Socks: a functional piece of clothing that for much of their modern sartorial existence has remained just that, functional. A barrier between the natural bare skin of your feet and the manufactured materials of your shoes. An item worn as much for health as they are a way of covering your hairy man-ankles when your trouser legs ride up. And, up until 2008, that was that. For the modern man, no real choice or variation was on offer.
Then, sometime around the mid-'00s, designer socks started to became a thing. Suddenly there was color beyond your formal black cotton or white athletic crew, ankle and low-cuts. Suddenly there was pattern beyond traditional Argyle check or pin stripe. In short, suddenly you had options.
Much of this is thanks to the work of one brand: Happy Socks, the Stockholm company founded in spring 2008 by friends Viktor Tell and Mikael Söderlindh. As a brand, the driving ethos is one of fun. It’s playful and thoroughly expressive, with the nine-year-old company’s product range and list of collaborators testaments to the speed and ferocity of its creative output, all in a myriad of differing patterns and a seemingly infinite run of color combos. And as a product, Tell and Söderlindh pretty much carved out a new category for innovation and fun within menswear themselves, and made it entirely their own. Today, if you picture a high-quality, beautifully designed sock, you’re probably imagining a Happy Sock.
"Fun has always been our prime interest," concludes creative director and the main man behind the brand’s designs, Viktor Tell, as he ponders one of my questions. Speaking to him, you get the feeling the bold extravagance of Happy Socks’ products and its overall bright, colorful brand aesthetic is entirely his. He’s a towering man with a huge beard and long raggedly wavy hair, he talks fast with a deep voice and a thick internationally-tinged Swedish accent. And then there’s his booming laugh that might just randomly interject itself at the end of his sentences.
"Maybe not all the decisions have been the greatest ones because we wanted fun," nods Mikael Söderlindh soberly, half in agreement, as he finishes another small bowl of vegetable crisps. He strikes an added note of caution: "It's so easy to say now that everything happened, everything's so great, but no. It was tough. It’s been super tough to do it." The analytical business-brains of the duo, Söderlindh talks even faster than Tell, with a thicker accent and more physical energy than Tell (if that’s possible), with the result that he occasionally leaps up from the sofa we’re talking on to then walk around the room or point out fellow figures from Stockholm’s creative business community who happen to walk past.
"We've never worked in the company from a personal aspect though," adds Söderlindh when I try and draw the comparison. "We’ve always worked with it as a company. We’ve never done a decision based on our personal thoughts, it's always been what is best for the company. And seeing the company, I think that's what is different. We see Happy Socks as a person. As a very social person. A happy person—someone you can meet up and do fun things with and explore different collaborations and so on."
And there’s a lot of collaborations. Each season, Happy Socks drop two or three special collections with a diverse selection of names. It’s as if Tell and Söderlindh are trying each one to see if they fit. From joint-projects with people and groups as diverse as Billionaire Boys Club and Snoop Dogg to working with celebrated American photographer David Lachapelle, the one thing that can be said is that each partner has an equally strong enough brand identity to measure up against Happy Socks’ own.
Case in point: one of this year’s collabs is with Steve Aoki, the globally renowned LA-based DJ and producer who holds the Guinness World Record for the 'most traveled musician in one year' and is famous for his vast array of collaborations, including most recently with Gucci Mane, T-Pain, Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, ILoveMakonnen and Magos on his latest record, Steve Aoki Presents Kolony. Aoki is also famous for launching freshly baked cakes into ravers' faces mid-way through his sets.
For the collab, Happy Socks produced three sock and two underwear designs littered with Aoki references. Both Aoki and Happy Socks match each other in terms of energy and outlook, bringing their belief in the importance of spreading color and pushing the boundaries of creativity to the collaboration. The sock designs include Aoki's infamous cake, as well as his life mantra and record label slogan, 'By Any Means Necessary' in stark black and white, as well as the 'On tour forever' slogan that nods to his world record (both the cake and his 'By Any Means Necessary' also appear across the underwear designs). Even the collab's packaging is designed as a slice of cake while the product shoot featured a huge Steve Aoki cake as a prop, which Happy Socks baked according to the recipe in Aoki’s tour rider. All for added authenticity and fun...
"A lot of the companies have reached out to us," says Söderlindh, explaining how many of the collaborations come about.
"I'm not an EDM guy, but I am a Steve Aoki guy, and I love that he's so driven," adds Tell. "I might not always understand the thing, but I understand the energy and coming out and doing the best fucking thing you can do."
One of the more tangible phenomenons that helped fuel Happy Socks’ growth was the Great Recession of 2008, much of which the world is still reeling from today. "I think what they say is that starting a business during a financial crisis is the best thing you can do because then you start from zero, and you grow with it," explains Tell. He leans forward: "People couldn't afford to buy an expensive jacket, but they still wanted to buy something that was designer and was fun. The strength of a brand. They wanted to buy the brand. So we wanted to put the love of the brand into something that costs 10 dollars instead of a thousand dollars, and still try to put it on the same level. That was our ambition."
"We created the segment. We were first," adds Söderlindh confidently.
"We are not typically Swedish," adds Tell. "If you look at Swedish fashion, it's quite dark and moody and [when we started] we didn't really want to be there. But we like the design aspect, and I think we can say Swedes are at the forefront of design."
The numbers, of course, back all of this up: Happy Socks is a proudly international brand with the 100 employees engaged at their Stockholm headquarters drawn from 26 nationalities (60 of those 100 are from countries other than Sweden, including their Austrian CFO). As for the product, Happy Socks is stocked in over 12,000 places around the world, including their own concept stores in places as far flung away from Stockholm as New York, London, Barcelona, Krakow, Mumbai, Tokyo and Taiwan.
Quite impressive for a company that built its first three years purely on selling its own socks. Some four years ago, Söderlindh and Tell decided to branch out into underwear and now, in 2017, Happy Socks venture into women's-specific sock designs through the launch of its Hysteria sub-label, headed up by a young Venezuelan woman, Paula Maso, who (reportedly) pointedly told the two founders within weeks of her starting that their male-focused sock designs weren’t exactly cutting it for women. Which is an entirely fair point.
The Happy Socks x Steve Aoki collection drops September 5 in Happy Socks concept stores, online at HappySocks.com, and in selected retailers around the world. It’s 10€ for individual pairs, while the 3-pack gift box comes in at 29.95€. Each pair of trunks cost 24.95€.
Follow Happy Socks on Instagram, Snapchat (add @TheHappyCrew), Facebook or Twitter to stay in the loop with everything they do. Next, see the latest designs Happy Socks created with Billionaire Boys Club earlier this year.