“It’s not the wrong weather, it’s the wrong clothing,” or so the dictum goes. Hailing from Iceland, Arnar Jonsson knows how important it is to dress for suboptimal climates. For his final collection of his MA in Menswear at the Royal College of Art, Jonsson explored the idea of form meets function, creating clothes that would look at home both on the streets of London and in the plateaus of Iceland where his lookbook was shot.
Photography is key, not only in capturing the garments but also in its inception. “It was very much based on a visual diary I had been keeping for a couple of years, just taking pictures of everything,” he says of his collection. The images are eclectic; landscapes and cityscapes are captured amongst photos of his friends on nights out and in the harsh light of the mornings after. The intimacy of these images seems to rule out any taste for street style photography. “They’re mainly just my friends” Arnar agrees, “because I know them and I know what they want. I know what they wear and this is the easiest way for me to see what I need to do when I make the clothes.”
It wasn’t until the second year of his MA, when he considered this archive of images, that Arnar identified categories or, rather, “energies” that repeatedly manifested in his snapshots. These ideas shape his designs in “different levels of subtleties.”
Arnar first explains his conception of the ‘pure’ energy of his work. “It’s about nature and Iceland, and me being from there” is how he describes it. This translates most vividly in the surface detail of his garments. The raw edges of one of his pairs of jeans fray in replication of innocuous weeds photographed in Iceland, the tea dyed fabric matching the straw’s hue exactly.
“I wanted to keep all the existing wardrobes of me and my friends,” Arnar says by way of explaining another energy of his work, the idea of the ‘ghost’. His designs are heavily influenced by items he and his friends wear in their daily lives: jeans, tracksuits, Nike TNs, and even technical weatherproof coats are referenced in his work. “Graphic codes” are how he describes the minute details of his garments; the idea that only those familiar with the original clothing could identify their ghostly imprint on his work.
The execution of this ‘ghost’ energy is not limited to decorative motifs, but also influences the way Arnar cuts and fits his garments: “Everything is 3D, based on the actual form of the body and the stance of the wearer. You have the actual bodies of the guys within the design.” Instead of simply imbuing the clothes with a sense of the uncanny, this technique helped Arnar develop his designs toward practicality: “I would get guys to come in and try the clothes on to see if they felt comfortable, and then I would wear them as well to make sure that I didn’t go too far.”
In a discipline so vulnerable to flights of fancy, Arnar’s dedication to practicality is refreshing. It also manifests as the next of his signature energies: ‘the future’. In the summer between the first and second years of his MA, Arnar won the chance to work for Adidas. Employed in the football department, he was involved in creating products which were not only aesthetically pleasing but also paid scientific attention to promoting the functioning of the body. “That’s really what changed me a lot from the first year to the second year, Adidas’s focus on designing for an actual purpose, to make a product,” he enthuses, adding “I am really into the idea of making a product, garments that you can actually wear. That’s the most important thing to me.” In creating items that he finds lacking in today’s market, his collection reflects this ideology; comfortable jeans made from hard wearing, yet bleach-softened denim spliced with technical mesh for greater movement; fleece sweat-shirts and technical coats change fit of at the tug of a toggle. This is clothing made to reconcile Arnar’s joint life of city dweller and Icelandic native, and look to the future by accommodating multifaceted globalised lives.
His homeland informs the ‘suboptimal’ energy which also influences his design. Having first-hand experience of the biting cold and wind of Iceland, his designs offer a fresh potential to outdoor dressing. His coats, manipulated by elastic cording, look whipped by the gale force winds of his homeland. Pictures from his visual diary show his friends in this predicament: clothing alternatively bulging and flattening in the force of the wind. This is another of his graphic codes; “99% of people in Iceland wear this stuff,” Arnar says of the technical coats captured in his images and reflected in his design, and they are all familiar with the contortions of the wind. The fabric he uses for his technical coats is supplied by the Icelandic company 66 North. When I ask how their collaboration came about he grins and replies: “Iceland is small. 300,000 people.”
The balance of nature and modern life is vividly depicted in Arnar’s lookbook. Shot in Iceland, by his friend Magnus Andersen, it looks like an extension of his own visual diary. “We went back for four days and took a road trip with a few of my friends and shot the whole thing,” Arnar enthuses. “They were wearing the clothes the whole time, it wasn’t set up at all to take the pictures,” he says of the natural ease of the candid images, “we were in the countryside for a few days.”
Arnar’s commitment to ease, comfort and practicality, supposed key features of clothing, make his collection surprisingly innovative. By defaulting to his own taste and that of his peers, his designs show a canny supply to real demand for high functioning sportswear in a globalized world. His own words explain his success: “you have to do everything for a purpose.”
Words Elspeth Taylor
Images Magnus Andersen