In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
It's the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 15, and I've just arrived at my final show of New York Fashion Week. I walk into a warehouse within the South Street Seaport, all cobblestones and colonial brownstones, where I hear music thumping but see no discernible evidence of a fashion presentation. Then, the soundtrack gets louder, and a screen lifts from the ground to reveal a throng of models dressed in some of coolest streetwear I've ever seen. As they walk through the crowd in a sort of stoic choreography, it becomes clear to me that this, Tim Coppens x Under Armour Sportswear's first outing, was no ordinary activewear presentation. But Coppens, who grew up in '90s-era Belgium and learned his craft at Antwerp's prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts, is no ordinary activewear designer.
Having developed a love of streetwear at an early age, Coppens immersed himself in the culture that surrounded it. "When that whole culture came to Belgium, it was all part of the way we dressed, the way we walked around," he told Fashionista in a phone call, later referencing Wu-Tang Clan, skateboarding and graffiti as early interests. Clothes, of course, came into play; he made his first tracksuit at just 11 or 12 years old on his mother's sewing machine because he "needed something to go BMXing in." But fashion wasn't the end goal until much later; he entered the Royal Academy as an architecture student before making the jump to design. Fashion, he said, was a "natural evolution" of his interests by allowing him to link the world he lived in with the clothes he'd like to wear.
The industry bought into it. After design roles at Adidas and Ralph Lauren's performance label RLX, Coppens launched his own menswear brand in 2011. Barneys New York ordered his first collection, soon followed by a slew of international awards: the 2012 Ecco Domani Award for Best New Menswear Designer, the 2013 Fashion Group International Rising Star of the Year, the 2014 CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear, and a top 10 finalist for the LVMH Prize that same year. This past June, Under Armour announced that it had tapped Coppens to lead a new in-house upscale contemporary label called Under Armour Sportswear (UAS). And with a new UAS pop-up showcasing the new UAS TC Select capsule collection now open through Monday, Dec. 12 (more information below), Coppens is now venturing into stand-alone retail, as well.
We spoke with Coppens about his early interest in fashion (and skateboarding), his experience at the Royal Academy, his now-signature aesthetic and why he chose to take on a secondary design role in addition to his namesake menswear label.
Growing up in Belgium, were you always interested in fashion?
Not in a traditional way. I come from a rather small village where — before the internet and all that — I wasn't connected to what was happening in fashion. But I was interested in constructing things, in making things or building things; that was always something that intrigued me. So, from a creative aspect, yes. I think it started when I was going to high school, trying to stand out or do things that were different from everybody else.
Did you have a "click" moment that you can remember, when your career aspirations became clear?
No, it was very gradual. [Fashion] became more and more interesting when I was going to the [Royal Academy of Fine Arts] in Antwerp. And I was into skateboarding and graffiti and that whole world. There's a lot that a fashion career was really not [linked to] back in the day. Fashion was fashion; it didn't have a lot to do with street culture. Those lines got very blurry.
I think what I did was different from my interest in constructing clothes, but that did have an influence. I always tended to make things that had a functional edge or had something to do with sports because it was part of the way I lived my life, being brought up listening to Wu-Tang in the '90s. When that whole culture came to Belgium, it was all part of the way we dressed, the way we walked around. It wasn't just the clothes, but the culture around it.
What was your time at the Royal Academy like if you weren't initially interested in fashion design?
I did architecture for a couple months. When I graduated high school, people said I should because it's creative and I was pretty good at math and all that. But, I don't know, it just didn't connect with me. It was too theoretical. I didn't even know about fashion school, to be honest. I wasn't aware of the prestige that the school [at the Academy] had. But I did apply for it — because somebody told me I should — and I was accepted. It wasn't something where I was like, "I want to do this," like a lot of other [students]. It was a very organic four years, and it was only in the last year that I was like, "This is cool. I can link my world — the music I listen to, the friends I have — to what I'm doing with clothes." And then it got interesting.
In 2011, you launched your own label. At what point in your career did you realize that you could start your own business?
From when I was in high school. I always had some sort of thing going on, like I made stuff and sold it. And again, it didn't start with [me saying], "I want to have a fashion brand." Even now, it's interesting the way everything evolved. Yeah, we're making clothes, but there are so many clothes already. How can we broaden that and how can we look at clothes in different ways, that we don't just buy a pair of pants, but it's part of a cognizant idea?
I wanted to voice my own world and the only way I could do that was by starting my own label. I had a lot of corporate experience — I worked for bigger brands where I had a certain freedom, but you always [have to] work within the boundaries. For me, that was very challenging, in a positive way, because I was interested in how you could take a brand that is established and make it more interesting. That's the difficult part with something that's really big, to be innovative. But I was also trying to talk about the things that I thought were liked, and that was difficult to express in a bigger corporation.
Business of Fashion credits your line with "pioneering the luxury sportswear aesthetic." From where did you draw inspiration in the early days of your label?
That's the way I've always looked at fashion, from when I was in the Academy or even before that. I probably made a jacket or tracksuit when I was like, 11 or 12 on my mother's sewing machine because I needed something to go BMXing in. I wanted to wear something that was cool without seeing it as a fashion statement.
Merging fashion with athletics at Adidas and Ralph Lauren, I was like, "I should do an Italian version of track pants and make it have that easy, athletic flow, but also keep it very luxe." Merging these tailored elements with performance wasn't really a big thing when I started my label, and people noticed when I started to do it.
You debuted your first line as creative director of Under Armour Sportswear this past season. What made you want to take on that role?
Even though Under Armour is big, tapping into the lifestyle market was something very new. When Ben [Pruess, the company's president of sport fashion] asked me to do it, he said, "We want to find a way to incorporate Under Armour into lifestyle by adding functionality, and making the bed with modern American sportswear." Not the American sportswear that a lot of people know, but giving it a modern edge and a level of functionality. That was something that was pretty perfect for me. It's a startup within a really big company, but at the same time, you have the support of a big brand behind you. It's been a perfect combination so far. I was really excited to start working on it because it was nothing; it went from garments to branding to the retail part. It's exciting to look at the complete picture and see that whole brand come to life and still giving it the freedom to breathe and develop.
Of course, there's pressure because there's a lot of people watching, but it's very organic. It's a small team. Everybody worked super hard to make this happen. We're all very passionate about it, getting it out and showing it to the rest of the world. We, with UAS, are trying to do something that is different than what is out there. And that's the goal.
As far as showing it to the rest of the world, the UAS pop-up shop for the new TC Select capsule is now open downtown. What went into creating that collection?
It's a capsule, but the more we worked on it, we realized it's really UAS. It's very important for us to make that brand image and vision consistent. The pop-up in the first place is a UAS pop-up, and there are some pieces that haven't been shown yet that are still part of the collection. The general inspiration behind it all was the same as all the other pieces. There's a bomber jacket, there's a trench coat, there's a lot of pieces that people know. But we added some interest to them; we made sure that they fit right.
When you put the whole line together, the colors and fit were all very considered. And the details hopefully make it different than what's out there at other brands. The pop-up gives us the opportunity to be like, "Cool, now we have our first store!" And that's not bad. It gives us the opportunity to see what people look like, how people look at the clothes, when they wear them, how they wear them, what works, what doesn't work, etc. It's important.
Note: The UAS pop-up is open at 27 Mercer Street through Monday, Dec. 12 and features both UAS and the UAS TC Select capsule collection.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.