Representing the creative future

Arnar Már Jónsson: “Our aim is to add a human touch to performance wear”

The innovative brand is determined to prove that a well-designed piece can increase in value over time

Arnar Már Jónsson: “Our aim is to add a human touch to performance wear”

Arnar Már Jónsson and Luke Stevens believe that their work is not just about creating highly functional garments, but also challenging the norms of what technical clothing is in today’s world. The design partners, who met at the Royal College of Art in London where they both studied, emphasise that they want to remove the clichés associated with performance wardrobe and infuse it with a sense of subtle fluidity and poetic sensibility.

In each collection, Jónsson and Stevens reflect on the landscapes in which they would like their garments to function. Currently based between Reykjavik and London, the founders focus a lot on the notions of adaptability and convertibility, considering in their design process both dressing for harsh Icelandic weather conditions and everyday scenarios of urban living. Their garments, created in an earthy palette and constructed from natural materials such as wool or Ventile cotton, can be swiftly transformed by their wearers: jackets change into bags or are reversed to reveal hidden properties. As Arnar Már Jónsson presented its latest collection for Fall/Winter 2021, we spoke to Stevens about the brand’s sustainably-conscious development practices, amending the creative process during the pandemic, and the feeling of longevity-inspired by Nordic furniture design.

Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson: “Our aim is to add a human touch to performance wear”
Arnar Már Jónsson AW21 Photography by EDDIE WHELAN, Direction/Styling by Max Pearmain
Arnar Már Jónsson AW21
Arnar Már Jónsson AW21
Arnar Már Jónsson AW21
Arnar Már Jónsson AW21
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection

What was the inspiration behind the collection? 

Each collection responds to ideas we’re exploring within the previous collection. For us, this is really about evolving the pieces in ways that respond to ideas we feel are missing in the industry or garments in general. For us, it is really about evolving ideas around performance and functionality. We always look at places and scenarios where our clothing needs to function. For example, in Iceland you have to dress for the weather, it’s just something you have to think about given its position at the top of the globe. You need to always keep in mind that you have to avoid getting wet or cold and shield yourself from the wind. Firstly, our aesthetic is inspired by the landscape itself, which informs our earthy, neutral palette, but we’re also taking the fundamental elements of dressing for that harsh environment and appropriate it to urban living.

We’re interested in how the wearer’s relationship with a piece evolves over time, through use, and how well a certain piece performs, or what we’re asking of it. We’re always trying to make clothing that has a purpose, or use, and we build this approach into the way we develop each piece in the collection. Ensuring one garment isn’t merely replaced by a newer offering next season. We’ve also been incorporating aspects of product design, particularly Nordic furniture design. We felt that the people buying our clothes are naturally drawn to other areas of design that share a similar approach or ethos and wanted to link the two.

It was the natural thing to start looking at Icelandic and other Scandinavian furniture, and the way they are able to do so much with the materials. Nordic furniture never looks dated, and there’s this idea that a well-designed piece can increase in value over time, through use. We were looking into translating these properties into clothing. The use of natural material was also a big thing that we wanted to push this season. We worked with a range of performance fabrics, each selected for its adaptability to different environments or settings, and we’re constantly looking for natural alternatives to the fabrics typically associated with outerwear – harnessing the waterproof qualities of densely woven Ventile cotton or the natural stretch and water repellent properties of wool.

“Taking the time to refine ideas or develop a particular product is key to this, so overall we felt as though we were designing one collection but offering it in two separate periods. This way we’re not forcing ideas that take longer to develop just so they’re ready in time.” – Arnar Már Jónsson and Luke Stevens

 

What was the biggest objective for this season?

This season was really a continuation of our SS21 collection; taking those ideas forward into a winter wardrobe and developing these ideas with different properties for winter. We felt it was too soon to start working on something completely new when we’d only spent six months developing the ideas for SS21. When we look at our favourite brands it is never a huge surprise what you get season-to-season. You go to them for a reason and we want our customers to feel the same. Taking the time to refine ideas or develop a particular product is key to this, so overall we felt as though we were designing one collection but offering it in two separate periods. This way we’re not forcing ideas that take longer to develop just so they’re ready in time.

“Having designed SS21 from our homes during the first lockdown, it was good to be able to take a more hands-on approach with other areas of the development. ” – Arnar Már Jónsson and Luke Stevens

Did you experience any difficulties during the creation of this collection? 

Yes, of course. Collection development somehow never goes to plan and the ideas are constantly evolving. The dyeing techniques went through a lot of stages and there was a lot of sampling that didn’t work. Our idea was to get the same effect as you get with bleaching but in a sustainable way. We were working with natural plant dyes to colour the fabric, rather than removing dye – this is basically reversing the process, so we had to totally start from scratch. Natural dyeing is a completely different process and harder to control if you don’t want an even colour, but right at the end we managed, and we really love those pieces.

Arnar was in Iceland for the whole design period, meaning we had to look at slightly different ways of working to avoid too much back and forth. We spent a lot of time designing over Zoom calls, which was new to us, and we dedicated a longer period to design at the beginning of the season in order to focus our efforts. This is definitely something we will adopt going forward. There were positives too. Having designed SS21 from our homes during the first lockdown, it was good to be able to take a more hands-on approach with other areas of the development. Being back in the studio meant we could work on new blocks and develop techniques through sampling which we hadn’t been able to do during the lockdown.

Arnar Már Jónsson AW21
Arnar Már Jónsson AW21 Photography by EDDIE WHELAN, Direction/Styling by Max Pearmain
Arnar Már Jónsson: “Our aim is to add a human touch to performance wear”
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection

“This season we wanted more accessible pieces, so we specifically designed these to reach a certain price point. This meant reworking blocks to eliminate seams or adapting certain techniques.” – Arnar Már Jónsson and Luke Stevens

Some of your pieces are quite artisanal, taking a long time to create. How do you balance your craft with the demands of production? 

It can take a long time to figure out a particular technique, and a large part is spent on considering how an idea works within production. We’ll work with our manufacturers to develop these ideas, whether they’re ideas to do with fabrication or dyeing, to find solutions for production which don’t compromise the final outcome too much. But this ultimately has an impact on how long a particular technique takes to integrate into the collection or the scale at which we can produce it. For particularly labour-intensive processes we’ll sometimes put a cap on how many of these pieces we can produce, limiting them to selected stores.

Budget is also another consideration. For AW21 we got a grant from the Icelandic government to develop the plant dyeing, allowing us to carry this technique forward for production, otherwise it would have been way too expensive to develop. The idea is to build on this technique going forwards, eventually setting up a dye lab in Iceland where we can focus on developing natural dyeing techniques.

Do you have to sacrifice elements of your process in the name of accessible pricing?

Not really, but we 100% should do more of it! This season we wanted more accessible pieces, so we specifically designed these to reach a certain price point. This meant reworking blocks to eliminate seams or adapting certain techniques, trims or methods of fabrication in order to still deliver garments that include many of the features of the other designs – reversibility, finding more than one purpose for a single piece – and without knowing the price, it would be hard to pick them out from other designs within the collection.

Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson AW21 Photography by EDDIE WHELAN, Direction/Styling by Max Pearmain
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection
Arnar Már Jónsson AW 21 Collection

What do you consider the harder part of running a brand today and particularly during the pandemic?

We are quite early on in our brand, and we’ve developed 2 out of 5 seasons in the pandemic, so it’s been really central to the way we’ve evolved. From the start, we weren’t interested in showing our work on a catwalk so it’s been a good opportunity to explore other methods of communicating our work. We feel it’s important for people to see and feel our pieces so it’s been hard to work around that. We spend a lot of time on fabric development and sourcing and it’s hard to communicate some of these properties through imagery. What you see isn’t always what you get. For example, this season we worked with a virgin wool fleece with incredible natural capabilities, but on an image, it reads almost like a vintage fleece.

The impact on our supply chain has been quite difficult to contend with. And now with Brexit on top of the pandemic, it’s very testing! On the plus side, because of where we’re at we’ve been able to adapt in a more agile way than a more established brand. It’s easy to adopt tried and tested methods of working when things are running smoothly, often these processes are so established that we don’t necessarily question whether they’re the most resourceful, efficient, or environmentally friendly ways of doing things. The pandemic forces you to re-evaluate some of those ways of working for the better.

How do you deal with it?

It’s impossible to plan around. You have to take each day as it comes.

“Our ultimate aim is to add a more human touch to performance-based clothing. We’re interested in ideas around functionality and performance; how well a piece performs or what we’re asking of it.” – Arnar Már Jónsson and Luke Stevens

Where do you want your brand to go? What is your short-term plan?

Honestly we just take it day by day. The short-term plan is to keep pushing the design, offering something that can fit into people’s wardrobes while also pushing innovative approaches to fabrication or function. Of course, we want to see the clothes on as many people as possible but it’s also about pushing men’s apparel in new, performance-oriented directions which reflect the needs of modern lifestyles, moving these ideas beyond the stereotypes usually associated with performance-wear which have become quite stuck in our opinion.

Our ultimate aim is to add a more human touch to performance-based clothing. We’re interested in ideas around functionality and performance; how well a piece performs or what we’re asking of it. While our work isn’t ‘functional’ in every sense of the word, we work with the idea in mind that our clothes are primarily designed to be worn, rather than being made for the sake of producing an image. This reflects the way that we both think about dressing, it’s much more nuanced than this straight-up, technical menswear thing. Hopefully, it has a more poetic sensibility to it – one which moves beyond the stereotypes associated with performance-wear to explore a more subtle fluidity, reflecting how those around us want to dress today. It’s a sort of tribal design, expressing a specific approach to living, made for a group that shares views on clothing, culture, and life in general.

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