END. heads to Copenhagen to spend a day with Soulland founder Silas Adler and Jacob Kampp Berliner to talk streetwear, creative culture, and why the kids have it all figured out.
It's a beautiful morning in early Spring. We're sitting on the street outside Granola on Værnedamsvej. Around us, one of Copenhagen's most coveted design and shopping districts is coming to life and we're talking all things Soulland.
"It's a gift for a small business to see members of their team - people who started their careers with us - move on to new ventures and higher positions. It's cool to know that you got to be a chapter in someone else's success," Jacob says over breakfast.
We're joined by his business partner, Soulland's original founder, Silas and they're giving us a street-by-street account of the small neighbourhood they run the majority of their business from. From the design agency down the street that handles their web development to the local retoucher who manages their post-production to the florist who provides the foliage for their flagship store, the vast majority of Soulland's operations are sourced and managed from just a few streets in the same neighbourhood as their studio.
"It's important to invest in your neighbourhood. If you invest in your neighbourhood, they'll invest in you," Silas says. And it's clear that this is more than just a concept or a soundbite. Over the course of our hour-long breakfast, at least 25 colleagues and collaborators pass on their way to work. Waving or stopping to discuss projects.
Struck by the unusualness of Jacob's idea that he likes seeing junior team members move on to pastures new, I ask him about it. Where most businesses would be remiss to lose employees to competitors, Soulland encourages each of their team to chase their own success and make the most of their own creativity. "Copenhagen isn't really competitive like that, it's a very supportive culture," Jacob explains. "In New York, for instance, you see a lot of store owners who hate the store around the corner because it's so competitive. Or people who don't want to make the effort to support the local guy who's opening his own restaurant. We don't have that here, which is cool."
After breakfast, we walk a couple of blocks round to Soulland's new HQ. A work in progress, the space currently plays home to the close-knit Soulland team and a group of builders and contractors who are bringing the new space up to spec. "We're planning on having a studio and a showroom here," Silas says. "We usually do a buying showroom in one of the big cities during fashion week, but we think it would be cool if we could get buyers and press to come here and really get a sense of the brand and who we are."
Upon meeting the Soulland team, we definitely get a clear sense of what the brand is about. Emil, Soulland's latest recruit, is quick to make us feel right at home, talking us through the new collection samples that have just arrived while Silas and Jacob attend to some business with their contractors.
"Working here is cool because they celebrate free thought and there's an open floor for debate," Emil tells us, tall and blond, wearing tactical pants with a pair of green Wallabees. "We don't really have a hierarchy and creative is king. Everyone contributes in their own way towards the vision."
When Jacob and Silas are finished up with their meeting, they take us a little outside the city centre to the famed Copenhagen harbour so we can talk properly.
END.: Silas, tell us a bit about how Soulland got started?
Silas: Back in 2002 I was skateboarding a lot and was looking for something else to do with my time, besides go to school which I didn't enjoy. At that time kids weren’t really introduced to entrepreneurship at a young age - it was before the internet exploded and changed everything - so as a 17-year-old kid I hadn't been exposed to the idea of doing something on my own. Some of the guys I skated with had brands, so I thought I would try something for myself. Starting a brand you’re pretty exposed and vulnerable. You’re putting yourself out there into kind of the unknown and it can be scary. I realised that I needed to find someone who had the same interests as me to take things forward. I met Jacob and it just made sense that we should work together.
END.: How does it work between the two of you, do you have quite distinct roles within the brand?
Jacob: I used to say that we had distinct roles in the beginning when Silas was running the company day-to-day and I had another job. As time has gone on I sort of take control of the business side and Silas takes control of the creative but, in the end, the vision is aligned and we consult each other on pretty much everything. Often, we’ll have had the same ideas without having spoken to each other.
Silas: Yeah that happens a lot. It’s comforting to know that there’s someone beside me who shares the same vision for Soulland.
Starting a brand, you’re pretty exposed and vulnerable. You’re putting yourself out there into the unknown. It can be scary.
END.: Do you think since the brand started in 2002, the lines have blurred between where creative ends and business strategy begins? Do you think the industry now demands a creative approach in every area?
Silas: I think every business takes a different approach. As for Soulland, I think we’re very aware that the creativity and business strategy are intertwined. You can’t succeed without a mix of both and we’ve been lucky in that the projects we’ve done that are the most creative are the ones that have been most commercially successful. Projects that are about pure creativity always teach you something that will benefit the business.
Jacob: I think it’s also a case of not forcing things. If we force ourselves to be less creative in order to be more commercial or even if we force ourselves to try and be creative in a way that doesn’t feel authentic to Soulland, the business will suffer. For us, our creativity and our business strategy are totally linked because that’s just the DNA of Soulland. If we have a super successful product or drop, we don’t really rush to repeat it. A lot of brands will have a style that sells well one season and then they’ll just recreate it in a different colour for the next 5 years. We don’t do that because it doesn’t interest us. Why try to recreate an old hit when you can just make a new one?
END.: The brand has always been involved with subculture movements, talk a bit about your relationship to youth culture today?
Silas: It’s crazy now when we see kids wearing the brand that probably weren’t alive when we got started. It’s amazing to me that this has been my life for so many years, but people are still just discovering us. I love that. I think the kids today are so switched on and have a strong DIY mentality when it comes to creative expression. When I was that age I was too busy looking for acceptance from people who were already established, but kids today are more about making it happen for themselves. Every generation has a tendency to say that the next one doesn't 'get it', or that things were better in the past. I think that's bullshit.
Jacob: A lot of bigger brands try to 'buy' youth. We don't want to buy the youth, we want to work with them and foster their ideas and cultures. People used to be all talk, but it isn't cool anymore to say you're going to do something and then do nothing. Young creatives are super focused on action over words.
Every generation has a tendency to say that the next one doesn't 'get it' or that things were better in the past. I think that's bullshit.
END.: You've spoken a lot in the past about having a 'make it happen' approach in the early days of the brand where you would hit the road for weeks at a time. Going to new cities to find new stockists, sleeping in cheap hotels, partying, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures. Do you ever miss those days or that feeling?
Silas: I would say I still have the same feelings for the brand now as I did then. We’ve not lost that magic. I think we’ve always had a big focus on thinking local, and that’s always been part of it when we travel. We want to link up with the locals and see what it’s really like to live in the places we’re travelling. In the early days, we were always open to anything: sleeping on floors, meeting new people, and staying humble with everything. That’s where we get our energy I think, even now.
Jacob: I would say I miss the drinking, but not the hangovers. For me, it’s always been important to link up with local subcultures and get to know different individuals and scenes. That’s still central to our philosophy.
END.: What would your advice be to someone coming up just now who wants to get into the industry, but isn't interested in school or taking a conventional route?
Silas: Work harder. That’s the only thing I think I would change, looking back. Really good solutions for design – for anything – comes from hard work. Creativity isn’t a box you open and every so often you’ll come up with something useful, it’s something you have to nurture and that comes from pushing yourself and working hard.
Jacob: I agree with that. I think focus as well: don’t be afraid to define yourself and your brand and what you stand for.
END.: You've both done your fair share of travelling. Besides Copenhagen, what's the best city in the world?
Silas: Paris. I feel at home there. Even the places in Paris that are shitty are shitty in a romantic way.
Jacob: For me, it’s New York. It’s graffiti. It’s Wu-Tang. It’s where I met my girlfriend. I think it’s fucking genius.
Soulland’s approach to creative business is an example of how thinking local can translate to international success. Rather than attempting to co-opt subcultures or ideas purely for profit, Soulland walk-the-walk and get involved and engaged with the cultures they’re looking to represent. True to the brand’s DNA, Soulland focuses on creativity, culture, and the collective talents of the real, living people they work with to produce their iteration of streetwear with genuine soul.
Walking through the neighbourhood where it all happens later in the day, I realise I don't actually know what it's called so I ask Silas and Jacob.
"These few streets? It doesn't really have a name. Maybe we should give it one?" Silas says.
"What would you call it?" I ask. They both laugh.