When you hold an SNS Herning fisherman’s sweater in your hands and let your fingers feel their way through the thick, tightly knitted wool, you will probably think that you are holding something made in the 1950s. You might even mumble “Hmm, they don’t make them like that anymore.”
Well, they do. On a quiet road in the industrial area of Herning, Jutland, the descendants of Søren Nielsen Skyt are making what they have been making since the 1920s: sweaters. Though they don’t brag about it, they could, and they probably should. In January this year the company launched a new collection of knits with Comme des Garçons, and in the past year produced knitwear for Opening Ceremony in New York and Los Angeles, Colette in Paris and Loveless in Tokyo. They just keep on knitting, through good times and bad, and that is why their family business is still thriving, against all the odds.
The factory is called Skyt Strikvarer (knitwear), but the brand is called SNS Herning. The company makes numerous styles, but the fisherman’s sweater, or “175” as it is known – a simple woollen sweater with a turtleneck – is its bestseller. The machines that make this sweater knit around the clock yet still can’t keep up with demand. Fewer than 2,500 sweaters leave the factory each year, around half of them 175s. They sell for around €200.
“I know my father started knitting the fisherman’s sweater already in the 1920s, but I can’t prove it. So the label says ‘Since 1931’, because that’s a documented fact,” says Holger Skyt, 61, the founder’s son. Skyt Strikvarer’s current factory was built in the late 1970s and is a rather depressing building. Unlike most fashion headquarters, there are no sexy receptionists, no fancy ads on the wall and there is certainly no lounge music playing. It is only once you enter the engine room that the excitement begins.
The room is crammed with old-fashioned knitting machines, some of them over 40 years old. This place is all about punch cards, not computers. Technical problems are fixed with an oil-can rather than by an IT expert.
“In the old days, the fishermen wore three sweaters at once [in the winter], the newest on the outside and the oldest on the inside. Each year the fishermen would buy a new sweater and throw away the oldest. Today, we still sell sweaters to fishermen, but I think they mostly wear them for nostalgic reasons,” says Holger.
In the 1970s almost every Danish child had one of the sweaters, or one of the many imitations. During that decade it became part of the Danish hippie uniform – popular because it was an everyday garment you could buy from most menswear shops in Denmark. About 150 shops in Denmark sold the sweater back then. Today, only 75 shops sell the sweater, and almost half of these are outside Scandinavia. Still, there is plenty of work for the remaining five employees, three of them knitters who personally sign every sweater they make.
Søren N Skyt, 32, who co-manages the company with his father Holger, describes his philosophy: “We try and keep a low profile. Our only marketing strategy is to pick the right retailers and tell them our family history. Then they can pass this information on to their customers.” Søren joined the company in 2003, while teaching psychology at Aarhus University. One day, his students commented on his Skyt sweater. Surprised at its stylish appeal, he began exploring his family’s heritage, and embarked on an ambitious rebrand.
Slightly embarrassed, he explains how he created a new logo and name for the company, but when he went to Copenhagen’s hip shops to introduce the sweater, the outlets preferred the authentic SNS Herning brand. “Don’t change a thing,” they pleaded. And, wisely, SNS Herning hasn’t.
Underwear of the gods
With a brand name that combines the name of the great god of Nordic mythology, Thor, and his favourite weapon, a hammer, the Danish underwear brand Hammerthor should be just the thing to provide you with all the self-confidence you need when you drop your trousers.
Hammerthor was founded in 1893 and throughout the 20th century was mummy’s safe choice for a Christmas present to daddy – though maybe not the sexiest. That might change now that Comme des Garçons has teamed up with the Danish brand to produce a collection of underwear in Hammerthor’s practical fabrics but with prints designed by Comme des Garçons. The collection is in shops now and consists of underpants, singlets and T-shirts.
Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons, explains, “They asked us if we would be interested in working with them on a line of underwear and we immediately liked everything about them, especially their history and authenticity.” For a full frontal view, see Fashion Briefing, page 139.