It's glam up north: Peter Jensen's whimsical style
Peter Jensen's autumn/winter designs are inspired by the national dress of Greenland – and have sparked a diplomatic incident, he tells Carola Long
Monday 23 November 2009
There's a story behind every Peter Jensen show, but the tales behind his autumn/winter collection could well be the most colourful- and eventful yet.
Past Jensen muses have included Jodi Foster and the geeky Candice Marie from cult Seventies comedy Nuts in May, but this season the inspiration for the 38-year-old Danish-born designer has come from his engaging aunt Jytte (pronounced, adopt Scandi accent here, "you-da"), who ran a chip shop and cab company in Greenland in the Sixties and Seventies. Don't you just love her already? Sitting in his Dalston studio, with clothes hanging decoratively on the walls and windows lined with plants, Jensen explains what happened: "It was very fashionable for Danish people to go and work in Greenland in those days because you didn't pay tax." His aunt arrived in the country, "wearing a mini skirt and a pair of stilettos and then she realised that it was really bloody cold." Aunt Jytte is apparently very proud of the collection, although Jensen admits she doesn't really recognise herself.
That's partly because numerous other influences have been woven in, including motifs from Greenlandic national dress. The white boots with a bright floral trim are based on the country's traditional Kamik boots. When Jensen visited Greenland and the Faroe islands, with a grant from the Danish government, he watched local women making the boots. It's a painstaking process and each section can take a month to complete. Being part of the traditional costume the boots aren't just pretty footwear, but also have a cultural significance and message encoded into them, indicating the age and marital status of the wearer. "There is also one to signify that you are a spinster," laughs Jensen, acknowledging that the average girl may not want to wear her private life on her sleeve – or, rather, her calves.
However, despite Jensen's admiration for these prettiest of traditional designs, his homage to the Kamik boots got a rather frosty reception from some Greenlanders. In March, residents of Nuuk, Greenland's capital (where Aunt Jytte had her chip shop) took to the streets to protest against Jensen's collection, and in particular against the thigh-high boots. Around 30 to 40 women objected to the folkish footwear because they felt that Jensen had simply copied their national costume and was looking down on their culture, of which they are very protective.
Jensen said at the time that he thinks the protesters may have been particularly sensitive because he is Danish, and Greenland was a colony of Denmark until 1979, but he was still taken aback by the response. "I am shocked that our loving tribute to Kamik boots and beadwork capes could be construed as in any way exploitative," he said in March. "We hoped to bring the world's attention to the beauty of the Greenlandic national costume. We hoped that the people of Greenland would embrace the attention their heritage has received."
He adds today that "perhaps they were worried that the boots would be commercialised", or that his interpretation detracted from the handicraft aspect of the originals. He pauses before adding: "Perhaps they also imagined that they would be worn by slutty girls in discos." Let's hope so.
While the boots might have caused the biggest stir, folk and craft elements were woven throughout the collection. Sea-green capes with braid edging and bobbles on strings, woolly hats with double pom-poms, knitted dresses with bright, diagonal patterned beading and jumpers with winsome polar-bear-amid-the-snow scenes were all delivered with Jensen's trademark lightness of touch and sweetness. Combined with shantung minis, checked pencil skirts with peplums and sweatshirts with exaggerated dogtooth patterns, the overall effect made one want to pinch the cute-as-pie collection's rosy cheeks. Think quirky sartorial Prozac.
Jensen's whimsical style is immediately recognisable, but it comes with enough of an unexpected edge to keep it modern and fresh. The tone of his collections isn't ironic or kitsch: there's an excited joie de vivre about past designs such as the fox pattern jumpers and Seventies style checked or crocheted A-line skirts from his autumn/winter 2008 "Nuts in May" show. Asked to define his distinctive aesthetic Jensen says, "I would use that American term of being daywear and also young, although, of course, women of all ages wear it. People also say humorous, which I suppose is true. It does have some humour to it, and it's not obviously sexy." It is sexy, but in a wholesome, ingénue way, rather than an in-your-face, fetishistic style; one would be hard put not to quicken a few pulses in those white boots. Jensen also points out that his collection is affordable, and it is. Most pieces are under £250 and Jensen also regularly creates capsule collections for Topshop, who sponsored his shows at London fashion week for several years. This season he created a version of the white Kamik-style boots for the store, along with towering laced ankle boots. Highlights of Jensen's many other collaborations over the last decade include his second capsule womenswear collection for Dover Street Market. His autumn/winter designs, along with unique pieces created in collaboration with photographer Tim Walker, were displayed amid an installation of snow-dusted rocks and imperious looking penguins.
It's a cartoonish take on the Scandinavian landscape familiar to Jensen while he was growing up. He hails from Logstor, Denmark, a small fishing village with a population of around 5,000, and says his love of fashion began with making things on his mum's sewing machine. He says, "I didn't sit down and think, 'Oh I want to be a fashion designer'. I liked the technical part of it." He even began his own business of sorts in the local street: "There was a fat girl who lived next door and she couldn't really buy clothing anywhere," he explains, " so I used to make her clothes and then charge her £3 for a top. She just kept on growing."
Jensen has been honing his craft for 10 years now. He launched his eponymous menswear line immediately after graduating from the MA course in menswear at Central Saint Martins College in 1999, and the womenswear line followed shortly after. He studied for his BA at the Danish Academy of Design, and has also been to an embroidery school in Denmark. Central Saint Martins wasn't Jensen's first experience of Britain, however. He and a friend had already come over to Maidenhead to work in a hotel: "She worked as a chambermaid and I worked as a dishwasher." Not the most glamorous-sounding start to his career in Britain, but Jensen describes it as "really, really good fun." That's the mischievous Jensen and his upbeat, feelgood clothes all over. As he puts it, "we're never going to do a goth collection."
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