Fashion

Soulland's Silas Adler on what he would tell his younger self: “Learn to listen to your heart and your gut"

By Charlotte Manning

Photo: Getty

How 1990s hip-hop culture and a stint working in retail helped this creative director found one of the hottest brands in Scandinavia

The fashion industry can be a difficult nut to crack, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. In our new monthly series How I Got Here we hear from Scandinavia's most exciting young creatives on how they made it – and the advice they would offer their younger selves.

While we continue to cool off from a sizzling hot Copenhagen Fashion Week, I sat down with one of its front-facing fashion innovators, Silas Adler. As the creative director of Danish fashion brand Soulland, established in 2002 with ride-or-die business partner Jacob Kampp Berliner, Adler is known to be a down-to-earth, thought-provoking, and culturally engaged creative.

With a core focus on environmental and social sustainability, Soulland has made a name for itself. Adler's personal journey has been about finding that sweet spot of connection between his creativity, the culture of his youth, and today's defined luxury.

"I don't actually think most people know my origin story," he says. "My father was from Tanzania, and my mum is Swedish, but I grew up in Denmark for most of my life. And of course, I have a Copenhagen brand that is firmly recognised as a Copenhagen brand, but ironically, most people don't even know I'm Swedish. But things aren't always as they seem!"

Likewise, while Soulland has established itself as a favourite, everywhere from Scandinavia to Hollywood, Adler admits that he's not someone who has always seen fashion as a calling. "My path to fashion is quite a weird coming-to-be story. Growing up, I had no idea I would work with clothing, even though I was always into it. But the hip-hop culture in the '90s is what introduced me to it. That was the first time I remember being inspired by style and understanding that everything and anything could be put into it," he says.

The style in hip-hop culture was important, of course, but what really drew Adler in was the substance. "The first brands I personally liked were the ones that displayed a different message and built a whole aura around them."

At 16, a friend floated the idea of starting a clothing brand, but Adler's immediate response was not one of glee. Instead, his knee-jerk reaction was: "Absolutely not!" Though he was deeply invested in the cultural attributes surrounding street style, he hadn't yet connected the dots between this admiration and a potential profession. Yet as he watched – and championed – the rise of brands such as Supreme and Alife, Adler gradually began to take the idea more seriously. But it was working in retail as a teenager that really changed Adler's perspective.

Under the premise that he would set a goal for himself and do something meaningful with his time, his mother allowed him to drop out of school and start full-time work at age 16. This enabled him to learn about the system: from designing to buying, along with presenting collections and growing a business. "I caught on to the fact that there was so much value in the culture we were from and that we could monetise that and use it in our work," he says. "Yes, I was a kid, but I had a unique opportunity to be close to what was happening around me and access how things operated. Working was my education because it opened my mind to more than I thought I needed to know."

Having learnt the ropes and spotted an opportunity, the ultimate spark for beginning his own company came when Adler crossed paths with Berliner. "When Jacob and I met, all of a sudden, there was someone I could talk to about things. He helped me analyse myself differently, rather than just being alone with my thoughts or doubts about starting a company. So even though I didn't go to school or have any official training, working at these stores and then meeting, learning, and eventually partnering with Jacob became the schooling and foundation for starting Soulland."

And now, as he sits at the helm of one of Scandinavia's hottest fashion brands, Adler works hard to pay it forward and inform the next generation of creatives about how to break into an industry which can be tough for many.

"I don't worry too much about the designers of this generation because if there's one thing they're good at now, it's understanding and connecting with people," he says. "The kids I mentor are extremely clever and balanced in how they view the world and their role in it. They seem extremely responsible, and I didn't feel the same way with my generation."

As a big believer in the personal journey however, he rarely steers his mentees between what is the "right" or "wrong" choice to make for their careers. Instead, he gives them two pieces of advice on maintaining a confident sense of self in a trend-driven, competitive, and sometimes over-saturated industry: "I always tell the kids I work with to 1.) Remember that you are the expert in doing what feels right for you, and 2) You can fail in a project, but you literally cannot lose. Because no one can take gained knowledge away from you."

Given Adler and Soulland have very much taken their own path to success, it's perhaps not surprising that his over-arching message to young designers is to have the confidence to go their own way. "I think this whole concept of democratising fashion is very interesting because if you're going to school for a specific industry, you usually end up getting the most out of the network you build. As companies, we should, of course, follow what is being taught, but I think it's important for young creatives to understand that you can learn a lot on your own."

Not that he leaves younger designers with any illusion that it'll be easy. "People need to come to terms with the fact that work is supposed to be hard," he says with a grin. "But just as it is hard, it can also be fun, rewarding and uplifting. It can be everything and anything you want it to be. Learn to listen to yourself, your heart, and your gut. Because for the most part, the answer will always be in there somewhere."