New York Fashion Week was hot last month, literally. At menswear designer Tim Coppens's presentation of his new collaboration with Under Armour—a series of sweat-repellant, water wicking, and generally slick sportswear designs called UAS—the perspiring attendees likely wished they were wearing the collection instead of their best couture.
Coppen's designs have always seeped with sports-influence, so his work with Under Armour comes as no surprise. The clothing is the result of what one might expect the CDFA award-winning designer to do with a pile of neoprene and spandex: UAS has the same air of seamless downtown cool as Coppens's eponymous brand, but the designs are a bit more practical. The jackets have necklines that zip all the way up under the chin, and each piece is made to be layered under or over one another.
It's clear that Coppens had a dynamic city dweller in mind here, maybe the type who goes straight from the gym to the bar and still looks fresh. His clothes have always looked like gear you can both live and move in, regardless of setting or even weather. In other words, they're pragmatic and elegant. His latest athletic-minded body of work (he's previously designed sportswear for both adidas and Ralph Lauren) is true to his oeuvre while still a knockout in its own right.
"The starting point is really [asking] how do we make clothes that maybe already exist and optimize them, think about where they come from, what the roots are, what's the function, the inspiration, and how can we translate that in a way that doesn't look like just 'a tracksuit'?" the designer told me when I visited his Chelsea studio to talk about the UAS collection. Below, we talked freely about topics like his teenage love of skating and how brands often lazily misappropriate subcultures, as well as Coppens's goal of ensuring his projects never feel like a gimmick.
VICE: What's your life like right now?
Tim Coppens: Right now it's like... busy. But it's normal. I don't mind. Usually I work seven days a week. Of course I enjoy going to dinner but I think there's always sort of a link to what I do. But that's interesting to me. There's always a conversation, or there's always a meeting, or there's always something that you see and I would be unable to separate like, OK now I go to work, and now I sit home and then don't do work. Even if I watch the news there will always be a link, but I guess that's normal. I think that it's important that you're tuned in with reality as well. This is not just like, OK, I do my job and then the office closes at 5. And I think that as long as I feel that I have a happy brain that likes to do this then I'm good. And sometimes it's a lot. Sometimes you have to tune out a little bit.
What do you do to tune out?
I do a little bit of sports. A little bit of very intense sports. I go boxing or I go cycling or something. There's not a lot of time, so I plan going to the gym. Plan, plan, plan... I want to have control over a lot of things.
You skateboard, right?
I did do a lot of stuff in that world. I skate like once or twice, once a month or something. I don't have a lot of confidence on a board right now. I just feel like I'm a little more careful, you know? I can't afford to break my wrist or go be stupid. I think one of the last times was when I met my now-wife. The first date that we went on was me with my four ligaments torn up, so I don't want to have that.
How do you feel about the skater style that's appearing in the fashion world these days?
I guess I'm pretty old school when it comes to that. Listen, I think you have the old school and the people that have been doing it who have a lot of respect for guys in their 50s who are still skating. It's amazing what I see on Instagram—like what's being pulled off these days. It's crazy.
You mean with regard to clothing?
I'm not talking about clothing. A lot of the kids that skateboard don't know what's going on with what people in fashion take from their culture. They don't have visibility toward that; they don't care. Maybe they care. But not as much as the people that actually go and buy the stuff that takes inspiration from that. I think it gets a little tricky when you have a brand that jumps on every trend every six seasons and uses a culture as a way to communicate—it loses authenticity in a lot of cases. And the real skateboarder that sits here will not believe that, but that does not mean that the consumer out there will think that's cool. I think that's the difference.
But a lot of things start as subcultures and they grow up. They get taken out of context and that's what I'm saying. I'm still old school and I still very much believe in authenticity. I think that is super important in a brand. You can be as big as you want, but if you pick up a culture that's a part of like a 15- or 16-year-old who goes out there and like breaks his legs, he's not going to feel the authenticity in what's happening when a big corporation takes that. Unless they do it in the right way.
Why do you think skate culture and fashion evolved like this?
I think the reason why it developed into such a big thing is because certain things got corporate and people structured the business around it. I think that might have changed certain things about skate culture and about graffiti and street culture in general, but I think it also brought a spotlight on certain things and also gave opportunities to people who would not have been able to build a professional life out of what they did as a hobby. You know, when you've tried 50 times and you finally land it—that experience is amazing. It's not just looking like a skateboarder, it's really doing that. And that is not something that you will be able to show on a catwalk. You can pull references and there's nothing wrong with that. It's a sport, it's an activity, it's a lifestyle, it's not just about the clothes.
What sort of technology is involved with your designs?
It's simple things, you know? Simple things that maybe we have thought about but maybe haven't worked through entirely. A chino pant with a water repellent finish on it, for example: I'm sure it exists, but we did it on a whole range of sweatshirts—a crewneck, a hoodie, sweatpants, and all that. Simple things like that, that are not actually that simple to achieve but they are just simple solutions. When I go out and I want to wear my nice hoodie inside and I want to wear it outside and it's dripping a little bit when I go from point A to point B, then I don't have to wear an extra layer because the hoodie is going to keep me dry. Or stretch in certain areas where I need it when I'm on the bike, especially when other pieces that I have in my closet don't offer that.
Integrating that technology—not space technology—that level of technology might be something that we think of going forward for the coming season, but that takes time to develop. That's not something you do overnight. I would hate to do things that become a gimmick. I don't think we need the shoes with the lights when we walk. But, it's maybe an interesting idea to work on something like that, you know, that is integrated, that is not a gimmick, that could help you.
It's like using new technology for something that is useful and not just for the sake of using it.
Yeah, exactly. And, you know, simple solutions like where is the pocket? Where does the pocket have to be? Is there an easy way of accessing the pocket? Just simple solutions, that is what the first collection was really all about. And a suit jacket that is like made out of a knit that looks like a suiting. All these things might not be revolutions but we tried to do it in a tailored way, in a fitted way. Work around the fabric and work around the construction so that we deliver a collection where all these things are integrated in each piece as much as we can. It's not just a beautiful product but it's also a product with a function that is subtly integrated into it.
Did you see this trend coming of changing the way that we dress in formal settings, in office settings, and make wearing these garments crafted out of materials originally intended for athletic apparel?
I guess a lot of people grow up, and my generation grew up, but it doesn't mean that they're going to wear a suit and tie to the office. That's not going to happen anymore. Look at the way people get married, look at the way politicians are dressed, not for presidential debates, but just in general—the world has changed. You know, when people started wearing denim in the 80s to work, that was [considered] a shame. So I think there's kind of a lot more acceptability in those kinds of things.
I was never going to go work for a big house in Paris, that was never really my goal or my dream. I don't think it would be exciting for me. I think the exciting part that did happen was when I started creating the more functional, the more athletic [designs], and watched those worlds merge. It kind of happened when I was doing my brand, and now it's like all over the place. So, I don't know, maybe I did help in that.
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