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Where Fashion and Function Collide

Philip Tavell, head honcho of Helly Hansen’s ski line, dishes on fashion trends, Scandinavian scruples, and new gear shown at Aspen International Fashion Week.

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From the first flexible waterproof garment to the runways at Aspen International Fashion Week, Helly Hansen’s designs have evolved with each ski season. We caught wintersport and training category manager (aka head of the skiing product line) Philip Tavell before a European powder day to ask him about what goes into Helly’s ski line.

Where do you get inspiration for your designs?

The most important inspiration for our brand is definitely the Scandinavian heritage. There is a lot of good and interesting design heritage from Scandinavia—from car manufacturers to furniture to apparel to fashion. So that’s absolutely the biggest cornerstone that needs to be taken into consideration. We tend to, first, consider the overall look—does this look good? We need to agree on that. If it doesn’t look good but is trendy, we tend to send that away.

Scandinavian design is purposeful design. The purposefulness is really to have products and a design that have a reason for being. For example, not just adding a cutline because it could create something visually. We really try to integrate every cutline into the design—so it has a purpose of being there and also fulfills the beauty of the product. So that’s the overall wish for all of our designs.

But then we gather inspiration for our designs from skiing in Vail or Aspen, or going to London and walking around the city, or doing a road trip through the mountain villages in Europe. We always keep up-to-date with the trends on different continents by first visiting the bigger metropolitan areas and also ski areas.

We have tried other paths before. Back in the mid-2000s, we were exploring a different way of expressing our brand when we realized it’s hard to be someone you truly aren’t. So we try to be true to our brand DNA. For Scandinavian design, it’s not that hard. It has to look good and we as a management team and designers have to feel that it’s good-looking.

How do you balance form and function? How much does fashion influence your designs?

That’s what it all really ties back to: what is needed in a garment? What is the purpose of the garment? We work with a lot with our athletes. Uniting the form and the trend in fashion is at our core and is very, very important for us. If we were trying to only be stylish, we would go up against different brands and be more fashion oriented. It’s finding the balance of creating beautiful products that you know a skier or a sailor can depend on when it starts snowing or raining or when wind gusts hit higher knots.

Innovation has been with us since 1877. The founder invented waterproof garments that used oil to waterproof his sailing clothes. That was a big innovation back then, and we continued with other innovations. But then, also, there’s the purposefulness of uniting function and design. He saw all these sailors and seamen being wet all the time when they were out on the ocean, and he found a way to protect them. I would say that’s the essence that we always can fall back on.

We want to make beautiful products, but they always have to have a function or a performance side to them. Our designers are creative people, and they love to explore and push the boundaries to the furthest. My job is to check if we still have the performance side. Sometimes we want to do very fashion-oriented and trend-oriented garments, but then we always have to go back to the drawing board and sit down and check if it fulfills the performance side as well.

Look at the women’s side, for example. We think that they buy more for look, feel, and how it fits on the body. It is super important to have the style aspect, but if they come back after one ski day and they freeze, then our brand won’t be very popular with them any longer.

What other factors influenced the 2014-15 lines shown at the Aspen International Fashion Week?

That collection is very much about how a skier feels in the garments, and about skier’s needs. So we worked a lot with the fit and different fabrics on different parts of the jacket to create, for example, very sleek and feminine silhouettes for women. It’s also working with a lot of fabrics to create interest visually, but especially for the hand—for when they come to the store and grab the jacket they say, “Wow! This feels soft and comfortable.”

Silhouettes are going to a slimmer silhouette, especially when you look at pants. We see a very clear trend of pants that they will be skinnier or slimmer fit. It can be a softshell, but it can also be a normal insulated pant with a slimmer, tailored fit.

On all of our high-end jackets, from $400 and up, we work with stretch in all three layers—the outer shell, insulation, and the lining. That also ties back to the experience the consumer has when they use our products, because they’re more comfortable garments that move with the body better.

Left: Helly Hansen’s 2014-15 line on the runway at Aspen International Fashion Week. Photo by: Tom Valdez 

What other trends should skiers look forward to next winter?

Colors. It’s color that’s really driving the business. That is exciting because as a Scandinavian brand we always have a color palette that tends to be stronger than a North American color palette. When skiers put on their ski gear, they tend to be less conservative, and they have the opportunity to express themselves a lot more. If I see one person on the slopes and on the street it would be with completely different visual expressions.

Can you give us any hints on what’s coming in 2015-16?

For us, 2015-16 will be an extremely interesting year. We will launch three new concepts. One is based upon pure style, where we’ve let our designers express themselves freely, with some boundaries as the performance aspect needs to be there. Masculine lines for the men is a trend, to enhance the body shape and the feel of a masculine person. So we’ve used the stereotype of masculine people or personalities to influence our lines for the men.

And then for the women’s line, it’s still a very feminine feel. But we are a Scandinavian brand, and the women in Scandinavia want to live in an equal society. So we also have one line that is very stealth and offers more performance for the women, so we don’t neglect our Scandinavian heritage.

Then we’re launching a completely new freeride collection, which is going to be super exciting with some new membrane technologies that we’re working on. We believe that innovation has a bigger and bigger role because H&M, for example, is starting to produce skiwear. And if a brand only tries to be stylish but doesn’t have the fabrics, technology, or the innovations, then they won’t survive.

We have great technologies to talk about, but this is more about the trends and design and the soft part of the equation. That is definitely very important in apparel for a lot of buying decisions and also for our designers. Their inspiration is sometimes very hard to grasp. I’m very facts-oriented, so sometimes I would love for our designers to quantify what their design or thoughts could mean in terms of business, but sometimes it’s just a gut feeling of what we believe will work for our brand.