For Belgian-in-NYC designer Tim Coppens, fashion dogmas mean nothing more than a point of departure. Gaze fixed forever forward, he has forged on from the Royal Academy of Antwerp - Fashion Department class of 1998, to swiftly being noticed by industry big brass like Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour and having his entire debut collection bought on sight by mega-player Barneys. Over the years, Coppens has tugged the creative reins at colossi like adidas, Ralph Lauren RLX and Under Armour UAS as well as becoming an LVMH prize finalist, Pitti Uomo Guest Designer and one-time winning and thrice-nominated CFDA menswear designer.
With a clear sense for what the people go hard for, through his namesake label TIM COPPENS founded in 2011, he has been giving you cool-kid-crazily-precise-cut-high-tech-functionality long before everybody was trying it. You head to a Coppens rack for an extremely well-invented, tech-minded, sharp piece that’s innovative modernity incorporated. And sure, you could probably go skateboarding or bmx'ing in a lot of his garments. Coppens will never stop being inspired by the hobbies of 80s misfits that made him feel like he belonged.
Being good friends with Us By Night founder Rizon Parein, Tim Coppens’ presence as a speaker is extra exciting. When this talk is happening, especially now that an important shift is taking place for different industries and the TIM COPPENS brand alike, you don’t want to find yourself chilling at the waffles-on-a-stick stand (I’m very much talking to myself here), because Tim will be ready to show you what's next.
KNOTORYUS: Thanks for FaceTiming me, Tim. I just saw you posted some teasers on IG for what seem to be limited drops. Is there anything you can share about those?
TIM COPPENS: Uhm, no.
KNOTORYUS: Great. (Laughs) Well, serves me right for pushing for an off-season interview.
TIM COPPENS: (Laughs) It's not that I'm sitting on any big secrets, but some of our plans are still in the works. We've got a lot scheduled for 2019 but nothing has been set in stone yet. A lot is changing within TIM COPPENS. And yes, there are a few things lined up as a run-up towards what’s coming in 2019. You know what, I’ll probably be talking about that during Us By Night. Give me some time to mull it over first, but let me tell you this: in general, many industries are shifting; the creative industry, the fashion industry, the arts… and I'm creating my own version of that shift.
KNOTORYUS: Are you excited about all that’s been happening or did it make you a bit nervous at first?
TIM COPPENS: Definitely excited. But I think it’s important to find a way to navigate through this new reality in ways that fit my vision for the future of my company. That’s why my team and I are working on a couple of more focused projects. They are steadily becoming more tangible as we collaborate with the right partners and they will get more visibility during the course of 2019. Chapter one is finished and the second chapter is incoming.
KNOTORYUS: Still a bit cryptic, but I’ll take it!
TIM COPPENS: I just don’t like to make a big deal out of these things, but we are working on a project that will be launched in November. Most likely, it will be presented in part at Us By Night, so you don’t have to wait too long.
KNOTORYUS: You've always been focused on the 'tech of things' and you were one of the first well-known designers to debut a collection on Instagram Live. What did that experience teach you?
TIM COPPENS: I wasn’t part of a generation that grew up with social media. I just rolled into it when I founded TIM COPPENS. When I first got on Instagram, I think the platform had just started out. It boomed pretty fast, right, especially these last five years. But when I first started using it, it felt very new, very fresh, although the concept was still quite far-removed from what it is today. I do think that brands starting out on IG now or the generation graduating today have to take into account that for teenagers, or even younger kids, IG is a part of their daily life. But here’s a big disclaimer on social media in general: it’s a tool but not a primary one, at least for me. It’s incredibly important, but I don’t feel like an IG or Snapchat presence is something that makes or breaks a brand. There are other means that are just as important. Some brands have millions of followers and some have a lot less, but aren't necessarily lacking success. It just depends on how you want to present your brand and who you’re addressing.
KNOTORYUS: A different tool, of course, are the great brick and mortar stores that carried your designs – like Dover Street Market, END or SSense. Was it hard for you to decide that for Fall-Winter ’18 nothing new would be landing in those stores?
TIM COPPENS: It was actually the easiest thing I’ve done in years! Very liberating. That's also going to be part of what I’ll be talking about at Us By Night, I think. When your passion becomes your job, you want to commit and create products you firmly stand for. But, as the demand grows, you’re often forced to provide certain twists for specific stores or clients without perhaps first having a firm grasp on who your core client is or what that store is about, specifically. It’s a difficult balancing act. Either so much hype is being generated around your product that it doesn’t matter in the end and you can release pretty much anything because it will sell like hotcakes. Or you sell designs that require more attention and focus and then it’s important to really zoom in on what your distribution system is. To really look into stores that fit the product and that also attract the kind of customers who understand your product.
KNOTORYUS: The past couple of years, I’ve talked to a lot of people in the industry - graduates, O.G.’s and shop owners alike - and it’s clear that it's not just about having a showroom during fashion month and hoping anyone comes in to buy your line. Or about having one super popular product that over-sells but when customers get tired of it they drop your entire brand because they were never really into it.
TIM COPPENS: Exactly. With my company I want to focus a lot more on the retailer and the kind of customer they get – and to communicate directly with and through them. Direct interaction can happen through social media, there’s DM’ing and Messenger and all that, but for certain products it remains important for people to be able to see, touch and try them on. A picture can’t deliver that. There are probably a lot of marketeers who disagree, but I know that many brands still value the actual products which are part of their heritage or even its entire foundation. It’s important not to forget those things. Otherwise, after a while, a lot of what you put out will become increasingly superficial and you’ll eventually end up losing your core, the base of your brand. And that's not good.
KNOTORYUS: When TIM COPPENS as a name and brand is mentioned, the words authenticity and integrity often seem to follow. Did you feel like those values were challenged throughout the years? Perhaps during your time at Under Armour?
TIM COPPENS: You know, I never felt like I wasn’t able to go for what I set out to do. Especially at Under Armour, I completely went for what I wanted. When that turned into a challenge and there wasn’t an alignment anymore in the way they and I envisioned things, only then, both parties started wondering what the point in continuing was. For me, it was very important that the Under Armour project could have long-term growth. Building a brand like adidas took ten, fifteen years or even longer. Under Armour's entire public perception needed to be turned on its head and you can’t do that in a year or two. I’ve always been able to do what I wanted at that company, but of course, it has to work for the brand itself. If I’m developing a project that’s completely my own, then I’m able to do what I want. There are certain core values to respect when I’m working for my own line, but when I’m hired, I think of that brand first. If you get enlisted or appointed, you’re never working just for yourself and it's important to keep that in mind.
KNOTORYUS: Can we go back a bit, to your time at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts - Antwerp Fashion Department? Can you tell me when you decided to study fashion and why you picked the Antwerp Fashion Academy?
TIM COPPENS: I started out studying architecture, because it got recommended to me. You’re fresh out of secondary school, people give you advice and I was interested in it but it only worked out for a few weeks. I sensed a lack of creative energy that was perhaps due to the atmosphere inside the classrooms. I’ve always been into clothing without there being a fashion aspect to it. I knew nothing about fashion. I didn’t grow up with it, I wasn’t born into it. Fashion had absolutely nothing to do with me, really. My love for clothing pertained to other things I was interested in, it was a form of expression.
KNOTORYUS: The things you were passionate about all had to do with skate culture.
TIM COPPENS: Yes, mainly. And back then, skateboarding wasn't what it is now, at all! But expressing myself on that level was very important to me. I started studying fashion just because I was interested in making things that went beyond just being a product, but that were also linked to culture, music, art and so on. I didn’t really know what goes on in an academy or how fashion and seasons worked. I just went to the entrance exam, showed some work and got accepted. For the first couple of years, I didn’t really find a steady direction for myself, or a good way of dealing with assignments. I made a giant leap during the final year, when I got to figure out what fashion, creativity or a product really meant to me. I certainly have more control over that now, but these things are ever-evolving.
KNOTORYUS: I read that Walter Van Beirendonck personally stepped in during those somewhat ‘struggle-years’.
TIM COPPENS: Walter supported me and he wanted to make it clear that I had the talent and the skills, but that I still needed to put in work, too. (laughs) What can I say, those first years I just wasn't interested in “the fashion world”, I think that was the biggest problem. But I was highly interested in the creativity of it all and in making the garments. I just had to figure out how to make my view on things work for me. You know, in the past, my friends and I would be skating all day. We weren’t going off to Paris to catch the shows, but we would go to La Défense to skate. Back then there was almost no link to streetwear in fashion, Walter Van Beirendonck of course did a great job early on and maybe a few other designers, but it was absolutely nothing like the situation we have today. Fashion was fashion and then there was everything and everyone else. It’s much more of a mixture now. I think it's fantastic, how these institutions are being challenged.
KNOTORYUS: Oh, I love it so much.
TIM COPPENS: Me too, I like how all of these worlds have merged and are affecting each other. But before, streetwear and skate culture were more of an oddity. There used to be a separation between those worlds. Nowadays it's easier to head out to an award ceremony in a hoodie than it was twenty years ago. The way people look at fashion, at diversity, at culture has shifted completely. The world has opened up.
KNOTORYUS: What’s the most important lesson you picked up during your time in Antwerp? One that’s still useful to this day?
TIM COPPENS: The sheer importance of work ethic. The intensity and focus. That’s really important to me, although it might be very old-school. But even kids today know that when you are good at something, even if you're only sixteen, you don't get results just because you're talented, but because you work towards something with a lot of drive. And that is something I learned to appreciate during my time at the Academy. You end up engulfed in a process you like and if it ultimately bears result, it proves that all of those different steps were part of the journey towards that one goal. And when you see the result in front of you when it’s over, that’s very satisfying. It is something I talk about a lot with my team. At this moment, my company is working with different outside players on several projects and we have to keep in mind that when you’re working in a team, you might not see the point of going through all of these small steps – but at a certain moment, everything will come together. Like a Rubik’s Cube. You have to make 500 twists and turns and you’re having a tough time doing 475 of them but then when you get to the last 25 turns, everything clicks together in neatly coloured squares.
KNOTORYUS: Talks like the one you're doing at 'Us By Night', do you regularly take part in those?
TIM COPPENS: I’ve done a few of them. It’s not always easy but it helps me to reflect on what I’m doing and figure out in what manner I want to communicate about it.
KNOTORYUS: You've been based in New York for years now. Do you often return to Belgium and what is the first thing you usually do?
TIM COPPENS: Uhm, eat North Sea shrimp? (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: Peeled or unpeeled?
TIM COPPENS: Peeled, preferably, I’m too lazy to peel them myself, I’d rather let the pros handle it. I love the Belgian seaside. And although my trips are always very short, I love family visits.
KNOTORYUS: Thanks so much, Tim. I've been meaning to talk to you for quite some time and I'm glad it happened. I’ll see you on stage in November.
TIM COPPENS: Great! Thank you!
KNOTORYUS is publishing an exclusive Us By Night Interview-series, digging deep and grilling the UBN line-up on what they do, how they live, their challenges and triumphs alike. Read them all HERE.