We recently had the pleasure to hang out with Kjetil Aas in his Copenhagen boutique. A native of Jøsenfjorden on the west coast of Norway, Kjetil has been in Copenhagen since the turn of the century, to first, complete his studies at Design School Kolding. Following on from his education Kjetil enjoyed an impressive career in Copenhagen's creative scene, including a head of design role with Norse Projects, prior to establishing his own label. It was an exciting time for me to visit as I have been following Kjetil, and his work, since the establishment of his label Armoire d’homme in 2012 and was eager to finally see his retail space as he transitioned the brand into sur le chemin. A name that references the brands ethos as they work, on their road, towards something better. It was mid Saturday morning when we visited and Kjetil spoke back and forth with us while tending to customers, taking business calls and guiding lost tourists.
Kjetil has opened the doors to sur le chemin in Lille Kirkestræde, a street located parallel to Copenhagens busiest - Strøget. This is an area he feels is still unspoiled in the city centre and the premise shares a cozy backyard with a few other small business. In this area you really get the feel of a very community orientated neighbourhood. The store itself is an old butchery from the 1950s and Kjetil was drawn to the tiles which sparked the idea to keep the original interior and then add in some newer elements, not dissimilar from the philosophy of sur le chemin. The project to transition this butchery into a retail store was helped by the creative brothers from Studio 0405 .
The street and atmosphere fits perfectly with the vibe of sur le chemin. As a label that excels in producing understated, classic menswear and womenswear pieces it is only fitting that they exist in the humble cobblestone street next to the busiest street and one of the most photographed churches in Copenhagen.
The re-branding was a big decision for Kjetil, having built up a reputation with Armoire d'homme, but he felt it was best as he continues to develop the label. In the transition the designer carried over many of the same principals, the same typeface and key pieces that form an essentials collection for the brand, helping consumers to easily understand that it is the same, but different. Kjetil has also spent some time analysing the direction he wants to take the brand, along with his economic partners Ed and Lene Renner, to cut it down to the essence of what they want to achieve. Some of these things include maintaining commercial customers which has not always been the easiest task. Things that are important to the brand such as slowing down, adding in pieces as they see fit, rather than showing a full collection and being absent from the trade shows does make the process more challenging when it comes to working with some retailers. However, this has lead the focus back into the brand and flagship where Kjetil now sees his work as an ongoing process, making a few minor adjustments rather than reinventing and establishing a new collection every season.
“I see everything I do now until I retire, that is a full collection. Instead of using the next two months on a collection, I am using the next 20 years”
sur le chemin has a strong focus on neutral colours offering a palette of mostly white, navy (sometimes grey) and beige to create clothing that is not inspired by trends, but rather a style with longevity in mind. Pieces that you will keep on going back to. Looking at Kjetil's personal style it is evident that he is a strong believer in the brands vision with this being the first time I have seen him in anything other than navy chinos. This has not always been the case with Kjetils clothing choices and he references his previous looks which included a techno hippy phase and two black periods. The second of which occurred during his final year at Kolding where the graduating fashion class, who all hung out together, wore strictly black ensembles everyday. Kjetil laughs and wonders what it must of been like for other students to see all these fashion kids coming down every lunch time from the top floor before considering himself very lucky to still be able to call that group his best friends all these years later.
The collections of sur le chemin are referenced from Kjetil's interpretation of classic menswear and as he, creatively, never starts a new season from scratch he has managed to free up some time to put more focus into other projects he feels are important to the brand and his expanding role in Copenhagen's scene. Kjetil has an interesting take on textiles and longevity, opting not to strictly use organic materials but to look further beyond that towards longevity and quality by selecting fabrics to create products built to last and age with the wearer. I have discussed slowness on numerous occasions with Kjetil and it is always inspiring to see how he manages to take the concept of slow fashion and engage his audiences in a positive way. These are issues that are important to him and as sur le chemin moves away from the standard system, he has allowed himself the time to take a step back from the design process and shift his focus to bringing more relevance to the brand through other aspects, such as collaborations, that help to compliment the clothing and discuss issues that are also important to the industry.
One of these collaborations is an ongoing project that he has created called ‘sur le chemin favourites’ where the brand engages different people that they find interesting to discuss what makes a garment someones favourite. "This could be anything from an old memory, a coat from your grandma that you wore to death or an idea" says Kjetil. The thought process behind this project is to understand the feeling behind why people keep going back to the same pieces over and over again and then create something based off that feeling. This project is not about fashion, but long lasting style, and the importance of giving a garment a longer lifespan. For the most recent collaboration Kjetil spoke with Gitte Wetter, who is head of menswear design at Samsøe & Samsøe. Gitte had an idea about mens shirts, denim from japan and shibori. The dialogue with Gitte then assisted Kjetil in the design process as he interpreted what had made this concept so important to Gitte and the relationship she has with the garment as he brings her idea with their aesthetics to life in a contemporary context.
The project also touches on something important to Kjetil which is sustainability and changing the way we behave, consume and produce. Kjetil hopes the favourites project will help by getting people to understand why it is they like certain garments over others and addressing this at a consumer level rather than attacking the industry. “Why do you keep going back to that product or that brand?”, he says. Every piece from this project comes with a short text and a quote from the person they have collaborated with so consumers can get the story behind it.
Kjetil is now also giving back in another way by teaching at the masters level at Kolding Design School. The course covers everything from the students first idea to concept development and transferring this into a finished design, while speaking about sustainability from the beginning. The students have different focuses and visions on what sustainability is and what it means to them. Because of this it is encouraging to see that Kolding has allowed the students to enjoy creative freedom, even if it is designs that might not work in the real world. This helps to keep the students interested and not allow the sustainability side of things to become too taxing. It is important to note that sustainability is something that is becoming a common part of the education system at Kolding and is a big contrast to when Kjetil was a student and sustainability was not discussed at all. This is an area where Denmark is excelling as they are proactive in their approach to sustainability and are able to change a culture in a short period of time, starting within the education system.
Kjetil admits he was a bit reluctant to start teaching when he was first asked to become a moderator for a group of students bachelor collections. He did think “why did they ask me?”. He adds that it was stressful for him in the beginning but enabled him to think a bit deeper and realise the knowledge he has gained over his career, concluding that he is able to teach these kids something other than “dark navy is the best colour”. Kjetil is now enjoying his time in the classroom and feels like teaching is giving something back to him as well as he becomes one of the “older ones” in the Copenhagen scene. He is also enjoying the challenges of seeing multiple projects on the same day and having to change his mindset from project to project as he looks at things with a fresh and open perspective even if it is not to your personal taste. Being back in this forum and dealing with a younger generation on a regular basis has helped Kjetil with the focus for his own label and also made him more aware with what he is doing and aspiring to achieve at sur le chemin.
All photography Ronja Penzo