“For me, the whole idea behind HUGO is to clash different things together to create something new,” says Bart De Backer, talking us through the design codes he has implemented since coming on as senior head of design for HUGO menswear.
Holding the reins of the HUGO menswear line – the younger, progressive brother to the group’s more formal BOSS range – De Backer has sought to push a fashion-forward approach that speaks to a younger customer: no longer occasion-driven, they instead seek individual pieces to strengthen or express their personality. Translating the brand’s signature tailoring codes to a broader, streetwear philosophy, in recent seasons the Belgian designer has drawn inspiration from Basquiat’s splicing and dicing of languages and cultures, highly technical survival gear worn by Arctic explorers, and the DIY approach of Berlin’s underground club kids.
While these reference points may seem somewhat disparate, there’s a common denominator that forms the undercurrent of De Backer’s HUGO design codes. Whether that transpires as figuring out how to stitch survival heat panelling into tailored coats or reimagining suiting with adjustable drawstring detailing that realign silhouettes in slouchy proportions – fit for a night (and day after) at Berghain – a commitment to blurring perceived boundaries in a way that combines purpose with freedom and style remains key.
Following a major year for HUGO that has seen its most recent show at Berlin’s iconic Motorwerk club for SS19 and a first UK flagship store located in White City’s Westfield, we caught up with De Backer to unpick the dynamic design points that form his HUGO vision.
Alex James Taylor: Your FW18 collection was very much linked to the Arctic and inspired by explorers. Can you talk us through how those reference points came about?
Bart De Backer: Absolutely, with the FW18 collection we were very inspired by activewear and the North Pole-style, explorer outerwear. That was sort of the way we came to the Arctic theme, through the whole technical aspect of explorer outfits. There was also a sense of reverting back to nature.
AJT: It’s a good way to explore technical wear, through this Arctic lynchpin.
BDB: Yes. We went quite deep in construction with that collection and wanted to combine activewear techniques with tailoring, because what I really enjoy is putting two opposites next to each other, investigating the techniques and the fabrics, and then trying to incorporate them together. I mean, one very simple but good example is the tailored coat with a heat panel built in. It sounds straightforward but we had to do a lot of research to make that happen, because heat panelling is usually combined with fabrics like nylon and polyester-based, but this time we applied that to a nice tailored wool coat.
AJT: So do you work quite closely with the R&D side of things?
BDB: Yeah, we have our own research team and I’m always in conversation with them. For me, when I design a collection I really want to dig very deep into the product itself. The good thing at HUGO is that we have a very good development department where we have all the machines and things like that. In the beginning, when I first joined and saw this, it inspired me to try different things and push boundaries.
AJT: Sure, when you’re trying to combine different functions and areas of design, you have to acquaint yourself with an entirely new range of materials. When it comes to something such as heat panelling, you as a designer need to be fully up to speed with the properties of that material and how to work with it best.
BDB: Of course. For me, the whole idea behind HUGO is to clash different things together to create something new. But what I also really like about the brand is that we take something from the past and then we put it into the time of today. So even that simple idea of heat panelling, it’s something that… if you were to walk around today and asking, what does a guy expect? There’s a functionality there alongside the design and style, we bring the whole idea of tailoring – something that is very strict – into something that is very easy and cosy to wear. We give it the comfort of leisurewear.
“When people buy something from HUGO, I want it to strengthen or express their personality. It’s not that I expect them to buy a full outfit or something like that, it’s more that they take a piece and make it their own.”
AJT: That brings me into my next question, what do you think has changed in menswear that means people are looking for a certain performance level in their clothing?
Bart: For me it’s almost something logical. Functionality is one thing, but what I like the most and what I see a lot in menswear today, in a lot of young kids but also older customers, they aren’t occasion-driven anymore. What I find interesting, and what I think is a strength of HUGO, is that this whole blurring of occasions lets us mix items and functions together. This idea of style-clashing, it’s something that we, as a brand, want to focus more on. When people buy something from HUGO, I want it to strengthen or express their personality. It’s not that I expect them to buy a full outfit or something like that, it’s more that they take a piece and make it their own.
AJT: It means that each piece has to be able to work by itself, which I think is a real strength.
BDB: That’s also why we dig so deep, the item itself has to be desirable and just right. Like the track pants in silk, they have to really have the feeling and cut of track pants, but then it has the fluidity of silk. It’s a technical challenge but, for me, it’s more important that the consumer feels the natural contrast of two things mixing together.
AJT: And what about your own travelling experiences, are you an intrepid explorer? Have you ever been to the Arctic?
BDB: [laughs] No, but I have to say, with inspiration for a collection I sometimes like to not go there, instead it’s about my imagination. I want to create my own world. For me, this is the best way to strengthen the image; you have to create a clearer image to our customer because the reality sometimes is not that glamorous.
AJT: The SS19 HUGO collection took reference from Berlin in the 90s – specifically the city’s club culture – what are the main ways you tried to incorporate that aesthetic?
BDB: One way was through blurring notions of leisure and formal, in fact, some of the pieces we actually took from the archive and translated them in a new way. But also parts of that scene go back to the brand’s core. I mean, we’re a German brand, so it goes back to our roots. I think Berlin is one of the most interesting cities in the world, at the moment obviously but also in the past 100, 150 years. A lot of things happened there, art movements formed, David Bowie recorded there in the 70s, Iggy Pop was there, there’s a constant vibe. And a lot of people are moving there, especially from London actually.
BDB: One of the inspirations comes from young kids who didn’t even live through that decade, like my nephew who is eighteen and he loves the 90s, he does his own kind of version of the decade, so he’ll get some bits from his father, like a ski jacket for instance, and then he’ll combine it with some workwear trousers maybe. So what I find interesting is that he makes his own version of it. What I like also is that these young kids take old pieces and make it their own by customising. So what we did is… like we took this suit from the archives, a bit oversized, and we actually added these sportswear strings to it to almost make it like a self-made customised piece. This is also the idea for the brand, when people buy it, they buy individual items and so it’s all interchangeable. The whole idea behind the collection is that you have this 90s vibe but it’s also about people mixing different styles together and creating their own.
AJT: There’s quite a lot of tailoring here as well.
BDB: Tailoring is something I find incredibly important. What I don’t necessarily like about wearing a suit is that you feel constricted, so what I wanted to do is create a soft tailored jacket that is easygoing. It’s the same feeling as an outerwear piece. We focused a lot on tailoring but the feeling of it is more like leisurewear. I’m quite focused on how people feel when wearing it. It goes back to myself, I don’t like it when I feel uncomfortable, but I wanna look cool too [laughs], like everybody.
AJT: I guess it’s about finding that middle-ground between shape, structure and comfort. What’s your personal relationship with Berlin?
BDB: It’s a city that I always went to. But in the last few years I’ve looked at it differently, partly because of the research I did, but also it has to do with the way a lot of people have now moved there. Berlin has always had that in a way, but now it’s more clear. A lot of creative people have moved there and really when you walk down the street, to a coffee shop, or to the park, you see there are a lot of… I call them almost urban creatives [laughs], people who experiment with their look and appear to not participate in the common trends, they just do their thing.
“This is also the idea for the brand, when people buy it, they buy individual items and so it’s all interchangeable.”
AJT: Berlin has always retained an avant-garde reputation, certainly today that manifests itself in a creative freedom that perhaps people don’t identify so much with London anymore, which is why people are making the move.
BDB: I think there are several reasons. Many of the big cities like London and also Paris became very expensive and I think a lot of people feel limited because they have to survive, I think they call it the burden of survival…
AJT: The cost of living.
BDB: Yes, and in Berlin it’s much cheaper to live so it means people can focus more on their personal ambitions and ways of expressing themselves. Plus it has that history, so it’s the perfect frame to explore and try something new. I think that makes Berlin interesting as a city and I hope they can keep it like that, because most of the time when creative people move somewhere [laughs]… so do the bankers.
AJT: Absolutely. Also, with the 90s influence, it’s something I question myself as a part of the generation that looks back to the 90s with such fondness, but I don’t really think that anyone quite knows why we love that decade so much. None of us were ever there in a club in Berlin in the 90s, but it’s something we’re trying to revoke or repeat. What for you was so special about that period?
BDB: One of the things was that it was the period where streetwear became mainstream, in a way. Actually, the real club scene sort of started, all over Europe those big clubs were popping up and a very strong nightlife was developing. Also when I compare the 90s with now, when I went out then, people dressed up. I mean, of course I was in fashion school, but there was a very strong creative nightlife. Maybe a lot of people look back to that because it’s still somewhat there but it isn’t as extreme anymore. Also, I think kids today, it’s more difficult to find places they can go out and be really wild. Maybe this is the reason.