Words Martin Mitchell
Pictures Jesper Drejer
I walk from the small café at which I had been briefing my photographer and making the final preparations for my talk with Kjetil Aas of Armoire Officielle. I start wondering how the studio of such an aesthetically tight brand might look like. I imagine it to be very clean; but with substantial amounts of natural materials, perhaps even plants to support the cozy atmosphere and racks of clothes. Entering the small studio on the edge between Central Copenhagen and Østerbro, I approach three small steps leading me down to an all white room. Clinical in appearance. But in this small, yet personal studio, delicate flowers and atmospheric pictures help lifting the place. I feel welcome.
Kjetil Aas is undeniably one of very few people in Copenhagen who I share most ideological beliefs with. Pace and honesty seems to be key in his personal and business life. The slowing down of the fast-paced fashion industry is a shared goal for both Kjetil’s Armoire Officielle and Less Magazine and we approach it in similar style.
Background and production
Kjetil has a background from several key menswear houses in Denmark including Norse Projects and Matinique. He had, therefore, experienced the business from inside before establishing his own label Armoire Officielle in 2012. Key elements in the way Kjetil now works originate from the brands he worked for and the school he attended: Kolding School of Design. By mixing the conceptual approach taught by a design school with the strict concept of quality and the strategic building of collections Kjetil felt ready to add his own preferences to a collection.
“It was a personal wish to work with (sustainability) when I launched Armoire. I had a bit of knowledge about sustainability, and then gained some more. But the more knowledge you gain the more complex it gets. It was a process of choosing where to focus our resources. To not take on too much.”
Dealing with sustainability is for Kjetil more aesthetical than conceptual. It has been about pushing the buttons of a designer. “How do the clothes look? Which materials can you use in order to create garments that can last? How do we ensure it’s timeless?”
Maintaining an honest relationship with people they interact with is crucial to Kjetil and the entire Amoire team. When communicating intensively about lasting garments and exquisite fabrics, actions should be made fast if production does not match your standards.
“We’ve recently had a chino style, it had a crotch seam breaking. We didn’t discover that until after it had been sold to shops and sent out. In situations like that, we contact the shops and say: We have this problem. We don’t know if you have experienced any issues, but we have. We prefer to be honest and tell people when we are not perfect.”
Generally speaking, honesty and trust is a pivotal part of being a designer. Trusting your interns to interpret your philosophy, your pattern makers and the factory to understand each other, your press agent to unfold your visions, and the shops too. In the case of Kjetil and Armoire, they need to trust their suppliers are acting according to what they promise. Armoire have a close relationship to Sourcing House, a production house in Copenhagen, which has strict guidelines and demands for the factories they work with. ”I speak with them several times a day” Kjetil adds, and he underlines their importance to a small company like his.
Most of their production, Kjetil tells me, is made in Europe, whereas their eco jersey products are manufactured in India at a factory with GOTS-certification. ”We don’t produce in Europe because it’s then closer to being locally made. We live in a globalized world, so I don’t think local production is always necessarily the answer. It’s interesting for us simply because of the easier sampling process and the communication is far less complex due to cultural similarities.”
Kjetil argues that a local production would be a good choice particularly in the sampling process. Samples can travel from fabric to studio and back again a lot faster than it would from for example India or Europe, however when the sampling process is done he would gladly want to have the final production from a factory abroad. He continues by arguing:
“If all production was moved from Asia to Europe, it would create enormous unemployment in the countries that really need the jobs the factories create. This is not very sustainable. We need to look into social sustainability instead and support the companies wishing to make a change with, for example, eco and CSR certificates.”
In the process of designing, Kjetil and his team make use of Kjetils experience from his former jobs and the sales teams feedback from older collections. Strategically strong design adds to the vision and aesthetics already offered by them, yet they do not re-invent themselves each season.
“It makes no sense for us to create a product that will not get sold in the end. Then, it really doesn’t matter how sustainably and organically produced it is. Then I have only added to the number of crappy products out there. Who then cares if it is the purest organic silk hand spun in Denmark? It doesn’t matter. Then I would only have created more garbage.”
A good way of building a collection is to have a box of already set standards to fill up with your design visions. Few designers re-invent the wheel every season. “A slower and continuous development is much healthier”, Kjetil says. They make classics move on to the next season and analyze what works along with new creative input within the frame of the pre-established expectations to secure their recognizability.
Kjetil tries to visualize a point to me, by drawing multiple circles on paper, which touch each other as they develop. “It’s about the slowness I wish to work with”, he explains. By working around the same subjects or using the same mood pictures for a couple of seasons helps Kjetil maintain a slow progression. “A refinement of a fixed aesthetic”, Kjetil explains.
The true ambition of Armoire Officielle is to make only small adjustments to their look.
“There’s this expression: a man’s wardrobe or a woman’s wardrobe. My goal is to have people buy into my recent collections with a feeling of adding value to formerly bought pieces from older collections. What you bought two years ago should work with your newest purchase. A slow development”
Furthermore, the fact that collections don’t need to contain a huge number of styles is an important part of the developing phase for Kjetil. Simply focusing on fewer pieces and making them as good as possible is the way they approach it. A lot of energy is used as a designer on the development of numerous styles in a collection and most of them do not even make it to the fairs. Instead, Kjetil likes to make the decision for the buyers by not offering a number of unnecessary products. As Kjetil tells me with firm belief in his eyes: “look at what you essentially need”.
Staying relevant and the color black
“Trendy things are of relatively minor importance to me”
There’s a fine line between being relevant and being trendy. Kjetil clearly wants to stay relevant for as long as possible and that is closely connected to how people consume. Kjetil tells me, he thinks it is almost impossible to make one recipe in regards to staying relevant. We talk about aesthetic sustainability as a way of working.
There are two opposites in regards to aesthetic sustainability: You have the expressive designers such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garcons who keep staying interesting and clear of trends though they continue to re-invent themself:
“The value is in both quality and price. It keeps you from just throwing it away but instead you’re impelled to pull it out of the closet later. You either keep it and rediscover it or your can give or sell it to another person. It is not something you throw out. It lives on because it does not loose its value.”
Oppositely, there are the slower moving designers such as Margaret Howell who keeps moving in the formerly mentioned circles Kjetil drew for me. She has never really been trendy nor has she been completely out of the picture. Kjetil adds: “she’s a hero of mine”. An inspiration because she is a sensible lady with a clear opinion on the business and according to Kjetil she is extremely skilled
Kjetil, like many people in the industry, is consistently growing tired of the fashion treadmill. But it’s a love-hate relationship because he himself is part of the industry. And though he is an advocate of the slow movement he still is deeply fascinated by the pace of fashion.
“I am fascinated by it, but it is not for me personally. I am in the other corner. Trying to embrace the industry differently.”
For a man speaking the word of slow it’s refreshing to hear honest opinions about trends and the surrounding world. Because as Kjetil puts it, “Even though I don’t read trend reports anymore, I am shaped by the time in which I live.” Seeing what everybody sees and what is happening in the industry is important to maintain relevance, he adds.
The trend, however, works differently than it did merely 20 years ago. Now style cultures live side by side and are in most cases accepted by society. There really are no rules. What might seem trendy to you and me can be something completely different from for instance the girl from the small village in Norway where Kjetil grew up.
One rule Kjetil has, though, is to never use the color black in his collections. A conscious choice of using blue tones instead of black simply because, as he clarifies: “I find a dark navy or marine blue more beautiful than black. For me the really dark navy close to being black has more depth.” A decision he has come to talk about more than he imagined when making the choice.
“The more I talk about it the more I am worrying about accidently using black in my future collections because I have stated on so many occasions that I would never use it. But I will worry about that bridge when I cross it.”