For a long time Errolson Hugh was contemporary fashion’s best-kept secret. As a former native of the icy city of Edmonton (although now living and working in Berlin), he was always an outlier from the industry, yet his ACRONYM clothing line was one of the most highly regarded on the planet among those who knew of it.
Constructed using processes, techniques, materials and fabrics so far beyond the realms of the norm that they had a gravity all of their own, the ACRONYM name became fabled among those who appreciate an obsessive attention to detail in their clothing. Despite their limited production runs and justifiably high price point, word of these uncommonly high-spec items began to spread – and with it, an awareness of their creator.
After having caught the shrewd eye of Nike CEO Mark Parker, Hugh was brought on board to breathe new life into the brand’s much-loved, but long dormant, ACG line. The result was a characteristically low-key success among fans of active technical apparel, but it wasn’t until the following year and the release of the Nike x ACRONYM Lunar Force 1 SP – one of the most divisive sneakers in modern history – that things got really interesting.
Loved by some (ourselves included), loathed by just as many, the shoe was a totemic example of everything Hugh stands for when it comes to working philosophy: practical ergonomics, disruptive design and a build quality that was second-to-none.
With the sneaker's eventual success now proven in the eyes of both fans and detractors alike, we sat down with the man himself for an in-depth discussion on how he reached this point, and what he has coming in future…
ACRONYM seems to be born out of a bigger idea than just simply making clothes. It’s almost like you’re preparing your brand for an uncertain future. Almost like clothing for science fiction.
Absolutely. The relation between science fiction and technological development, and how that affects society, is deeply related to ACRONYM’s aesthetic. We founded the company in 1999 as a legal entity and started doing the basic groundwork for what would become the brand. Designing the first product took us about two years and, in 2002, the first product actually came out.
Everyone at the company is always looking at how devices, modes of transport or our environment affect us. We live in a highly constructed world and most of the apparel that existed pre-ACRONYM didn’t really address that in an everyday context. Interestingly, the things we focused on back in the early days of ACRONYM are just now becoming commonplace. We definitely don’t have to explain things so much anymore. When we first started people were like, “Why would I need this?”
One of the ideas I always come back to – I can’t remember where I first heard it – is the proposition that everyone is already a cyborg; contact lenses, a phone that’s basically external memory. Things you carry around on a day-to-day basis augment you in ways that a few decades ago were science fiction. You don’t have to graft a device onto your skeletal system to be a cyborg. Everybody is already a cybernetic organism because of how intimately electronics are implemented into our life.
Do you think this process is still going as fast as it did 15 years ago?
Oh yes, absolutely. It’s still as hard to predict too. We’ve only just started to see the positive and negative impact and effects of something like technological networking, for example.
What are the negative effects?
All of the blatant passive surveillance that’s going on is somewhat worrisome. You don’t know the consequences of some things – how something you put online will be there forever and can be dug up. It also affects the way the fashion business works; the speed in which a fast-fashion outlet is able to copy a runway design and get it to market is faster than the actual designer can at this point. The only reason they have access to the design is because social media puts something up seconds after the model walks out on the runway. It’s a very banal example of a problem no one could have predicted.
Do you feel that’s disheartening?
Not for us necessarily. The way we operate is almost like a countermeasure to that. I’m the last person in the world who would ever want to compete with H&M or any of those guys. I almost feel sorry for the middle-sized brands that have to deal with that. On one side you got fast-fashion conglomerates and on the other side you have the luxury guys. Everyone in the middle is just fair game. It’s very difficult on a business level to compete with those kinds of resources and infrastructure.
The way we work goes against that because we had to invent our own system. So far that’s worked for us, but the trade off is that it takes a lot longer, and you make a lot less money. You really have to play the long game and believe that you actually know what you are doing when, for the longest time, you think that you don’t. Luckily it has panned out for us, or at least it’s starting to.
How do you deal with the consumer reaction part of the social media thing? I remember when the Nike collaboration came out the reaction was divisive, to say the least.
I think divisive was an understatement.
Did you anticipate that beforehand?
Right at the first meeting we had with Nike we said, “You know we’re not just going to give these shoes a different color right?” Luckily their response was “Absolutely, that’s why you’re here.” They were really understanding and supportive and we just went for it. I didn’t really think about the backlash, because we were too busy getting our vision right.
At some point an early image leaked, people went crazy and it felt like it was the most hated shoe of all time. In a sense it was good to get that out of the way. By the time the shoe actually came out everyone had just vented already. It was interesting to see the types of people who were into it and those who hated it.
It seems like there was very little in between those two reactions.
Oh yeah. A lot of people were expecting some all-black ballistic nylon water-repellent shoe I guess, but we didn’t want to be predictable.
Was it weird to get that response? Obviously Nike is a larger platform to get scrutiny from than the usual small, almost covert, ACRONYM release.
The bigger attention was a concern for sure. It’s an unusual partnership in a sense. Nike is one of the biggest brands in the world and ACRONYM is arguably one of the smallest - certainly on an operational level.
Despite that, certain ideas and interests were very similar. The willingness to investigate those on both sides worked out. We took a lot of time and care to make sure the design we were putting out represented something we could stand behind. We talked a lot about that and how to use the advantages that Nike has and use it to make something only we could have done together. I felt if we managed to do that it would play out and people would understand.
It’s interesting, though. When people are talking about your design work it’s very focused on the technical and functional side, but there must be a very strong emotional side to it for you too.
That’s a great question because for me the emotional side is actually way more of a concern. The technical side is just the quality of build. I think people latch onto it very quickly because it’s the biggest obvious differentiator. It’s easy to spot and we also approach it in a fairly minimalist and constructivist way – the elements of technology are very visible in the designs – but we use them to enhance them or express a vision. They’re not hidden in the aesthetic. For this thing to actually work and be something that you care about you need an emotional resonance. The other stuff is almost like a justification.
I came across this R. Buckminster Fuller quote that I thought was interesting in this context: "A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist."
He’s a smart guy, Bucky Fuller.
That’s an understatement.
I actually saw him speak when I was a kid. My dad pulled my brother and me out of school to take us to his lecture at the University of Manitoba. I must have been five? My dad was pretty radical that way.
Your father’s an architect, right?
Yeah. That hugely influenced me. My mother was an interior designer and they had their own practice, so we grew up at their studio. We were always causing trouble in the office and gluing everybody’s stuff together and drawing all over everything.
Whenever I had some idea about design or creativity there was always some book that he showed me. I was exposed to Corbusier, Gropius and Bauhaus when I was 12 or 13. It’s kind of hard for me to think about not having that influence.
Did the practical side of growing up in the harsh Edmonton climate come into play?
I never really thought about it until someone mentioned it much later, but it’s true. It was a 10-minute walk to school, and sometimes by the time you got there you had the icicles hanging off your eyelashes and your scarf was a frozen wall of ice. It was -38 at points, so it was cold. I had to be practical about clothing.
Another major influence in that was karate. It fascinated me because I could do all these movements that I couldn’t do in my regular clothes. It was the first time I understood the results of pattern-making. That triggered a lifelong quest for pants that you could kick people in the head with – another seminal thing for ACRONYM.
Why did you finally grab all these things together and decide to start a company yourself?
That was out of frustration mostly. We were in Munich at the time and we were doing freelance design work for a number of companies – a lot of snowboarding, actually. We were seeing all the technology for the outerwear, which was already heavily ingrained in snowboarding. You needed the tech to do this sport. So we saw that and learned how to make it and how to design with it and we figured, "Why don’t we have this in our everyday clothes?" We proposed that idea to everyone we were working with, because we obviously didn’t have any money. All of them said, “No thanks. You’re crazy.” So we figured we’d just do it ourselves.
Do you feel like you’re reaching the limits of what you can achieve this far into the whole ACRONYM project?
It’s an ongoing process. I think particularly with ACRONYM as a brand, the image it has is a lot bigger than the actual infrastructure that’s behind it. There’s friction in that, because people just think we can do more than we actually can. Because of how little we actually use the existing systems in the industry, we’re somewhat out in the wild.
This means we have the freedom to do things you can’t get away with at any other company, but at the same time there are challenges any other company will not face. You can’t have one without the other. Every single season, every piece that we produce is kind of a miracle; because it’s so unlikely it would all work.
Are you looking to change that?
Yes. I definitely want that to change, but we’re also very aware of how tied together what we do is with how we do it. The freelance design agency makes us aware of how other companies work. What we learned over the years is that the infrastructure of the company determines the product. Owning our own production facility has advantages and disadvantages — the same thing for your own dyeing facility or your own retail chain for example, which we don’t. All of those things influence how decisions are made and affect the product that gets delivered.
The product that people love and expect from us is intrinsically tied to the way we’ve done it. That type of infrastructure is not something you can grow quickly. If we want to grow, it’s not just a matter of typing in a bigger number on the order sheet. We actually have to think, “Ok, we need to hire an X number of people, we need to buy those machines, where do these machines go? Do we have enough floor space?” ACRONYM is also not the type of product where in the space of a season we can train another factory to produce it. There’s thousands of little tiny details and consequentially thousands ways to fuck it up.
If one detail is half a centimeter too low, the whole jacket doesn’t work and collapses onto itself. But when it does, and everything is there and everything has been caught, then it’s magic. The synergy is there. It’s like a sports car. The complexity is the pay-off, but it’s also the problem.
You’re not making things easy on yourself.
No. The whole point of ACRONYM when we started was, "let’s try and establish a way of doing things where we don’t have to compromise on the product." From day one the price structure or merchandising plan was never a part of the process. We don’t have a sales manager. There’s no forecasting. It’s all product-driven. We see the limits of the way we do things everyday. It’s an uphill battle.
If you look at the first product we made in 2002 – the box set containing a jacket, a bag and some other stuff – it’s basically the same thing we’re still doing now. The bag that was in the set is still the best-selling product we have, and the same goes for a version of that first jacket.
Does that mean you’re just 15 years ahead of everyone else?
Well, either that or we’re just too stupid to quit.
I think we got our headline there.
Well, we did our homework, we did something we believed in and we worked on something that’s good and did the things we wanted to do. If you insist long enough, other people will start believing it as well, as long as it actually delivers and does what you say it does.
Taking it away from just ACRONYM and the future, I know you’ve been interested in William Gibson and dystopian futures and all that. It sometimes feels like you're designing product that is prepared for such a vision. I know you worked on the video game Deus Ex that deals with these predicaments.
Eidos, the company that develops Deus Ex, approached us and they flew us out to their Montreal studios and showed us the game development. They explained the character, the situation, what he was doing. We then designed a coat for him as if he was a real person. We basically did the same thing we always do, which was actually built a real-life jacket. We made two prototypes, and the second one was the one that they chose. We actually drafted the patterns like it’s a real coat.
Is that what companies approach you for right now? We want you to do what you do, but for us?
Yeah. It took a couple of years. Of course we had the agency before. We were designing everything. We did downhill mountain biking gear. I did a swimwear/clubwear line for teenage girls. I’ve done inline-skate shorts. Snowboarding clothes for five-year-olds. We did everything, we needed to pay our rent.
Hold on a minute, a swimwear/clubwear line for teenage girls?
Haha, yes we had a good time with that...