“[camper's] an army of designers, we're a team":the brand's creative director talks preserving a family story with satire
Imagery courtesy of Camper
Words SCARLETT BAKER
Achilles Ion Gabriel is triple parked. There’s a Coke, a coffee and a bottle of water surrounding him. He’s shielded by a seemingly impermeable wall of caffeine that I’m tasked to chip away at and devoted to the Marlboro Light he sparks as we begin. “Basic bitch I know,” he admits on his choice of cigarette, smiling through the plume of smoke that ushers from the corner of his mouth. “I panic if there’s only one drink next to me,” he says.“If I’m a good boy, I’m supposed to drink hot water. But normally I don’t have the patience to wait for it to boil. Those two minutes are just too long.”
Time is prized for this Creative Director who governs the helm of the Camper empire, consisting of Camper and its younger, “naughty child,” sibling: CAMPERLAB. The scarcity of minutes in the day is precisely why Gabriel likes to get off to a good start, usually by swimming in the pool of his Mallorcan villa. “It really wakes me up, otherwise I’m a zombie walking the plank. I’m not one of those crazy people with goggles swimming so many laps though. I’m more…Edina Monsoon,” he tails off with a cackle. But the pool’s going through renovations at the moment (a scowl), and we meet in Camper’s Parisian offices instead, where Gabriel divides his time across the Mediterranean. And so, a fourth drink, another coffee, gets added into the mix in lieu of any front crawl in the Seine that morning.
We’re in a sparsely decorated showroom overlooking a typically chaotic road, while the onomatopoeia of sirens cry out in the distance. Once Gabriel’s office, before he moved to the brand’s Mallorcan home in Spain, shelves now decorate the perimeter with Camper’s latest offerings from weathered cowboy boots, to distorted sneakers. It’s been four years since Gabriel was appointed Global Creative Director of CAMPERLAB, and in that time, he has grown to creatively direct Camper, or “Camper Main” too, as he calls it. It’s seismic that Gabriel has bolstered the shoemakers’ legacy in this time, and then some. “Of course, I would always love the pace to be faster,” he shares. “But it’s almost more rewarding when it takes longer and you manage to do it.”
You’d think a man with a name inherent to the heel of the foot would’ve known his calling from the offset, but Homer’s Achilles was scribed into history as charismatic and complex, and Gabriel’s upbringing was just that. Among the overtly subarctic climate of his native Lapland, Gabriel could often hear weeping from the nearby room, where his mother, who began sculpting stone at art school, realised there was a business to run there, designing tombstones. It meant that Gabriel grew accustomed to a din of pain growing up, but to his own, he was more disgruntled by the fact that the showroom – the fake graveyard showcasing his mother’s work – was in the same room with the computer with the video games on it. “I’d think, ‘Stop crying, I’m trying to play my game.’” He jibes. “Some people have really bad taste in gravestones anyway.”
Somewhat impulsively, Gabriel applied to study at architecture school, before pivoting to shoe design instead. Those over time who have analysed his work often dispute his profession: is it shoemaker or shoe designer? “I don’t really know,” he laughs, as he adjusts a Prussian blue cap on his head, clutching a pair of sunglasses in his hand. “I used to call myself a shoemaker a lot. That’s what I started with because it was so technical. And then I ended up helping other designers do it. Today, I’m a designer, but how much do I design, other than to direct, inspire and guide my team? I’ll sketch things of course and prepare mood boards, but we’re an army of designers. We’re a team.”
It’s a tale you’ve heard before, likely from the refuge of your childhood bedroom, nestled under the duvet listening to the Brothers Grimm story of a shoemaker and his set of elves, casting mystifying objects out of sight. Except here, Gabriel and his army of elves carry the heritage of Camper’s founder in 1975, Lorenzo Fluxa, and his grandfather who brought sewing machines from England to Mallorca almost a century before. And much like the Grimms’ prophetic tale, that narrates the fashioning of clothing for its heroic elves, Gabriel has harnessed his design pedigree to inaugurate CAMPERLAB’s own clothing line.
“There were a zillion ways I wanted to approach this, and it was never something I specifically thought about doing at CAMPERLAB. We wanted to find something sustainable too because denim is really not good for the planet.” He stands and ushers me to a rail in the corner, filled with what appear to be denim two-pieces, only to reveal a dyeing method with a distorted-meets-melting effect. The fuck it up and rough it up approach is Gabriel’s insignia, ruling the company as an oracle of satire.
“I love parody,” he grins, before tucking into his lunch: one cigarette, a fifth drink. Particularly in the form of a lampooning Instagram post, too. ‘I have no pronouns, do not refer to me,’ reads a t-shirt shared on his profile. ‘As long as I have a face, you will always have a place to sit,’ reads another. Call it farce, call it gaudy, but this modern-day raconteur is out to prove something: stop taking life so fucking seriously. “I have no intention to be a clown or anything, but look at how I’m even dressed now,” he points to a Balenciaga blazer, billowing to his knees with distorted shoulder pads enough to abash any efforts from the ‘80s. “I’m wearing a tie and a shirt, like some New York business guy.” He looks at me puzzled. “How did we get here again? What was I saying?” A caffeine cackle thunders. “Like, who spontaneously buys a navy suit?” There’s a point to the parody though. “I love ugly fashion, but there has to be intelligence behind the ugliness.”
At CAMPERLAB, the “ugliness” transpires in odd shoes, brazen colourways and obtuse shapes. Why? “It's a surrealist approach to farming footwear,” he smiles, nodding to Camper’s pastoral ancestors. Would he be a good farmer, I ask? He laughs. “Absolutely not. It’s too much hard work,” says the award-winning creative director. It’s a role he wants to unpick with me some more. I share with him a quote from Alessandro Michele: ‘I hate when designers talk about being inspired. To me, that sounds like someone stuck in their ivory tower and using binoculars to look at the world down below.’
He responds without a beat. “I totally agree. I hate being asked what inspires a collection. I don’t know…other than it’s everything. I feel like this is something that designers are taught to fake. Of course, there’s something that inspires me to work, to get out of bed. But the answer in my head, I can’t get you there. The designs should do that. It’s going to sound so tacky, but it’s your sense that inspires it. And even things that I really hate.”
“The biggest surprise for a lot of designers when they become creative directors is the realisation that it’s not your brand. You’re a guard, you’re a team member. You can’t erase the identity, so you have to be diplomatic and be diplomatic slowly. That’s why it sometimes feels like a little bit of a circus, particularly during fashion week. I really love objects, I love garments. I don’t need the performance that comes with it. To me, that belongs to a movie set or theatre. Of course, we want attention, but you can get the attention by designing nice stuff.”
Gabriel is due to return to the solitude of his Mallorcan home later that week. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, there’s no neighbours and it’s really peaceful to help me work. That said, it’s the perfect horror movie. I work late with all of the windows and doors open, so I don’t watch horror movies anymore. If an intruder came, I’d slowly grab the car keys and be like ‘Ciao! Keep the house, just be nice to all of the shoes, please!’” But it's here he’s able to saturate himself into the Spanish ethos of the brand further. “In Spanish, they say ‘poco a poco’ meaning step by step, but I’m still not a very patient person,” he laughs.
Camper is soon to mark its 50th anniversary and CAMPERLAB is celebrating its 10th, and the onus is on continuing their efforts to collaborate with younger brands who benefit from their technology, where it isn’t otherwise available to them. He doesn’t like to get weighed down by too much sentimentality though, focused on provoking Camper’s future further. “I’m not really sentimental about things. Most of the time I’m like ‘Where the fuck is this? Where the fuck is that coat?’”
Before I know it, Gabriel’s giving me a parting hug and thanking me for asking no “boring questions” while offering me a farewell cigarette. We smoke together, lamenting over our love of gauche things, and he advises me on how to fix the collar lining of my shoes that have frayed. “There was once a shoemaker who worked very hard and was very honest,” wrote the Brothers’ Grimm, Achille Ion Gabriel’s Camper will continue to do the same.
Interview taken from Man About Town Autumn/Winter 2023