Cutting Edge Designer Errolson Hugh Talks Nike, Womenswear and Dystopia

SLEEK catches up with the Acronym designer about shoes, womenswear and the urban environment

Errolson Hugh is a super interesting designer who’s spent most of the last two decades making insanely high-end technical menswear. Through a series of arcane experiments with shape, function and the urban environment, Hugh has defined a new language for menswear, working with military-grade fabrics and algorithmic precision to define a rarified sub-strain of streetwear that’s more complex than anything else in his category. But after years in the shadows, he’s now rolling out a new Nike collaboration – and advancing into womenswear.

Since he moved to Berlin 10 years ago, his cult brand Acronym has quietly spread like a virus or conspiracy theory. The next order from their Czech factory, Hugh mentions in passing, will be their biggest ever. Not bad for a company whose ultra low run, ultra high concept streetwear makes you look and feel like an incredibly cool homicide detective and low-key karate master from the future, and is aggressively anti-commercial. Yet strikingly, it’s predicted not only much of the clothing of today, but the business models many of clothing companies. Because as well as building a fanatic (if relatively small) fanbase for the core brand, much of his work comes from the Acronym studio itself, in the form of collaborations with some of the world’s biggest companies. Canadian high-end performance-wear brand Arc’teryx has made clothes with him, and he’s head designer for Stone Island’s Shadow Project sub-label.

Their biggest big brother, however, is Nike. And this week there are two drops. The first is the release of a new collaboration trainer. In 2015, Nike asked Hugh to put his stamp on Lunar Force 1, the lighter, snappier brother of the literally, actually iconic Air Force 1. At the time, the Canadian designer’s intervention – slashing the side of the lacing and replacing it with a zip, and dipping the heel in neon orange – was controversial, at least in the small circle of the internet which finds such things controversial. The Frankenstein-like remodelling stuck, however, and now stands as one of the more enduring and intellectually interesting of Nike collaborations. It’s being re-released in all-white and all-pink colorways this week.

The second is the announcement of Hugh’s next project – a womenswear collection for the much-loved inner-city resistance-wear line ACG, part of his ongoing working with the All Conditions Gear line. We walked and talked over black tea for an hour-and-a-half last week in Kreuzberg, just before the winter set in.

The conversation, which spanned shoes, womenswear and design, the city itself and the politics of his clothes, is below.

THE SHOE

The Lunar Force 1 is very interesting, because it looks so unlike what people may have expected from an Acronym shoe.

Number one: we don’t do what people expect we’re going to do, for whatever reason. We were just looking at how we can could change the functionality of it in a very, very simple but very drastic way. Rather than draw, we just took the zippers and started to Frankenstein them onto the shoe, and it immediately the collision of the intervention and the original shoe looked super interesting. The contrast was so drastic, and the tension was the most interesting part – so rather than smooth it out, we left it raw.

It looks handmade. As if it’s just a test. 

When the first edition came out, a lot of people were asking: “Did you do that yourself?” Now it’s been accepted, but when the first photos leaked, people freaked out. They were said it was sacrilege. Which I think is great.

But on this edition, when Hypebeast ran a poll on the best of the shoes, you were the readers’ favourite designer.

Oh really? That’s good.

I’m not just saying that to help your feelings, but also because it seems like a really interesting moment: a shocking intervention that very rapidly has become a classic.

It’s definitely become ‘a thing.’ Thing that I find interesting is that it kicked off this whole series of DIY shoe projects, and kids were reinterpreting other shoes, with the same sort of approach, and like adding zippers, gluing buckles and adding parts to their shoes, and that’s still going on today. There other thing that’s really funny is a lot of people have copied the shoe. There are so many versions of it: Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, Dolce and Gabbana [have all made startlingly similar shoes]. Almost every week there’s some version of the shoe that pops up. It’s funny to see that tick over into become an accepted thing, or something even worth copying for commercial reasons, in a relatively short period of time, as well. 

The Air Force One series is a cultural object as well as a functional one. How did you approach working with Nike’s archives?

With Nike it’s not just a brand, it’s pop culture. It’s such a big part of so many people’s lives that everyone’s Nike is different. So right away it was clear to us that we’re not just doing a design, we’re also working with people’s sense of history or identity. It needs a certain kind of respect, a certain type of awareness, when you work on anything that they’ve done. The AF1 in particular, and ACG as well, comes with this huge cultural importance. For us, we spend a lot of time making sure or trying to treat the stuff with the respect that it deserves, that’s the main thing. Yet with the Lunar Force 1s, we were fully aware of the cultural stories of the shoe, they just weren’t the main attraction to the project. What we tried to do was to isolate the actual design and fundamentally look at the original intent of the shoe as a functional object and go from there.

WOMENSWEAR & DESIGN

You’re working on womenswear for ACG this season. How did you approach that?

The funny this is, is that it doesn’t change all that much. What we realised over the years is that essentially, the girls want the same stuff. They have the same problems, the same needs. If anything, it’s just a little bit more actually. A little bit more refined, a little bit more technical. And the reason I say that is because even just physiologically, women get colder, because their skin is 15% thinner in certain areas.

One of the apparent paradoxes about Acronym is that a lot of the vocabulary is hyper masculine, and you’re listed in the hyper-masculine category of streetwear, but a lot of the shapes and refining are quite androgynous. 

I’m glad you see it that way. I think that’s a natural extension of not working from a commercial perspective. We don’t even have a sales manager in the company. So we don’t look at any commercial information to make decisions, it’s just exploration in terms of design, and it allows you to end up in these interesting places.

What influences your designs?

There’s not really a set methodology of how we arrive at things. Sometimes it’s just somebody coming back from Indonesia with has these weird pants that we break down and try to understand and end up somewhere else. Other times, we’ll start with an idea for a gesture, a motion or a movement and explore its vocabulary.

I love this foundation myth of Acronym that it started with trying to find trousers that you could karate kick while wearing. I guess motion has always been an influence.

Absolutely, the kinesiology or kinetics of certain things are definitely a huge part of the work, probably the part that takes the most time. I guess at least 50% of the work is just getting the fit to work. Because you can make something that moves really well, but it has a certain volume and a certain shape, so to get it to look one way, and move another way is a lot of work. 

It’s the opposite of that bourgeois idea of form following function.

In that respect, you’re actually camouflaging function, because you’re hiding the ability to move within the silhouette. You can use the intrinsic geometry of a functional pattern to generate an aesthetic, but then you end up somewhere completely different.

URBAN ENVIRONMENT

One of the things that runs through your work is a strategies for exploring utility wear, except than the utility in question in navigating a city, instead of mountain, or whatever.

It’s interesting because most performance apparel, be it sports, military or workwear, is all activity based, meaning you wear it to do this special thing. It works. But the reason people recontextualize all that stuff and wear it in the city, is because it performs functions even when doing everyday type of things, but it wasn’t designed for that from the jump. That’s exactly what we wanted to do. Which leads on to the fact that the urban space, looking at it from performance or design point of view, is not an activity, it’s a geographical area and within that space, you have any number of activities that will go down. You have any number of climate changes, moving from interior space to exterior spaces, different modes of transport, so designing something that works is, in some ways, a lot more complex than designing for a specialist activity. There hasn’t actually been a lot of formal study in that area. 

What are you designing against when you make clothing for the city?   

With activity-based wear, the obstacles are largely physical things: climate, temperature, abrasion, weather. In urban space, the major obstacles you face is other people. So that means what your clothes communicate is hugely important, as much as their technical performance.

You’ve lived in Berlin for 10 years. What has it had on your work?

I’m sure it’s had an impact, I don’t know if I could consciously articulate it. Of course there’s the financial side, which has allowed us to explore possibilities we never could in New York, or Tokyo, or London. One of the things that always strikes me is when I walk around the neighbourhood and the studios in Mitte, which is becoming much more gentrified in the last ten years, but the amount of super high level creative people that are there for whatever reason is endlessly fascinating to me. I run into Ai Weiwei on the street every once in awhile.

I saw the selfie. Great selfie.

Thanks! (Laughs) Alva Noto, his studio’s just around the corner. If you know who those people are and how good their work is, and where they are in their respective fields, it’s kind of amazing, for a city of 3.5 million people. I never really encountered a situation like that before.

The urban fabric of Mitte is super interesting. You have super luxury stores next to destroyed buildings and abandoned lots.

Arno Brandlhuber did a really interesting study of these in between spaces and these half lots or gaps in between buildings. It’s so fascinating. That’s definitely what I think gives Berlin its life and its edge, its authenticity, to use a horrible word. It isn’t finished here. It’s not late stage capitalism everywhere you look. There’s still spaces for things to happen and unfinished narratives.

Do you see your work in dialogue with that?

Absolutely, because Acronym is always … (pauses) The struggle that we’ve always had with Acronym is that we don’t fit into a predefined box: it’s too technical for fashion, it’s too expensive for streetwear, it’s too aesthetic for performance. All of these things we’ve had to deal with at some point. At the end of the day we’re doing our thing and we don’t really understand it either: we’re aiming for something but do we really 100% know where we’re going to get there. But that constant exploration comes with real financial costs, because you don’t fit into certain things, you immediately eliminate large chunks of potential revenue, just by the undefined nature of what you’re doing. To explore those new territories, you need to have the freedom to do it. In a financial sense, Berlin is an enabler.

POLITICS

All clothing is political. 

Absolutely, but people don’t like to talk about it. Apparel employs more people than almost any industry on earth, many living in near slavery conditions, and pollutes more than any industry apart from petrochemicals. Its pace is not sustainable, in any sense.

What does it mean, politically, for you to be making clothing that approaches urban life as if it’s a hazardous environment?

I would say most of that comes, on a very mundane level, from growing up in a city, but not having that much money, using mass transit all the time, eating cheap food, all of that. There’s just a lot of people trying to find their spot in those types of dense, competitive environments, and you gotta watch out for yourself, and your stuff; all of that comes from there. The other thing is somewhat disturbing. Having been doing this type of work for this long, and seeing the way the world’s developed, clothes that were conceptual pieces about the potentials for a surveillance society now make total sense.

How’s that?

In very subtle ways, dystopia has become the new normal, which is horrible to admit. But has definitely helped people understand Acronym a lot easier. 

So tell me about the dystopian roots of your work.

I mean we never really saw it as dystopian, but a lot of other people did. I’m a super skeptical person, paranoid to some degree, but to see it all bear out even worse than you thought possible is sort of incredible.

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