The vice president of menswear design at Belstaff talks music, motorbikes and the importance of making mistakes
Interview by Ryan Thompson
Frederik Dyhr, VP of menswear and accessories at Belstaff, is flitting between his desk and a box of leather jackets. We’re in his office, a small corner room he shares with VP of womenswear Delphine Ninous, on the second floor of Belstaff House, the impressive flagship store and head office on Bond Street. Formerly the Aeolian Hall and the site on which The Beatles and The Jam once recorded, the building is a vast multitude of back staircases and corridors connecting exposed-brick showrooms and open-plan design studios. I know this because I always take the stairs in this building. When I last visited Belstaff, I was swallowed up by a very officious elevator for a good 20 minutes.
Dyhr’s side of the partitioned desk is tidy enough, although it has the hand of someone who was expecting a visitor. Around it on the floor sit boxes of clothing, arms of leather and torsos of waxed cotton spilling over cardboard flaps. On the wall opposite lean five or six storyboards telling the new season’s tale, or at least drafts of various plot lines and characters. The studio space outside is busy for 10am, and sections of it remind me of my daughter’s bedroom, with tall pyres of clothing appearing as though they were shed in a hurry. The parent in me feels something close to anxiety about who’s going to tidy it up. At least there’s no Lego on the floor.
Dyhr is charmingly soft spoken, verging on the melodic. It’s a voice that could safely bring jumpers down from the top floor or mediate between acrimonious couples. There is a certain audible Danishness at the corners of some of his words, which sometimes makes his diction reassuringly imperfect. He wears his blond hair in a boyishly short crop and sports neatly kept stubble that looks like it has the potential to go full Viking should the need arise. His bright-blue eyes are deep set and framed by two wisps of blond brows. He smiles a lot, and genuinely, judging by the fine delta of lines about the crooks of his eyes.
Today he is dressed in a pair of black Belstaff jeans, a dark-grey T-shirt and trainers. Over his chair hangs a waxed-cotton Roadmaster, perhaps Belstaff’s most iconic piece of outerwear. I sit at the corner of his desk while he perches on the edge of his seat with an eager manner, leaning into my questions…
CS: So, Fred, how do you find yourself at Belstaff?
FD: Well, it began about four summers ago, when I got a phone call from a former colleague at Burberry, who said that an opportunity had come up and would I be prepared to move my family to New York for it? I remember thinking at the time that it was a bit weird for a British heritage brand to be based in New York, but as it happened Belstaff moved its headquarters to London in the first half of 2014. I’d been at Burberry for nearly five years, so it was perfect timing. I was ready for the next step.
CS: I guess you probably couldn’t have had a better proving ground than at Burberry?
FD: Yes, my time at Burberry was a significant period in my evolution as a designer and as someone navigating the business of fashion. I was part of the menswear design team - actually, the most senior designer on the Burberry London line. This was at a time when Burberry was pursuing a more sartorial direction and looking to really explore contemporary tailoring, and so in many ways that was really what I was brought in to do.
CS: How so? Was your background in tailoring?
FD: Prior to Burberry I had worked for Zegna. I think also in that moment that Christopher [Bailey, Burberry CEO] liked or was looking for a complement of designers who had come from Britain or Northern Europe, guys with Italian experience and knowledge of the tailoring heritage, so in that regard I fitted the bill. It was an absolutely fantastic experience working with Christopher and Burberry, because in that period the company was just on fire. Of course, you never really thought of it at that way at the time - rather, it was a place with a young team and plenty of good energy. Then fast-forward to four years ago and I’m on a plane with my family to New York to work with Belstaff, which was very much a brand in transition. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a big risk, because I knew the backing was there, and the heritage is so rich, but I was most definitely leaving a comfort zone in Burberry.
CS: You’re now one of an increasing and disproportionate number of Danish designers working on a high-level global stage. What’s going on in Copenhagen that it keeps creating prodigious fashion talents?
FD: That’s a good question. I think there’s a really good energy in Copenhagen. It has a massive streetwear vibe, which kind of just happened at the perfect time - everything was aligned culturally I think. The likes of Wood Wood, Astrid Andersen, Henrik Vibskov - they just fit the young Copenhagen mentality so well. Oddly enough, when it comes to my own involvement in that scene, I was always a bit on the outside, as I didn’t study design in Denmark. My route into fashion was somewhat roundabout. I did a small course in Florence in the mid 90s in my early twenties. I was actually studying music and only got into design later, when I met my wife. Then I totally hijacked it.
CS: You must be one of very few heads of design operating today who didn’t go down the path of fashion school.
FD: I went to a design school as a kid, so I guess the creative path was mapped out early on; it was just a case of finding the right direction to take. In Denmark you’re always surrounded by design, whether it’s architecture or furniture, so it’s very much part of the fabric of Danish life. It’s the same in Sweden, too - I think the Swedes are some of the coolest people around. They always seem to be creating new, super-cool brands. My own pocket philosophy on this is that they’re a little isolated and therefore keen to make sure they know what’s going on. That might explain why they’re very trend-aware. I think the Danes are a little bit more relaxed, which is maybe why that street culture we spoke about is so popular in Denmark. The other thing, of course, is that we live in such a global society now that you get the same information in Iceland not long after you’ve had it in London. Everything moves so quickly that, culturally speaking, what used to be boundaries or markers are at the very least blurred and in many cases non-existent.
CS: Is that good or bad?
FD: It’s good and bad. On the bad side you risk everything being the same, a sort of safe amalgam of styles. When everyone is using the same sources of inspiration, it becomes very unified. It’s good that the flow of information is very quick, but I also think it tends to make people a little lazy. As a designer, you can’t afford to be lazy.
CS: Let me rewind on you for a moment. You mentioned you were studying music before you got into fashion design…
FD: [Laughs] I was studying classical music. I had actually completely mapped out a classical singing path for myself.
CS: No way!
FD: Honestly! But it was so tough. Believe me, you have to be really dedicated to become a classical singer. I have untold respect for all classical musicians: it’s a very lonely road that requires incredible discipline in order to be successful.
CS: You must be one of the 0.00001 per cent of fashion designers who have made the classical music/fashion crossover!
FD: Well, you have my wife to thank for not unleashing the baritone of Frederik Dyhr on the world. She was a big influence on me changing direction - she’s a womenswear designer, so it’s all a bit incestuous, I’m afraid.
CS: Do you share similar design philosophies?
FD: I think she thinks I’m pretty obnoxious when it comes to design!
‘We always want to be in the position where we’re willing to try, to fail, to improve, to innovate. What is the creative process - what is fashion design - if it is not perpetual innovation?’
CS: Is it difficult that someone so close to you is in the same industry, or are you constantly bouncing ideas off one another?
FD: No - we keep a respectful creative distance. You can’t please everyone; you have to do what’s right for the brand you’re working for. Of course you listen to different views and opinions, but you have to be pretty confident in your own vision. We have a respectful relationship in that regard.
CS: Speaking of the brand, the last few collections have, I think, been pretty transformational when one considers where Belstaff has been for the past decade. In many ways your first few days must have felt like you were joining a start-up.
FD: There were certainly many challenges. There are always going to be growing aches when a brand changes hands - we certainly had ours. I think it has been a bumpy ride in certain ways, but an extremely good learning curve in many others. The great thing about a brand that is growing from a creative point of view is that you make mistakes collectively, and when you’re all invested in an idea that doesn’t work out quite as planned, everyone benefits from the experience. Mistakes are the food of innovation. With large, established brands, the mistakes are gradually weeded out because the creative process becomes results-driven, and as a consequence innovation stagnates. Cognitively speaking, it’s very counter-intuitive to encourage mistakes, but that’s where the really great ideas come from. We always want to be in the position where we’re willing to try, to fail, to improve, to innovate. What is the creative process - what is fashion design - if it is not perpetual innovation? At Belstaff we’re lucky because we have such a rich menswear history, but also because we have a history of fabric innovation. So we work with that and utilise it.
CS: Does having an archive to honour make the design process more difficult?
FD: I don’t think so, but then it doesn’t make it any easier, either. However, ‘easier’ is never the goal. I’d say that working within a tight remit is a purer challenge. I think it’s good to have restrictions, creatively speaking, to work within a framework, but actually that’s menswear in general. We’re not reinventing the wheel. So you have to ask yourself, how can you follow the rules, where can you bend the rules? Menswear is always the balance of tweaking something to get it to the right place. We’re blessed at Belstaff because we already have great silhouettes, so it’s a question of playing with proportions or details and trim.
CS: With so much retail data available now, does the acknowledgement of commerciality ever creep into your process?
FD: I don’t think the word commerciality is seen as a negative any more, it’s just the reality of the business. Good design should sell! I think people sometimes confuse commerciality with mass-market-type stuff, but that’s a mistake. Burberry is a great example of a brand that has had phenomenal commercial success, but you couldn’t look at its runway shows and honestly say it was ‘commercial’ in the pejorative sense of the word. We try as much as possible to frame up the collections from the beginning so we know which items are likely to have more commercial success than others, but that doesn’t mean they’re boring. If anything, it’s a bigger challenge to be able to do that perfect crew neck or shirt that has the Belstaff DNA and can still cater to a big audience.
CS: Tell me about your creative process, Fred. How do you work?
FD: We have quite a systematic way of working, from how we set up the boards to how we do the sketches and the research. There are quite a lot of processes.
CS: Did you bring that way of working with you?
FD: I guess I did, although if you asked my wife if I go about my life systematically she would probably laugh in your face! In terms of how to design and build a collection, then yes. Research always starts with a concept and its concurrent imagery, always making sure that you are mining an angle that fits with the heritage of the brand. So the first step is always image research, and the whole design team is involved in that. It’s quite an organic process to get a mood for a collection. You are creating a road map: the whole point of the research is that it really informs the collection. When that becomes clear, or at least clearer, the next step is to get a model in and basically play dress-up. We bring in vintage pieces from the archive and things we have been inspired by during our research, and then just play with them. It’s always important that there’s a certain character to each piece, which is why referencing real pieces is key. Fabric research follows, then sketches.
CS: Do you sketch yourself?
FD: I do. I think it has become something of a lost art. My sketching is not as good as it used to be - you won’t see my sketches in Sotheby’s in years to come, put it that way - but I don’t know how to use the computer for design purposes anyway, so it’s me and my pencil for the foreseeable future. I remember three or four years after I graduated, everyone was using software to design. It’s great, sure, but pencil and paper is so much more immediate as a mode of communicating your visual ideas. The important thing, of course, is that you can communicate your idea - the medium doesn’t really matter a great deal. Because Belstaff is such a technical brand, we often build mock-ups of pocket shapes or collar details and things like that, because that’s the very best way of achieving a true idea of proportion and detailing.
CS: The technical heritage of Belstaff is quite fascinating, and I don’t think many people realise just how innovative the brand was back in the mid 1900s.
FD: Yes, I agree with you. We’re very fortunate that we have so much fabric DNA in our brand. We were the first company to use completely waterproof and breathable waxed cotton. You should see some of the old pieces we have in our archives - we recently dug up some rubberised tweed from the 60s and waterproofed cashmere from the 30s. It makes a ton of sense for us to continue in that vein, hence we still make clothing that is exceptionally functional, either in an urban environment or a much more extreme one, such as motorcycle riding.
CS: Speaking of motorcycles, do you ride?
FD: That’s funny you should ask, because I’m actually in the middle of taking my test. It came to a point where I thought, I’ve got to. It’s going really well. I’m learning at a school in Islington, near Upper Street. My test is in a couple of weeks.
CS: High-speed sports bike or cruising type of guy?
FD: Cruising guy. We went up to Norton recently, at Donington Hall, and saw some of its old archive bikes - just incredible pieces of engineering and design. That’s definitely my style. It’s interesting to note the distinction between American riding culture, British riding culture and even Japanese riding culture. They are all very different in many ways.
CS: Cruising rapidly on to the latest collection, can you tell me what you are working on at the moment?
FD: We are putting the last bits of the winter 2016 collection together. To put things in context, for the past few seasons we were looking at the earlier elements of Belstaff’s history, the 50s Ton-Up scene, desert explorers… We feel like we’ve sufficiently reintroduced the brand’s heritage to the industry and to our customers, so now we want to push the envelope and have a bit more fun, make it more current. So we’re looking at touring riding as a concept, especially the super-technical aspects and functional pieces, and asking how we can feed it into a beautiful collection. It’s an interesting dichotomy, but we hope that it will introduce a sort of crossover between our performance fans and our fashion fans.
CS: Do you prefer designing a particular season over another?
FD: The seasons live hand in hand at Belstaff, to be honest. Of course they are very different at their core, but at the seasonal edges, they’re blurred frontiers, probably more so than with other brands, given our approach to adaptable technical fabrics. I actually get quite frustrated by how little fabric innovation there is in the menswear industry. It sometimes feels like everyone is fishing in the same patch of sea and no one really wants to explore new territory. But perhaps that’s easy for me to say, working for a brand with a remit for technical innovation. On the other hand, it would be easy for us to think of Belstaff as an autumn/winter-specific brand, given our waxed-cotton lines, but we have a global vision, so we’re constantly looking at ways to make fabrics lighter or more breathable. Being able to have those lightweight, adaptable pieces is key.
CS: Asia would seem, on paper at least, to be a potentially great area of growth, given the combination of moto culture and that proclivity for English heritage brands.
FD: Yes, it’s certainly a route we’re excited about exploring. Asia, particularly Japan, feels like a natural growth opportunity. There’s a real passion for bikes and customisation over there. They really tap into that kind of immaculate way of designing; it’s very authentic. We’ve actually tracked down some amazing old Belstaff pieces in Japanese vintage shops. Have you ever picked up a copy of Clutch Magazine? It’s a Japanese publication devoted to exquisite craftsmanship, whether it’s fashion, interiors, bikes - you name it. Where else but Japan would you find a periodical like that?