001 / 09 July 2014 / ARTICLES

Henrik Vibskov
Text by Sabrina Tamar

All things considered, Henrik Vibskov should be intimidating—his world renowned designs, international exhibits, lengthy list of collaborations, and impressively tall stature. But sitting upstairs in the office of his boutique, the Danish giant (literally and figuratively) is the polar opposite of expectation. Soft-spoken, laid-back, and humble, Henrik stretches his long legs out onto the base of the table and pulls out his laptop to walk me through some images of past collections, projects, and exhibitions. “Maybe you know all this already. Maybe it’s boring.”

Boring is the last word on anyone’s mind when they think of Vibskov and his designs. Since arriving on the international fashion scene in 2001, Vibskov has been labeled many things, but mundane isn’t one of them. 

After all, it’s not every designer who titles his FW14/15 collection “The Spaghetti Handjob.” Vibskov’s clothes exhibit a strong sense of juxtaposition, executed with a masterful understanding of tailoring and textures. In his designs, absurdity is always grounded in controlled precision. Aesthetic chaos is orchestrated with calculated detail. It is this balance sustained by extreme contrasts that is apparent not only in Vibskov’s work, but in many aspects of his life and character.

It was not Vibskov’s intent to enter the world of fashion. After studying music intensively since the age of 10, his start in design was completely by chance. “Before I started St Martin’s I went to højskole {a non-degree, higher educational institute} in Denmark, but I ended up in the wrong one. I was applying for the cool one, which was in the countryside, a very beautiful place. They had architecture, graphic design, and art. But there were so many people applying it was too late when I tried….Then I spoke with my mom and she told me, 'Hey, your cousin is joining another højskole. They have a lot of space.' I checked and they had music, they had drama, and then they had design. I thought, cool I'm going to do design and then I'll figure out something! Then I arrived and realized…wait…it's fashion design.”

Vibskov stuck with his surprise choice of studies, making the move to London to continue his schooling in fashion design at Central Saint Martins, though his reasons were “not so much creative ones at first.” He met a girl, fell in love, and when she announced her plans to continue her studies in England, Vibskov followed her. He got the girl. And learned a lot in the process.

Did he quickly realize a passion for clothing design albeit his accidental start? “It took a while,” he recalls. “In the beginning I was really unhappy in London. I felt very insecure. People were so confident and looked really cool and sharp. Then after five years you’d see the same people and want to ask, What are you doing? Are you working in a kindergarten or something?” he quips sarcastically, adding, “As a professor now, it’s interesting to see when the difference between people who have been there three, four years and the completely new ones, full of energy and expectation.”

A guest lecturer at institutions such as his alma mater Central Saint Martins and Parsons School of Design, Vibskov eschews strictly teaching the traditional craft in favor of enlightening his students with real world skills. “I’ve been doing a hell of a lot of things, so I gradually tell those young kids about my experience: production problems, the press, all kind of things on how you do a show, problems that may arise. I could just say, ‘okay, you have to learn pattern cutting today,’ because I can do pattern cutting as well, but I have this extra knowledge.I also tell them that when you finish it's going to pretty dark for some years. You're going to be completely lost about what you do and maybe two of you are going to end up actually doing what you’re studying.” Vibskov would know. While still a student, he returned to Copenhagen one summer and attempted to purchase a metro ticket from the airport. He put his credit card in the machine—and there it stayed. He graduated with financial strain and doubts of being able to truly earn a living from his designs. Yet he was “lucky,” he maintains. While his success happened slowly, it still happened, much to his surprise, partly due to the large amount of press he received at his graduation in London, paired with perseverance. 

25 collections later and a Paris fashion week regular, Vibskov’s designs have never lost their characteristic edge. It’s not just their vibrant patterns, playful proportions, and sometimes blatant irony that challenge convention, but also his manner of presenting them. His shows are more performance art than défilé, often making innovative use of space or integrating other influences from his background, such as his percussionist training, as seen with the drum machine/live soundtrack he invented for the FW12 “The Shrink Wrap Spectacular” presentation, triggered by models as they walked. 

His penchant for combining mediums is also reflected in his frequent collaborations in the art and music worlds, such as a musical performance with a live, slightly sinister, puppet show at the Kennedy Center last year (for which he designed the marionettes himself) and his continued work with Swedish artist Andreas Emenius. A touring member of Trentemøller’s ensemble for several years, Vibskov finally put down his drum sticks not to focus on fashion, but because he found touring unfulfilling. “I figured out that what's really important to me is to play for someone I’m related to in some way,” he explains. For Vibskov, creative pursuits are hollow if ungrounded in personal feedback from friends and family. This partly explains the specific locations of his two boutiques (Copenhagen and New York) cities in which he has good friends and collaborators. It also helps to make sense of his tight-knit team of 15 individuals who operate as an intimate organization. 

With a show at Ruttkowski;68 in Cologne and his biggest solo exhibition yet planned for South Korea next year, Vibskov has certainly branched out from the arena of pure clothing design. But does his background in fashion limit him at all? Vibskov seems to think otherwise, instead using his work in other mediums to add meaning to a field he often considers a bit too “predictable,” especially during fashion week presentations. And what about the commercial aspect of the industry? Vibskov’s approach is more casual. He understands the need for commercial sales, but doesn’t let it drive his artistic vision; at the same time he doesn’t worry too much about fighting against it. Instead, he chooses to test boundaries and taking risks, which admittedly, sometimes work better than others.

This is a liberty that comes with being well-established, but relatedly, one that is also what sustains him. “I've been doing it for many, many years, so it's important for me to keep the passion and, therefore,” he explains, “my brain needs this … so I have to attack all kind of things.” The breadth of his work and interdisciplinary approach elicits creativity rather than confusion. The more tasks he is handed, the more productive he becomes. “I’ve tried periods where I told myself, okay, now I'm just going to work only on this for the next few months” he explains, “but then I would sit down and say, okay, maybe I will get to it tomorrow, and the same thing the day after. After three months, I didn’t do much and I realized was behind schedule anyway. {With multiple projects} things just come easier. You can take stuff that you've been using in one project, a small part that you consume and maybe you can use it in the construction of clothing, or in many other ways.”

It also places healthy limits. Unlike the fashion world, where he can dictate what he does “100%”, a lesson in limits is artistically invaluable. “I think it’s very important for life learning. It’s good that with collaboration comes compromise.” For instance, while doing the costumes for Alexander’s Ekman’s interpretation of Swan Lake with the Norwegian Ballet, Vibskov had to deal with clothing that also had to accommodate specific, yet unfamiliar, physical functions. “I would have dancers approaching me, saying, ‘hey, I can’t move properly with this sleeve, etc.’ ” As Vibskov casually shrugs his shoulders, it is clear: there is no creative dictatorship here.

While he has achieved unprecedented success in the world of Scandinavian fashion, Vibskov confesses he doesn’t consider himself a truly “Danish” designer. He doesn’t entirely feel a part of the his native country’s fashion scene (he often gets suggestions from well-meaning compatriots, unaware of his success, that he should try showing his work outside the country), but he acknowledges his “Danish-ness” is apparent in aspects of his work. “I am ‘Scandi’ or Dane and without knowing we are taught aesthetically in a certain way. In whatever I'm doing there's always some tightness in it and even if it’s messy, there is always this sense of control. I think some of the stuff I do is sometimes a bit too controlled.” 

As for the fashion scene in his homeland, Vibskov describes it as naïve: “Clothing-wise, we have traditions, but we don't have a fashion history. We are slowly building it up. It's very functional wear, more casual than Paris or some of the bigger cities. Therefore, young designers like Freja Dalsjø and Asger Juel Larsen have to go further outside Denmark. It is important for those young guys to get out because it's just too small,” he muses.

Predicting what’s next is never easy. For Vibskov certain things are more or less definite: More collections are in the works. His boutique in NY just celebrated its 3 year anniversary. And there’s also his recently opened cafe in Copenhagen’s Papirøen (Paper island). But his future seems both full of exceptional promise and unpredictability. “I try to stick to my craft and my materials and that's a way in which I feel safe. I shouldn't start painting or something…There are limits and most of what I do connected to textiles,” he says, adding, “But after designing the new cafe, I think it would be nice to maybe work more with spaces in general or to build a house or something. Also we just asked Scandinavian Airlines if they would like to sponsor us. Maybe I could just say, hey, I would like to decorate a flight!” Vibskov smiles and reflects for a moment before adding, “I think I'm just trying to play around and do my stuff as much as I can and try different paths… and to see how far can I go in different directions.”

It’s an adventure few are willing to take; but it’s one that Vibskov, like everything else he touches, turns into art.


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