The Love Story
JOHNNYLOVE was launched in 2006. How was the brand conceived?
Some years down the road from when I tailored my first clothes – and after launching my first brand in the late nineties, a futuristic and minimalistic collection under the name Zaishi – I felt ready to go all in, creating what should be my legacy.
The starting point for JOHNNYLOVE was that Norwegian men in the early 2000s either dressed very loose and casual, or very updressed or formal. Most men weren’t good at combining clothes to be more presentable but still casual. I wanted to create a line of clothes that would make it easy for a man to build a wardrobe that would make him a bit more updressed without crossing the line to formal wear. Clothes that you could wear at work and still not have to change before going out at night, say, if you got a spontaneous invitation to a party.
Also, i didn’t want to present very conservative clothes, but something that was a bit playful and elegant at the same time. At the time a lot of my friends and early customers were band members or part of the local emerging music scene, and I guess the rock esthetic is present in JOHNNYLOVE’s dna because of that. I remember as we all grew older, my friends needed something else than Converse all stars and saggy jeans; There was a need for grown up clothes with an unconventional attitude.
I think “making men dress up in daily life” sums up my vision. Updressed means something specific in my mind of course, regarding materials, cuts and detailing, that goes into that vision.
Clothes are not there to give you personality, but to frame and underpin your qualities effectively.
What do you emphasise in order to define the aesthetics of the vision?
I have a somewhat compulsive attitude towards fabrics. I simply love just working with fabrics – touching and handling textiles makes Johnny a happy boy! The tactile aspect of fashion is without doubt the most important, how the material feels to the touch, inside and out. And of course, for fashion it is important how the clothes “look like they feel” to. Be it real or illusory.
Apart from materials, the most important tool is the fit. People simply look more dressed up when clothes fit snugly and properly, and they feel better looking. Our detailing, cuts and straight lines infuse attitude to the clothes, making them more than simply “nice”. The lines we make in the garments are inspired by lines we see around us, often from architecture, from industrial and urban atmospheres. I thought a lot about the connection between buildings and clothes when I was younger, although that may not be apparent to most people. But a general fondness of straight lines and hard angles should be apparent. In my eyes straight, clean lines makes a garment look distinctly masculine. A narrow but not curvy fit, with significantly wider shoulders than hips. In the JOHNNYLOVE philosophy, a coat for men can not be mistaken for a woman’s coat.
Part of the inspiration comes from nature as well. Norwegians tend to say we have “a lot of” nature, yet I’m mostly concerned with the more barren, robust and gritty aspects of it – that resonates more with my design vision. It might have to do with the Norwegian climate, with our rough and long winters, the winter storms, and so on. Transferred to clothes, I guess the words robust elegance is fitting.
The clean, masculine touch isn’t all about Norwegian roughness. I’ve also been greatly inspired by the Asian strictness, with clean, straight lines. Even though a kimono isn’t a masculine garment as such, it is pure and strict. There is something masculine about it.
Collars have always been one of my main concerns with jackets, coats and shirts. One of the main intentions with being a designer is helping people underpin their personality. Personality is communicated chiefly through one’s face, and one of my principles is that clothes are not there to “give” you personality – they should frame it effectively. I mean, literally framing the head. You don’t want something dull surrounding your personality, and limp or boring collars will subtract from your radiance. A lot of men generally don’t think a lot about these things – that is my job, after all – but when they wear our clothes, many experience this support very clearly for the first time.
When you find clothes that matches your personality, you develop an emotional connection of sorts to your clothes. It does affect your psyche if you dress well! When you feel well-dressed you feel well adjusted and content. This is a huge positive thing, this matters in people’s lives. I’m thinking if the clothes fit, you fit too. This is a main drive for me – a reason for doing what I do.
In my mind there are some elements that clearly define JOHNNYLOVE.
From a distance you have the shape, where you can distinguish a clearly masculine silhouette. Getting closer, you see details like the deliberate lines of cuts and seams, and how functional details like buttons, zippers and cuff straps are implemented.
Then you visually make an assessment of the material quality, and get both a fuller experience and reassurance when you touch them. You feel the quality, and know that the garment is going to last. You have an aesthetic experience, visual and tactile, from far away to up close.
Apart from that, I don’t feel it is my place to pronounce JOHNNYLOVE’s uniqueness in the field of fashion. I let others comment on that.
JOHNNYLOVE is the kind of brand where you can recognize the look over time, and there seems to be a certain consistency to the brand?
There are some elements that are pretty consistent year after year, season after season. The prime red thread is the shape of our jackets and shirts, the cut. We maintain a basic idea of fitted clothes with a tailored feeling. The collars are a main focus for us, that they are well defined. Another thing is that we often use the necessery detailing like buttons and zippers to create contrasts. We try to make all the elements of the garment enhance the product, since they must all be there anyway. Then of course we also have some signature elements in the way we create lines and angles by cutting and stitching the materials.
Our design philosophy is also having a touch of timelessness. Not as in retro, but the fact that it resonates with design traditions; that the clothes last for a long time both in terms of quality and as a relevant design expression; and that you can use our collection with any other clothes. We don’t want to be so conceptual that if you only wear JOHNNYLOVE you look like a concept. You are not to look like you are wearing a uniform, you are to still look casual.
Also, I want to affect the streetscape directly, not through having some loud items that scream “fashion!”, but by creating clothes that many can use – sufficiently many to actually be noticeable in the street, and to contribute to a better dressed community. So we are not making art, we don’t do haute couture. Although this is very important for the development of fashion, it is something that won’t add to our plan of making fashion that is highly applicable for the average Joe. To me it is more satisfying to have a bigger impact by reaching more people, enabling a lot of people to express themselves as they want. That has very high value to me personally.
Since the outset outerwear has been a spearhead for you, and a jacket or coat is often the first JOHNNYLOVE garment that people buy. How do you explain the strength in outerwear?
Being from one of the coldest countries on the planet has of course given us a special attention to and passion for outerwear. We wear jackets or coats nearly year round, so it is essential to make outerwear that is fashionable, while adding technical qualities which makes the garments suitable even if it is windy, cold or rainy – or all of that, which is often the case. The key is not to let the technical demands take the lead, but instead always putting design first. Luckily, the Italian mills we work with are the most innovative in the textile industry, and in cooperation we develop fashion appropriate materials with well-concealed or understated technical functionality.
The climate also influences the composition of the collection. Our main focus isn’t on tees, shortses, bathing trunks, etc. So the entire collection as a whole package might not translate well to LA, for instance. Obviously it is faulty to think that our collection should be the answer to the general needs in the Carribean. It is addressing the needs that we feel, here. One thing is the nature that surrounds us, another is the people that nature has been shaping for some thousand years – we are influenced by them. So we are far away from the beach, in many respects.
You mention Italian mills. How did you end up with predominantly Italian fabrics, when many competitors find great success and profit sourcing materials in the Far East?
We are not in the fashion market to compete in terms of price, but rather design and quality. European mills share this mentality. Italian mills certainly aren’t competitive price-wise, compared to mills in the Far East. But the Italians have a long tradition and an abundance of know-how, that combines to create materials that are of supreme design and quality. We also buy denim from Japan, because yes, you can see the difference between Japanese and Turkish denim. The Japanese denim, as you might know, is even better than the Italian.
When it comes to textiles and fashion Europe is leading the way, and notably Italy. It is crucial for us to have these mills alive and running. We can’t do that if everything is about price; then the European marketplace gets irrelevant. The core competence in China is producing a certain product as cheap as possible, in a largest possible amount. But for us, working with the top suppliers, I feel we are working towards the same goal, we share a vision and a mission. We don’t discuss price per se, but we talk about how high a quality is possible within our price range.
Even though we have a lot of money in the West, I think it is risky if not downright stupid to throw away hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge of design, textile and production. There is a lot of power in having knowledge about making things, product knowledge. In Norway we have lost a lot of important know-how in many fields, such as the textile industry. Then we should at least contribute to the continuation and safeguarding of European traditions and crafts. Europe is our local community in so many ways, and we feel an urge to maintain core knowledge and skills in the West, even if we are not a huge player in the field. We figure if more brands shared our production philosophy, the European fashion and textile industry would flourish.
Another benefit from buying garments and other supplies in Europe, and manufacturing our clothes in the EU as well, is environmental. We sell most of our clothes on this continent, and by using European suppliers we also cut the transport impact of our collections.
Within the EU there are a lot of rules regarding environment and workers’ conditions, pertaining what chemicals can be used, working hours, workplace safety, and so on. There are laws and ethical frameworks. To be blunt, I have little control over or trust in laws and regulations in Asia. There are materials made in China that are literally impossible to produce i Europe, due to the chemicals involved in the manufacturing process. As an example we wanted to test magnetic button closure on a jacket, and talked to our German button supplier. They told us it is impossible to buy magnetic buttons in Europe, because the metals that are used for these are illegal to produce here, because of toxicity. It is ok to import them though, strangely enough.
So we consider both pollution and what you want to touch your skin. What is actually in the garment? If everything is coloured using heaps of sulphur and other poisonous chemicals, it just might not be the best thing to wear on a daily basis. In Europe the mills have their certificates sorted. So we know that our wool is not made by means of mulesing, to give one example. These things matter.
You should be concerned with quality for a number of reasons, but first of all it is about trust. You want to trust the clothes you own and wear, hence you wish to trust the brands you are buying and supporting.
Bottom line to me is that it would be a breach of design ethics to say we care about both high quality on the one hand and being off the mainstream on the other, while buying materials from cheap suppliers. Either cheap means low quality or it means there are millions of meters of the fabric. Mainstream, that is. It just doesn’t compute. To focus on quality and European textile innovation is good for everyone.
You bring the same line of thought along when you choose you manufacturers?
Yes, the same values apply to the manufacturers we use, who stitch the clothes together. Common ideas of ethics and rule compliance combined with common regulations makes it easier to communicate, and to reach the basic goal of a high quality product. Of course the relative closeness means we can take part during the actual production. I personally spend six weeks every year on site, overseeing work flow and fine-tuning garments together with skilled pattern constructors. We have visited every single manufacturer at least once, and I pay almost everyone a seasonal visit. I know the working conditions are OK.
Presence also means working together with others who care for fabrics and garments, doing hands on product development together, and having a human connection to the product that we are selling, after all. This way we take a direct part in a great European textile tradition.
When I visit our main manufacturers in Romania, we work with bringing the design to life, of course. We bring our designs, technical drawings, details like buttons and zippers and whatnot, and together we make sure that we are able to actually produce what has been created on the drawing board. We work very closely and intensely at the factory, constructing samples of every garment for the next season, as well as pre production samples for the upcoming season.
An aspect that necessitates close collaboration with the manufacturers is that our clothes have a very unique shape, by not being built on standard bases. They are so far from the standard base in fact, that you can’t modify the standard cuts into a JOHNNYLOVE jacket or shirt. As a self-taught tailor I started with an ideal expression, an ideal shape that I spent years perfecting. They have been good all the way, but we keep optimising and iterating, trying to get ever closer to perfection. And of course we develop new products that need to be optimised.
To us, sending technical drawings and getting samples in return isn’t interesting. You lose contact with the manufacturer, and get less understanding in return. In the end, you risk a less than perfect product, which can be the difference between make or break. To me the most important thing is to secure the product, to be hands on.
Even though things may look good on paper, it means nil if the finished product doesn’t. On site you can solve problems, some of the obstacles made by creative design ideas can be overcome if I’m there. Sometimes I’m not even sure if a design idea is technically possible to execute, and together with the pattern constructor and the master stitcher [teknikeren på søm] we find the limits of what works and what doesn’t.
We like when work is something relational, where we can strengthen the mutual sympathy and understanding with our suppliers and manufacturers over time. The staff at the factories also appreciate having a personal relation to the designer. Those we have worked with for a good while understand how I think, and trust and compassion makes for efficient workflow.
To sum up, we work with entities that share our concerns, both in terms of quality and ethics. Without a clearly defined ethical baseline, I would have no control over JOHNNYLOVE’s future. At some point, if the current evolvement of the brand continues, we will be big enough to have the choice of “going east”. This is never going to happen. Should we ditch loyal and hard working European factories the moment they are able to make some tangible profit from JOHNNYLOVE?
That would be completely wrong on a lot of levels. I am in this for other reasons than making tons of money at any and all costs.
Another thing about working hands on with production is that I simply find sewing deeply fulfilling! I love to stitch myself – which I also did for many years. By being on site I at least get close to something that I love, and I can influence the result even more, perfecting every style. This is a major part of my drive; I’m not only into design. Without proper production, design is nothing. Yet being where I am today, my strength in designing is bigger than in sewing, of course. (Ett eller annet om at det å kunne søm gjør det lettere å designe noe som kan syes.)
In the old days I did everything myself, and I must say – hopefully without sounding romantic – I miss it a fair bit. I hope to always be working close to the craft, even maybe going back to sewing samples myself again. This is hardly something that I will have time for in the near future, but in time I hope to have a big enough team to focus more on the the elements of fashion creation that I find most fulfilling.
Apart from the joy of making clothes and making a living from it, is there a grander purpose to running a fashion label?
Our clear mission is to make men more dressed-up in daily life. The essence of it I guess, is the idea I have that if you feel good about your physical presence, you might behave like someone good, too. So maybe good clothes make people just ever so slightly better? It’s partly about aesthetics and a concern for quality, in the sense that if you care about a specific thing, others might care too. I mean, caring about something real that has genuine qualities, and not because it is “trendy” or whatever. Keeping things real I guess sums it up.
And of course from a purely aesthetic perspective it is a good thing to surround ourselves with things that look nice. People think positive thoughts when they see someone who present themselves in a handsome way – at least most sane people do! And you think more positively when you are content with your appearance than if you feel all sloppy-looking.
Another dimension to being quality oriented is the general care for things, to oppose the consume and dispose attitudes that we have seen rising in the last decades. To make things last, and to take care of things is important. We want products that has some good values incorporated, and people to put meaning and compassion into what they do. When we embed values in the clothes it is easier for the people wearing them to bring the values with them, to pass them on. If some people say “hey, this matters!” more people might join in, and real change can be made. Changing the direction of the consumer society that places profit and quantity of consumption before quality of consumption, and thus quality of life, is essential. I can’t endorse a life philosophy like that. By making quality products, we might make a difference, even if it’s by just a fraction.
So yes, I feel that putting yourself out there and selling a proper product makes the world a slightly better place. A product that both I and the customer can vouch for, where that agreement or resonance is the main goal – not the potential profit.
JOHNNYLOVE is operating from a small town in a small country. What are the pros and cons involved with that?
Apart from a default strength in outerwear, there are some advantages to working from a small city like Trondheim. You can work relatively undisturbed, without a bustling fashion scene outside the front door. We gain focus, I think. Also, there is no regional or national flavour or style that you need to fit into or that you naturally gets assimilated into. This I think leaves us very open-minded, and gives us room to find our own way. Becoming unique is maybe easier when there aren’t that many constraints or expectations.
Then there are downsides, too. There is no significant community that can help you along through sharing of competence or knowledge, or that you can draw on to garner attention and get traction on the outside. Norway is not a very obvious fashion nation, but mostly seen as the little brother of giants Sweden and Denmark. So we must generate nearly all interest on our own. Apart from that we are at a great distance from the marketplace, and from production resources. Which means lots of time spent travelling.
JOHNNYLOVEs presence outside Norway is growing, but apart from “getting bigger” – do you have some personal measure of success?
Since the inception of JOHNNYLOVE in 2006, the goal was to become a small and internationally recognised brand. I wanted to do a kind of balancing act, by presenting collections that most men could wear, but still wasn’t mainstream. Clothes for men who are concerned with the same things as us: Wearing well-fitting clothes that stand out, without the clothes taking the front seat. Clothes that enhance your personality and underscore who you are – or who you feel you are. And men that share some of our values, like caring for a sustainable planet and for working conditions in the garment industry, for instance. Who want products that last, and don’t have a wardrobe full of disposable stuff. Also, people who are more into “show, don’t tell”. Do good stuff, and you will be recoginsed, people will follow you.
I want the products to make a difference in people’s lives, by meeting a real need while still making fashion. We don’t want to create new needs, but make people join us on a journey where we’re willing to pay for quality – where we buy fewer things that last, instead of more things that don’t.
Combined with our efforts to maintain Europan knowledge, culture and traditions, we hope that we are creating a brand that people are proud to own.
We are well on our way to being very well established in several coutries. Anywhere we go we are known for the same inherent qualities – the clothes speak for themself. There isn’t a lot of paid communication out there that speaks louder than the product, and [the grapevine] has ensured our growth. I am by default extremely product oriented, and letting the product do most of the talking feels very natural to me. Although I know it might be a less-than-perfect marketing strategy in the short term.
There is also some excitement involved in succeeding in making something that is as good as the giants out there that we are compared against. Standing our ground against great forces is fulfulling.
Now that the collection has found its identity, we are happy with the product and content with our capacity in designing, producing and distributing our collection. Our current focus is to gain a broader recognition for the brand. We have willfully stepped between traditional categories, and hopefully we are able to maintain our own niche. “updressed casual clothes” is pretty broad – not the “marketing first” kind of concept a team of business analysts would churn out. But we feel it is a justified position nevertheless! If it takes 30 years for most people to grasp the concept, so be it.
These days, the fun in designing is still there, and the satisfaction of creating my own style. There is an elaborate system now, of course, but I still love the craft – making clothes is simply what I do, be it at a large or small scale. Now that I have a team of employees, there is also a duty involved. Making the business go around, improving all parts of the business to make a better day for all. The others have their ambitions, too, and I try to be a good leader.
And of course we all have a common mission: We see that there is a place in the fashion ecosystem that is rightfully ours, that we make and do something that sets us apart, that we are justified in spending our time making new collections.