbeat it feels awkward, strained, and stiff. It’s interesting to see the dynamics of this first meeting. But it goes well in the end.
After a few exchanged pleasantries and an apology from Gehrke about filling the café to the rafters with equipment, Vibs starts to noticeably relax. He offers the photo team some coffees and then retreats to the design office to continue with the planning and logistics for Paris.
There is full activity in every room at HQ today. Visitors are dropping in one after the other to discuss different elements of the Paris show. Artists come by to show their latest work for possible collaborations in the future. DHL delivers boxes of samples, interns are sewing trims onto the beanie hats with brims that will be used in the Paris presentation. In the midst of all the activity, café guests are coming in looking for something to eat.
A Japanese couple arrives asking for Henrik. It’s Dai and his wife Ayako. Dai is a stylist who participated in the Henrik Vibskov presentation of the last collection that was held in Kanasawa, Japan a few months earlier. He sent an email to Vibs after the presentation saying that he would love the opportunity to collaborate with Vibs again in the future. Said and done: after some reflection, Vibs decided to let Dai style the Paris presentation.
— We’ve always done the styling for the shows ourselves. But we thought maybe it’s time to see what added element could be brought to the collection by having a Japanese stylist with his own flavour of what’s cool interpret the brand, and style the combinations for the presentation. It will be interesting to see what it can bring to the clothing, Vibs tells me.
It’s time for lunch. Today there are a number of extra mouths to feed but magically, there is enough food for everyone. Seating is a little tight however, as the café is also full, but by eating in shifts everyone gets a chair.
It’s not as chatty as previous lunch times. Food is eaten quickly and coffee is taken back to work stations. Time is tight and there is still plenty to do.
Vibskov gives final instructions to the cast about the feeling he is hoping they will achieve during the performance.
”I like when there is a lot going on. It makes it fun for me, and its important for me to stay passionate and to keep trying things out.”
The collection has been set up on the ground floor of the architecture practice across the street from the café. They have heat, and space. Both of which are in short supply at Vibskov HQ.
Elias, one of the Vibskov models arrives for fittings and selection of pieces for the Paris presentation. He looks the part: chiselled but quirky, lanky, and skinny with a shaved head.
Dai and Ayako are moving AW18 pieces back and forth along the racks. There are nearly 150 pieces of clothing (much of it unisex) ranging from solid blacks, tans and reds to every kind of geometric print — from squiggles to squares and everything in between — for them to work with. Rows and rows of shoes, belts, scarves, socks and hats add to the cacophony of colours and prints available for the work at hand.
Dai has worked as a stylist for some of the biggest fashion magazines in Japan. His wife and stylist assistant, Ayako, also has a fashion background from a past commercial career working with Japanese and international high end fashion brands. Together they are finding a pattern language and colour scheme for the men’s and women’s looks. It’s interesting to watch how the Japanese translation of this Danish brand is developing.
Judith and Marie, the two Team Vibs members that have worked with the Henrik Vibskov brand the longest and have been involved with styling countless Paris Fashion Week presentations, have one eye on Dai’s selection process and the other on the line sheets. They are checking to ensure that the right pieces are here for the fitting, or where to locate them if they aren’t.
Vibs enters the architecture practice to survey the ongoing work. Judith and Marie stop their conversation in mid-sentence, and you can almost hear Dai and Ayako holding their breath.
What is Vibs going to think of the selection?
Elias starts putting on the first look. It’s a layer on layer affair with a hoodie under a puffa jacket underneath a jumper. Vibs crosses his arms in his Team Vibs lab coat and looks critically at what Elias has on. He breaks out in a smile and everyone present starts inhaling and exhaling normally again.
— Tokyo style is really different compared to how we might put together an outfit in Copenhagen. But it looks really cool, Vibs says.
— The whole idea is to try new things. We think this collection is very strong, and the team has put a lot of work into it. Through Dai we get to see the collection with fresh eyes, he continues.
The fine tuning of the looks continues and everything is being carefully documented by Ayako. She is also acting as an interpreter as needed for Dai to communicate with Team Vibs.
Vibs leaves the style team to get on with their work and returns to the design office.
He needs to find some kind of head covering or helmet for the extras and dancers that will be performing in Paris. The discussions go back and forth about what might work. A suggestion for a water polo helmet is discussed but nobody knows what it looks like. After Googling it, everyone agrees it’s a great idea.
Team Vibs has 4 days to find a dozen water polo helmets and get them to Paris.
It’s the end of this trip to Copenhagen. The next time I meet Team Vibs will be in the vortex of Paris Fashion Week.
Paris, France20 January 2018
It has been raining non stop in Paris for over a week. The French word for rain of this magnitude sounds very fashiony and not unlike a posh perfume… le deluge. Generally when it rains this heavy, for this long, many shows at Paris Fashion Week don’t get the usual crowds. Rain and the fashion crowd don’t mix well.
09:00 The team is eating breakfast and is preparing to go to the venue at Lycée Turgot — a gymnasium in an upper secondary school near République. Vibs is discussing the work that needs to be done as soon as the team arrives.
11:00 Inner tubes are being pumped and the metal platforms for the performance are being assembled. Marie and Judith are doing the final casting of the models.
14.00 Vibs is leaning back with his feet on a table, arms crossed and eyes closed. The presentation is in four hours. He looks totally bored, and a bit sleepy. He takes the time to zone out and to not be disturbed by the lack of action.
15.00 The models start arriving and are sent to hair and makeup. The hair team consists of ’Vibsies’— Luisa, Siri, Nadine and Jenny. When Fashion TV comes to interview them about the inspiration for the hair for the show, it’s a comical moment. None of them are professional hair stylists but in the spirit of Team Vibs, its what’s needed, so they do it and keep a straight face as they talk about themes for the hair.
17.45 All the models are dressed and ready to go. It’s the final rehearsal. Vibs has been walking around drinking a Heineken while observing the preparations. The nude dancers are under the mesh flooring, the other extras are dressed in yellow jumpsuits with numbered water polo helmets on their heads, laying on the now pumped inner tubes waiting for their cues.
18.13 Jenny runs to Henrik looking anxious.
— Henrik are we starting in two minutes?
— No Jenny, everybody looked sleepy, that was fake news just to wake you up, Vibs answers.
18.29 The music starts and the lights are dimmed. It’s finally the moment we’ve been waiting for. Someone inadvertently opens the curtain and 50 faces are peering at us backstage.
— When the curtain opens without warning it’s like sitting on the toilet and someone opens the door, Vibs says laughing.
The opening look is sent out. Every 17 seconds another model enters the runway.
18.45 The show is over.
Cheers, tears and applause take over the backstage.
As the crowd thins Vibs finds a box cutter and starts to cut the carpet off of the runway. He rolls it up and carries it back to the van for transport back to Copenhagen.
Once he’s put it in the car he tells Team Vibs to hurry. It’s time to celebrate the success of another joint effort and see Paris by night. They all need to bask in the glory and enjoy the rewards of their hard work. Vibs has also already moved on to the next performance, as if now that they have finished in Paris, the challenge of getting there is over and he is off to seek the next thrill.
— I’m wondering if I need to redo the show’s installation? The runway was a bit shorter than usual and that changed the way the performance was seen, he says.