In times when the world is challenged to its maximum and being put under huge pressure, when many industries, particularly the fashion and creative industry are struggling, in need to reinvent themselves, there are still some winners. One of them is ACRONYM®. In 2020, the Berlin-based brand, uncompromisingly focussing on the fusing of style and technology in functional apparel ever since, was having its best year. A collaboration with the Japanese high fashion brand Sacai dropped only recently, now another highlight with Nike followed.
Last week, the hub by Solebox, a newly launched community space that connects the creative community, presented the ΛCRИM DYNAMICS LAB: On the occasion of the new Nike x ACRONYM® collaboration that includes a reinterpretation of the classic Blazer low sneaker and a first-ever Nike x ACRONYM® apparel collection, solebox released a 3D clip customization workshop for 10 selected creators in Berlin. The result was wild and showed what happens when you offer a platform to the right people – a project that celebrates the culture of innovation on all levels. To make the idea even more open and accessible, the 3D files for the clip customization are available to download for all ACRONYM® fans worldwide.
Errolson Hugh is giving a 100% non-stop and stays true to his vision. It only makes sense that the brand has been growing so much in the past years. On a thursday afternoon, right before the Solebox exhibition opens to the public, I am meeting him in a coffee shop next door. His style is always on point, it just feels like the most authentic extension of his personality and creative vision. Errolson simply embodies his brand, he lives his brand in the way he dresses, he speaks and answers my questions. There is not one word he uses, no energy he gives out that doesn’t feel authentic. This is what makes him so special, after all these years in the industry. His success seems to have to chance to change him in a way that would ever make him become impolite or boast in an uncomfortable way. He orders a hot chocolate and when I ask him if he doesn’t drink coffee he laughs and says: „I have the taste profile of a 12-year-old child.“ His honesty makes you want to connect with him immediately, to understand what builds and supports his vision.
A conversation about innovation, Bosozuku, and why sometimes, it can be very helpful to be an outsider.
Sina Braetz: We haven’t seen each other for so long, although being in the same city. Very Berlin. It’s been a long while for you to live and work here?!
Errolson Hugh: Yes (smiles). I just realized that I am here longer than I have been anywhere else.
Wow, when did you move here again?
It’s been ages, I think in like 2006.
You experienced the whole change of Berlin. I always have to laugh when saying this because it’s always changing but it doesn’t change…
Yes, like anywhere I guess (pauses). It has been really good for us to be here as a brand and you know, it’s good for me too because I travel a lot. It’s a good place to go somewhere, then come back, process it, relax, or whatsoever. Sometimes though it is hard to do some stuff here because there is just not enough talent pool or I just don’t know the people – they must be here. I just realized, when I visit my girlfriend in London for example we could have never done what we did here, there, or in New York. As much as I would like to move to L.A. or somewhere else – I need to sell a few more jackets in order to do so (laughs).
Well yes, Berlin takes the pressure away…
Exactly, that’s what I mean. You can just focus on your work. People in London or New York have to deliver in a very specific way or they just get wiped off the board. Berlin is much more forgiving, maybe too forgiving – sometimes it feels like you just want to say: ok, guys, let’s go (laughs).
I know exactly what you mean. In terms of creativity in your work for ACRONYM®, is there a specific country or city that you feel most connected to currently?
I don’t think so. I’m often surprised where the fans are or where stuff gets shipped to, it really is allover the place. For ages, it was mostly Japan, now it is probably 10-15%, we have grown a lot. I think the USA is actually our biggest market right now and probably China after that which is normal though, it is a big market…
Let’s talk about your collaboration with Nike and Solebox: what was your main vision and goal behind it?
Originally, we had two ideas. In general, we are always trying to create this easy-on and easy-off element with zippers etc. – that was always a thing we did with Nike. But then one guy in the studio had the idea to do a so-called ghillie pattern that disturbs the silhouette (on his phone, he shows me some pictures of prototypes from 2017).
That was a long time ago, so we showed this to Nike and then ended up with a different shoe, the Blazer low which was the shoe we originally wanted. In 2018 we then dropped the Nike x Undercover shoes (points to the shoes he is wearing).
They have this kind of heel as well, it became my favorite shoe, I am wearing it all the time. So in the end, we were having these two ideas and components that we combined, everything else aligned pretty fast. However then, the pandemic happened which added another 24 months (laughs).
Wow. Well, finally you dropped the collaboration last night…that must have felt good?
Yeah, we dropped at midnight, it sold out completely.
Of course, it did, do you know how fast?
Probably in the first hour but I was so tired, I just pressed go, and went to bed (laughs).
Oh my! What was the real vibe you wanted to put out there, also with the new logo you worked on with Japanese graffiti artist NESM?
Well, first of all, we knew the ghilli idea was gonna be disrupted, it’s gonna be full-on, it’s not a subtle thing. And Nike asked us specifically to do apparel with it for the first time so we knew if we did it with this particular shoe it has to be pretty forward. We actually immediately knew what we wanted to do, something that was very Nike, like the tracksuit being a very natural fit but also a good place to come up with something unexpected and new because tracksuits haven’t been such a big focus lately. Then we worked closely with the Nike apparel team and the great thing about them is they are actually the authentic makers of these things.
The whole visual language of it as we went along was shaped by these graphics, these oriental simulation forms. My friend NESM actually made them for us 10, 15 years ago. At that time I didn’t really know what do to with them, I just asked him to do a Japanese ACRONYM® logo for us and I thought he was gonna write it in Katakana. But he did this simulated version with roman characters and I wasn’t sure if this was cool or not (laughs) because those types of characters are traditionally borderline racist. However, we thought it was such an elevated take on, NESM as a fine & graffiti artist has all these ideas which are off the charts. So we started to use it, then 2020 happened with all its conflicts and issues but it turned out to be the perfect timing to come up with this. We showed it to Nike, they really liked it and were super supportive.
Then the other super exciting idea was the open-source idea: One of the footwear designers during the process of creating the heels had this idea of making the heels removable so you can unscrew them and do your very personal 3D print. That led to our whole fascination with custom cars and the subculture of it. There is this Japanese tuner car scene which is called Bosozuku, translated as a violent run tribe. They don’t really exist anymore, it was more of an 80ies, 90ies thing – like a high school, gang thing – you see it in all the mangas and movies. They also customize their bikes and clothes etc. – so that was a perfect base for us to work with.
How did you like the result of the creative workshop you did with Solebox, working with 10 creatives on a customize heel?
It is so fascinating, so satisfying to see how everybody got it, the kids were really all over it – they were like yes, finally, and let horns grow out of the shoes, etc (laughs). The interpretation was so diverse. For example, Youjung Kim wanted to do left foot and right foot differently. One idea was to create a high heel conversion, for the other one she wanted to place these little people sitting on top of the shoe.
Wow, so really anything is possible with the 3D print technology…
Yes, you can do whatever you want. Some other interpreations were more organic.
Is it for you the very first time to use this technology?
Yes, and I was so fascinated by how fast it is. You know, I am still a very old-school, paper, pen and scissors type of person, so it was very cool to work this way.
Do you think that new technology will be a big focus for ACRONYM® in near future?
Yes, it has to be, the technology is so good now. It is just the same with photography and the iPhone, there are more iPhone cameras than any other cameras in the world, it is so powerful. I really think it becomes a natural thing because that line between who is producing and who is consuming blurs together. Like where does the ACRONYM® shoe stop and where does the personal customization begin? The shoe is almost giving people a platform. It is not a finished product. The point is to finish it yourself almost and I think that is a great and healthy way to look at the world. Everything is open source if you want it to be. It is something really positive since you can re-purpose things people or companies give to you for your own ends, to express your personality or values.
Would you consider yourself and ACRONYM® as such a platform for people to use?
Yes, well you have to have your own point of view as well and hopefully your point of view is robust enough so it allows other people to contribute to it. I always like to see people wearing ACRONYM® in a way that we never expected it to be worn or to see someone that I never thought would be into Acronym. It is super satisfying to see how they contribute with their very personal perspective.
That’s very powerful. What further elements will shape for you the future of fashion and its innovative potential? What do you think can take it to the next level?
I think the environment will take it to the next level for all of us. We are already confronted with this pending environmental collapse (laughs) and we have to look at it as an opportunity instead of a problem. Everything’s been known for decades, the fashion system particularly in terms of production and supply chains – it’s been broken forever. And this is a good time to fix it since now we have to, there is no choice. So I am most excited by people who are looking at that. The design is obviously a wonderful part of fashion, it is probably the main thing that people take away from it. But you cannot only look at the top of the pyramid, you need all the rest of the infrastructure of production and manufacturing. There are more possibilities to revolutionize those underlying structures that hold up the whole system. I like to hope that the next generation will look under the hood and questions and disrupts all of these aspects of fashion so that can change how people produce things and value them: Is it cool to wear a new outfit every day or is it cooler to wear the same things throughout the whole year?! This cultural shift is the most interesting to me because it wasn’t that long ago that real good clothes were tailored and handed down from one generation to the other. They were so well made that you would keep them. You would wear your father’s suit, you just gave it to the tailor, adjusted it, and kept wearing it. That is not that long ago, maybe 1-1 ½ generation ago.
It has been your vision since the beginning to create pieces that you would wear for a long time, that are becoming strong basics in your wardrobe. Your collections build on one another…
Yes, when we build things, we always come from a performance and functional approach which is why things take much more time to be made and cost more money. So to get the value out of it, it has to last a long time otherwise it is just not sustainable in the true sense of the word. That perspective has always been there. Can you wear something 5 days a year or can you wear it 50% of the year? We are always aiming for all year round, for years.
Would you consider yourself still an outsider in the fashion industry?
Yeah, absolutely, I would (laughs). By now I might be a better equipped one but I am still an outsider just because what we do is not fashion but it is also not sportswear, nor activewear, or military. It is connecting these things together so what this means is you get the benefits of all these different areas but it also means you are left out, not being pure fashion or sportswear. You have to find your own way, all the time. Many things just don’t work for us, oftentimes even things we don’t anticipate. So we find ourselves at the edge but we are fine there. It’s those edges where interesting things happen.
Do you think it also protects you from certain things that destroy many other brands?
I guess that might be possible, I think there is less temptation, there is less pressure in certain senses because we just operate on different scales and even if we grew a lot in the past years it is still something we can control ourselves. For that, I am very grateful. I think I don’t know how I would react to situations other designers find themselves in when they start to blow up. I can’t even imagine the pressure of working in a big house.
Would you never want to work for a big brand?
Well, never say never but I just can’t imagine being a young creative having to helm a huge company. I have worked for bigger companies and I know what they require of you (laughs), it is no joke. A lot of the designers have to give up their own labels or have to sell parts of their brand to the company. Those are not lightweight decisions. So respect to everyone who is trying to navigate that kind of path, it is not an easy one.
If you collaborate with someone like Nike what turns out to be the biggest challenge within the process?
I think with any collaboration but particularly one where there is a scale difference like there is between us and Nike for example, it is just that the process is the work for one but not necessarily for the other. The way we work you just can’t email it over to Nike and expect them to react to it accordingly. The Nike Comms team in Berlin is probably bigger than our whole company (laughs). We have found our way to navigate through their big structures and when it works it really works well because you combine different strengths. When you can put those together properly, then it gets super exciting.
Are you planning to continue your collaboration with Nike?
Yes, we will see what happens. This was the last thing on our roster of projects we have to do. Also, because of our brand’s growth, we are all happy to finish strong and to now focus on internal things we have to do to get to the next stage. We also cancelled all of our external projects like the Shadow Project with Stone Island and everything that is not ACRONYM® only – for the first time. I am sure we will do other collaborations but right now we really want to focus on ourselves.
That sounds great and I am so happy to hear about your growth because during this pandemic, you really didn’t know what would happen to certain brands. Some were blowing up and some really died – the effects were so different.
Yes, it’s a disaster. We are really fortunate. Of course, I was very worried at the beginning too: What was going to happen, can we keep all of our employees? But then we had our best year ever with 2020. I kept looking at the numbers and was like that can’t be right (laughs) but it was. That was one of the things about being an outsider that helped us. Because of the way we set up our business from the beginning, we weren’t relying on fashion week or showrooms or fashion shows. We’ve been doing our thing fully online since 2007. So when people asked me what we changed: we didn’t change anything. We are doing exactly the same thing. Now everyone else is doing what we do. That really played to our strength.
You are also blessed with very very loyal customers, aren’t you?
Yes, hopefully. We spent a lot of time trying to decide: Is this what we should be doing? Is this really us? When you are small, you can’t effort to make the wrong decisions. If someone can get the same thing from you as they can get from someone else that is bigger, that maybe has better customer support or better infrastructure, you are going to lose. Everything we do I make sure that you can only get this from us. So far, that works for loyalty. People trust us that we are going to do something that is intrinsically us. If we are not sure about it, we would rather leave it away. That is another luxury of being independent and smaller. You could even be like „this year, we will do 5 pieces only“ (laughs).
Yeah, that makes you so authentic, it is an energy that people feel and understand. With other brands, it oftentimes is an up and down, left and right – you end up disconnecting because you don’t understand their vision anymore.
Absolutely and as I said, I can totally understand how these decisions happen, there are always lots of people involved. Whereas when you are small, every single decision counts. You feel uncomfortable oftentimes but being uncomfortable can push you to be authentic because you can’t afford to fuck it up. It has to work. So for us, that has worked – until it doesn’t, right (laughs)?! So far so good.
Interview Sina Braetz
Video & Photography Noé Cassi using video content from Sunst Studio, Shoe-Images Oliver Valente