It’s not obvious that Henrik Vibskov – calm, laid back and unassuming – is one of Denmark’s fashion heavyweights. We are in a small room beside his office, where seedlings sprout in cups on the windowsill, and inspiration boards hang covered in wild and bright thoughts. His style activates all the senses. Strong patterns sit amongst bright prints and elegant shapes. It’s Nordic, but it’s not aloof or cold.
Vibskov’s talents extend well beyond his deftness in predicting trends and designing catchy garments. He’s a craftsman, artist and musician too, who sweats onstage in virtuoso drum performances together with fellow Danes Trentemøller and Michael Simpson. For now, however, that life is on hold.
“Music is very important, it makes life worth living. But sometimes it can get too much. There was so much touring – visiting the US three times a year – that it got routine. I realized it was important to play where you have authentic relationships with the place, the people. The other places got a little bit boring.”
Never a dull moment
Boring is not a word you would associate with the Vibskov universe. He has called his shows everything from The Transparent Tongue to The Spaghetti Handjob and The Shrink Wrap Spectacular.
And his shows really are shows. Take his 2015 Spring/Summer collection, The Sticky Brick Fingers, in which models walked around a central water-filled stage where dancers performed throughout the show. Or the Fantabulous Bicycle Music Factory from 2008, that featured a musical installation of bicycle-driven instruments that was powered by the models after they’d circled the catwalk.
These are among the 26 male and female collections Vibskov has designed since graduating Central St. Martins at London’s University of the Arts in 2001. He is the only Scandinavian designer on the official show schedule of the Paris Men’s Fashion Week, and has been since 2003.
“I’m a strange mix of math and chaos. I’m a mathematics student, but also a musician, which shows in everything I do. It’s complete chaos, but it’s controlled by a militaristic approach. But because my approach, my plan, is always a little wobbly, the chaos remains.”
His successes aren’t bad for a guy from a small town in Jutland. Can his groundedness be traced to growing up close to his grandmother’s farm? Perhaps. But it was pretty clear to the young Vibskov that the small town wouldn’t be able to satisfy his creative yearnings. By age ten he was playing music, and at twelve he won a BMX bike at an Electric Boogie contest.
Looking back, Vibskov thinks it’s strange that he danced, since he was also very shy.
“Some of my friends had a studio, or we would practice in my room, and when my mom came in we’d just stop in mid-motion – boys dancing wasn’t so cool,” he says.
“We listened to Grand Master Flash and Rock Steady Crew in those days – the music and culture was of course a bit delayed, coming all the way over to Denmark in those days before the internet.”
He’s a busy man, and when we meet, he projects the air of satisfaction of someone who just finished several big projects. Every week in January and February, he had a new show to premiere, one of which was designing the sets and costumes for an opera based on Bjork’s album Medúlla for a show at La Monnaie, the opera house in Brussels.
His recent CV also includes his freestyle musical project Mountain Yorokobu, designing the scenography for the exhibition Danish Fashion Now at Brandts Museum in Odense, teaching students as a professor at the Danish School of Design, as well preparing a large solo show, spread over four floors of the Dae Lim Museum in Seoul, South Korea, which opens in July.
While he could risk spreading himself thin, he maintains a tight grip on his message. And while he can hand over some responsibility to curators, he makes sure to have the final say.
“That’s why I have to go to Korea – I have to change stuff.”
Vibskov seems to be doing a lot right, but his process isn’t perfect, and he chooses to integrate mistakes into the final product.
“The brain isn’t always so clever. It tries to run from A to B like a computer, but often there is interference and things go wrong—and that is what makes the end result really interesting,” he says, adding that his creative process has become second nature.
“It was different in the beginning, I was more like ‘Whoah! What am I doing?’ Now it’s like making pancakes. I’m pretty subdued about my work now. Stuff that other people think is really crazy, I’ll just nod my head at and say, ‘Yeah, it was all right.’ They might think I hate my own work when I respond like that, but when you produce a lot, the peaks take on a different meaning.”
No need to bully
His return to Copenhagen from London was incentivised by a two-year grant from the Danish Art Foundation. Here he started his fashion label, which is headquarted on Papirøen in Copenhagen harbor, a part of the former naval base that was only recently opened to the public. He has his own café next door, Den Plettede Gris (the Spotted Pig), while around the corner the Copenhagen Street Food market opens onto the waterfront.
“I’m a bit of an outsider here for what I’m doing, but then again, when I go to Paris, where I’m a member of a round table of twelve pretty important people, I’m an outsider as well,” he says laconically, adding that he has thought about moving.
“I travel a lot, and we have a shop in New York. But the system is easy here. It’s pricey as hell – but it’s easy. Copenhagen is a pretty good size. It’s not really a metropolis, but it still has a little bit of the energy of a big city. It’s easy. Easy to get to the airport, easy to do business.”
While his own brand is doing well, his country isn’t doing such a good job of selling it to the outside world. Chief among his concerns is the persistently negative tone of debate in the media, justified by appeals to free speech, but designed to directly upset or offend specific people.
“Of course every one should be free to talk, but it’s like school. You should always be aware when the joke goes too far and becomes bullying. I think people should bear that in mind. Of course our expression needs to be super free, but at some point, it’s not fun and there’s no reason to get people really pissed off. If you had complete freedom of speech at school, it would be complete chaos,” he says.
“Words and drawings can create feelings too.”
The show for Vibskov’s 2015 Spring/Summer collection, The Sticky Brick Fingers saw models walk around a central water-filled stage where dancers performed throughout the show