Interview: Soulland – A DIY Education

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Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

At the brink of the march of Scandinavian streetwear brands across the UK fashion scene a few years ago, smartening up our world of streetwear, one in particular stood out as a bit of a black sheep and continues to do so – Soulland. We sat down with the men behind the brand, Silas Adler and Jacob Kampp Berliner, to discuss how it all began, where they source their inspiration from and how they continue to educate themselves through their work.

It’s always interesting to hear the story behind a brand that you admire, especially when it’s being told by those who are responsible for it, but the story behind Soulland doesn’t quite fit with the usual brand startup stories, and if you know Silas Adler at all then this wouldn’t surprise you. Having left school at 17 because it didn’t hold his interest, Silas founded Soulland, however he is quick to point out the the Soulland you see today is not the Soulland he founded as a teenager. Regardless of this, he has a wisdom to his outlook on life that is inspirational and definitely well beyond his years, opting to educate himself through a hands-on approach that has given him a very unique and considered view on life. When you team this up with Jacob Kampp Berliner, Silas’ business partner, and his seemingly more energetic and excitable character traits, you get an almost endless world of creative possibilities that is Soulland. Neither of them play to the normal rules set out by society, in fact they seem to have a slight distaste for them, and neither of them appear to see boundaries. It’s a quality that I’ve found in several successful people who I’ve met and it’s a truly admirable one.

I won’t go on any longer talking about the stories I heard. Hopefully you can get a good feeling for both Silas and Jacob’s personalities in their answers, and hopefully you’ll find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of their stories like I did myself …

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What was your life before Soulland?

Jacob: I had a company in Sweden, working for a commercial jewellery company for many years and I had some other jobs in Stockholm. We met each other through partying. I think the first time we really spent time together was partying, but we had so many common interests – I was into graffiti when I was younger and Silas was skateboarding and the good part about a small city is you can’t only be with your own clic forever, you have to mix and match a bit and I think that’s kind of what happened.

Silas: Before I started the company I was in high school. I did my first year and I was not really into it. I was skateboarding a lot of the time and that was really the only interest I had at the time … except for smoking weed [laughs]. I just wanted to do something else, so I thought that starting a t-shirt line would be a good excuse not to go to school. I woke up one morning and was like “Yesterday I was out skateboarding, that was very nice. Today I’m going to school, that’s just bullshit. Why don’t I stop going to school so I can only skate?” and my Mum said “If you want to stop school then you have to do something else where you put as much focus and time in.” so I said “OK, I’m going to start a t-shirt brand”. That was 2002. I was 17 and I took a job at a sushi restaurant in the kitchen making rolls, skateboarding and making t-shirts on the side. I brought some t-shirts to the skatepark and started hustling. Filled a bag with t-shirts and went to Sweden and went to Holland … just as a hobby.

Then I met Jacob and at some point he said “If you have something that’s funny to invest in, let me know.” and I was like “What do you mean?” and he was like “I make pretty good money on this jewellery thing but it’s not funny, so if you ever do something funny, let me know.” so I sent him an email asking if he wanted to partner up. My expectation at this point was to just keep it going. I had some people that came in and then left again and I really wanted to keep doing it, maybe start doing real collections and real seasons and stuff like that. That was my main thing with Jacob partnering and then after 1 year when Jacob became really active we figured out we had to go all-in, both of us. That’s when we had a focus on becoming a proper brand. People always say “That’s so crazy you started Soulland at the age of 17!” but what Soulland is now is because of the years we decided to stop everything else we had and to only focus on this. That’s the Soulland you get today.

What was it that made you want to go from a start-up streetwear brand into doing full collections?

J: At some point we made a decision; of course we want to work with friends, but we don’t want to hire friends. We want to be a proper company. Also the people we sell to; moving into places where people will push us more.

S: Also, at the end of the New York t-shirt scene, between 2005 and 2007, when it became overcrowded we were like “OK let’s try to do a proper mens line. Let’s try not to be inspired by clothing but be inspired by other things.” That’s when we found out how to work with inspirations, having a topic for each collection that’s not about fashion. That’s when we started to realise that maybe it’s ok to put a bit of neutrality into it and make it smart and maybe reflect how we see the world a bit. It’s about telling a story and I think we took that decision at the right time, at 2008 just before the recession. These thoughts became even more clear for us during the recession because everything in society was put more on edge, so for a lot of people you were forced to actually think about what you did. There had to be justice for actions, not necessarily in terms of money but if you put time into something it had to mean something.

So did the recession actually help you as a brand and how you worked?

J: I think we already felt like we were at a new beginning and we were lucky that we were really small at that point.

S: We had already had a recession for six years before [laughs].

J: We didn’t know there was a recession starting [laughs]. Since then it’s really been a thing for us that we focus on growing, but we focus a lot on also growing intellectually as a brand. We want it to be a new experience every season and grow the way that we meet people and the directions we go in.

S: Also, the subjects and inspirations that we put into each collection becomes a study for us. None of us really have an education, not to say that we’re not interested in things. The inspirations in the collections is a great way to study something, to find a subject that is niche and see how you can see it from different angles and become more informed about something.

J: I also think that through inspiration you can always see the world in a different perspective. It’s almost always a country or a continent that’s our inspiration but then there’s always different layers underneath.

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One of my favourite things about Soulland is the artistic influences. It looks like quite an intellectual brand, but you say you aren’t traditionally educated. Are you educating yourselves through the brand?

S: Definitely. Quite recently someone made a comment about starting the brand so early and I realised that maybe we don’t have education in the traditional form but those early years were an education – it just wasn’t an education in some sort of institution. It was an education that was defined by ourselves or me when I started. The guy who made the prints in the beginning just left from one day to another, so I was like “OK, I need to learn to use illustrator because I need to make some more t-shirts” and that was how I learned to use Illustrator. All the knowledge that I have now comes from having to do it, but that’s also education, it’s just not education shaped by an institution or school or something like that.

Where do you find the inspiration from each collection and do you ever find it hard to discover it each season?

S: I think that until now I guess I’ve been lucky to stumble upon something. For instance, now we’ve finished all the design and we’re making all the prototyping for next season and until now it’s always been in this period where I step away from the creative part and start to go into the more technical part and that’s maybe where I’m very conscious or open to inspiration and often when something comes before me that opens the door to something. I think the important thing about inspiration and being creative in general is that you have to always put yourself in a situation where you are open to be inspired by stuff.

J: The inspiration is never something that we know a lot about before we do it. Maybe there’s some elements we put into it that we know, like Illuminati stuff or something that you always know some part of, but there’s always something new that nobody knows about.

S: I think that if you have an open mind, then you will see the cracks in the pavement. I’d say that this time is the first time ever that at this point I didn’t have the next inspiration. Right now, I’m not in a rush because I’m not going to start designing for a couple of months. It’s also nice sometimes not having it in my head, just to get down again. It can also be quite intense to be so focused on one subject.

J: But you’ve always been like that. You used to annoy me a lot because you’d always do something like only eating one thing for two weeks or not eating for three days to see what happens.

S: Yeah I did that once. That was interesting. I had a hard time sitting still in school and through all my school years I had a hard time focusing because it didn’t really interest me. Skateboarding was the first thing that I was able to really focus on. You can put me in front of the most hardcore skateboarder and I know what’s going on in skateboarding right now, even though I don’t skate so much. If there’s something that really interests me then I can keep my focus and I don’t need to spend much energy on knowing about it or learning about it, so it’s a way for me to keep focus, to have a subject that I think is interesting rather than all the boring stuff about doing clothing like the production.

Do you ever fear that Soulland will one day lose your attention?

S: No. Now it’s such a big part of who I am, it’s such a big part of my life. If it loses my interest, it’s for a reason. I’m sure that the way that we do Soulland and how we are personally, how much we put ourselves into this company, that if it for some reason stops, then I know that there’s a reason.

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There’s clearly still a strong streetwear influence to Soulland. Are these roots important to you?

S: At one point I was like “Argh I don’t want to talk about Streetwear any more!” because remember maybe 3 or 4 years ago when Streetwear really turned into something that sort of had the same ring to it like “urban”? Something that was a way for big corporate companies to put something in a box. But now I don’t think so much about it anymore. The references that are in the collections are references to where we’re from and all the experiences that we’ve had through our lives and of course a lot of it is from Streetwear in a way. I try not to label it too much. Normally I just say that we make Menswear because it’s clothing for men.

I think one thing that’s very important to remember is that sometimes it’s not only about product because it’s also about the mentality of doing things, like how we work, how we get into new markets, how we communicate with people. All of that is so based on where we’re from, so I think a lot of the mentality around the company is that it has to be fun. Skateboarding is based on having fun. Graffiti is based on having fun. It’s not something that someone pays you to do. Also, the way that we travel, we are open for whatever is coming to us in a way that I definitely learned from skateboarding, like looking for spots and always being open for new adventures. Not being too posh to stay in a crappy hotel. Having the ability to enjoy lows and highs. I think that there’s a lot of people that I know from my generation that didn’t have something, that didn’t have an interest, something that they really grew up with, they have a much harder time to go between different environments. I can talk to the skate kids but also to the vice president of a large company. For me, from skateboarding, I learned how to not focus so much on who I was talking to or who I was in the company of, but more on how you can talk to everyone and be open to everyone.

And you learned that predominantly through skateboarding and skate culture?

S: I think that I learned it a lot through travelling a lot with skateboarding. No one had any money, so then the expectations were not around money. I remember when we were in Barcelona, we were 5 people in a 2 bedroom hotel room and we were all broke and therefore the expectations of that trip was not about money, it was about friendship and it was about skateboarding and it was about having fun. I think it can be very healthy sometimes, also in this business, that you understand that to do certain things you have to be humble.

J: It doesn’t matter where you’re going, it’s who you’re going with.

S: For instance now, we’re staying in a super crappy hotel. We could spend the money on a nice hotel, but we could also spend the money on having a nice time here. I mean, sometimes I just like when things are low key and it doesn’t have to be super fancy. I think some of the funniest memories we have in Soulland are when we went to some hardcore punk underground concert in Richmond in Virginia a couple of months ago. We just walked into some crappy dive bar where people looked like they wanted to beat us up and then after half an hour you’re best friends with everyone. Like yesterday, all of a sudden we’re standing in this hat shop with this old guy trying to sell us hats – we’re always being curious.

J: From the beginning we always had really modest places. The first office in 2006 was a nice place, but it had no windows. Then we moved to another place with no toilet. It’s always been a bit like that [laughs]. So I think also it’s about reminding yourself that it’s about the outcome. It’s also nice that it’s a bit tight and you feel like you’re struggling.

Last year you had a pop-up store at The Bluebird in London. How did that come about?

S: For us, to be asked by Bluebird to do that project was perfect because they were starting to sell our collection for the first time and a lot of the brands that they have are brands that we really like, like Raf Simons and Margiela and all those more high-end menswear brands. It was a really nice opportunity for us to create our own environment in their space, but it was also a good way for us to start focusing on the UK market. That’s definitely where we see good potential and want to start to do more things.

So will we be seeing a UK flagship store soon then?

S: Nothing is in the works, but some day it would be great of course! Right now we have one in Copenhagen and we’ve opened another one in Bangkok in February and then one more in Copenhagen, so maybe in a couple of years. Having your own shops and being able to feel what your brand is about in its own space is the dream. We’ll see … maybe some time soon.