Nemen’s new collection is a tech-forward feast for the eyes. Handcrafted in Italy, their clothes combine utilitarian features with dyes that elevate them into art.
The fall/winter season 2021 offers solid collections from brands like Veilance, Acronym and Enfin Levé. A real stand out, however, is the experimental Italian brand Nemen. If you’re looking for utilitarian design in exuberant, otherworldly colourways, look no further than their artisanal garment dyes, dip-dyes and tie-dyes.
Nemen is a small family business. The designer Leo Fasolo honed his skills at Stone Island, C.P. Company and the Massimo Osti Archive in Bologna, before founding Nemen. The company’s main pattern maker is Leo’s sister Caterina, its accountant is their father and a cousin shoots their lookbooks.
The latest piece added to the Nemen puzzle is Peter Dahlgren – in online fashion circles also known as Puzzle Peter. He describes himself as the Swiss army knife of Nemen, doing whatever needs to be done. As the only non-family member of Nemen he has a unique perspective on the brand, which he graciously agreed to share with TCHWR.
Peter learned about Nemen through their collaboration with Acronym, and in particular the J28-k jacket released in 2016, combining Acronym’s aggressively utilitarian design language with Nemen’s eye-catching dyeing techniques. Shortly thereafter Peter moved from Berlin to Milan, hoping to get a job at either Stone Island or Moncler, but instead he ended up writing for NSS Magazine, an Italian Hypebeast or High Snobiety.
“I started to think about what I wanted to write about, and I remembered that hey, there’s this brand called Nemen… So I met up with Leo and that’s how it all started. I realized that the essence of what Nemen did and how they did it aligned with what I was interested in.”
What he also realized was that Nemen hardly had any time for public relations or social media. So he offered them his help with communication.
“Leo was like a Michelin chef making exquisite food – in a remote cave. So at first I was like hey, I think I can contribute by writing some press releases and help you with the socials. With only four people working at Nemen that role expanded, slowly but surely, and I went from being the press guy to being a Swiss army knife: whatever needs to be done at Nemen, I’ll do it, if I can.”
What was your vision for fall 2020?
“The work on this collection obviously started long before corona, and we wanted to revise and improve some earlier designs. We brought back dip-dye for summer, we brought back our very special way of doing tie-dye and pushed that to the limit. So for fall/winter we wanted to make something like a best-of album: Let’s take all the most incredible things we can do and just push them even further, make them bigger and better.”
The sell-in at the Paris fashion week was strong and everything seemed to be going smoothly. They had created their best season yet, retailers were on board with Nemen’s vision, and they were ready to take further steps on their trajectory in the fashion world. Then corona hit.
“So we had this big monster of a collection, just going into production, and then all hell broke loose. Let me tell you, it’s been really hard these past six months. Because Italy went into serious lockdown. All the factories closed, we couldn’t even leave the house for a while. And basically all the things we do at Nemen, and how we do those things, can basically only be done in Italy. We’re always making things more complicated than they need to be, because that’s how you get extraordinary results. But you can imagine a factory being forced to close down, then opening up again and… oh yeah, here’s one of our smallest clients that wants to make things in an extremely difficult and non-compromising way…. As you can imagine, that whole process was very, very taxing.”
Most people know Nemen for the amazing dyes. What did you want to bring this season in terms of features and materials?
“We’ve always had these two sides. On the one hand it’s all about the technicality, utility, textile – creating the best, most functional jacket possible. But what gives our garments a soul is the garment dye. So this whole process starts with Leo and Caterina feeling textiles and getting vibes. The moment they have a textile in their hands that they feel is truly interesting, they start planning: Ok, how can this be manifested in a shape and how will it react to dyeing?” Essentially what we wanted to do was the most incredible basic, utilitarian jacket possible, and then add our garment dyeing technique to bring these techniques together to an ultimate manifestation.”
The “anti-panic quick-opening system” on the Sphere jacket is a new feature?
“Yeah! Leo is very inspired by utilitarian wear, military wear, features that have a practical function in, for instance, a rescue situation. The escape zip comes from rescue services. Acronym does it in a similar way, when you have it completely zipped up you can just rip the jacket completely open without anything happening to the zipper. The Sphere jacket also has a zipper inspired by scuba wear which is 100 percent hydrophobic and 100 percent waterproof. You can be in any amount of downpour and your Iphone will be safe in that pocket. Hoods are also very interesting to us. The really deep snorkel hoods can be folded back for another look. And we did expansion pockets on the Dare jacket… Even if we don’t reinvent the wheel there’s always new things.”
Nemen has also tapped a new jersey and t-shirt producer for the fall collection. Peter proudly explains how nice the quality is, while also hitting an – in the Nemen context – affordable price point. They have also continued to iterate on their pants.
“For this season we developed Ergofit. Let’s be honest, we spend most of our time sitting down, so we designed the knees be more aligned with a sitting position. You probably won’t notice immediately when you wear them, it’s a subtle feel thing, but when you sit down you’ll be ‘oh yeah, this is just perfect,’ in a way that you can’t really define.”
How come two of the new pants are overpants?
“Leo and me, we come from that old-school 90’s street culture with baggy silhouettes and cargo pants. If you look at the Nemen jackets, they all bear the names of graffiti artists. Bringing that street vibe into a contemporary high fashion context is interesting. We made these overpants in a very nice ripstop where the flock is on the inside so they’re super-comfy, but then they’re also overpants for fall. It was about looking back but also looking forward. Nemen, obviously being a palindrome is all about looking back and bringing the past, the heritage of Italian craftsmanship, into the future. We are always looking backwards and forwards at the same time.”
Why do we see the utility vest returning every season?
“A vest is just extremely versatile and utilitarian. If your jacket doesn’t have that many pockets you can easily add on a vest to give it more utility. It’s a minimal piece, doesn’t have the highest price point, but you can still do all the things you would with jackets with it: acid dyes, spray dyes, you can give it a ripstop or insulate the back of it. You can wear it with anything from a t-shirt to a fully padded down jacket. I think that’s why it comes back every year, because it makes for interesting combinations with all the other pieces, taking them to another level. Again, there’s an influence from old-school street culture and let’s be honest, not many people make very cool vests.”
The Yoda jacket looks like a Guard jacket with a Guard vest integrated.
“Yes, that was exactly the thought. Let’s combine these two things, and add a garment dye for that extra finish. The colours in the fall/winter collection also have a wider range than usual. Blues, purples, a bit more colourful. But you’re also getting black, military green, and to push these classic techwear colours into a different realm is also interesting. But yeah, the Yoda was combining two things into one.”
And the kimono jacket also returns.
“Of course, it’s impossible to not take influence from Asia. The kimono is a traditional garment, a style that may seem to be set in stone. So every time you give it a little twist, a little rebirth, it’s interesting. This season’s padded kimono is basically the ultimate luxury pajama. The feel of it, the touch of it – it’s incredibly soft and it sits really well, bringing another level to that classical kimono silhouette.”
Cozy lounge wear is a congenial offering in a time of lockdowns and working from home. But the fall collection also contains three down jackets and two down vests for those who are not content staying indoors.
How have your down jackets evolved through the years?
“The major development these last few seasons is that we have moved to direct injection down, which makes the negative space almost zero. And Leo has been experimenting with the seams, on our latest down jackets you will see that the seams are completely sealed, there’s no stitching. I feel like ordinary down jackets will often be super-comfortable and warm, but the silhouettes are typically not that exciting or the finish isn’t that cool. So basically we want to combine those things, creating the ultimate cold weather silhouette with Nemen techniques and colours, while offering the unique performance of down.”
When Leo and Caterina have designed the garments for a new season, and the manufacturers have put them together, the items arrive at the Nemen headquarters in Milan completely white. Ghost pieces, Peter calls them, pure form and utility. From there begins the process of breathing life into the pants, puffers and shells – imbuing the garments with a soul.
Nemen’s unique dyeing prowess has led to collaborations not only with Acronym, but with a diverse set of partners such as Master-Piece (Japanese bags), Airinum (Swedish breathing masks), Clash (Italian spray paint) and Kith (American fashion store). Peter is hoping another Acronym collab will happen in the future, but currently there is a collaboration brewing with a major global brand, which cannot be disclosed just yet. These collaborations are important opportunities to show off Nemen’s skills to a broader audience, but sometimes collabs also lead to innovations that can be put to use in regular collections.
“For the Kith collaboration in 2019 we had a lot of creative freedom, so we went a little crazy and invented the triple tie-dye technique. The colourways there were led by Kith, so we wanted implement that technique with a colourway that was more aligned with us. Then we realized that if we do it our special way – without giving up too much it’s tie dyeing but not really tie dyeing – we end up with these extremely organic, natural patterns. We were trying to find ways of implementing that, but to really push the colour. That’s where, for instance, the Cosmo dye on the Does 3L tie-dye jacket comes from. It looks just amazing in real life, with an incredible cosmic shimmer.”
How much does your focus on dyeing limit what kind of materials you can use?
”There are limits for sure, but it’s like anything: true artistry comes from grappling with limits. Limits can be good, because once you see the them you work to push them and find ways around them. Synthetics are definitely tricky, and the way we do things, like for instance those dip-dyes and tie-dyes, is very labor-intensive. All of our jackets are hand-made in Italy, which means there’s a lady carefully doing these triple dip-dyes. It’s really easy to fuck up, let me put it that way. To get that sort of hand-feel and to do it right is very tricky. So we make max 50 of each jacket – every jacket is super-limited edition.”
How do you mitigate the environmental effects of dyeing?
“Let’s be honest, dyeing is dirty business. The thing about doing it in Italy is that the rules are very strict about how water is to be handled after a process. In many other places we could choose to produce, that dirty water would just be sent out to sea. Not in Italy, the water at the end of our process needs to be as clean as before. And all of the people working with the dye are well taken care of. So those things add to the complexity of what we do, and they go into the prices of our products, which I know can seem a little insane when you look at them. But honestly, the margins for us are not that high. The process behind a garment, that’s what you pay for basically.”
What can you tell me about the Zero Waste concept in the spring collection?
“Well, a couple of months ago we were unsure if it made sense to bring a collection into a time when the whole system was going into hibernation. So we started thinking about how we could do it in a smart way. You know, to get nice textiles you usually have to buy a minimum amount. Many brands throw away the textiles they don’t use, and there’s always bobs and bits that you can’t use to manifest a whole piece. So Leo started designing these pieces where he would take unused bits and implement them in specific ways. For example, a heat reflective fabric would be used in areas that require more insulation. Ripstop scraps would be mounted in areas that rip easily. It’s like cooking from the fridge, using what you’ve got. But these limitations resulted in a very concise, cleanly executed collection. I’m really excited by it.”
There are no pictures of the spring/summer collection just yet, but by the sound of it, it will be idiosyncratic in more ways than “cooking from the fridge”. Nemen doesn’t slavishly conform to seasonal thinking, sometimes they make pieces just because they feel like it. There’s a full-length insulated parka in the summer collection, for instance. According to Peter it’s not really a seasonal item, it’s a piece you buy once and you can keep it for the rest of your life. You can only think like that if you are running a lean, passion-driven family business.
“You know, we’re a really small, dedicated team. And one of the things I love about Leo is that he has this passion that’s rare to find. I think a true artist has the same outlook whether working within music or classical art or painting… When you get to the creative core of true artistry, it’s one and the same energy. I recognized that energy straight away when I met Leo. So for me this is also a labor of love. I mean, trust me, we’re not making any money at the moment. It’s all about bringing these amazing things into the world.”