Quietly Contemporary: A History of Patrik Ervell
Quietly Contemporary: A History of Patrik Ervell
- Words Angelo Spagnolo
- Date November 06, 2017
The legendary fashion writer Tim Blanks described Patrik Ervell’s first menswear collection as “skinhead from the future.” It was 2005, Ervell was 26 and “future skinhead” wasn’t as distasteful a notion as it seems in 2017. But Blanks was enamored—he would write mostly glowing reviews of nearly all Ervell’s formative collections—and so to were customers, buyers and bloggers. The militaristic nods and futurist references the writer noted, along with an uncanny knack for seeing the potential in unexpected fabrics, would come to be pillars of the Ervell ethos as he vaulted, almost immediately, to indie icon status. He has hardly wavered in the decade since.
Patrik Ervell’s pathway to fashion was not the typical story of a successful designer. He did not attend a prestigious design school. He never apprenticed under a prominent designer at a storied fashion house. Born in London to Swedish parents, Ervell’s story is perfectly American.
Ervell came of age in the bay area of California. His interest in fashion first piqued in high school when he discovered the mid-late ‘90s work of Helmut Lang, “bought every issue of The Face” and listened to British alt rock bands Suede, Pulp and Blur. The Brit pop influence is front and center, if a bit refined, in the designer’s first collection.
“If we’re talking periods,” Ervell told Dry Clean Only in July. “I think Prada in the mid to late-’90s was very special.”
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He attended UC Berkeley, which turned out to be fortuitous. Originally pursuing a career in diplomacy, Ervell changed his mind and moved to New York a week after graduating.
“Every year there would be this wave of people who would leave for New York,” Ervell told Vice in 2013. “I just went along with all my friends.”
When Berkeley schoolmates Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, now the creative directors at Kenzo, opened Opening Ceremony in 2002, they tapped Ervell to design a line of simple graphic T-shirts.
“I started making things for their store in a very casual way,” Ervell told GQ. “Printed T-shirts, it was as basic as you can get.”
The tees featured washed out, close-up photographs of Greek busts printed faint over soft white cotton. That they sold well through Opening Ceremony is, in retrospect, no surprise. Ervell’s work always flirts with commercial appeal.
In his second-ever collection it became clear, despite taking only a handful of technical courses at Parson, Ervell was much more than a casual menswear designer. He was exacting in his execution of the little things. Expertly cut moto jackets shared the stage with subtly accented tuxedo shirts, delicate satin ribbon inlaid on every pleat. Blanks, in his review for Vogue, wrote that the offering was “a feast of small, perfect detailing."
By his third collection in the Spring/Summer 2007 season Ervell began to show what would become a staple of his design: a deep appreciation for military garments, their history and particularly their innovative use of fabrics. Casual blousons made from recycled parachutes—once used to drop bombs on enemies—were worn with cuffed, pleated cadet style khaki shorts and shiny black oxford shoes. A classic brown bomber worn over a drab dress shirt buttoned all the way up wasn’t being subtle about its military influence, nor would the designer ever be.
“I collect old military garments, militaria,” Ervell told i-D in 2014. “As a designer, there are a lot of things I can look to with these garments—details and fits.”
Given his general outlook on menswear, it’s no surprise Ervell is attracted to the function-first ethos of militaria. “It’s menswear, so we’re not reinventing the wheel.” Ervell told Vice “If it’s not grounded in reality, it loses its power.”
The power of a military garment comes from it’s unabashed preference for function over form, or as Ervell describes it, “a specific theater of war.” In his world, dressing yourself is a very specific theater as well.
But present across his Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter 2007 collections were the seeds of other, almost equally prominent Ervell staples. There were transparent rubber jackets, a tactic the designer has used again and again (see: the American Psycho homage in the Spring/Summer 2015 collection and, more recently, wide-legged rubber pants.) There were moonscapes printed on T-shirts, the beginnings of an interest in sci-fi graphics that would become an increasingly significant part of Ervell’s work. Broadly, there was a meeting of luxury and technology, a James Bondian capability to switch between soldier and dinner guest (note the last look of the Spring/Summer 2007 collection, a slightly dishevelled tuxedo) that is often attempted but rarely well executed in fashion.
By the Fall/Winter 2011 collection, after winning the Ecco Domani Award for Menswear in 2007 and being nominated for the CFDA Swarovski Award For Menswear three years in a row, Ervell was hitting his stride. The suits were a bit slimmer now, done in of-the-moment “blogger blue” and paired over signature club collared shirts, under exquisitely cut field jackets. Chunky white tube socks on the runway were a nod to a preppy movement happening in the menswear world in 2010, but a refining of the Ervell aesthetic was never more evident.
“There’s always been some sportiness in the collection,” Ervell told Matches Fashion in 2013. “But now feels like the time for things to get richer.”
Richer things became. Silk bombers were hand painted with whimsically colorful blotches. Straight-billed baseball caps were worn with jackets cropped just shy of uncomfortably short. Longer coats were slightly exaggerated in the shoulders, hanging loose. Some of the jackets now were belted. The military was still there, front and center in the form of a flight suits in both supple leather and more traditional twill, the latter stacked beneath a fleece-lined bomber, again in vibrant blue. There was a level of polish not present a few years prior, and it came exactly as more and more eyes became fixed on Ervell.
It was in 2011 that Ervell made his first foray into womenswear, which continued for several seasons to mixed reviews. Though, as Vogue’s Chioma Nnadi accurately proclaimed, "His romantic tendencies certainly lend themselves to a woman’s wardrobe," it seemed the designer’s heart may never have fully been in womenswear. In a 2017 interview Ervell expressed, somewhat derisively, his preference for menswear.
“The approach to womenswear is a very different thing, mentally, and I don’t actually like it,” he said. “When you’re doing womenswear properly, you’re sort of churning out novelties every season.”
Arguably, his most successful womenswear collection in 2012 (he showed mens and womens together that year) was one of his more drab—exploring themes of authoritarianism and uniform which, during the happier political climate of the Obama years, seemed fresh rather than terrifying. This collection, too, told us much about the roots and aspirations of Patrik Ervell. Though muted, the collection showed us outerwear clearly inspired by thoughts of California.
Ervell’s appreciation for, and interpretations of, the 1990s Bay Area granola style played no small part in endearing him to menswear fanboys and critics alike.
“I think some of the most beautiful garments are old North Face jackets or Patagonia jackets,” Ervell told Matches Fashion is a quote that—though seemingly odd coming from a somewhat high fashion designer—proved to be right on the pulse of what was happening in menswear at the time.
In the aforementioned Fall/Winter 2012 collection, Ervell gave the audience a hint of where he was heading in the form of a Patagonia style fleece jacket, all black with a nylon breast pocket. The Ervell touch? A subtle gold foil trim. In one of Fall/Winter 2008 collection, Ervell had turned heads by using a gold foil fabric used for emergency blankets in a handful of jackets. It was a daring look even for the designer’s growing downtown New York customer base. The subtlety of the trim on the fleece zip-up, hardly noticeable at a glance, was a sign of the refinement taking place season after season. Refined, but no less inventive, Ervell continued to mine the world of outdoor apparel.
“I also look a lot at outdoor and technical clothing, so I love visiting REI,” Ervell told GQ.
And he brought REI to the runway. For the Spring/Summer 2013 season he sent every model down the runway in Teva sandals. Several seasons later, during the Fall/Winter 2014 collection, he went all-in on his exploration of the the Patagonia look. Fleece jackets in hand painted blues and yellows took the place of suit jackets, layered over button downs and trousers. The same jacket style popped in color-blocked cream and orange, as did another version with a nylon kangaroo pocket. Transparent ultralight parkas—one in orange beneath a beautiful fleece bomber, another beneath a fleece vest—mixed seamlessly with the usual muted suits and the field jackets in a proprietary rubberized cotton. In the garments indictive of the forested West, Ervell’s love of outerwear had been unleashed.
“[Outerwear is] where you can do things that are new. You can experiment with new forms, techniques and fabrics, and really dig into new technology,” Ervell told GQ.
Experimentation remains central to Ervell’s clothing. The use of rubber has been consistent, if not heavy-handed (Blanks, after Ervell’s Fall/Winter 2011 show wrote that the designer’s “love of rubber is one of his most endearing design quirks.”) Later, Ervell created a relationship with legendary interior design fabricators Maharam, which up till then, no apparel designer had been able to secure. By experimenting with fabrics that were traditionally confined to or inspired by use in interiors (much like his experimentation with military-grade technical fabrics and techniques), Ervell continued to push the boundaries of both his brand and menswear fabric design—a hallmark of his relatively understated label.
“That's one of the few spaces … where you can have this room for fantasy and for extravagance and for experimentation that somehow still feels masculine,” Ervell told i-D. “That's a really tricky thing in menswear. I find that in the sci-fi aesthetic.”
Aside from the more obvious allusions to sci-fi in Ervell’s work—graphics that look like they could have come from an ‘80s science text book have been common throughout his collections. In interviews he’s referenced the clothing in the Alien franchise, and the previously noted authoritarian uniforms from 2012 were praised for their Blade Runner influence—the designer’s interest is equally technical and whimsical.
“David Lynch’s Dune made a big impression on me as a child,” he told Matches Fashion. “It has such an amazing strangeness.”
That strangeness is a product of the unknowable. Like fashion, science fiction must find the curious balance between speculation on the future and familiar forms. “The starting point is almost always a kind of romance about the future,” Ervell said in 2017. “There’s a only a few places where those things converge, a subcultural space, and a kind of futurism.” Futurism, as we know, often tends toward the dystopian, but the optimistic romance of inventing a new reality through clothing has been Ervell’s goal all along.
“I always want it to feel modern and new. Sometimes when you do that, there's a coldness that comes along with it. I've always wanted to counteract that coldness,” Ervell told i-D. “There's always a newness, whether it's techiness, clean lines, or a way of finishing fabrics, but at the same time, I want it to be about romance.”
The pursuit of romance lead Ervell’s most recent collections to draw inspiration from early rave culture—it’s a time and space where the technology at least gave the illusion of salvation and escape. The pants are wider than they’ve ever been, but the Ervell-isms are still there: the multi-color windbreakers, nylon and fleece zip-ups, variations of military outerwear cinched over tailored suits. Consistency may be the the defining characteristic of his relatively short career.
There are a few canned answers that Patrik Ervell gives in interviews. One of the most common is some variation about that consistency, about not designing around trends. “I always feel like you could put my shows back-to-back and it would feel like one giant 500-look show,” he told The Impression.
That may be his goal, but in truth, the Ervell man has gone through a few phases. He’s been a recent grad in loose pants and a brightly toned track jacket. He has bought his first full suit (proper dress shirt included) and tried it on with a variety of iconic jacket silhouettes, bombers, blousons and parkas. The Ervell man is comfortable in both slim or billowy trousers, chunky footwear and carries an omnipresent—if subtle—”who cares, fuck you” attitude. He is a step ahead of average; it’s an not ostentatious vibe, but it shouldn’t have be.
It was curious then, considering the fanfare that has followed him his entire career, that little has been said about the announcement that Ervell would be running menswear at Vince. For a brand that could be charitably referred to as safe, hiring someone as innovative as Ervell is a gamble. It’s a hire intended, you would think, to make a splash. That said, the simple modern touches that linger on the edges of Ervell’s aesthetic should serve him well when working at the brand’s Los Angeles design studio. Truly, if Ervell can get people talking about Vince, he will solidify himself as the magician his longtime fans believe him to be.