I don’t mean to dispute the natural law of time, but it’s hard to believe that 2009 was a full ten years ago. Was it really a decade since Eminem’s stone cold classic ‘Crack a Bottle’ hit the airwaves?
Perhaps more startling than that astonishing realisation is that 2019 also marks ten years since a little shop in in Copenhagen by the name of Norse Projects went from occasionally making caps and t-shirts, to become a fully-fledged clothing company responsible for making the kinds of well-made, no-nonsense garments that were nigh-on impossible to find at the time.
And as the world continues to spin on its axis, Norse Projects keep on making mighty fine clothes.
With the dust settled on our recent collaboration, I talked with a few of the founders, Tobia and Mikkel, about growing up in Denmark and how they got into making clothes…
Sam: Starting right at the beginning, what were you lot into as kids? It seems like a lot of that stuff can influence what people do later in life.
Mikkel: As a child I was very drawn to drawing and making ceramics. My mother always wanted to be an artist but ended up in insurance — she was sewing her own dresses and making ceramics in the evening so she was always pushing me into doing creative work. In 1985, at the age of ten, my neighbor brought home a penny board from a trip to Los Angeles. This was my first experience with skateboarding — an experience that led me to growing up as an active part of the Danish skateboard scene.
Around the same time, subway art and Danish wild-style came out in Copenhagen. I grew up just behind one of the famous graffiti spots and noticed new pieces being made, which led me to start doing more alphabet focused drawings. That led into making sketches and later becoming an active writer in all senses.
Tobia: My mom was an architect from Italy and moved to Denmark as she met my Danish father, whom at the time was a studio manager for the furniture designer, Verner Panton in France. My dad saw the ‘60s movement coming and ended up working as a design consultant for the Milan School for Interior Design.
Sam: Were clothes a part of this at all, or did that come later? What stuff were you wearing when you were growing up?
Mikkel: In the early days, it was all based around skateboard brands such as Powell Perelta, Zorlac, Alva, Vision Street Wear, Thrasher, Gordon and Smith and H-Street, all styled with footwear like Nike Jordan 1s, Converse All-Stars, adidas Superstars and Airwalks.
Tobia: I grew up in the country as a hippie kid. Levi’s and adidas were the main brands at the time, but I wasn’t really into clothing. That came later when I opened my first skateboard store in Paris, Street Machine.
Sam: I didn’t know you were involved with that. Street Machine was pretty early for mixing different things beyond just skate-stuff. Where did that idea come from?
Tobia: Street Machine was a curated mix of new generation skateboard brands, mixed with iconic function-based brands like North Face, Spiewak and Carhartt, and then creative graphically oriented brands such as Fresh Jive — along with the occasional mix of vintage sneakers and other finds.
At the time it was all about American culture and the curation process. It was hard to find brands that aligned with our culture and most brands felt old or irrelevant, so we created our own mix.
Sam: In England growing up in the 90s it seemed like everyone was trying to copy American stuff – whether it was wearing the clothes or listening to the music. Would you say that was similar for you lot growing up in Denmark? What were the main influences back then?
Mikkel: I think America always had a big impact on growing up as a skateboarder. Most of the brands were from there and so were the skaters I looked up to. At first it was more the Californian style that had the biggest impact, but later on the East Coast style with heavy references to hip-hop culture, workwear and outerwear was the main source of inspiration.
Tobia: American culture was definitely a big thing, mainly music. As a hippie kid it was all about ‘60s and ‘70s music. To some extent this is still my main period of interest, whether it’s graphic design, architecture, clothing, furniture or outdoor-inspired gear; so much happened in the 60s and to this day it’s the most innovative period we have had.
Sam: Jumping forward a bit, how did Norse Projects come about? Am I right in saying it was linked to an art gallery or something?
Tobia: I met Mikkel and Anton while at Street Machine in Copenhagen. Anton was skating for our team and he and Mikkel had started a little company called Castle CPH. It was a cool project with five-panel hats made in the US out of the original Supreme factory.
Anton and Mikkel asked me to join them, but as we started talking, we saw the opportunity to realize a dream of mine to recreate a modern day sportswear company in the spirit of Nordic functionalism and international cool.
“Californian brands were good at being cool, but the quality often sucked.”
We then decided that we needed a name that was linked to our heritage, yet allowed us to incorporate our creative spirit and eclectic interests within skateboarding, the arts, design, innovation and other areas.
Mikkel: The gallery came along as the location we found had a basement that didn't really work as a retail space, so we turned it into a gallery when opening up in 2004. When Norse opened in 2004, we hosted the launch of Martha Cooper’s book, Hip Hop Files.
Sam: Was there a ‘defining moment’ that started you lot off making clothes?
Mikkel: Norse Projects launched its first wholesale line in fall 2009. After realizing that most Japanese brands were very expensive to import and most of the American brands were very bad quality, we decided to turn Norse Projects into more than just tees and caps and into a full brand.
Tobia: Californian brands were good at being cool, but the quality often sucked. In response, I initially sought to get a license for Stüssy for the European market to create a European sourced premium line, but this ultimately failed as the Americans considered the market would be too small.
A few months later I met Mikkel and Anton and that’s how the idea for Norse was spawned.
It would take us a few years before we managed to really focus on the apparel as the first years were occupied with the store and the art gallery.
Finally, we realized we needed to hire an experienced designer and focus on production to get the project of the ground in earnest.
Sam: What was stuff like in Denmark like back then? What were you wanting to do differently?
Tobia: Japanese brands were definitely the inspiration, yet many of the Japanese brands were over-designed, with too many details and very expensive. We wanted to focus on aesthetics rather than design and use simplicity as a design handle to express our point of view.
The focus for Norse has always been materials, simplicity and functionality. The inspiration was Nordic-inspired sportswear, with a focus on Fair Isle jumpers, military and workwear-based materials.
The first collections were about mixing vintage military with creative graphic design. I remember a series of t-shirts with prints based on some slides of beautiful blondes in a certain state Mikkel found behind the radiator of the V1 Gallery.
Sam: Sounds interesting. It sometimes seems like the word ‘Scandinavian’ can be shorthand for a lot of things to do with design, and usually relates to clean, well thought-out stuff. Do you think a true ‘Scandinavian’ design style still exists?
Tobia: Definitely. The Nordic way of life is still very different to many other places I’ve visited. As a Scandinavian, you grow up learning the merits of ‘good values’ such as being social, empathetic, and looking at the long term.
Denmark and the Nordic societies were heavily influenced by the idea of a ‘society for all’ and the values tied to that vision. This was communicated through social programs, which in turn spawned most of the influential designers and architects we have had since the ‘30s.
“The focus for Norse has always been materials, simplicity and functionality.”
The interesting thing is that those architects and designers initially found inspiration in old Japanese architecture and Zen philosophy and how that circles back to how we are influenced by Japanese and their take on western culture and clothing.
Sam: Yeah – it’s strange how everything seems to go in circles. What do you look at for inspiration? Do you lot have a big archive of vintage clothes or anything like that, or does a lot of it come from messing around with computers and trying out new things?
Tobia: Inspiration comes from being curious and aware. As a company of creative people, we’re part of a greater community of like-minded people running and curating independent stores each with their own particular point of view — we all put parts of ourselves into it — it’s very personal.
Surviving as an independent operator is all about your particular point of view and using your passion to create a space that can create its own community and differentiate itself from the masses and mainstream culture.
Working with Oi Polloi is one such collaboration where we feel there is a great fit between the focus on vintage sportswear and the culture around it, and our own interests in modern functionality and design.
I still feel that the very first collaboration with Oi Polloi based on the film The Heroes of Telemark was one of our best collaborations to date as it expressed a perfect unity between our common values and culture. The Kyrk knit (inspired by Kirk Douglas in the film) is a Norse classic to this day!
Sam: I’ve never made an item of clothing, so I’m pretty clueless on this sort of thing, but how do you go about designing something like a new jacket from scratch?
Tobia: It’s a pretty complex process. With the fabric, the treatments, all the trim and techniques that go into making a quality outerwear garment, it’s basically a complex piece of engineering — especially if you want to do something really great.
Making jackets with the likes of Gore for example is basically an 18-24 month process from end to end.
Sam: You lot make everything from Gore-Tex jackets to Fair Isle knits. Are there items Norse Projects wouldn’t make?
Tobia: Never say never. We like to experiment, but we would never make something that didn’t embody our core values of quality, function and style. These are the tenets we live by and are the guiding principles which inform most of our design decisions.
Sam: Rounding this off now, have you got any nice words of wisdom to finish this off?
Tobia: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
See the new Norse Projects stuff here.