A Final Bow: Peter Jensen Departs Namesake Brand after 20 Years of Playful Fashion

Shot 4_216In artist Joan Jonas’ work Double Lunar Rabbits (2010), currently on view at Tate Modern as part of her retrospective show, Jonas’ explores the image of the rabbit on the moon. In a two-channel video displayed on curved screens, a narrative built around Japanese and Aztec folklore unfolds: A God, living on Earth in the image of a man, is on a journey and eventually gets hungry and tired. With no food or water around, he is close to death when a rabbit grassing nearby offers to sacrifice itself to save his life. Touched by the rabbit’s selflessness, the God saves it and draws its image onto the moon. He tells it: “You may be just a rabbit, but everyone will remember you; there is your image in light, for all people and for all times.”

With long, thin ears and six straight whiskers; sometimes polka dotted or harlequin patterned; sometimes resembling a fish or a cat, a pear or a berry; sometimes up-side-down or sticking out from a smiling red mouth; if there is one rabbit the fashion world will always remember, it’s Peter Jensen‘s. Fun and iconic, the bunny is unarguably much more than a logo, claiming a near-mythical presence in and around the universe of the Danish-born, London-based designer. When DANSK meet up with him in his bright, spacious studio on Shacklewell Lane in Dalston of East London, well-organised rags with colourful clothes take up most of the floor space due to an upcoming sample sale. It is still late April and cold outside. We don’t know then what we’ve later learned; that for Peter Jensen, a new life is about to begin. After almost twenty years, the successful designer has sold his company to a Korean company, who will be continuing the brand without him. Founded in 1999, the seminal brand has for almost two decades brought charisma and playfulness to the international fashion world. In a Danish context, it’s hard to come up with designers that have done collaborations in the same scale as Peter Jensen, and his outlook, curiosity and courage is rarely seen but (more than) welcome on an, at times, insular scene. Although it took us some time to digest that Peter Jensen has created his last collection for the company, the tone in the e-mail he writes us a few weeks after the interview, is delighted. He expresses contentment that the name stays in business and that four PJ shops will open up in Seoul this year.

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Had we at DANSK known that a beautiful era in fashion history had come to an end, we would probably have rolled out our full retrospective questionnaire. Nonetheless our conversation, fun and lively due to Peter’s genuine cheerfulness and winning personality, did touch on themes of change. And so, besides learning more about Peter Jensen’s background in fashion and his unique way of building up universes, we also discussed the new role of fashion designers, the future for the industry, and the PJ rabbit’s brand new citizenship.

“In Denmark in the seventies male roles were very fluid” Peter explains, when asked where his interest in clothes stems from. “Nothing said what a man was or could or should do; everything was about women’s liberation. I grew up with a lot of women who set the agenda for the house and I was involved in everything they did. My mum and my grandmothers were always knitting and sewing, and it might be the same as if you grow up with a bricklayer: you find comfort and interest in that form. I was very fond of my crafts teacher, and so those classes became a free space where I had something in my hands and was good at what I did.” Peter’s mums sewing machine stood, very  conveniently, in his room in his childhood home. Fascinated by the machine and what it was capable of he spent many hours sitting in front of it, practicing and thinking that it was the best thing in the world. “I loved creating looks. I guess I looked quite strange in Løgstør where I come from, a rural village with only 5000 inhabitants. It didn’t take much to stand out, and I for sure did that,” he says with a smile and continues: “One of the stories I always tell is that when I was around 13-14 years old I wore miniskirts in school. I don’t know where that courage came from, it must have taken some spirit. I was quite small, not very tall and, fair to say, very feminine in my look. I think it was hard to cope with for my dad, who had dreamt of a boy and got this monster who liked to dress up.”

Are there elements in the way you designed then that are common with what you do today?
“Looking back, the things I like now is the things I’ve always appreciated. I like everyday things,  simple things. I wouldn’t be a good designer if I only wanted to design in silk. I’m much better at everyday things, as I call it. Materials like wool and cotton, I think that is really fine. One of my favourite designers, Martin Margiela, once said something which I believe is true: “If a piece of clothes can’t be understood within five minutes then it doesn’t have a life, it doesn’t have an existence.” I think that’s a good philosophy to have. Clothes tend to become too complicated, too much thought about, too over designed. I like simplicity. I know that a lot of people say that you should go against yourself, go against what you stand for. I don’t believe that. I think you should go in the direction you feel is the right.”

“Working this way has felt very independent. I’ve had the choice to say, this season we set up a catwalk show, next season it’s a look book and third season is a presentation. That freedom has been crucial to me.”

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When was the rabbit brought into play?
“The rabbit was a print we made for our 01 summer collection. A few years later we were looking for a logo, and it seemed obvious to use him. Some think he is hideous and annoying, others thinks he’s sweet and understand him. He’s been good to have. Last year we sold him as a lightening deal to a Korean company, and we’ve actually just attended the opening of a Peter Jensen rabbit shop in Seoul. Now you can buy him as an eraser, as poster sticker, as pencil, as talking teddy, as a puppet, you name it! He has also five new friends; a chicken, a sheep, a cat with a scarf, a bulldog and a frog, it’s become a whole universe.”

Impossible to overlook when studying Peter Jensen’s work is how he builds his universes around muses. Each collection ever since his graduate show at Central Saint Martens, a menswear collection inspired by Marianne Faithfull, has been presented under the name of an artist, athlete, writer or even fictive characters from plays, films and cartoons. In doing so, he has kept insisting on a storytelling that goes beyond the one of next seasons colours and must-haves. “It took people  quite a while to get what it was all about. It wasn’t really a language that was spoken. It was more about ‘this season we’re inspired by the seventies. All women has to look like this and all men should look like that.’ But that was never my way of doing things and it still isn’t,” PJ states. “Working this way has felt very independent. I’ve had the choice to say, this season we set up a catwalk show, next season it’s a look book and third season is a presentation. That freedom has been crucial to me. The muses has helped me to do that, because there’s been this universe around them. We were never forced to do a catwalk with models walking up and down for ten seconds and then the party is over.”

How do you feel about looking back on your previous collections?
“From the very beginning we’ve kept one set of clothes from each collection. Until now it’s been stored in a big archive in South London, but we’ve just recently taken it all home. It’s been a huge work to go through it all. We have donated almost all of it to different museums, V&A and more others. Bath Fashion and Textile Museum is one of the museums that has taken the most. They got two items from each collection which is now a part of their collection. It means a lot to me. It has now come together in a history people can go and see. In that context it makes a lot of sense with the muses.”

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In Denmark, our strong design tradition is something we tend to be very proud of. But seen in the light of recent , how does it feel to be Danish designer based abroad?
“Something has happened with Denmark and peoples interest in Denmark and Scandinavia later years. We have The Killing to thank for that, I believe” PJ argues with a smile. “When I did my BA at Royal School of Design in Copenhagen, it was clear that the clothing line didn’t have the same status as the furniture design line. And I remember being quite upset about that, I had a certain respect for my own craft. The school wasn’t very good at that time, I can say that now. There wasn’t really a fashion industry yet, no fashion week and what were we actually supposed to do. My generation—I’m contemporary with Wood Wood, Henrik Vibskov, Stine Goya and Baum und Pferdgarden, you know—we were a small group of people who started it,” he explains. “When I look at Copenhagen’s contemporary fashion scene, I long for a counteraction. I’ve taught in Denmark as well, and I always empathise that there has to be some sort of underground, an opposition to the bigger companies. A fashion industry cannot only exist on Malene Birger and Baum und Pferdgarden. It’s dangerous to compare with Sweden, but I think the Swedes are good at taking it one step further.”

“Forty percent of being in the fashion industry is networking. That’s one of my downfalls, and something I wish I’d been better at”

What do you think it takes?
“Courage. And maybe some poverty. Something that can give people a bigger passion for what they do, something that makes them willing to push their boundaries to a place where it’s not only about making money and maintaining a certain lifestyle. Something that comes in another form, without being autonomous, something that would make the established fashion industry envious. That would be amazing. But that’s just how I see it through my sunglasses.”

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Where do you think the fashion industry is moving to?
“Bankruptcy!” PJ laughs. “No, I think the fashion world is moving towards some more honesty at the same time as it is slowly beginning to understand the people who buy fashion. The level of consumption has been so high, people have had enough, they are full” he argues and adds: “Vivienne Westwood once said that you should rather buy one good thing each season than fifty cheaper. I fully agree with her. It’s better to pay more for that one thing and then it’s quality. Otherwise you open your closet and think, how much of this do I actually use? How much do I need? Not much really, when truth comes to light. I think we can all agree on that the fashion world is facing difficulties at the moment. It’s not easy, and I don’t think it will get easier over the next many years. The fashion world represents a fantasy and a dream world, but all the luxury that once were in the industry has disappeared. Earlier at fashion weeks, Paris for instance, there were endless money, bizarre luxury. Now, reality is slowly ticking in a lot of guilt has come into the industry” PJ states. “When I started my company twenty years ago, a small group of people were communicating something out to a bigger crowd. That intermediation is completely blurred now, it doesn’t exist anymore. In that sense, you could say that you’re at some level redundant as a designer today. The voice you had at some point, has died out.” Elaborating a bit more on the many facets of the fashion industry, PJ empathises that networking has never been his thing. “Forty percent of being in the fashion industry is networking. That’s one of my downfalls, and something I wish I’d been better at” he says. Instead, spending time in other universes has helped shaping him as the designer he is today. “I gain from reading books, going to the theatre and watching films. I like those worlds. It’s a place I’m standing outside of and can look into. It expands my fantasy and allows me to use the clothes in different ways, create some characters and so on. I should probably have become costume designer instead of fashion designer, but then I’ve brought some outside elements in instead.”

Throughout the years Peter Jensen’s rabbit has adorned the clothes of multiple design collaborations. Besides working with artists, photographers and scenographers, the visionary designer has an impressive record of ambitious collaborations with fashion companies. These  counts, among many others, Beams Tokyo, Fred Perry, LeSportsac, Urban Outfitters, People Tree, Maison Kitsuné and Peanuts. He has even worked with Nickelodeon on a SpongeBob SquarePants collection. “The collaborations have all been educating, giving and fun. I’ve never had a real job, or anything else than this, so it’s been a way to work with others. Some have been better than others, way better. We worked with Commes des Garçons and Dover Street for three, four, five seasons. We learned a lot from that. And then we made something with Topshop for about a hundred years and that was something completely different. It wasn’t always with the best results, but it was what it was and it has all been very giving. Doing collaborations has also been a good way to give myself time and space to think about where to take my own brand” Peter Jensen says and adds on a final note “I feel very lucky. Twenty years in this business is a long time, and I’ve managed to do what I wanted through all the years. Sometimes I just gets wow, thinking of how many people that have been up and down and up and down in this industry and then disappeared. I can only feel blessed.”

Pj by Dante 20.07.2016 closed eyes

Words by Anne Ulrikke Bak

Photos courtesy of Peter Jensen and Tim Walker

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