Berner Kühl

Menswear brand making clothes of substance 

When Caroline sat down with Frederik, who is the founder of menswear brand Berner Kühl to understand what drives him, it was with an already extensive knowledge of his life and work. The two siblings grew up together on the West Coast of Denmark, and while she is certain he was always meant to make a brand, he insists that it was only after working with clothes that he fully realized it. Regardless, Berner Kühl, who takes its name after their shared family name, is now a reality – a menswear brand that was born out of a desire to educate the next generation of consumers on good product.


Caroline Berner Kühl: Let’s start with your background?

Frederik Berner Kühl: Well, you know all of that already…so maybe we can skip that, and you just write it?

C: No problem. Then let’s start with the brand Berner Kühl. You’ve always known you wanted to make a brand?

F: Not always, but since I started making clothes, yes. Previously it was more of an interest.

C: But you’ve always been interested in gear?

F: Yes, gear and clothes… it was mostly about the brand. It was always about the functionality of the clothes or because the brand was interesting. It was always connected to individuals, people. Take Stone, it was Massimo Osti, and figuring out how and why he did what he did. Same with Helmut Lang, and so on. In that sense it was always about a person who was connected to a brand. And when I started working with NN07, I knew that if I embarked on this journey, the end goal was not to make clothes for someone else’s brand. Then I had to make it to a point where I could make my own. And for me it was probably hung up on the idea of becoming someone or something.

C: Again, like the individuals you looked up to?

F: Yes, could you become one of them? And then it became a question of becoming so good at it that you could make something that you believe is good enough. But that’s still a process. And sometimes you might think you are closer to that when starting something, but then you realise you’re not quite there yet. Because you’re impatient, you might start 5 years too early. You could have spent another 5 years perfecting your skills before starting something.

C: But there’s also something about being young and just diving headfirst into it and having the courage to just go?

F: Yes, if you’d waited 5 or 10 years, you might not have done it. And when you put yourself out there you are forced to become really good at it faster. Regardless, if you’d waited 5 years, it would still take years to find your voice. In this sense, you might as well jump into it early on. Because it will take time.

C: But your level of ambition is also really high? Here, I am not thinking about recognition, but about the product itself?

F: I was never going to make something if I didn’t think it could measure up to the brands, I believe, are the best. And it will take some time to get there, but I knew that when I started. It is not something that you just do overnight. And that’s at a brand level too, where you want to shoot with the best photographers, and work with the best people. And then it always grows in different directions than you expected. And then you go back to the path, and then you divert from it again.

C: I guess the path changes as you walk it?

F: Definitely. Because then you get inspired by one thing when you start out, and later it will be something else entirely. And then at some point you are forced to accept that you cannot control everything. And then something new happens. That’s still difficult for me to accept that nothing is ever exactly as it was in my head.

C: Is that another way to describe perfectionism?

F: I guess. When you have a vision of something in your mind, and you want it to be precisely that. And it never can be.

C: That’s a process too, learning to accept that and let go of it.

F: And then something different will come out of it, but it is still born from that idea.

C: It is difficult for reality to live up to the idea. Especially when your level of perfectionism and ambition is at a certain level.

F: And relatively quickly you realise that that’s just the way things are. And things take more time than you think and hope for. In the beginning, the successes are smaller. You have to acknowledge the small victories. And that it’s one small victory at a time.

C: But then all of the small victories together…

F: Yes, and then hopefully, at some point, there’s a bigger victory.

C: Looking at those individuals you mentioned earlier. For many of them, it also didn’t happen overnight..

F: For some of them, it took 40 years to get there. It is a long process.

C: And neither of the two of us have ever liked these overnight wonders…

F: Which can be difficult at times, and in this time. Because what works in this time, right now, is what is made for right now. And if you don’t make something for this exact moment, but for this time and for the future, you won’t necessarily experience the same hype or instant success. And you have to be prepared for that when you are making something that is not necessarily a trend that everyone wants.

C: On the other hand, what is trendy and hyped, everyone wants that right now, but not necessarily tomorrow.

F: Some of those brands have the skills to make it into something else. But to me it is a balance. That type of brand could learn something from my brand, and I could learn something from them. Sometimes you must tap into what works right now. And that’s when you will have to compromise. On a small scale it might be about a style being popular right now, and then you can make your version of it, but it is also about if you do collabs and work with people with a big reach to get to more people. That’s a thing that I still don’t know if I want to do or not.

C: Collabs?

F: I mean, I do want to do collabs. But it can also become a quick fix. Because then you make a cool collab, and then you are on the map. It is what everyone wants to do. And of course I want to make a great collab, but you have two options – either you let go and just do it and say ‘let’s see what happens’ or you have to find someone that speaks into the same things as you, giving you the option to project your idea in new ways through the collab.

C: And maybe it’s the last variation for you?

F: Yeah, maybe. But then it comes down to the question of control again. Do you really need so much control? Maybe you should let it fly and live in a different way. Maybe something completely new will come out of that, and that can be really cool.

C: There’s something beautiful in letting go.

F: Definitely. And that’s the question, I think.

C: Now, I am just thinking about this idea of being the best at something. Where does that come from? Because I recognize that in myself.

F: I am not sure. You look at someone who is good at something, and then you want to be good at it too. A longing of a sort. But I don’t know where it comes from. Because I don’t necessarily think I’m the best at anything, but I know that I am really good at many things.

C: I am not sure I meant the best per se. But looking at these individuals who are the best at what they do and then wanting to measure up to that.

F: I think that comes from curiosity. Having spent a lot of time learning about it, and figuring out who are the best, and then you know what it takes.

C: And these people are extremely passionate about what they do.

F: Many of them are misfits who became so good at something, because they were nerdy and passionate, and that’s how they penetrated the noise. Massimo Osti started out printing T-shirts in a basement.

C: Many of these individuals, what they have in common, of course some of them are best at what they do, but they are also people who are good at many things.

F: Many of the people who started their own brands, also way back in time, where not only great designers, they were incredible good entrepreneurs. Today, the world looks different than when Helmut Lang and Margiela started out. Now you need to have community and network in a different way.

C: I guess back then it was more word of mouth. You started out with this niche thing, and then you might be picked up by The Face, because someone who knew someone had heard about you or seen something from you. Whereas today, you start at the top of the tunnel with social media where you can reach everyone in this very moment.

F: When you looked at things 15 years ago, you had to seek out stuff. Because you had found a brand in small store somewhere, or you had seen it on someone you admired. It was not full brand, full package, here you go. There’s no discovery left.

C: I remember the experience of reading these niche publications, and then you discovered one element of something, and then you found it somewhere else, and then it grew from there, taking form in your consciousness.

F: And that’s not possible now. There’s no bits and pieces. There’s no step by step. It’s full package from the beginning.

C: Now, even before opening a print publication, the editorials are available online, tagged. There’s no discovery in that sense anymore of figuring out what they were wearing. Not that I do not value the print publication.

F: It is by far more exciting to see an editorial in print.

C: But there’s no exploration left.

F: And that’s the same for everyone. So, the playing field has changed.

C: Changing subject completely, but I think it’s important to talk production when we talk Berner Kühl. From cotton field to final product…

F: That’s our story, you could say. It is the foundation. And then it’s about telling that story. And that’s back to figuring out how you make the best possible product. It means you have to find the best in everything – from cotton fabrics for pants to technological materials for outerwear. That’s one of the areas where you can still explore and discover, because here everything is not accessible. It requires that you get in a car and drive to 100 different factories and decide where they are best at doing what they do. And I’ve been privileged in the sense that I’ve worked for others who would send me out to do exactly that. But that gives you an extensive knowledge of or a library of where you can make the best clothes. And here, you can continue to discover new stuff. New techniques, and things to immerse yourself in. And you cannot just read about it, you have to get out there.

C: Yeah, I got no clue. Look at me googling ‘best cotton factory’…you can’t do that.

F: And maybe it’s not necessary for every brand. For many, less will do. And the end consumer might not even notice the difference. Maybe they can tell after 5 years of use, but it is still something where you don’t get a prize for doing it this way.

C: So why do you do it?

F: I don’t know. Because otherwise, I might as well not do it at all.

C: I know.

F: I want to make a product that feels great to wear in 5 years. Which means that I can take quite a lot of money for that product without feeling bad about it. If you want to make a brand that lasts, let’s say at least for the rest of my lifetime, I need to make something where people come back for more. You build your first group of consumers, who are my own age, and they will live with the brand for as long as I will live with the brand. And then down the line, you will reach out to new groups. And hopefully in 30 years, you have completely different age groups who buy Berner Kühl. And I do believe you can still become a collector’s brand today even if it’s different from earlier. But you can only become a collector’s brand if your pieces last. And luckily, many brands today do care about making products that last. And they are expensive, because it costs more to make these types of products.

C: But then I have it for a long time.

F: It’s not expensive in the long run. But that’s also up to us to educate our consumers and explain to them why it’s more expensive. And even though our products are expensive, it has to be value for money. There’s a maximum price a cotton T-shirt can cost before you start paying just for what it says on the label. But you will have to not compare yourself to anyone else; you will have to trust yourself and focus on what you are doing. We are still so new, and we’ve only just begun. I can become better at everything. Right now, I do everything myself, but of course I can find someone who is better at some specific things.

C: Isn’t that the plan?

F: Of course. It is only truly fun when you have a team to play with. We are getting to a point where it starts to make sense. So, I need to find people who can elevate my ideas and bring new aspects to it. It might be my idea, but I am not necessarily the best at executing everything about it.

C: And even if you’ve got the best ideas, they can always become better.

F: You will have to learn how to have really high thoughts about yourself while also being humble about the fact that you can always get better. You will have to believe you are the best, while also being open to other people making it better.

C: It’s a long process?

F: The first products came out in 2020, but it feels like forever ago.

C: Slow and steady wins the race.

F: Definitely. It takes time.

C: The balancing of impatience and…

F: Sticking to your principles.


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