Getting Fresh with Wilbert

The Evolution of Patrik Ervell

By Wilbert L. Cooper


All photos by Miyako Bellizzi

Patrik Ervell wasn’t supposed to be a fashion designer. The American-born son of Swedish immigrants, who studied poli-sci at Berkeley, had plans of being a diplomat and traveling the world. But things change quickly for guys like Patrik—men who have an unshakable will and precise notion of who they want to be and what they want to do. When he made up his mind to do fashion, as he explained to me in his home a few days after his brazen 2013 fall/winter show at Milk Studio's MADE Fashion Week, the overarching aesthetic of his eponymous brand was already clear-cut in his mind. If you take a look at his early collections like his runway debut in 2006, there is an unmistakable link between those wares and what he’s doing, today from the use of futuristic fabrics to his lean tailoring. 

Unlike most designers who fall into the burn and churn of trend whoring and swagger jacking, Ervell isolates himself and focuses on refining and perfecting his singular vision. It is in this steady evolution, that I find his work so compelling. His latest collection, which is titled “Sylvan” and evokes a nighttime forest vibe, is both familiar and revelatory. Since his fauna-filled SoHo apartment also serves as his showroom and design studio, the designer coolly walked me through the entire new collection pointing out the slight innovations of his classic pieces. There was the woven wool that looked like luxurious fur but felt a bit more masculine, which he used for some of his new cossack hats and outerwear. And the black sneakers he designed in collaboration with Aldo RISE, which took cues from the high-tech synthetic foot sleeves of old school Nike Huaraches and the articulation of expensive hiking sneakers. But my favorite element was the Real Tree-inspired custom camouflage print the designer adorned his signature pieces like his club-collared button-downs, flight suits, and bomber jackets with. The print is so elegant, it almost looks like a monogramed Japanese woodblock print.

Patrik has been a favorite designer of mine for years. It has been a thrill for me to watch as he grows pushing his patented mix of high-tech fabrics, classic masculine silhouettes, and romanticism forward every season to even more impressive results. His methodical development is so intriguing to me, it led me to pick his brain on how it all began. We talked about his early days in the fashion industry, what it was like being part of the Berkeley movement that also birthed Opening Ceremony and Rodarte, and why being a tech nerd works for men’s fashion.  

VICE: If you started off as a political science and art major, how'd you get into fashion back in the day?
Patrik: I had inklings of it in high school the way everybody does when you’re starting to experiment with  how you dress and what subculture you belong to and what music you listen to. That’s something all teenagers do. I didn’t start looking at fashion—as in the fashion industry—until college. There were a lot of people who I went to college with that ended up working in fashion, which is weird because Berkeley doesn’t have any fashion program. Like, there’s Carol and Humberto from Opening Ceremony and Kate and Laura from Rodarte. None of us studied fashion, but we all ended up working in the industry.

Were you guys a tight knit group of friends?
Humberto and I were close friends. Carol I didn’t meant until a few years later. Kate and Laura—I would say we were friendly, but we weren’t buddies. I remember studying for an art history final at their house. We were in a lot of the same classes, because we were both doing art history stuff.

What was Humberto like back in the day?
I’m four years younger than he is, so he had already left school, but would sometimes come back for parties. He had this crazy loft in San Francisco that seemed like the coolest thing. It was a big open space in the Mission, when the Mission was still kind of bad. There would be hookers and stuff outside. This was around the time I started thinking about fashion. I think he was, too. I mean all of us kind of were.

So you wanted to be a diplomat, right?
Yeah, I was going to join the diplomat corps. I went through the whole process. I took the Foreign Service exam, which is this intense written exam. If you pass it, you have to go to Washington DC for a second interview. I passed it, but then I decided not to pursue it anymore. Instead, I moved to New York City a week after graduating.

Did your folks freak?
For them moving to New York is like what you do if you’re young and ambitious. They didn’t object to it or anything.

What are your parents like?
They met in San Francisco in the 60s, which always seems like a crazy time and place. They met there; they didn’t meet in Sweden. So they were these two Swedish people in their 20s in San Francisco during the 60s when it was this weird capital of counter-culture. I wish I could say my parents were counter-culture, but they weren’t. They were pretty buttoned-up people. In a weird way, I feel like San Francisco during that period drew a lot of normal people who just thought it seemed cool. I think maybe my parents were those people.

Was there a defining moment when you were like “I don’t want to do this diplomat shit”?
I think I always knew it wouldn’t happen. And all my friends from my year moved to New York. Every year there would be this wave of people who would leave for New York, like immigrants in a way. I just went along with all my friends,.

So how did you land the gig at V?
I had been an intern there the summer between my junior and senior year. It wasn’t something I was planning to do. I moved to New York without a job, and was just hanging out for two or three months, which was the two or three months right before September 11t.h When that happened, every company just stopped hiring for a good couple months. I had already done this internship at V and they were like “Oh, do you want to work here?” So I started working there. Mainly because there was this hiring freeze for every single company, so there were no other options.

What was V like back then?
It was much smaller. It was basically three people who did it. Me and two other people. A small company like that, you end up doing a little bit of everything. My title was associate editor, but it was a little bit of everything.

Did you dig working at a magazine?
I did at first. It’s a good thing to do after you finish school. You learn a lot and you meet a lot of people. But after a while you start getting frustrated with it. I wanted to make things and I had plans to do other things and it got more and more frustrating for me. I was working with other people’s clothes and other people’s ideas, and I didn’t want to do that anymore.

So I read that your line started as a graphic T. What were the graphics like?
It was marble statue heads, just details of them. They were really faded and printed on white. It was like a ghosted image of a marble head shot from a beautiful angle. There was a series of three of them. And I think there were some that were an image of a nebulae, something from the Hubble telescope. They were printed on washed out T-shirts. This was when Opening Ceremony first opened, and I think it was one of the first things they sold there. I was still working at V then. I don’t even know what the label said. I don’t know if it was my name or something else. But it was more like a project. It was casual. I don’t know if I have any, but I remember them being very beautiful.

It’s interesting you brought up the nebulae, because it seems like there’s a lot of technology and science in your work. Was that always an interest of yours, and where did that start?
I always thought the things that were the most beautiful were images that come from science and science fiction. As a menswear designer, there’s not that much room for fantasy and extreme dressing up. But in this weird way, science fiction has this narrow little path you can walk on where you can do that and it’s still very masculine. That always interested me.

Did you have telescopes when you were a kid?
I was nerd, yeah.

How big of a nerd?
I remember I was second place in the county science fair in middle school when I lived in in Marine County. It was something about biodegradable garbage bags. I tested them and buried them underground for a month, and some of them were left underwater for a month and then I compared the results.

You spent most of your youth in California, right?
My formative years, sure. I moved there in second or third grade, and then I was there all through high school and I moved to Berkeley after that. Before that it was London for three years and before that Sweden.

So what did your parents do that allowed them to travel?
My dad was in the container industry, which are those big metal boxes that go on ships. Shipping containers. My mom was working with the company also, but I guess she didn’t really have a career of her own.

Since you’ve talked about the early, formative years of OC, what was it like being there when it was first starting?
When it first opened, it was really like a mom and pop shop. It was Carol and Humberto, and they were literally manning the cash registers. And that’s changed so much. They’re a great success story of my generation. They are especially impressive since that store grew so exponentially during a bad recession.

How did the line move from T-shirts to Patrik Ervell?
Very gradual. I was figuring out how to do it and do it correctly. And it wasn’t a full collection until three or four years later. I didn’t have a show until at least five years after starting. I started right away with doing a show, then I did presentations for two or three, and then went back to doing shows.

How do you design?
Sometimes there’s drawings, but it’s menswear, so we’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re using forms that we all know. A lot of it is about details and fabric and print. We’ll make the first sample and then apply the details and apply the fabric. It’s not like women’s clothes where you’re draping and fitting something and pulling ideas out of thin air. It always has one foot firmly rooted in reality.

I love that a lot of your stuff is made in New York, and I was wondering if that was always a vision from the beginnings.
That’s just how I started, because I was figuring it out myself. A lot of people in New York who start a fashion label will have already worked at Ralph Lauren or a big company like Club Monaco or J. Crew. Those companies manufacture overseas, mostly in China. So being a designer for them, their training ends up being preparing tech packs to send to China to get the samples back. Because I started learning by doing, I had to do that here. There was no other option. But I’m happy I did. I think a lot of people are now moving back to manufacturing here. You can still find things that are high quality here. It’s a little trickier, but it’s improving all the time.

As the collection has developed, was there a moment when you really found your voice?
It was there from the beginning. There was always a specific approach. I feel like my growth has been gradual, and slow by industry standards because it’s not exactly for everyone.

I love how your pieces evolve in your runway shows, ranging from more basic at the beginning of the show to more experimental at the end. Is there a thought process behind that, or is that just coincidence?
There are different approaches, but I like shows to build slow, like a narrative that grows naturally into a crescendo. I could put my shows from the beginning back to back and have like a 300-look show and it would make sense. I don’t make drastic shifts each season. It’s its own narrative; it stays within its own kind of trajectory. It’s not about seasonal trends or anything like that. It’s more about this brand and the aesthetic.

Do you get more enjoyment from creating your more extreme pieces?
I started doing this is for that aspect of it. However, menswear is so much about the product and the physical thing. It has to be grounded in reality. If it’s not grounded in reality, it loses its power.

Are you cool with people calling your stuff minimal?
I can see why people would say that. But I don’t see it that way. A lot of it is romantic and hopefully has a lot of soul and feeling. I’ve never been into soulless minimalism, or minimalism for the sake of being minimal. That’s not what I do. But compared to an American menswear look, it feels minimal. But that’s changing, too.

Is it hard trying to be a part of the schedule of fashion and fall in line with that constant turnover?
It’s so hard. But it’s also a luxury to have the opportunity every six months to re-invent yourself. I have a lot of friends in other creative fields, like writers and filmmakers. They don’t get second chances, let alone every six months. It’s amazing to be able to turn your back on what happened six months before. Fashion people only remember the last thing you did. They don’t remember before that, which is kind of great, but also kind of scary. 

If you're in NYC, visit the Patrik Ervell sample sale Friday March 1st through Sunday March 3rd, at 35 Howard Street, Buzzer #6. Or visit PatrikErvell.com to shop his spring/summer 2013 collection.

Read more fashion articles by Wilbert:

Black Man in a Dress

May Streetwear Keep You Forever Young

A$AP Rocky and Jeremy Scott Schooled Me on How to Be a Pretty Motherfucker

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