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From creating outlandish fashion shows to drumming in several bands, Henrik Vibskov keeps things unpredictable with his freestyle approach. He’s marched to an offbeat rhythm from an early age, so it’s no surprise that the Dane’s clothing designs depart from Scandinavian sensibility and into the realm of the wonderfully fantastical. The cult-adored designer reflects on the course of his life and how he’s learned to keep it all in sync.

Badah-da-dum. Badah-da-dum. Tck-tck-tck, badah-da-dum. There’s a tempo alive in Henrik Vibskov’s head that pushes its way out into the world in various forms. You observe it in his elaborate, theatrical fashion shows with models marching about keeping time like a bass drum. You read it in the enigmatic way he writes his emails with each erroneous comma or superfluous question mark punctuating a different beat in his mind. You certainly hear it in his drumming, which he does professionally for musicians such as Trentemøller and Mikael Simpson. And you see it in the large-scale art installations he creates for museum exhibitions, including the upcoming show at Stockholm’s Kulturhuset Stadsteatern center called—quite suitably—Tempo.

But the rhythm that thumps throughout all areas of Henrik’s creative world is most commonly seen pulsating through his outlandish fashion designs. His style is ultimately wearable, but on first blush, it’s pretty avant-garde: Luxurious wool peacoats, finely tailored tunics and meticulously crafted knitwear are sublimely overshadowed by unexpected graphics, curious proportions and dramatic color palettes. If Fred Flintstone time-traveled to the future, this might be what he would wear on a business trip.

The contrast of elegance and rebellion in his designs is uniquely alluring and not typical of his Danish roots. Instead of the crisp lines, perfectly tousled scarves and monochromatic color schemes of his Scandinavian counterparts, a Henrik Vibskov creation is comprised of a smattering of far-flung cultural influences: Tribal patterns and Tibetan monk-like silhouettes are rounded out by a touch of London punk and the California skate scene. The result is clothing with an attitude that weaves itself into the individuality of its wearer.

In order to bring his fantastical visions to life, Henrik’s fashion shows require a level of planning and precision that aren’t found on many other catwalks. “It’s like a big machine,” he says. “Logistically it’s like a military operation: There are a thousand different needles that need to strike at the same time.” You get a sense of this in his SS12 men’s show, Panopticon and On. The setup artistically mimics that of a true panopticon, which is a circular prison with cells arranged around a central well from which prisoners can be observed at all times: Male models sporting black trench coats, traditional wool berets and circular, darkly tinted double-lens sunglasses slowly rotate a circular stage while bearded men enter through one green door, pause, and exit out another.

  • Words:
    Karen Day
  • Photography:
    Lasse Fløde
  • Styling:
    Carolyne Rapp

“Suddenly there’s a mistake that leads you down the wrong alley, and that ends up being the right alley”

And then there’s his SS15 show, The Sticky Brick Fingers. The scene opens on a shallow pool filled with 4,000 liters (1,000 gallons) of water that occupies the center of a makeshift outdoor stage. Dancers from the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet wearing white “Team Vibs” lab coats enter the pool and start pacing around like atoms in motion. It’s only after a few minutes of water sports that actual models finally appear and walk around the dancers, whose movements have turned into an all-out performance of intense synchronized splashing choreographed by Alexander Ekman.

The internal cadence evident in his fashion shows sustains Henrik’s imagination and guides him through life. Ever since he was a small child fighting boredom in Kjellerup, a remote region he refers to as the “Twin Peaks area” of Denmark, his rhythmic pulse has been there, gaining strength and momentum. You could say it all began more than three decades ago when his siblings gave him a drum set for his 10th birthday—a telling motif that’s still an important part of his identity today.

One of the ways he entertained himself as a child was by playing games alone in his room. When his sister and brother—who are nine and 10 years older than him—moved out of home in their midteens, they left him to play on his own, lost within his imagination. In the introduction of his monograph, Henrik’s mother, Ruth, speaks of a young boy who’d spend hours with his toys, creating fictitious communities and acting out different characters by changing his voice. Back then, it was Lego men; today, it’s models who bring his dreamworlds to life.

Years later, he became the first Vibskov to graduate from high school, albeit with bad grades due to a lack of interest in most of his coursework. “I was too young—I think maybe I should’ve started school now!” he laughs. “I was pretty shy. I had a bit of self-confidence in music and was good at math, but the rest was like, ‘Whoa.’” Regardless, his father wanted him to go to college, so when he was 17 he moved to Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, and began studying engineering. That dream didn’t last too long, and after dropping out and reevaluating where his passions truly lie, Henrik applied for two different foundation design courses before being accepted at a small, rural arts college.

Most of the attendees were girls who were there to work on their portfolios with the goal of getting into a legitimate Danish design school, but Henrik used the time to focus on fashion. He started experimenting with materials, “sewing up all kinds of weird stuff” and riffing on concepts like creating a Tintin-themed moon rocket using trash from the school’s garbage containers. Much to his surprise, at the end of the course his professors encouraged him to apply to “real” design school. “And I thought, ‘Oh me? I’m just fooling around,’” he says. But even if he was to seriously consider a design path, it was unfortunately too late to put together a portfolio—partly due to spending more time pursuing girls than good grades—so he had to reconsider his options. “If you’re feeling a bit lost, I don’t think you have to make a move immediately—it’s not always the way,” he says. So Henrik changed tack and did the next best thing: He packed up his life and moved to Copenhagen to join a band.

Shifting his focus back to music was a natural way for Henrik to continue his amorphous creative pursuits while sorting out the next suitable step. It’d been more than 15 years since his siblings had placed a pair of drumsticks in his preteen hands, and while his design ideas were loose and nebulous, his sense of rhythm was rock solid. During these years, he began playing with guys he still performs with today—Anders Trentemøller, Mikael Simpson and Mikkel Hess—and laid down the foundation for Project Mountain Yorokobu, an ongoing music venture he still helms. Henrik has always found asylum sitting behind the drums, which is where he still feels the most relaxed to this day. “I don’t have any problem going on stage and playing the drums in front of 60,000 people,” he says, “but when I go into a small room where people are aware of who I am, I get a little nervous and have to stand against the wall! I’m a bit afraid of fainting.”

For a person who makes wildly vibrant clothing, Henrik is a pretty introverted individual. “Maybe designing is my way of shouting loudly or hitting someone,” he says. If the graphic patterns, bold colors and progressive silhouettes that make up his clothing designs are how he expresses excitement, it’s his idiosyncratic hats that act as his security blanket. “It’s about safety, for sure,” he says. “I’m trying to hide, but I’m two meters [6’5”] tall. My hats are just like when you go to a party and speak to one person at the bar, but then you quickly run back to your friends, because that’s where you feel secure.” Headwear has become a main feature of every collection he creates and is an accessory he himself is rarely—if ever—seen without. It’s a paradox, really: His customers wear Henrik Vibskov hats to stand out, but for Henrik himself, it’s a way to hide.

You can play aesthetically in fashion, while music is more for the ears.”

Despite retreating into the refuge of his drum kit, design school remained in the back of Henrik’s mind. “Of course different creative fields have positive and negative sides, but fashion is more of an eye-opener,” he says. “You can play aesthetically in fashion, while music is more for the ears.” So after two years of the music circuit, Henrik followed his gut and reapplied to design school—now for the third, charm-filled time.

Aiming for The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (more commonly known as The Danish Design School), he knew that he’d need to stand out, so he got serious and started taking drawing classes. When the time came to make his portfolio, he decided to go “all out”: Instead of printing a sheath of formatted pages, he built his own resume—in 3D. “I thought I could do something with clear plastic and cucumbers,” he says nonchalantly, describing an oddball concept that would come to typify his inimitable collections. “So I stuck some cucumbers and vinegar in big poster-size transparent sheets, sealed them and let them float around.”

Henrik sent in his pickled resume and received a call from the design school nearly immediately. He answered excitedly, thinking that his creation must’ve been so impressive that they wanted to bring him in for an interview him straight away. But that couldn’t have been farther from reality: Unbeknownst to him, his brine-laden liquid portfolio had been placed in a stack of hundreds of other applications, and the weight of 800 files on top of his had caused Henrik’s to explode. Needless to say, the administrative team was not exactly pleased that his vinegary mess was now sloshing about on the office floor along with the other students’ ruined applications. Unsure about whether she was dealing with a genius or an idiot, the secretary angrily demanded that he come clean up his spillage while also curiously asking, “What were you thinking?”

After he wiped the floors clean and put his work into a “normal” portfolio, Henrik was stunned when he was asked to come in for four days of briefs to test out his non-saline artistic chops. “And I thought, ‘Okay, maybe I lost some points there on the explosion with the cucumbers, but I’m all in,’” he says. At the time he was interested in food, so he made a 3-meter-tall (10-foot-tall) tower out of potatoes and prawns for one of his tests. “But they just didn’t get it,” he says. “At the same time though, that was when I started gaining a bit of self-confidence in my ideas.” This conviction was strengthened when he was separately tapped to enter a competition happening at the school, even though he hadn’t even been officially accepted as a student yet. “I walked into the interview and they were like, ‘Okay, the cucumber guy…’” he laughs. Despite having clearly garnered himself a reputation, he didn’t win the competition—or get accepted into The Danish Design School. His bizarre efforts had been foiled. Again.

After all, not everyone always understood what Henrik’s work was all about, and a lot of critics still don’t to this day. It’s pretty wild in almost every way imaginable—towers of potatoes have escalated into art pieces such as a massive inflatable Popeye and shows with names like The Slippery Spiral Situation and The Shrinkwrap Spectacular. Instead of formulating grand plans and projecting trends, he’s most in his element when left to his own devices, fooling around, thinking and dreaming. “I’m pretty intuitive and impulsive,” he says. “Suddenly there’s a mistake that leads you down the wrong alley, and that ends up being the right alley.” This trait of being open to following new and unexpected paths led him to what essentially kick-started his career: He met a girl who was going to apply to Central Saint Martins in London, so he also decided to send in his (vinegar-less) portfolio. “I ended up getting an interview,” he says, “but at that stage I couldn’t say much more than ‘Hello! Denmark!’” Even though he hardly spoke a scrap of English, his quirky portfolio spoke for him, and—finally—he was accepted into one of the most prestigious art schools in Europe.

Moving to London for Central Saint Martins in 1998, he entered a new world filled with unapologetic characters such as the Sex Pistols and Stella McCartney and gained access to a new wash of mediums he could dabble in. During this time, Henrik managed to turn heads by writing and directing a short film with his friend, Thomas Jessen, called The Monk. Simple in structure but decidedly unnerving, the video features a shirtless actor with an awkward bowl-cut and what appears to be scoliosis who slowly rotates to trippy electronic music. He also started experimenting more seriously with fashion concepts, and his famous “Egg Project”—a blow-up suit that makes you look like you’ve been swallowed by a giant egg—landed him a spot in galleries from Newcastle to Liverpool and, most notably, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.

It’s been nearly 15 years since Henrik graduated from Central Saint Martins, and the list of things he’s accomplished since then reads like the credits at the end of a Hollywood blockbuster. In addition to setting up his eponymous fashion label, he’s exhibited at museums around the world (including the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, MoMA PS1 in New York and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.), has designed costumes for Swan Lake at the Oslo Opera House, spent six years touring as a drummer with Trentemøller, became a professor at Design School Kolding, collaborated on furniture with Fredericia and set up P:I:G (the Practical Intelligent Genius Foundation), a foundation that nurtures new creative talent. And he’s done it all without a traditional business plan.

“Mostly it’s been people suggesting, ‘Hey, can you do this?’” he says of the offers that float past his desk like the pickled portfolios of his past. “Usually I say no, but sometimes I say yes.” With the number of projects he takes on, it would seem that Henrik’s mind is an endless well of creative ideas, but part of his enduring success comes from knowing how much energy he actually has and how he wants to distribute it. “When you’ve been doing the same kind of stuff for a very long time, I think it’s important to figure out what can trigger your brain—what feels exciting in order to keep the normal work interesting,” he says.

In order to achieve this mental fluidity, Henrik tries to keep himself from being stuck in a loop where, without being conscious of it, he’s repeating colors or forms season to season simply because they’re so intrinsic to his aesthetic. Because of this fear, he’s recently been toying with the idea of a different direction for his clothing line, eschewing the dark, twisted vibe he’s become known for to do something lighter and more “open.” He might even remove the hats next season—both metaphorically and literally.

Through a mix of patience and whim-following, Henrik has learned that taking the time to step back from your work allows you to see your own potential for growth. In order to give himself this wiggle room, he’s learned to build in downtime to let ideas swirl around in his head. Because, sometimes, inaction is the greatest type of action you can take. “I think young people want it all to happen really fast—that it should just be now,” Henrik says. “But it can take longer than planned. You may have to wait for something hopefully magical to happen—and sometimes it doesn’t happen. But at other times it comes in the night, or when you’re on your own, taking a walk or riding your bike.” After all, ideas aren’t only sparked in museums and brainstorming sessions: They’re just as likely to be found on the downbeat when you’re simply living.

And living is one thing that Henrik gives himself over to with complete abandon. Though he has a handle on time management when it comes to his career, he relishes the wonderful lack of control he has in his home life, which revolves around his girlfriend and the spontaneous needs and desires of their two children, five-year-old Elsa and three-year-old Manfred. Kids being kids, their naturally rambunctious nature inspires Henrik while also sharpening his senses in all areas of life. “They don’t give you a break to think,” he says, fondly retelling calamitous stories of the tykes running off down the cobblestoned streets of the neighborhood around Nansensgade, the inner-city Copenhagen location where the whole family now lives. In this way, his family keeps him grounded, as do a few daily rituals: coffee, cigarettes, cycling and crunchy muesli. And of course he still makes time for drumming: “In fact, I played last night in a weird jazz club with 12 people,” he laughs.

For such an industrious and influential person, Henrik is concerned that being a fashion designer isn’t a “meaningful” enough occupation: His parents ran a nursing home while he was growing up, which strikes him as a much worthier profession. He often feels he should be doing something more for the world—contributing to its betterment, somehow, such as teaching kindergarten or working with people with disabilities. Or some days he wonders if maybe it’s just all too hard and he should give it up altogether and move to the northeast coast of Denmark—a place he dubs “Cold Hawaii”—where he could hang out on the beach, smoking pot and surfing waves all day… except he doesn’t surf.

Conflicted, Henrik recently sought the advice of his older brother, a priest. “Listen,” his sibling said. “There’s a lot of people who are already trying to save the world—maybe you should just keep on doing what you’re doing.” And that’s one of the wonders of the fashion sphere: As artificial as it can occasionally seem from the sidelines, it’s an unbridled cosmos that brings joy to many people in one way or another. And the importance of that pleasure shouldn’t be underestimated: Whether it’s through giving society a means to express its individuality or by providing momentary escapism into a realm of fantasy, being a designer may not be altruistic work, but that doesn’t make it devoid of meaning.

Maybe in the near or distant future he’ll give some of these other careers a whirl, but maybe not. You can never really know with Henrik. But whatever he does in life, one thing is certain: He’ll continue to fight boredom through creativity and do only that which he finds stimulating. The rhythm will fluctuate, and he’ll build and inhabit new universes accordingly. No matter what, he’ll continue to treat life like one freestyle jam session—sometimes he’ll be the drum solo in the spotlight, other times he’ll carry the tempo in the background, but he will always keep playing.

Henrik wears clothing from his personal wardrobe and his eponymous label’s design throughout.

  • Words:
    Karen Day
  • Photography:
    Lasse Fløde
  • Styling:
    Carolyne Rapp
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