A look at Henrik Vibskov's Central Saint Martins student ID reveals a great deal about the formidable Danish designer: he's curiously shirtless and sporting a pretty progressive haircut (particularly for 1998), but most telling are the words "BA FASHION (MIXED MODE)." While this declaration outlined his university focus, Vibskov has seemingly always lived his life as a hyphenate, and his wonderfully outlandish runway shows reflect his conceptual hybrid thinking and motley talents.
Taking home first prize by breakdancing in an electric boogie competition at the mere age of five, Vibskov—now 42 years old—has since amassed a simultaneously impressive and intriguing biography, portfolio and unsurprisingly, an international cult following. A fashion designer, costume designer, contemporary artist, drummer, retailer, professor and potentially anything else he puts his mind to, Vibskov not only takes on almost any type of creative endeavor that piques his interest, he does it on a massive scale.
We've chronicled Vibskov's beautifully bizarre world in the past, but we recently had the chance to meet with him in person in Cape Town, where he gave a presentation at Design Indaba as part of a diverse group speaking about Danish design. Naturally, Vibskov took an unusual approach to the conference, remaining seated while speaking (which he explained was because he needed to pee) and regaling the audience with anecdotes about the times he's failed (like when his idea for a "mountain of boobies" ended up being just a small pile) and how he creatively overcomes those obstacles. Below we discuss process, reflection, making coffee and the importance of being yourself.
During your talk, you mentioned the fashion industry's push to do two seasonal collections a year. Do you dislike being on their schedule, or does that structure help in some ways?
I like it some ways. I have to say there’s many things in fashion that I maybe don’t like, but sometimes I also like the tempo, that you have to quickly reflect on things. But it's a really aggressive tempo. Somehow I like stuff happening and I like the tempo. In general though, I've always been really slow in school, and I didn't do my reports until the night before [they were due]: "I'll get up early!" Then I would put my alarm to five and then it's like, "Oh fuck, it's 6:30!" But I think if I didn't have a deadline I would be [whistles] on a spiral.
I'm usually working on 10 projects at once, but once I thought, "OK, instead of exhibitions, music touring, costumes I'm doing for the opera house, let me only focus on the show and doing a collection." Then I was like, "Now I'm ready to come up with the best idea ever, I have time." In the end—I don't know if it was a better project—but time-wise, I was using the same [amount of] time.
How do you find time to reflect if you’re always in motion? Or does it matter?
Oh, but I think when you are in motion… If you’re just lying there, you go inside your room and stay there for three months, I’m not sure you would [reflect]. When you’re in a flow—and for me it’s very important that I work on different things like music, or theater costumes or installations—because suddenly maybe you produce that thing. Because you're in a process, and there are a lot of things that can be used, from an object into a pattern, paper-cutting of the sign or more general ideas. But being in different processes can give something to you.
Do you try to out-do yourself each time? Or is it just whatever you're currently thinking about?
Yeah, that’s just—I really like a little bit of a twisted, surreal universe. So I don’t know, some of them are better than others. Some are rubbish. Some grow with time.
Music seems to be an important part of your life. Does that come into or inspire in some way the other parts of your creative output?
Sometimes the reason why I’m actually doing what I’m doing comes definitely from music and how we, as people, communicate through clothing, books, films. In those small social circles, how we define and are sending codes and signals out to other people about what we like. I think when I was 16 and suddenly all band members were dressed in black, looking to the same pointy shoes, or three years after we were a little more grungy, you know. Suddenly I was like "Hey!" I was suggesting some pretty wild things for some of those indie bands I was playing in, and some were completely off track and not very masculine either for some of those times.
But there were some kind of big connections between the music and how you appear. And I think suddenly it was like, "Yeah." I found it pretty interesting how looking into all different medias and how people are appearing, and music videos or artists doing films—like Matthew Barney—and creating identities. And that whole identity and how to communicate, suddenly I think made a purpose instead of only thinking about clothing in a commercial perspective.
Do you consider yourself an artist, a designer or a musician?
I got a little bit uncomfy and unsure when I did my presentation because all the other guys, they’re designers and focusing on emergency problems, a lot of doctors, hospitality, systems, reports and numbers. And they are designers but I’m also a designer but in that whole setup, it’s like, am I just a creative person or can I call myself a designer? I was trying to reflect quickly up there like, “Fuck, they’re all talking about doctors and emergency problems and how we can save the world. And I’m just sitting here, like a fashion designer,” you know. But then yesterday I skipped the conference and I went to a township; we were seeing a workshop and I just did a little walk through the whole thing and it’s really pretty hardcore, without water and electricity. But then I also saw some beautiful women and they were missing a lot of things in say, a normal society.
But their appearance—how they were appearing—was extremely important to them, how they were dressed and how they were appearing. And all of the small houses were extremely clean. The more aesthetic things are extremely important for mankind. And so I don’t have any medication projects that could save the world, but maybe the dream or the beautiful side of appearing, that’s maybe my… Because I think it can burn, it can be rainy and everything is going down, but you know, people would still be aware of how you are and how you’re appearing in that whole catastrophic scenario. And also, you know, humor. Make people laugh or do a project that’s maybe a bit far out—if you can manage to really give people a thought or a smile, that’s as important as whatever kind of medicine, you know.
You know, I’m not a painter, I'm not an artist in that perspective. Sometimes I try to stick to, "Hey, I’m a designer. I’m craftsmanship, I have my material." Because artists sometimes are just so fluffy and when you’re traveling around the world, there are so many artists that you’re like, “Hey, it’s really nice to be a craftsman, something that people can relate to.” I have some friends who are artists. But I’m actually doing design and I’m just trying to (for my own mind) stick to something because it’s simpler. Should it just be a creative mind? Sometimes I doubt what I should call myself. Do I really want to call myself an artist? Music I know. I can play music.
Does it matter what you call yourself? It's just a word right?
Yeah, I think it is. And I think in general, we’re all pretty unsure feeling and that’s why we’re wearing a hat—a duty—we do stuff that we feel safe doing. The titles are some kind of safety position. Sometimes people are very unsure and feeling unsafe about me because I’m doing many different things. And they really want to put me in that box: "Hey, you're a fashion designer, you cannot do this, you're not allowed to start doing hospital equipment or do art exhibitions." I’m pretty cool with it, I do a lot of different things. I have a big exhibition in Finland right now, a retrospective on all the things that I have done. And it’s going really well, but I can see some people are like, "What is this? Is this some kind of art trip? Oh, there is some clothing!"
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on costumes for Swan Lake at Den Norske Opera House. I'm working on three different ones actually. And then, I made a really stupid deal. I moved to Paper Island in the middle of Copenhagen. The paper distribution guys are struggling so they kind of moved out and there's this big island they've emptied and a few guys moved out there. I moved into the mechanic workshop where they used to fix all the trucks. But I also needed the small house that was next to it. But the owner didn't want to rent it. He said, "No no, I need a cafe." So I said, "I don't know what you're thinking, but I think I could do a pretty cool little little little coffee shop." He said OK, and now it's been eight months since I've been living out there, and he comes in his Porsche (which is very uncommon) and says, "So when can I have my first espresso?" Coming up!
So the plan is when I get back, we open the coffee shop. We have one week—it's in the contract. Typical me; getting involved in these kinds of stupid deals. We're not going to earn any money on it. And who's going to stand in that little coffee shop making coffee? So that's next week. We’ve been working on bits and bobs, it’s nearly there, but we just need to make coffee. Probably the coffee is going to be really bad.
I don't know, people can pull at you in so many different ways. But I'm just doing the things that I like, and I think that's kind of important. Maybe it goes wrong, but at least I'm trying.
Additional reporting by Evan Orensten; images courtesy of Henrik Vibskov