The brand subverting expectations of Danish design
Han Kjøbenhavn are undermining the hygge-chic image commonly associated with the Nordic nation.
Tom & Trey. Photography Zinna Brigh Mac-Eochaidh
To many, Copenhagen conjures thoughts of calm, clean urban living. With its thriving natural wine scene, bike and pedestrian-oriented urban planning, and city centre harbour so clean it calls out to be swum in come the summer months, it is, it would seem, a city tailored to the specifications of The Monocle Guide to Better Living.
It’s a lifestyle that many envy and aspire too, birthing an entire industry centred on the commodification and exportation of hygge and ‘the Danish way’, with both since becoming synonyms of unfussy, tasteful, practical living. But beyond the fairytale fantasies of Cecilie Bahnsen-clad kombucha-mums and Arne Jacobsen furniture, there’s much about life in Scandinavia’s cultural capital that’s routinely glossed over. For Jannik Wikkelsø Davidsen, the founder and creative director of Han Kjøbenhavn, the city’s most distinct alternative fashion voice, it’s in the suburbs that he grew up in that the most interesting stories can be found. “A certain rawness,” he describes it.
Though originally founded as an eyewear brand in 2008, it’s Han Kjøbenhavn’s ready-to-wear that has driven the growth of its cult following -- both in Denmark and abroad. Flicking through the lookbooks the brand has issued in that time, you’ll see that its aesthetic course has significantly shifted, from the recognisable sober Scandi-chic of its early days to the grungy, techno-club-ready work it puts out today. Though this may at first imply a certain fickleness, it’s actually a consciously chameleonic approach. “We just want to reflect the culture that's out while remaining true to our DNA,” explains Dennis Petrus Nguyen, the brand’s Senior Art Director. “If you're not reflecting the times we live in, then you can’t consider yourself to be relevant.”
For SS20, that relevance shines through in the eclectic collaging of references. Gleefully garish animal prints alongside svelte crushed velvets; boxy workers’ jackets and anoraks balanced out by skin-clinging cycling leggings and lycra bodysuits; football-style shirts and shorts printed with clinically corporate block lettering spelling out “HAN K/WORK CLASS”.
Usually, it’s hard not to wince when fashion designers explicitly cite working-class culture as a source of inspiration, given the many instances of ‘appreciation’ translating to clumsy poverty fetishism. For Han Kjøbenhavn, though, it’s less a condescending act of ‘homage’, and more an attempt to break the comfortably middle class chokehold on Denmark’s cultural discourse, to show sides to life in the Nordic nation that are seldom seen. “Our roots have always been working class,” says Jannik, “It's always been about suburban Copenhagen, and the many stories that exist within that.”
Diverge as it may from mainstream expectations of what ‘Danish design’ should look like, that doesn’t mean it’s any less proud of its hometown. The fact that its name nods to the capital’s old spelling is, as Dennis explains, a surefire reminder that “Copenhagen is in our DNA,” he says. “But there's a less polished, more DIY side to life in Scandinavia, one that you don't typically see reflected in most brands from here. A lot of things are nice in Copenhagen, but sometimes it's just perceived as this fairytale bubble.”
It’s a bubble they’re keen to burst. Their imagery, for example, captures the community that’s organically grown around the brand, including artists like Filip Berg, Esben Weile Kjær and Chloe Wise, and noise artist Isak Hansen. For its SS20 campaign, they turned their attention to the parallel community that exists in London, a city both Jannik and Dennis have long held dear. Shot by artist Zinna Brigh Mac-Eochaidh, and styled by i-D contributor Jack Appleyard, they enlisted a cohort of the city’s bright young things, capturing them in a light both fantastical and frank. "Zinna's work has a real honesty to it, she shoots analogue, and prints in a darkroom,” says Dennis. “We needed a certain rawness in the styling, which is where Jack came in perfectly. We'd seen the stuff he did with Tim Walker, and really admired his work, so we asked him to collaborate.”
As the general uncertainty around the future for independent fashion brands mounts, the more crucial a role direct, respectful engagement with the community they cater to will play. For Han Kjøbenhavn, though, it’s not a skill they’ll need to develop, for it’s already ingrained. “We’ve always been about accurately reflecting what's out there, and giving a voice to people that don't typically have voices in certain spaces,” Dennis concludes, “We want to forward a narrative that embraces, not excludes, as well as to be a part of and facilitate the culture we comment on. After all, if you're not a part of that, then what’s the point?"