Men's fashion aficionados have gathered this week at Florence’s Pitti Uomo 91 fair for a first look at Fall 2017 and the big event on the calendar is Tim Coppens, who succeeds Raf Simons as guest designer. The Belgian trained at Antwerp’s Royal Academy, the same school attended by Demna Gvasalia of Vetements and Balenciaga and a long list of greats, but it was New York, not Paris, that attracted him. Coppens, 41 is a skater at heart, but he’s been designing ever since he made his first tracksuit, “When I was like 11 or 12 on my mother’s sewing machine because I needed something to go BMXing.” The eponymous line he launched in 2011 reflects everything in his life up until now: an appreciation of beautifully cut tailoring and sportswear, a fascination for technical sport construction, late '90s skate culture and a love of the streets of New York where he’s lived for the past ten years. On Wednesday, just before his show, Coppens opened up about European versus American fashion, working for Ralph Lauren and why he's over gender ambiguity on the runway. "That's my style. Fashion runs in cycles and people forget even faster than they used to," he said.
Why did you decide to go to the United States in the first place ?
My first first visit was 20 years ago. I was in the Academy and it was my second year in fashion after switching from architecture. I saved up some money I’d made working in a tire factory at the the harbor putting Continental tires over there and Michelin tires over here. After that I just flew to New York with a bunch of friends, and hung out there for like two weeks. The original Brooklyn Banks [the New York skateboard mecca] was still there and I knew all about it. There was no internet back then so we used to watch these 411 skate videos on VHS with Mobb Deep soundtracks.
What attracted you to the city?
Just the whole vibe, hip hop, Wu-Tang and culturally what was happening in New York in art. I think when you don’t know a city, it’s always appealing because the grass is always greener on the other side. I’m from Belgium and music, art, sports, street culture in general has always been a big influence on everything I’ve done since I was in high school and so New York has always been a big part of that. For me it was an obvious choice; I wasn’t interested in Paris. I knew the city because it’s like an hour or two train ride away from Antwerp, but I was really not interested in moving there. I lived in Barcelona after I graduated for a year and that was fun, and there was sun, but it was very slow and I was like, 'I don’t want to do this for ever.' So then I moved to Munich where it was very strict and I designed for a snowboard company [Bogner] for a year. When I went to New York I was a lot further in my career. By that time, I didn’t need to go to every party and event that was happening. I was just attracted to the city in general.
You went to work for Ralph Lauren’s sport brand RLX and designed. What did you learn there ?
How corporate America works, and what I hated about it, but also many things that were quite meaningful for me when I started my own business. I’ve always kept very close to my European roots. It’s how I think, it’s where I’m from and I love it, but there’s also a lot of things I wasn’t taught there. For example I think the directness, or just like the speed or like the positiveness to start your own business is very different in the U.S. Where I come from there’s a hesitation to start your own thing. In that culture if you try something and fail, everyone’s there to say ‘I told you so.’
Did you have financial backing ?
No, I saved money. Basically everything I earned at Ralph Lauren went straight into the business. Then I met Stella Ishii from The News [the showroom in New York’s SoHo district]. I’d been making my own collection at night and on the weekends and I was shooting a look book for it while I was still working for Ralph Lauren. When I showed it to her she was like, ‘Why aren’t you selling this ?’ She ended up showing the look-book to Jay Bell at Barneys and when he saw the clothes he placed an order. I got the collection produced, it sold well and the next season, we sold to great stores like Isetan, Harvey Nichols and Dover Street Market. After that I met Carine Roitfeld and through Stephen Gan I was introduced to Karl Lagerfeld and I did some work for him.
You’ve also got a new collection called UAS for Under Armour...
I’m creative director for Under Armour’s new , high-end, athletic lifestyle brand UAS. We started about a year ago and we did our first show last September. It has been amazing to collaborate on this huge start up with people who really understand what I do. The man who approached me for this worked for Adidas a long time ago and he knew what I was doing because I worked for Adidas as well. It was my mix of performance sports and fashion. For him that was sort of the perfect combination to start UAS.
You’re known for menswear, but you’ve always done clothes for women.
I graduated from Antwerp with a women’s collection. And I’ve done men’s and women’s for Ralph Lauren. But I think it’s always been a little bit more street for me. The funny thing is I’ve always done bomber jackets for girls. I don’t really care about the current gender mess up because that’s my style. When we were starting, there were always girls hanging out wearing big, baggy jeans that were still sexy and cute. Now it’s this big thing on the runway. Fashion runs in cycles and people forget even faster than they used to.
How do you juggle designing for two brands ?
It was challenging in the beginning getting my teams together. And putting this Pitti project together added another spin to it. But I think this helped in the end. It forced us to apply another layer to what we do and ask ourselves, 'Okay, how can we make this work?’
Where are you showing the Pitti collection?
At the Hippodrome, where’s there’s horse racing. There’s all these screens with results and it’s a place for Italians who are addicted to betting and trying to make a buck. I was there when they had one of those races and there was a lot of taxi drivers standing outside and rolling their own cigarettes. So it’s got a sort of local, marginalized feeling and I like that gritty aspect. The collection has a rough edge, but the materials and the combinations are very considered and and the tailoring is done in Italy. I think there’s more of a story to the collection, more depth. In the beginning, it was just about making clothes and assuming people knew what we were doing. Now it’s more about communicating the story and making a connection with people.
Did you consider yourself coming more from sport or from fashion?
I sometimes struggle right now with the idea of fashion, Is it like Absolutely Fabulous? Is that fashion? Or is it like in America where it’s about 'My Calvins'? For me, it’s about creating a product I really relate to. And relate that product to people that look at it and feel that authenticity. You know there’s a lot of mass production and some of that stuff is pretty good. But to me that’s more of a commodity. There’s very few really good bakeries in the world where I would really, like, die to go for a sandwich. The rest is just feeding my belly and I feel that’s just like clutter and noise. For me it’s just really important to give my brand depth and work with that authenticity.
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