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In Conversation with Jacob Kampp Berliner of Soulland
In the messy copycat world of fashion it’s rare to find a brand that you can truly call one-of-a-kind, but Danish label Soulland is one of those curious beasts. Over the past two decades, these Copehageners have dialled in on a unique formula, taking the best of Scandinavian menswear and spicing it up with streetwear flourishes. As Soulland’s style has evolved, so too has their commitment to sustainability. What started as recycled polyester tags and organic cotton tees finally culminated in the brand’s 2020 Responsibility Paper, an in-depth report on the sustainability and social activism initiatives that Soulland is undertaking. In their own way, Soulland is redefining what is possible for small independent brands in the field of sustainable fashion. While they readily admit to not being perfect, they’re doing a damn good job. I caught up with CEO and co-owner Jacob Kampp Berliner to discuss…
Let’s start before Soulland. Did you grow up in a creative environment? Did you always want to get involved in creative fields when you grew up, fashion or otherwise?
I grew up in a communal living situation where being creative took many different forms. You might be in a band or do crafts, it was more about expressing yourself and being politically active. It was a different way of being creative but I think it made people very active in the community. I always felt like my core family was quite big because I lived with so many people and was raised with other kids like siblings. I feel like we still have that today in the company, we always work with people that we feel connected to. I think that’s a core of Soulland, whether it’s a personal relation, or you share political views, music taste, whatever.
I think it really shows, everything you guys do feels very creative. When I first saw Soulland in 2015 it was more minimalist, but in the last few years you’ve really branched out with new fabrics and prints.
We only work with what we find joyful and interesting, so we’re always defining new aspects of the brand. For [Soulland founder and creative director] Silas and I, it’s very important that Soulland is an extension of ourselves. I feel like the brand is growing with us and I love that.
I see that in how your collections don’t change drastically from season to season. It’s more of a steady evolution and refinement.
You know, the more we work with sustainability, the more we understand that we want to grow in a natural way. We don’t want to add a lot of new styles and new materials. We want to push our designs, push fashion, but we don’t want to make it less wearable. We’re still based in classic menswear and old-school streetwear.
So how did you get involved with Soulland?
Well at the beginning, Silas started Soulland when he dropped out of high school. His mom said he had to find something to put his passion and time into if he wasn’t in school, so he decided to start a clothing company. He would print t-shirts and sell them at the skate park, and built a community around it. At that time there was a very vibrant scene in Copenhagen, a lot of musicians, skateboarders, graffiti artists. Copenhagen is like the smallest big city in the world, so if you’re part of a subculture you mix with all subcultures; you’re always interacting with other kinds of people outside your bubble. Silas and I met through parties and we joined forces around 2008, though it was a few years before we decided to take Soulland more seriously. The turning point was when we made a bunch of mistakes at our show at Copenhagen Fashion Week, and we were like “fuck, we don’t wanna be happy-go-lucky the rest of our lives.” Then we started changing the structure of the company and going more full menswear. While we’ve evolved, I think the core of the brand is the same and we still have some retailers from that time, like Good Hood. Those stores have been part of our transition from street subculture to fashion.
Our latest evolution has been in the last four years, when sustainability and quality have become our biggest drivers. Silas and I are both quite active, we try to eat healthy and be conscious about our lifestyle, and that’s what we try to put into Soulland now. We want to find how Soulland can push the industry in a more sustainable direction. For us that’s the start, and it impacts how we treat employees, the factories, all the circles we work in. Something I’m proud of is that we own the company ourselves—though maybe the bank owns a big part (laughs)—so we can say whatever we want, be as political as we want, and I think that’s a big part of the future for us.
I’m sure if you had shareholders they wouldn’t be too thrilled about the money and effort you guys put into making the brand more sustainable.
Exactly. We used to be a much bigger company, but when COVID hit we saw it as the perfect opportunity to scale down. We transitioned to having a smaller team that’s really skilled and super dedicated, and we all push each other to make things better. Honestly, a big strength of starting a company without having a business background is that the focus is on creating an environment that’s intellectually stimulating. For example, with sustainability we’ve learned that every time we make a decision we’re taking other decisions away, so it makes the road more clear. If we decide we’re not going to work with a certain material, then we never have to consider it again. At some point everything turns into a yes or no, and then we can spend more energy on what’s important.
Let’s get into your 2020 Responsibility Paper. I think it’s a great example to set for other brands. What prompted you to write it, and how did you decide that it was necessary?
For a long time Silas and I discussed how we could be more sustainable, but there was always so much daily work to do that we were always postponing it. Then a few years ago I was on the board of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, a big sustainability conference, and I was in a roundtable breakout session with representatives from huge brands. Each person at the table was probably earning more than our brand’s entire revenue (laughs). Everyone said the same thing: “no one wants to pay for sustainability”. Afterwards I discussed it with Silas and we realized what they were saying was that they don’t want to pay for sustainability. They could choose to lower the margin on their products, but they won’t because they want more profit. We decided that for Soulland, the cheapest product in each category (t-shirts, sweats, etc.) should be the most sustainable product. We didn’t communicate on it, but the idea was that if people bought based on price they would get the most sustainable option. A lot of brands will do limited runs of sustainable products, but we decided to start with the highest volume products so it would speed up the company’s transition towards sustainability. We had quite a big hit on our margins because we lowered the price on products that also became more expensive to produce, but the goal was to show that we could do it. The question is whether you’re willing to lower your own profits to pollute the planet a little less. At the same time, we decided to make small changes in our lifestyles, things like mending our clothes or skipping meat at lunch. After just a month we found it totally changed the mindset of the company. It showed us it’s not that difficult, we just have to start.
The next step was to communicate what we were doing. We knew from the start this shouldn’t be a consumer thing, but consumers are part of the cycle so we had to communicate to them a little better. We decided to make the deadline in twelve months for communicating what we improved. The next Responsibility Paper will be released Black Friday of this year. It’s exciting because now we have to commit to making more improvements than we did last year. It’s about creating our own set of values and sticking to them, because as a small brand we don’t have the money to hire a consulting group to show us what to do. We want to improve our transparency, and use that transparency to inspire other brands to take part. If some brand asks us how to recycle their bags or something, we can tell them who to contact. Transparency should be a tool for changing the industry, not just a branding thing. It’s also important to work with retailers that share these values, especially in streetwear where there’s barely any focus on sustainability.
Anyways, that was the start and I’m really excited for the next report. We considered how we can change the way we look at our growth and what we value as a business. Should we always look for endless growth? What about what makes our employees happy, for example? We want to change that perspective.
I like that you mention endless growth because when people think of sustainability in fashion, we often think of technology innovations like pineapple leather. I think for the sustainability mindset to be fully realized, it’s about not making your company as big as possible, it’s about being as responsible and as good at what you do as possible.
Exactly. Take Colette for example. If they had opened two more stores, would it have been a better Colette? I don’t think so. We can judge success in so many ways, not only from the top line.
Let’s talk about your Fibre and Material Matrix, which is how you decide to use certain materials. I guess once you limit what fabrics you’ll use, you know exactly what you have to work with.
Before, when a fabric manufacturer would visit us, Silas and the design team would have to look at 300 fabrics. Now it’s only about ten, which has been a huge relief and time saver. The matrix on our 2020 Responsibility Paper was the first one we did, but the next one will skip all the fabrics we don’t use. Every year, we can take out the least sustainable fabric and that makes it much easier to improve. We can also go back to the fabric manufacturers and figure out how to keep those long term relationships. When we produce in a small town in Portugal, one factory can supply half of the income in that village. If we keep our production there we can sustain the livelihood of the people who live there. If you buy your fabrics from all over the world every season, you’re also changing that economic structure all the time.
Fabrics are one aspect, but we can put those principles into all aspects of the company, like shipping. If we decide we’re never gonna fly stuff then we have boats, trains, and trucks; what’s the next one to take away? Even things like the thickness and sizes of boxes that we ship in. We can’t do everything at once, so we have to separate them and find the best solution for each thing.
It’s also important to show where we’re not perfect. For example, we still use virgin polyester if a fabric has it mixed in and we can’t find a quality alternative. If we tried to look perfect, it might make people afraid of trying to do this. I think that’s what holds back a lot of brands, they’re afraid of getting a shitstorm.
Yeah, once you start communicating that you care about sustainability you open yourself up to criticism, which scares so many brands away. Going back to fabrics, you mention in the Responsibility Paper that you switched from conventional cotton to organic. I have a vague idea of what that means, but what is the actual difference? Is there a difference in the product you get out of it?
There are different quality levels in all cotton, but in general I don’t believe that organic cotton is higher quality than conventional. What’s better about organic is less pesticide use and the certification process, so you can be sure it’s produced under fair working conditions. With conventional cotton, it’s really hard to know which field your cotton comes from. We want to be sure every stage of the product is done ethically. When we commit to the factories that produce our cotton products, part of that is not asking the factory for a lower price. If we work together with a factory for a long time, it’s harder to negotiate prices. Brands that only want good prices jump from factory to factory to find the next deal. What we pay for with our factories is security, not volume, and I think that’s a good tradeoff.
Regarding cotton quality, we want our jersey products to last for a long time. In our mainline last season we used a super heavy, really nice cotton that looks the same wash after wash. Making a product that will last long enough to be resold rather than thrown out is a big part of sustainability. If you have an organic cotton t-shirt and you throw it out after one wash, I don’t think it matters if it’s organic or not. If you want to be sustainable, less consumption is the only thing that counts. That’s why we need business models that aren’t only about newness, but also added product value.
In the Materials Matrix you have a “No Use” section, under which are angora, down, fur, and leather. What went into deciding you weren’t going to use those materials?
Leather was the big one for us. Personally I don’t have anything against leather if you can guarantee it’s made under the right conditions, but it’s about forcing ourselves to make decisions so we can find other solutions. What we consume as a brand is part of changing the industry’s direction. The idea with the report is not to say what’s right and wrong; the idea is to be open about what we think is right, and we’re always open to changing our stance.
Are there any materials that you use or want to use that you think are the future of sustainable textiles?
I wouldn’t be the right one to ask, that would be definitely be Silas or our head of production, but something we’re discussing is “transitional” cotton. This is cotton that’s grown in fields that are in the process of changing to organic, but are not yet organic. It’s less clear to the consumer whether it’s organic cotton, but we would be part of pushing farmers to go in an organic direction. We want to use materials that are part of changing the supply chain, not just materials that have a very clear benefit.
[Jacob forwarded the question to Silas and here’s what he said:
I think that there is great potential in lab grown textiles that can reduce consumption and use a circular approach. But the textiles can only do so much, there needs to be more clear systems for what is done with clothing when the consumer is moving on to a new garment.]
Where are the biggest improvements that Soulland can make in the next five years?
Our big dream is to own our own factory and whole supply chain, so we can create our own materials and supply to other brands. We’re pushing ourselves in the right direction but our dreams and goals are on a whole other level. Another thing we’re discussing is capping the amount of retailers we have so we can strengthen our relationships with people forward in the distribution line. If we want to work with a factory for ten years at a time, how can we ensure we work with a store for ten years? For example, you guys [at Wallace] feel strongly about our relationship, so how can we help you and how can we evolve together? I think that what we do today, like this interview, is part of having an even better connection in five years.
Another goal we have is to not have financial goals. We never have growth plans, so we keep the company free-spirited and not attached to having to do something. That’s how we want to evolve, as well as seeing our employees grow. We’ve decided we don’t want a bigger company than we have.
I think that’s a great guiding philosophy for a business, to have rich relationships with the people you work with.
It’s great getting to know all these people, and it’s always interesting where people come from. I like that you started asking about before Soulland. Silas and I have quite similar backgrounds in how we were raised with single moms, so there’s a connection there. Like if he’s not at the office I can answer for him, and vice versa. It’s a strong feeling to have in a brand.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the whole goal of doing these interviews is to show the human element of what we do. All these cool fashion designers are just people doing their own things, following their passions and having their own concerns. Obviously it starts with us loving a brand’s collection, but we’re such a small business and most of the brands we work with are too, so making it a personal relationship is quite natural.
I love when you can see a store is built from a passion, which I see from my own consuming habits. I always look for some kind of honesty in the products.