Jørgen Nørgaard

Rock & Roll

At 75, Jørgen Nørgaard has seen fashions emerge and change, come and go for more than five decades. A rebel in his own right, he began catering jeans and t-shirts to the sizzling youth culture of post-WW2 Europe, while it was still in its infant stage. His store, Nørgaard på Strøget in Copenhagen, has long since become a mainstay of Danish fashion, probably one of the few small shops to have customers from three generations of the same family. Your mother wore the million-selling Nørgaard shirt under a smelly Afghan fur; you wore it with a cardigan, and now your kid sister wears it with Kawasakis and slim-fit jeans. Make no mistakes; Nørgaard is a merchant of the old school. And he comes across as a man passionate about fashion; a man who pays great attention to the fragile balance between small and simple, and the art of salesmanship.

How did you get introduced to the world of fashion, and what made you enthusiastic about style?

“I had a traditional three-year education in garments. After that I went to business school, then to England, where I worked for a fabric producer, then for a maker of ladies’ dresses. After England I went to Germany, where I attended a merchant’s school and worked in a fabric retailer in the city of Bremen, after which I went to a coat factory in Berlin. In this way I managed to piece together an education. There weren’t any fashion-oriented educations at that time, and no one knew which kind of fashion was going to develop. My wish was to find the kind of fashion I wanted to deal in, and that seemed to be emerging all by itself, because Elvis Presley and the music and culture around him was coming on full-throttle in the middle of the fifties. It was apparent that a new revolutionary youth culture was emerging, and this is what I decided to explore.”

What was your ambition behind the first Nørgaard store?

“When I opened the store in 1958, I wanted to find the stylistic expression for this new youth phenomenon. We didn’t really know how it was supposed to look, but we felt that the jeans and t-shirts we saw in the American movies were the right thing.”

Tell us a bit about Copenhagen at that time: What else went on in the fashion world?

“You know, nothing was really happening, because the old-timers had a firm grip on the established, high-society and bourgeois stores in the main streets. What I represented was a rebellion against this. The jeans alone were, in all their innocence, a challenge to the established style of dress. And we sold tight-fitting woollen shirts for the girls, they showed more shape, and this was also a provocation in the making.”

How old were you when you opened the store?

“I was 28 at that time. On weekends we went to a couple of dance bars in Copenhagen, and we went to the American-style ice cream parlours where people came to chat over ice cream. For beers we usually swung by Galathea and Drop Inn.”

Were these the wild days of your life?

“No they weren’t, actually. There wasn’t that much wildness overall. Remember, the fifties were quiet years in all of Europe, where everybody prepared for what was to come. It was a post-war era; it had that quiet and, shall we say, boring atmosphere.”

By now, it is about 40 years since you designed the iconic Nørgaard shirt…

“…Yes, I made that one when we had been in business for about ten years, and by then the scene had changed completely. The youth rebellion was going strong, and it became totally apparent that the new fashion and youth culture had won. From I opened the shop until I introduced the shirt, only ten years went by, but tremendous changes occurred during that short period, and this made me very conscious of what was about to happen. By 1965 the mini skirts began to appear, and by the end of the sixties, there existed a packed and ready fashion and lifestyle, which, by the way, was full of optimism.”

The other day, I read through a web forum where teenage girls were discussing the Nørgaard shirt. Some have several and they love them, and their mothers wear them too. So it seems like a durable concept.

“I am very happy about that, proud too. I think it’s a job damn well done! [Laughs]”

You were watching this youth culture explode around you. How did it influence the design for the shirt?

“It was a search for a shirt that wasn’t too warm. It couldn’t be wool; we needed cotton, but with long sleeves. And a t-shirt was by definition a short-sleeved shirt, but I wanted to create a t-shirt with long sleeves. Today its seems perfectly obvious and simple, but back then, it wasn’t; there was no such thing. It existed as underwear, but I wanted a garment that could hold its own. It’s a girl’s shirt, so I wanted it to be sensual, and it needed to be able withstand many washes.”

In another interview you talked about the ‘fashion beast’, as you call it, and that it’s important not let it run wild. Let’s go into that.

“Well, the basis of that idea is that fashion is an unsympathetic fellow in many ways. It is also a treat to be with; it is seductive and dangerous; it can bring joy or fear. This is why I compare it to an animal,  like a beetle with shiny, colourful armour. You try to catch it between your fingers, but then it slips away and disappears beneath the floorboards. Fashion is like that, too, constantly moving away from you.”

How to find the right balance, then?

“Through all these years I have been split between two opinions on fashion: One is that it should be like our t-shirts or a pair of jeans, timeless. The other is the hysteria, the madness in the constantly changing fashions, and it is extremely fascinating to see. So to me, fashion is both, but I have always stood the ground for a constant style.”

I would like for you to give a perspective on the development in Danish fashion during your time.

“Danish fashion has never been stronger, but why so late? Well, first of all we don’t have a fashion culture like they do in France and Italy, but it has been on the increase for a number of years. Today both sexes are very conscious about fashion and appearance, and that is necessary for a culture to develop. This, and a bit of luck, has paved the way for the current energy in Danish fashion. During the seventies, Danish design was big, and this is really the only era to compare the current situation with. Danish designers made an international impact with their cool and not very sensual style. Especially Finnish design had a beautiful coolness to it, which is very far from what is happening now, where everything is so sensual.”

And there’s a lot of extravagance to it…

“That as well, that’s right. What we came from was a humble and puritan fashion, and today there’s a great surplus and decadence on all sides.”

Any important periods in your career that you would like to share with us?

“Personally, and also related to my business, the burgeoning ‘small is beautiful’ movement in the early seventies was important, as it still is today, because the large-scale production units are taking over in the name of globalisation. But it can also be fascinating to see H&M, for instance, because it’s bloody well done. Nørgaard på Strøget continues to be a small boat in the ocean; we have given up the idea of having many stores. When you run a fashion store you have to be aware, because fashion reflects the society around it. I’m not saying that mine is the superior viewpoint, it may even sound overly holy to some, but these new ideas suited me perfectly. On the other hand, it’s not that I am intimidated by great numbers; in our store we put a lot of emphasis on finding special items that can sell ten or twenty pieces, but I find it much more amusing to find something we can sell in thousands of pieces every month. We want to keep it small and beautiful, but we want to sell some goods too!”

By Rasmus Folehave Hansen

Originally published in CPHFW Magazine SS07

%d bloggers like this: