Tim Coppens: the Technocrat

Following the Designer Across a Paradigm Shift in 21st Century Menswear

  • Interview: Thom Bettridge
  • Photography: Eric Chakeen

“We’re not making mink coats,” Tim Coppens says, “We’re making a product that is more democratic.” At a time when disparate modern lifestyles are now colliding into the category of athleisure, Coppens is an agent of compromise. His clothes are calculated, the way he speaks about them deliberate and methodical. After beginning at Antwerp’s Royal Academy, then manning posts at Adidas and RLX, Coppens now helms his own label as well as Under Armour’s UAS sportswear division. This range of resources—from that of a boutique label to that of an athletic wear multinational—allows the designer to experiment with everything from Japanese embroidery techniques to re-inventing mass-market silhouettes. For Coppens, being “futuristic” is not just a matter of being space-age, but rather something that requires an eye for nostalgia, comfort, and handicraft. It is about paying close attention in a fast society that increasingly demands more of its citizens.
Thom Bettridge spoke with Tim Coppens at his studio in New York.

Thom Bettridge

Tim Coppens

When you zoom out and look at the history of men’s dressing, the 20th century is very much defined by the suit. But in the 21st century—at least so far—we are looking at a shift into “athleisure”—a kind of convergence between casual dress, formal dress, and athletic clothing. Since you are someone who has been at the frontline of this sea change, I wanted to ask you what kind of society you think this shift is speaking to?

I think there are a lot of things, actually. When I started working in fashion, there was a very big division between performance wear and fashion. If you looked at all the fashion houses when I was going to school—looking at the stores that were surrounding the Antwerp Academy and what was being shown at Paris—you would have a sportiness to a certain collection, but there was not that immediate link to real sports. I think part of the evolution has been that certain things have become more accepted. For example, if you look at something stupid like an elastic waistband. That was seen as something for a jogger’s pants or baby’s pants, but now everybody has elastic waistbands because there is something easy about them. But then again, you just have to look at the amount of gyms there are. Ten years ago in Belgium, going to the gym was something you couldn’t talk about loudly in public. It was totally not cool. Now, the gym and playing sports has become a much bigger part of life in an urbanized environment. When I left the Academy and started working for Adidas, it was not because I knew I was going to create high fashion, it was because I thought there was something interesting in the way the garments were constructed—the evolution of technology and how all these things were happening a lot faster there. And now you can see, after like 10 years, a lot of these technologies have been incubated in fashion.

I think in another time—like, the 80s or 90s—wearing sports clothes all day was a subcultural way of checking out of the white collar economy. But now with, say, billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg wearing hoodies, these types of separations no longer exist.

I think a number of brands have been developing this connection for the last 10 years. And a lot of these brands get bucketed into the “streetwear” category. I was just thinking about how when I was a kid—like 12, or 13—I had this huge O’Neill jacket with these extreme, snowboarding colors. I never went snowboarding in it, but it was cool and nobody had it. I remember I also had these Tommy Hilfiger track pants with the long zippers. And if you look at what Palace or Supreme are doing right now, it’s not that much different. I think the new thing is how this aesthetic has translated into something more innovative in menswear that’s now available to more groups.

When you started doing RLX, was it a challenge for you to make this sort of translation between high-performance wear and a heritage brand? What was the thought process there? Because when kids in the cities started wearing Polo Sport and Tommy Hilfiger in the 1990s, that was a coup that happened on the consumer side, not the design side.

It was pretty much figuring out what Ralph Lauren was about. And then gradually I was able to think about how we could incorporate elements that went farther from like, “Oh, we’re creating a polyester t-shirt and track jackets.” I think it’s nice to keep certain elements of tailoring and fabrics like wools and cashmeres to bridge that gap. When you’re working on something innovative, you can balance that out with something more recognizable. Not traditional per se, but something known that’s comfortable. You don’t want everything to turn out like a space suit. Because that’s the other extreme, and that’s a lot easier to do in my opinion.

It’s interesting to hear you describe things in terms of “comfort,” because that’s almost an unspoken word when it comes to high fashion.

In my eyes, it’s not just talking about comfort. It’s about making things easier—easier to move around in, easier to make your day faster. When you live in New York, for example, a lot of things have to be tackled in one day. Clothes have to be able to give you that benefit.

You don’t want everything to turn out like a space suit.

You have to feel as though you’re ready for anything.

I love a suit. I love the way they’re constructed, and it’s amazing how you can feel in them. But I think there’s also something to thinking about how you can change the construction of that suit without changing the general look of it. Giving you something that makes you able to go faster, so that you’re not in something constrained, where the armholes are too low and your arms don’t go up.

This type of sartorial thinking is almost a peace treaty between different modes of life that were once in conflict with each other: work, the gym, and partying.

I think that’s very much rooted in the construction of a garment. And that’s very much what I’m doing with UAS. But, for my own brand, it’s important that there’s also a deep cultural link. And that’s something a little more difficult to express, because it’s not a pant-leg with slogans on it. It’s about certain layers of history. Because I think what we’re talking about is something that is already out there. It’s no longer a novelty. Now you have to add an extra layer that really connects with the consumer.

I also think that, as the surfaces of our lives get more digital, texture and handicraft take on a new value. For example, your Spring/Summer collection has all of these futuristic surfaces. But then there’s also this element of Japanese embroidery that’s very present and human.

I’m extremely passionate about things like that—silk kimonos, temples built without nails, the way wood is finished, the way samurai swords are created. There’s a level of craftsmanship, but when you look at these things from afar, it has a very futuristic feel. It’s very important that these handmade processes stay alive.

Is that why you started your own brand as opposed to only working with big multinationals?

Yes. On one hand, I like working with bigger companies, because they give you resources that a small brand cannot. But with my own brand, it’s about really digging deeper and really loving what the product is.

It’s also a very utopian idea to make beautiful clothing that can be mass produced so that so many people can have it. Is that something, when you started working at Under Armour, that you were thinking about?

I was mostly thinking about the possibilities to create things without being limited in resources. And I think that’s the advantage of working with a company that offers me certain things that I would not be able to do with my brand. We’re not making mink coats. We’re making a product that is more democratic, that is more out there, but that doesn’t mean that product is easy or that it hasn’t been thought through.

In what ways did you want the clothes to look different?

I think it’s just like the comfort level or the way things are finished, adding functionalities to certain garments, rethinking certain seams, or looking at a traditional garment like a jacket from a different angle to add functionality to it. Then you create a garment that is no longer the same, but still kind of looks and feels the same. It’s important to not make it too fashionable, or too functional, but making it unconventional enough that you feel that there’s something special about that product.

Something intriguing about your collection is that it has a type of awareness that functionality has now become its own type of aesthetic. For example, I noticed a sweater that had these small panels of metallic mylar—or something like that—that gave it the look of something very futuristic, whereas it was still clear that this detail was also just a decoration.

I like the look of how these materials contrast. I think the piece you’re talking about is a very fine knit merino with an aluminium-coated nylon hood. It’s interesting, because these natural fibers have their own functionality.

So the merino is secretly doing all the work.

You could say that.

What kind of people do you imagine wearing your clothes?

When we do a casting, for example, it’s very important that I really respond to the guy or to the girl. It’s a lot about the way they interact, and the way I talk to them, or the way they talk to me. I’m not typically interested in beauty—I mean, I’m interested in beauty, but I like the layers of it. I think that’s the same thing with how we approach clothes as well. When you look at that sweatshirt, when you look deeper, that’s the beauty of clothes. But it’s also the beauty of the humans that wear them.

How did you end up working in the States? Was that a cultural choice?

No, I always wanted to live in New York. The first time that I came here, I think I already went to the Academy, I was like, “At some point I want to come here and do my thing.” And then it happened 15 years later. The way people work here attracted me because there’s a very open mentality to starting your own thing. Being here pushed me into doing my own thing. Of course, I’m still European and I’m still very much attached to where I come from. But I love certain things about American fashion as well—how easy and uncomplicated it is.

  • Interview: Thom Bettridge
  • Photography: Eric Chakeen