Creating Conflict with Han Kjøbenhavn

Ahead of the 4th and final PUMA x Han Kjøbenhavn collection, END. headed to Copenhagen to speak to the subversive creative mind behind the curtain: Jannik Wikkelsø Davidsen

I once watched a writing masterclass with Margaret Atwood and something she said stuck to me like glue: the only way to keep your audience engaged is to create conflict. "If you don't have conflict on every page," Atwood said, "no one cares about your story." At first, this struck me as hyperbolic. The type of soundbite teaching that tends to take place in anything being touted as a masterclass. But as time has passed and I've used this simple test as the benchmark against which I judge different kinds of stories, I've come to understand that Margaret Atwood is absolutely right. When it comes to storytelling, conflict is everything.

Since launching in 2008, Han Kjøbenhavn has emerged as one of Denmark's most provocative new design voices. Helmed by creative director and founder, Jannik Wikkelsø Davidsen, the Scandinavian export has successfully built a global following, captivated by the brand's propensity for a visceral kind of storytelling. Synthesising compelling narratives into desirable streetwear collections, Han Kjøbenhavn has used design and fashion media as an outlet to comment on the world around us. Unafraid to polarise opinion, Davidsen has become something of a poster boy for conflict-driven storytelling which teeters on the edge of what we're used to and forces us to question our own perceptions.

This unapologetic approach to design makes Han Kjøbenhavn an interesting choice as a top-tier sportswear brand collaborator, with big industry names often preferring to partner with those easy to direct and willing to toe the party line for access to a bigger audience. After spending just a day with Jannik Davidsen, I can confirm that he is not that partner. Hands-on, direct, and single-minded in his vision, Jannik has produced collaborative collections with PUMA that have pushed at the boundaries of each brand's aesthetic and, in doing so, reignited the spirit of true collaboration. Equally fearless, PUMA has trusted and encouraged his creative voice along the way to produce a series of collections which are borne of a special, exciting type of conflict. Now, coming to the end of their 4-season partnership, END. headed to Copenhagen to speak to Jannik Davidsen about his work with the sportswear heavyweight and why creating conflict is the foundation of his brand.

The first thing I notice about Jannik Wikkelsø Davidsen when I meet him at the flagship Han Kjøbenhavn store on Vognmagergade is that he talks with his hands. It's early morning and the city is still half-asleep when Jannik arrives. Dressed in new season Han Kjøbenhavn with his very own Alteration PN-1 on foot, Jannik stands out to me as he's pushing a child's buggy; his status as a family-man belied by a menacing exterior of tracksuits and tattoos.

It's with these same tattoos that Jannik talks with his hands - a series of scribbles and sketches that tell the story of his life. He's a man who quite literally wears his heart on his sleeve, and who - having run out of space of his own - has set out to find new sleeves to tell stories with at Han Kjøbenhavn.

After a quick tour of the store and a coffee, we take a seat at the far end of the space and Jannik tells me his own story in his own words.

END.: Han Kjøbenhavn is built on a foundation of storytelling – real people, real emotions, real journeys – tell us a bit about your story and how you came to launch the brand in 2008?

Jannik Davidsen: I was born in raised in the suburbs of Copenhagen in a working-class family. My dad worked in insulation. My brother is a painter and decorator. When I was around 17, I got myself involved in the advertising industry. I had never thought about going down that path but I got an opportunity to do some graphic design and from that opportunity, I just decided to build on it. After a few years of studying in Denmark, I went to Miami and studied there and worked across America before coming home. The brand started out as just an idea between myself and a friend. We didn't have any capital so we self-funded right from the start. It was important to us from the beginning to be able to say no, to not have to make decisions for the brand that were driven by a need for a paycheck. So, in the beginning, we kept our full-time jobs so that we would never have to say yes to getting stocked in the wrong stores or doing the wrong collaborations just to survive. When you're starting to build a brand, it's important to be able to say no and to have the freedom to do everything for the right reasons. We've always been true to ourselves and wanted our growth to be organic.

END.: I read in a previous HYPEBEAST feature that at Han ‘functionality comes last, design comes first’ which I thought was an interesting approach. Could you explain a bit more about that ethos?

Jannik Davidsen: I think it was my business partner that said that. What it means is that our primary focus is on creating beautiful objects. The functional aspects are a given to me; I’m not going to release a product that doesn’t do what it needs to do. Anything I design will always work from a functionality perspective, no matter what. What’s not always a given is good, beautiful design, so that’s where the process begins for me. Functionality itself isn’t enough, there needs to be more than that.

END.: Your creative approach to storytelling across campaign imagery, film, shows and presentations always feels carefully considered. How important do you think storytelling is to brands? 

Jannik Davidsen: It’s super important. It allows you to connect with the consumer on a deeper level. I don’t want to say design is not enough, but I think if you have a story to tell it makes your products better. I get so much out of listening to other people’s stories, so it’s always just been a natural part of our process. I think there’s a freedom in storytelling which allows you to frame your product in new ways and give your customers something extra, maybe something to think about. We want to create emotions and conversations. I'm not afraid to split opinions. I'd rather people hate what we do with the brand than not give a fuck about us. That's why we tell stories at Han Kjøbenhavn.

END.: Your choice of models has been pioneering from the beginning – before diversity became an industry buzzword, you’ve been using models from different ages, genders, and backgrounds. Tell us a bit about the choice to cast striking older models – Steen and Soren for the last PUMA campaign for instance?

Jannik Davidsen: We’ve never cast older models for the sake of them being older. It’s always been about finding the right people to communicate the story we want to tell. Quite often we’ll find the model who fits with the narrative we have at the beginning and then use them to help drive the story. I don't like it when there's a disconnect between the brand, the story, and the model being used. At Han, we’ve always wanted to be authentic so a lot of the people I've cast for shows or campaigns have been people who remind me of characters in my life growing up. It’s never been so accessible to be a designer and, because of that, we see quite a lot of hollow brands with nothing to say. We always want to make sure we’re saying something we believe in and that means working with the right people to deliver the message.

END.: We’re here in your flagship store – talk us through the design process for the space and how it reflects your personal design identity and that of the brand?

Jannik Davidsen: The space was about creating conflict with linear Scandinavian design. I wanted to respect the legacy of classic Danish furniture design, but then introduce contrasting elements that were a bit grittier and represented the areas in the suburbs where I grew up. I think there’s a global perception of what “Danish design” is or looks like, I wanted to represent that but introduce these subtle conflicts of what real Denmark is like. What materials do real, working-class Danish people live with every day and how is that reflected in the world’s perception of Danish design? Han Kjøbenhavn is all about using elements of conflict to create something new.

END.: What does collaboration mean to you?

Jannik Davidsen: To me, collaboration is something that you have to really commit to. Each participant has to bring something to the table. There’s been a lot of bullshitting around where you just have brands putting each other’s logos on stuff and calling it a collaboration. To me, that’s just eroding the concept of what collaboration is meant to be. Both parts need to bring something to the table. Both brands need to work together and find a way to coexist that feels natural and says something new. That’s collaboration.

END.: How do you translate that across to your work with PUMA?

Jannik Davidsen: I think working with a brand as big as PUMA, it’s even more important that you bring a part of yourself and your ideas to the table. That’s why for every PUMA collection we’ve brought personal stories to the table because that’s what we’re known for. In terms of design, I think it’s been our job to move things away from what is expected from PUMA. It’s still PUMA, but it’s about breaking it down and making subtle changes to create something new.

END.: How do you strike a balance between protecting the integrity and DNA of each brand, while coming together to produce something new that combine the best elements from each half of the partnership?

Jannik Davidsen: It’s not always easy, but it’s about a gut feeling. PUMA believe in what we do at Han and have given us a lot of freedom to put our fingerprint on things.

writerEuan Smart
|photographerAnt Tran