With drag bar presentations and cowboy-inspired fashion films, Sophie Hardeman is the Dutch designer who wants to change the denim game
Amsterdam-based brand HARDEMAN is not your average denim label. Designed by Sophie Hardeman, the Dutch brand has taken New York, London and now LA with its radical approach to that everyman staple. Sheer, printed as an optical illusion on other textures, or constructed into sculptural shapes – all presented through off-beat fashion films by Emma Westenberg – HARDEMAN is remaking the traditional workwear material and the mythology that surrounds it in a way that has us sitting up and taking note.
Part of this is Hardeman’s “visual essay” approach to designing which allows her to really go deep into exploring ideas – not only through clothes but also the other creative projects that naturally stem from them. “I think what’s really interesting is just to translate my aesthetic or my story into a new language, a new product,” Hardeman explains, describing a process learned from her time at the “conceptual and experimental” Rietveld School of Design. Later honed through stints working for both the cult German designer Bernhard Willhelm in LA, as well as with the beloved (but sadly, no more) iconoclast London darlings Meadham Kirchhoff, HARDEMAN questions our preconceptions of fashion and identity with a similarly playful irreverence. Following a hoedown in New York, this latest collection (pictured in lookbook and BTS images debuted here) is a more glamorous affair, absorbing the culture of dressing up tied to its Hollywood drag bar setting, but not without the (literal) cheekiness of high-cut booty shorts and revival of the 00s ‘whale tail’.
Unlike Meadham Kirchhoff’s maximalist fantasy fashion though, Hardeman has channelled the “energy and inspiration” learned from her time there into designs deliberately rooted in having fun with the more everyday and accessible. “For me, what I try to express with clothing I think is just an overall play on common life,” she explains, “how things are regulated and how everyone is trying to be normal and dress normal – living in their context.” “I think a lot of people are also very insecure about how they should live, what they should do and what they should wear,” she continues – “What I’m hoping to put out is that embracing individuality and the thing that, maybe, is off, is what makes something special and unique and makes your identity stronger.”
Sophie Hardeman: I needed to figure out a language that everyone could relate to and understand so that I can speak to everyone, not just to people who like fashion. What I really love about it is actually the graphics of it, because denim has a lot of topstitching and when I play with shape, it’s very directly, visually deformed. Also, the history is interesting – it’s gone through such a revolution. Jeans used to be complete workman’s attire – coalmines, cowboys – then became (the uniform of) motor boys, feminists, and hippies.
You play with this mythology in the films that you’ve done for your collections – like with the cowboy in Burning Oceans into Deserts. How much is this filmmaking consideration a part of your overall design process?
Sophie Hardeman: I couldn’t make clothes without making films or presentations. I think that’s where it really comes alive. The last collection was like prom in LA – it was in a drag queen bar and, another time, we had a hoedown line-dance party in New York. I really enjoy ways of showing clothes that aren’t so presentational and static. With film – I can put that out there and spread the love!
I’ve really enjoyed collaborating on these because I think it’s really interesting to translate my aesthetic or my story into a new language – and it’s really fun to learn from other people and have their input. Emma and I really get along and have this obsession for day-to-day funny, awkward, little, normal things – she can zoom in on things that are irregularly beautiful and very normal at the same time.
How do you go about casting your projects?
Sophie Hardeman: It’s definitely always really fun to cast around. The first time I showed in New York, I was also there for the first time – but it’s such a big city, you meet so many amazing people and so you can invite them to try on stuff. It was great this season to go to LA because it began a whole bunch of new people with new energy – what’s really important is that there’s a lot of diversity. The models have to really love what they’re wearing – that’s what comes across the best. Sometimes a super-masculine person will be wearing a certain outfit and, the next time, somebody prefers to wear it in a really dressy way.
You’ve shown in New York and in LA now – is America a really big pull for you?
Sophie Hardeman: I got invited by VFiles the first time we showed, and that made me a little bit familiar with New York. Then, this opportunity came to show in LA, and it’s been a dream of mine because I worked there before for Bernhard Willhelm and I had some ideas and interesting people I wanted to work with. Also, when I was working on this collection, it was more like evening wear – in LA, the fashion is very red carpet, so it just fit really well.
“It’s just about people being themselves, making their own decisions. It’s not gender neutral – it’s just gender-free” – Sophie Hardeman
Would you say that was the inspiration for this collection?
Sophie Hardeman: The collection is kind of like – you can go to your sister’s rehearsal dinner and then just go to the sandwich place where you work. It’s different in Europe – we dress for all occasions because we’re out and about on a bike – but American culture is really going out, dressing up and looking completely different in a new outfit. It makes clothing this sort of absurd ritual. The other thing is a play on denim couture – things that you wear on the red carpet that you don’t wear in daily life. Instead, this is your wedding dress that you can just put in the washing machine and wear another day. It combines dressing up with very common practicality.
Yes, you’ve said before that you’re very inspired by daily happenings – what’s something that you’ve been inspired by recently?
Sophie Hardeman: It’s about what is normal and appropriate. Like, if you wear really tight pants, you should wear a thong under it, so you don’t see the line of your underwear. But, actually, seeing the line of your underwear can be very seductive. Or, if you wear really tight pants, then your love handles will pop out and your figure is exposed. That’s something I will pick to embrace in a garment. Celebrating people’s individual aspects – I think that’s something that’s rising up, creating a voice for different things instead of listening to one overpowering system in fashion.
Was there a particular significance to having this lookbook in a drag club?
Sophie Hardeman: I just wanted to have a liberal environment – I wanted it to look like it could be anywhere and be very free. This place – the owner was just so excited and open to do it, and then some of the local performers came to the casting. So it was a really fun interaction, but I didn’t do it there because I wanted to make a statement.
I don’t really say that I make unisex clothing because it’s not about being unisex – it’s just about people being themselves, making their own decisions. It’s not gender neutral – it’s just gender-free. That’s why my sizes run from XXS to XXL – it’s whatever you feel good to put your body into.
I feel like your designs have this same sense of spontaneous experimentation to them – how much of this is deliberate and how much comes from random trial and error?
Sophie Hardeman: It’s a little bit of both. Heaps of dumpster-diving, thrifting and then big-ass scissors and just trying things on all day!
What’s in store for the future?
Sophie Hardeman: I just want to carry on as I do, and collaborate. Make the line and the projects that I find inspiring – whether it’s a show, a film or perfume… I really want to make a lingerie line, and maybe also watches and purses… I want to be an all lifestyle brand (laughs) – just like Versace, you know? How you could buy the bed and the dress.
So do you have any advice to any other young designers out there, making their way?
Sophie Hardeman: In the end, no one is going to push your boundaries better than yourself so really stay true to yourself and, at the same time, find people to grow together with, who share your ideology. That’s just all gut feeling.