Despite retreating into the refuge of his drum kit, design school remained in the back of Henrik’s mind. “Of course different creative fields have positive and negative sides, but fashion is more of an eye-opener,” he says. “You can play aesthetically in fashion, while music is more for the ears.” So after two years of the music circuit, Henrik followed his gut and reapplied to design school—now for the third, charm-filled time.
Aiming for The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (more commonly known as The Danish Design School), he knew that he’d need to stand out, so he got serious and started taking drawing classes. When the time came to make his portfolio, he decided to go “all out”: Instead of printing a sheath of formatted pages, he built his own resume—in 3D. “I thought I could do something with clear plastic and cucumbers,” he says nonchalantly, describing an oddball concept that would come to typify his inimitable collections. “So I stuck some cucumbers and vinegar in big poster-size transparent sheets, sealed them and let them float around.”
Henrik sent in his pickled resume and received a call from the design school nearly immediately. He answered excitedly, thinking that his creation must’ve been so impressive that they wanted to bring him in for an interview him straight away. But that couldn’t have been farther from reality: Unbeknownst to him, his brine-laden liquid portfolio had been placed in a stack of hundreds of other applications, and the weight of 800 files on top of his had caused Henrik’s to explode. Needless to say, the administrative team was not exactly pleased that his vinegary mess was now sloshing about on the office floor along with the other students’ ruined applications. Unsure about whether she was dealing with a genius or an idiot, the secretary angrily demanded that he come clean up his spillage while also curiously asking, “What were you thinking?”
After he wiped the floors clean and put his work into a “normal” portfolio, Henrik was stunned when he was asked to come in for four days of briefs to test out his non-saline artistic chops. “And I thought, ‘Okay, maybe I lost some points there on the explosion with the cucumbers, but I’m all in,’” he says. At the time he was interested in food, so he made a 3-meter-tall (10-foot-tall) tower out of potatoes and prawns for one of his tests. “But they just didn’t get it,” he says. “At the same time though, that was when I started gaining a bit of self-confidence in my ideas.” This conviction was strengthened when he was separately tapped to enter a competition happening at the school, even though he hadn’t even been officially accepted as a student yet. “I walked into the interview and they were like, ‘Okay, the cucumber guy…’” he laughs. Despite having clearly garnered himself a reputation, he didn’t win the competition—or get accepted into The Danish Design School. His bizarre efforts had been foiled. Again.
After all, not everyone always understood what Henrik’s work was all about, and a lot of critics still don’t to this day. It’s pretty wild in almost every way imaginable—towers of potatoes have escalated into art pieces such as a massive inflatable Popeye and shows with names like The Slippery Spiral Situation and The Shrinkwrap Spectacular. Instead of formulating grand plans and projecting trends, he’s most in his element when left to his own devices, fooling around, thinking and dreaming. “I’m pretty intuitive and impulsive,” he says. “Suddenly there’s a mistake that leads you down the wrong alley, and that ends up being the right alley.” This trait of being open to following new and unexpected paths led him to what essentially kick-started his career: He met a girl who was going to apply to Central Saint Martins in London, so he also decided to send in his (vinegar-less) portfolio. “I ended up getting an interview,” he says, “but at that stage I couldn’t say much more than ‘Hello! Denmark!’” Even though he hardly spoke a scrap of English, his quirky portfolio spoke for him, and—finally—he was accepted into one of the most prestigious art schools in Europe.
Moving to London for Central Saint Martins in 1998, he entered a new world filled with unapologetic characters such as the Sex Pistols and Stella McCartney and gained access to a new wash of mediums he could dabble in. During this time, Henrik managed to turn heads by writing and directing a short film with his friend, Thomas Jessen, called The Monk. Simple in structure but decidedly unnerving, the video features a shirtless actor with an awkward bowl-cut and what appears to be scoliosis who slowly rotates to trippy electronic music. He also started experimenting more seriously with fashion concepts, and his famous “Egg Project”—a blow-up suit that makes you look like you’ve been swallowed by a giant egg—landed him a spot in galleries from Newcastle to Liverpool and, most notably, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.
It’s been nearly 15 years since Henrik graduated from Central Saint Martins, and the list of things he’s accomplished since then reads like the credits at the end of a Hollywood blockbuster. In addition to setting up his eponymous fashion label, he’s exhibited at museums around the world (including the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, MoMA PS1 in New York and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.), has designed costumes for Swan Lake at the Oslo Opera House, spent six years touring as a drummer with Trentemøller, became a professor at Design School Kolding, collaborated on furniture with Fredericia and set up P:I:G (the Practical Intelligent Genius Foundation), a foundation that nurtures new creative talent. And he’s done it all without a traditional business plan.
“Mostly it’s been people suggesting, ‘Hey, can you do this?’” he says of the offers that float past his desk like the pickled portfolios of his past. “Usually I say no, but sometimes I say yes.” With the number of projects he takes on, it would seem that Henrik’s mind is an endless well of creative ideas, but part of his enduring success comes from knowing how much energy he actually has and how he wants to distribute it. “When you’ve been doing the same kind of stuff for a very long time, I think it’s important to figure out what can trigger your brain—what feels exciting in order to keep the normal work interesting,” he says.
In order to achieve this mental fluidity, Henrik tries to keep himself from being stuck in a loop where, without being conscious of it, he’s repeating colors or forms season to season simply because they’re so intrinsic to his aesthetic. Because of this fear, he’s recently been toying with the idea of a different direction for his clothing line, eschewing the dark, twisted vibe he’s become known for to do something lighter and more “open.” He might even remove the hats next season—both metaphorically and literally.
Through a mix of patience and whim-following, Henrik has learned that taking the time to step back from your work allows you to see your own potential for growth. In order to give himself this wiggle room, he’s learned to build in downtime to let ideas swirl around in his head. Because, sometimes, inaction is the greatest type of action you can take. “I think young people want it all to happen really fast—that it should just be now,” Henrik says. “But it can take longer than planned. You may have to wait for something hopefully magical to happen—and sometimes it doesn’t happen. But at other times it comes in the night, or when you’re on your own, taking a walk or riding your bike.” After all, ideas aren’t only sparked in museums and brainstorming sessions: They’re just as likely to be found on the downbeat when you’re simply living.
And living is one thing that Henrik gives himself over to with complete abandon. Though he has a handle on time management when it comes to his career, he relishes the wonderful lack of control he has in his home life, which revolves around his girlfriend and the spontaneous needs and desires of their two children, five-year-old Elsa and three-year-old Manfred. Kids being kids, their naturally rambunctious nature inspires Henrik while also sharpening his senses in all areas of life. “They don’t give you a break to think,” he says, fondly retelling calamitous stories of the tykes running off down the cobblestoned streets of the neighborhood around Nansensgade, the inner-city Copenhagen location where the whole family now lives. In this way, his family keeps him grounded, as do a few daily rituals: coffee, cigarettes, cycling and crunchy muesli. And of course he still makes time for drumming: “In fact, I played last night in a weird jazz club with 12 people,” he laughs.
For such an industrious and influential person, Henrik is concerned that being a fashion designer isn’t a “meaningful” enough occupation: His parents ran a nursing home while he was growing up, which strikes him as a much worthier profession. He often feels he should be doing something more for the world—contributing to its betterment, somehow, such as teaching kindergarten or working with people with disabilities. Or some days he wonders if maybe it’s just all too hard and he should give it up altogether and move to the northeast coast of Denmark—a place he dubs “Cold Hawaii”—where he could hang out on the beach, smoking pot and surfing waves all day… except he doesn’t surf.
Conflicted, Henrik recently sought the advice of his older brother, a priest. “Listen,” his sibling said. “There’s a lot of people who are already trying to save the world—maybe you should just keep on doing what you’re doing.” And that’s one of the wonders of the fashion sphere: As artificial as it can occasionally seem from the sidelines, it’s an unbridled cosmos that brings joy to many people in one way or another. And the importance of that pleasure shouldn’t be underestimated: Whether it’s through giving society a means to express its individuality or by providing momentary escapism into a realm of fantasy, being a designer may not be altruistic work, but that doesn’t make it devoid of meaning.
Maybe in the near or distant future he’ll give some of these other careers a whirl, but maybe not. You can never really know with Henrik. But whatever he does in life, one thing is certain: He’ll continue to fight boredom through creativity and do only that which he finds stimulating. The rhythm will fluctuate, and he’ll build and inhabit new universes accordingly. No matter what, he’ll continue to treat life like one freestyle jam session—sometimes he’ll be the drum solo in the spotlight, other times he’ll carry the tempo in the background, but he will always keep playing.
Henrik wears clothing from his personal wardrobe and his eponymous label’s design throughout.