Douglas Coupland is the best-selling author of the novel that
gave a post-baby boom epoch its name—Generation X—and its
recent sequel, Generation A. He's also written Life After
God, Microserfs and JPod, among others. What his
legions of followers might not realize is that he first trained to
be an artist and designer. Therefore, it shouldn't seem out of
character that Coupland is now the creator of a fashion line,
produced by the Canadian outdoors company Roots. That he
collaborated with filmmaker Chris Nanos adds yet another
page-turning twist. The Roots x Douglas
Coupland collection ranges from apparel and accessories to
furniture and original artwork. Launching on July 8, Coupland's
line celebrates the Vancouver-based artist's homeland, as well as
early TV test patterns, pixels and computer circuitry. I connected
with Coupland to discuss how his most recent “art/design
experiment” has taken the form of arm warmers, patterned leggings
and club jackets.
Knitted arm warmers (left) and scarf from the Roots x Douglas
Heller: I suppose the most obvious question to ask is, why
have you started a fashion line?
Coupland: It's not so much a line as an art/design
experiment. I've been doing art, design and book projects since
2000 that explore new ways of perceiving “being Canadian.” Roots, a
large Canadian clothing company, has been doing it since 1973. A
friend in common said, “You two really ought to be doing something
together.” It was a good idea, and wonderfully free of
Heller: Is this a passion you've been sitting on until
Coupland: Clothing? My passion is taking these things in
my head called ideas and making them magically appear in the real
world. Ideas can crystallize in the form of books, art, design
objects, photography… and in this case, clothing. Clothing has its
own language and (huge) set of challenges. And as an art supply,
instead of paint and canvas, I get to use factories.
Heller: Were you thinking of it in the way that Shepard
Fairey has a clothing line, to both exploit and satirize your
Coupland: This is embarrassing, but up until now I
thought his name was Farley, not Fairey.
Heller: Back to the question…
Coupland: This project certainly exploits my willingness
to say yes to new mediums.
Posters advertising the Roots x Douglas Coupland sportswear
Heller: What about exploiting and satirizing
Coupland: It's summer-wear! It's young and of a moment
and very very Pop. So you can't expect it to do what a book
does. It tingles a different region of the brain where books don't
dare go—a region I enjoying having tingled. So it's almost an urge
more than anything else.
Heller: Satire too?
Coupland: Yes—but also note that it's beautifully made,
and the leather, especially, will last for decades.
And you have to look at my background, Steve… wait, can I call
you Steven? Steve sounds too informal.
Heller:Steven is fine. The name came with an “n” so I
Coupland:Steven, I went to art school plus a bit
more* and then in the mid-1980s I went on to do magazine design in
Tokyo (for Brutus and Popeye) and then began
writing only after having established myself as a member of visual
culture first. I have an almost total Venn overlap with people who
bought the DVD version of the Helvetica documentary. I don't
think I have one reader whose living room has crown molding.
*Fun fact: I have a degree in Japanese business science, and
my thesis was on the rise of Rei Kawakubo and the avant-garde
designers of the late 1970s and early 1980s. She used to go in and
screw with the looms to generate more organic looking
fabric—controlled accidents. I always thought that was so
The Roots x Douglas Coupland club jacket sports patches of
Canada-inspired symbols and insignia.
Heller: What else did you do besides design the
Coupland: It'd be so nice to swan in and take a check and
run. But the project's genesis is the exploration of Canadian
identity (earnest!). And I love making things, so everything from
vague sketches right up to selecting the music to play in pop-up
stores can only be a treat that I'd be brain-dead to miss. It's
been a really wonderful nine months.
Heller: Tell us more about Roots.
Coupland: Canadians who know the brand, Roots, associate
it with a kind of outdoorsy Crew/Fitch/Bauer feel.
Heller: That doesn't strike me as very Doug (if I may call
Coupland: And you are correct. But in April I published a
biography of Marshall McLuhan (it publishes in the United States in
November, with James Atlas) and it showed me a different dimension
of Canadian identity, one embodied by the distance between humans
and a good-natured sense of curiosity about the machines that allow
us to cross that distance. So in a very broad sense, the theme
reflects joy through communication (which sounds like a North
Korean parade-float slogan.) The collection is called “Canada Goes
Heller:You're best known as a novelist, and
quite well known as helping to define a generation with a single
letter. Are these clothes an extension of your fundamental
Coupland: With me it's more like, “There's something out
there that so obviously needs saying/making/doing and nobody else
seems to be doing it, so why not do it myself?” This clothing
represents a touch of that.
I'm not patient, Steven, but I am disciplined. And my
strongest point has always been not allowing myself succumb to
doubts that psych myself out of starting a project or putting ideas
into motion. I'm not sure if I answered your question here.
Roots x Douglas Coupland Motherboard patterned leggings (left)
and mini skirt (right).
Heller:Yes, you did. You're an artist and
designer—do you feel you are now also a trendsetter?
Coupland: I've no idea on that score. The big influence
here was Fiorucci: I went to the
59th Street flagship store the first day I was in New York in 1979,
and it blew my mind, and has continued to do so for 31 years. If
there's any trend here, it's that the world needs a lot more
Fiorucci ultrapopsupercandyelectrocolor style.
Heller: Your book Eleanor Rigby has always struck some
notes with me…
Coupland: Thank you. Some books just do that, don't they?
For me, it's Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac.
Heller: …not to mention I've always loved that song and the
early music video with McCartney riding a horse.
Coupland: Thank you, I just lost 10 minutes of my life
YouTubing. Is this the one you
meant? No horse, though. The Yellow Submarine version is my
Heller: Ooops, I was thinking of “Penny Lane.” But
this is a nice video too. He's so young. Anyway, I see Eleanor
Rigby in the clothes. As though you've created these items to make
Eleanor less lonely and friendless. Am I wacky?
Coupland: No, that's a really sweet and kind
interpretation. The sexiest thing about Canada is that we have a
future, and I say this in an era when there's not too much future
going around. So I wanted people who wear these garments to look
good, if not better, but also to make themselves feel good about
the future—about looking forward to the next decade. Poor Eleanor
the book, Liz Dunn). If my clothes (or, for that matter, books,
art or design pieces) can make someone feel less lonely or less
friendless, that's a really great thing to have achieved.
Heller: Those Motherboard leggings and skirt are
Coupland: They are pretty awesome. I knew they'd work,
but not that they'd turn out so amazingly well.
Heller: How did you think of that?
Coupland: I wanted to find broad patterns that would
imbue fabric with that crackling sense of tomorrow.
Glowing Matrix Beaver graphic T-shirt by Roots x Douglas
Heller: So much of this line is rooted in Canada. Notably,
the Matrix Beaver.
Coupland: Isn't it great? It's done in a vector-y 1980s
arcade-style line, which ended up being a pattern used for the
line's black leather products.
Heller: Do you envision an international market, or is this
just meant for Canadians?
Coupland: Anyone can wear it. Canada's a pretty
Heller: I know, I was headed there in the summer of '68. So
much of what you do appears to be a satiric jab at contemporary
Coupland: Well… yeah! And it's interesting to me that (at
least, in Canada) with the really quick rise in curated
retail—those stores where they sell two mittens, a coffee mug and a
sketch—that retail is approaching the level of complexity and
diversity I sensed in the Harajuku and Omotesando in 1983. It's all
SMPTE hang tag cover for Roots x Douglas Coupland.
Heller: Isn't making fashion something of a paradox? Or is
this like Paul Newman's Own products, with proceeds going to
Coupland: A portion goes to charity —I am not a
monster!—but that charity will probably be astonished by how small
the check is… the margins in clothing are so laser thin. This is
not a project a person does if they want to rake in the dough. I
don't know how ready-to-wear or couture designers can make a go of
it. It seems we're careening towards a 24/7 Abercrombie & Fitch
world punctuated by stores that sell 1950s Pepsi collectibles, four
vintage car keys and a hand-knit Sherpa's cap.
Heller: Clothes make the man, they say. Do you wear our own
Coupland: I do. My clothes are all bespoke now, even
khakis. By now I know what works on me, I get it made in a few
colors and I don't have to think about it. The only exception is
Fred Perry and Ben Sherman polos.
Having said that: all of the guys' stuff from the
collection, I wear. The long-sleeve black T with white motherboard
square is going to be my casual uniform for the next five
Heller: Are there garments you wouldn't touch?
Coupland: There's always something interesting about
everything. But for me, I'll stick to my uniform and my Roots
Heller: And what will you do next?
Coupland: I got kind of addicted to factories on this
project. I'd like to work more with furniture and with leather. I
think you're like me—you like stuff. What a joy to be able
to make it!
With its focus on user-created and user-approved designs, T-shirt business and online community Threadless is the little design company that could.
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