You’ll Speak When We Tell You To

by Long Nguyen

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Tim Coppens Gets Radical About the Seams
Tim Coppens is sitting near the window frame of his design studio on the far west side of New York’s Chinatown late on a Friday afternoon. It’s snowing outside—a seasonal phenomena coterminous with the sadness of late January in New York—and the subways are packed full. The stylish and witty people have red cheeks. But nobody is going anywhere. So now is as good a time as ever to stay put, and look back.  “I wasn’t into fashion at all,” he tells me. “I made all sorts of stuff when I was younger but didn’t have a clue about fashion until I started at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. I liked constructing things and wanted to do something creative but I didn’t see the opportunities for a creative job in fashion. I was good in math and thinking 3D so I tried architecture for a while. But I missed the storytelling part, and that’s what is really important to me. It was around then I started seeing fashion as a way to be creative, the story of combining various elements.” He pauses to watch the single saddest snowflake ever trace a line on the window. “I am from a small village in Belgium so it was pretty rare to meet someone that understood that it wasn’t just wearing clothes. Clothes could also be extended in a form of expression.”

Coppens is about arrival, assessment and progress. He graduated from the Royal Academy in 1998 and then moved to Munich to work as a designer for the German fashion house Bogner (it is known for its luxurious active-wear clothes, a legitimate precursor to today’s French brands Moncler Gamme Rouge and Gamme Bleu). In 2004, he moved to Adidas’ headquarters in Herzogenaurach where he developed the men’s high-end performance apparel sector. Four years later, Coppens relocated to New York and served as design director for RLX—the luxury fashion and performance sport-and-tech oriented collection that became the most fashion forward line within the Ralph Lauren family of brands.

“Working for big brands gave me insights into the process of development, of manufacturing, and bringing commercially viable products to the market.  Even though you are part of a large system, it is still a great learning experience.”

But there is little room for the personal in such vast commercial enterprises. Coppens has always been guided by this focus. He tells me he “loved working for Adidas and Ralph” but that his “ambition has always been to venture out” on his own, “to express [his] creativity in more personal collections.” But the idea of creating his namesake collection germinated slowly, with steady resolve of an artist-in-becoming.

“In the beginning of 2011, I set up my company and then launched a small collection for the Spring 2012 season. It was immediately picked up by Barneyʼs N.Y.” The excitement of this period seems to overcome him once again as he recalls selling his first capsule line. Club 21, LN-CC, Dover Street Market, and Isetan were other high-end boutiques that also placed orders.

But the story of one man’s rise in fashion isn’t his alone. The discovered and the discoverer are as the critic and the artwork. “One afternoon, Stella Ishii came by my office unannounced with a very eager young man by the name of Tim Coppens. He was carrying garment bags filled with the most gorgeous coats. I tend to pay attention to someone trained at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. The rigorous curriculum produces some of the most exciting design talent ever, and in the case of Coppens, there is no exception,” says Jay Bell, the VP and Divisional Merchandise Manager for designer menswear at Barney’s NY, while in Florence on a buying trip for the Fall 2013 men’s season.

“In the garment bags were a collection of coats with an innovative mix of very chic and very sporty feelings. Unusual details like geometric seams, web taping in unexpected places, neoprene-like cuffs, and industrial zips on plush Melton wool wedded high design and technical artistry with liveliness,” Bell says. In a loft space on lower Broadway, Bell backed-up his enthusiasm with the presentation of some of his favorites from the Spring 2012 launch: a jacket with a light brown leather high folded collar and double side zippered pockets; a wool tapestry print baseball jacket with white leather sleeves; and a blue nylon light weight anorak jacket with pointed sleeve trims.

Like the writer who keeps adding chapters to an already sprawling novel, Coppens tells me, “There are so many stories I would like to tell and show.” He speaks with confidence because there is a plan already in mind, how his vision and certain of its narratives will continue to evolve from season to season; he knows how to evolve because he’s already defined the crux of his work.

“I like fabrics with body, compactness. I like sculpting and menswear. It is easier for me to work in a more constructed way with compact fabrics. I think a great jacket or coat is characterized by good construction, attention to detail, moving a traditional garment forward but in a way that still feels natural and comfortable.”

This is what gets the wallet out. Andrew Blyszak, from the East London fashion-music-book concept store LN-CC, tells me, “We bought Tim’s first season. The collection was very much representative of the brand’s DNA and where it is now while adding a new dimension that wasn’t available from any of the other brands we were stocking at the time. Our S/S 12 buy focused on outerwear, as this is where Coppens’ aesthetic and approach to design can best be seen.”

Bell weighs in: “The first collection sold to the piece, and we therefore doubled purchases the next season. Thankfully, Tim expanded his offerings to include a full sportswear collection: shirts at $300, trousers at $600, and coats at $1500, all in the finest cloth, made meticulously in the USA. We merchandise Tim Coppens with fellow Belgian designers, Raf Simons, Ann Demeuleester, Dries van Noten, and Maison Martin Margiela. For our catalogue, Juergen Teller photographed Tim Coppens with Raf Simons for Spring 2013, and Ann Demeulemeester a season prior. Tim’s aesthetic complements and balances the aesthetic of his Belgian counterparts.”

Coppens isn’t programmatic in the way he approaches a collection. “I don’t select a theme out of a list, but rather come across things I feel are interesting and want to look closer at and explore further.”

Some of this is couched in cinema. For instance, the debut Spring 2012 collection was inspired by Jacques Audiard’s film Un prophète. Coppens’ work shared the urban sensibility portrayed of the actor Tahar Rahim, the field and biker jackets reflecting with the elegant line cuts and sleek finishes tapping into the quintessence of the banlieu style.

In the next season, he incorporated ice hockey into racing elements from Nicolas Refn’s film Drive; there were pants with side neoprene stripes and a tan broad-shoulder cotton snap jacket with black leather motor-cross patches. For Spring 2013, he explored the aviator ‘Gentlemen of the Sky’ look.

“Things from the past can reappear. But I have no intent of recreating a garment that refers to the past. Everything always gets a treatment,” the designer explains, a shaved shearling bomber with large steel industrial zippers, or a black cotton nylon trench cut short, or fine lamb leather jogging pants with one side seam making it more couture than track.

Blyszak most appreciates this aspect in Coppens work: “[Coppens] continues to take classic menswear staples and reworks them in a way that feels fresh, relevant and progressive.”

But Coppens has been steadily widening his scope to encompass an all around wardrobe lineup, such as the black streamline single-breasted jacket and cigarette pants this Spring. In addition, there’s a small offering of bags and footwear in the work. “I first prefer to explore the waters and see if it makes sense before fully launching a new idea. Having a strong foundation is important and if I can’t deliver something 110 percent from the start, then I would rather wait.”

“Tim’s voice is uniquely his own. It is rooted in an artistic Belgian sensibility, tempered with the functionality of American sportswear. In a relatively short period, Tim has defined a singular point of view that is readily recognizable as his own.  It is thoroughly masculine and almost athletic in its spirit. The slim, strictly tailored silhouettes present a unique play on fabrics—the finest wools mixed with technical neoprene—and offer an aggressive, but palatable, fashion statement. Tim Coppens strikes a perfect balance between Belgian conceptualism and American practicality,” Bell says.

Bell again mentions that all of Coppens’ clothes are “Made in the U.S.A.” rather than sourced in Europe or Asia. “Tim supports the U.S. manufacturers who work at the highest levels of craftsmanship. He presents them with unique challenges, as his patterns and details demand intense skill. Made in the U.S.A. definitely resonates with certain customers.”

The last of the evening’s snowfall has melted into the still moving Hudson. I am reminded of Heraclitus and the aphorism, you never step in the same river twice. Coppens embodies the river. As I leave he tells me he is beginning to think about doing something for women. I smile and think to myself, Of course he is. A river always thinks of where it is going.