Swedish-born designer Johan Lindeberg took a bonafide life crisis that would send lesser men into a rock-bottom bender, absorbed its impact, and redirected its power into something positive: He founded BLK DNM, a clothing brand with New York City in its veins and dirt under its nails that, being the culmination of Lindeberg’s years of industry experience, feels like a time-tested authority for best-in-class leather jackets, despite its mere four years on Earth.
Keep reading to hear how he did it, how he bled in a castle, how he’s anti-punk, how jeans are like wine, and why he’s a fan of Hillary Clinton.
(Did we mention he also started taking photos only four years ago, and now spends his spare time photographing women like Gisele Bündchen, Kenza Fourati, Anja Rubik and Arizona Muse? Click through to see our favorites from Lindeberg’s rapidly growing photo oeuvre, too.)
BLK DNM designer—and the self-taught photographer who shot
most of the photos seen here—Johan Lindeberg
Lindeberg’s career has spanned serving as marketing director and CEO of Italian denim innovator Diesel, touring and collaborating with nine-time Grammy winner Justin Timberlake—even launching a groundbreaking fashion brand bearing his own name: J.Lindeberg. And yet, he calls BLK DNM the most personal project he’s ever embarked upon. Its menswear is based on his own wardrobe. The stores mirror how he likes to furnish his apartment. And the visual aesthetic stems from his respect for strong women combined with a newly symbiotic relationship between the man and his camera.
True to form, Lindeberg arrived to our interview in a biker jacket zipped up to his wind-blown beard and gripping his camera—the controls of which he can be overheard casually fiddling with throughout the audio recording of our conversation.
Johan Lindeberg—on embracing change:
I had a lot of changes in my life when I left Diesel. I was more Diesel than anyone else, more Diesel than the owner. When I decided to leave, I went into a big personal crisis, because I didn’t know who I was any longer, because I was so identified with Diesel. And then I started J.Lindeberg. When I left J.Lindeberg, leaving my own name, it was [another] very big moment of my life. But for every shift, you learn a lot, and you take steps forward.
Wild postings in NYC
On the traumatic birth of BLK DNM:
[When my marriage ended], I was devastated. I loved my family, and my wife left me after 15 years’ marriage. It was crazy, and I couldn’t believe it. I went out to Montauk, all the way out in Long Island. I walked the beach in the rain, cried for three days, and I decided: OK. I’m going to be a New Yorker forever, go deeper into New York than ever, I’m going to be a better father than I’ve ever been, even if I’ve been a very engaged father, and I’m going to create a new brand. And with this brand, I’m going to discover. I’m going to use this brand as a vehicle to discover new areas or levels of creativity. And I found photography—through BLK DNM. I started in August 2011. I’d never held a camera before, and now I’m so passionate that I live with this camera. And I’m doing shoot after shoot after shoot, and it’s just a way of me to communicate, express myself—and that’s it.
Kenza Fourati in Montauk, New York
On making the best of a bad situation:
I could have been going that way [gestures] when this happened, but now I went that way [gestures the other direction]—and I’m very happy. I have an amazing relationship, I have an amazing daughter, and I have this brand, which is inspiring around the world. I’m doing a lot of projects with photography and so on, which I’m very excited about. So I think it’s the best time of my life. I think you can really turn things around if you just focus your energy, move forward, and find new inspiration on new levels.
On grunge, following your gut, and defining denim at Diesel:
I always like to build brands inspired by culture shifts. When I joined Diesel in 1990, it was just when Nirvana came. It was, like, a big protest against some of the ’80s establishment, and I think Diesel was part of that whole movement—which, for me, was very inspiring. Because I was actually a little bit part of the ’80s movement—came into the establishment a little bit by mistake. And through the whole Diesel thing, I kind of reacted [to that]. So I had like six years at Diesel, which was incredible. I was right arm to the owner, and we were just, at that time, challenging [a large jeans competitor]. They were trying to figure out what people wanted, and we said, ‘We just do things we love.’ And I think we created, at that time, you know—Diesel was really the coolest brand. It became the coolest brand in the world. It was amazing, the culture we created.
On action and reaction, metrosexual hair, and the rise of J.Lindeberg:
…From there, I went to J.Lindeberg, which became—maybe, somehow—a reaction to Diesel. But it also was very cultural, because it was exactly where ‘metrosexual man’ came, and David Beckham became very iconic, and the spiked hair, and the colors, and the fitted clothes, and a more conscious man. He started to accept his feminine side and the whole thing. So I became very much into spearheading that whole movement with J.Lindeberg and, in particular, used golf as a tool to shake up the most conservative environment—and came in with a very modern expression, and kind of disturbed the whole establishment.
On touring with Timberlake:
And then I worked with Justin Timberlake for three years, and it was amazing to see—I was also his personal stylist, so to follow the whole pop and music industry, and I went to all the Grammys and gigs and videos, and we became very close. And I helped him to create [denim brand] William Rast, which actually was very close to Nordstrom in the beginning as well.
On the refreshingly uncontrived origin of the name ‘BLK DNM’:
It’s no specific story. Working in November 2009 or something like that, I was up thinking during the night, and I felt like if maybe one day I’m going to create a new brand, then I want something very generic—maybe as a reaction to having my own name on a label [at J.Lindeberg]. And I just looked at my jeans. I’m always wearing black jeans, and I said, OK: BLK DNM. That’s it. And then I came up with the numbers—because at Diesel, J.Lindeberg and William Rast, I did all this—the jeans called Billy, the jeans called Patty, blah blah blah, on and on, and I got so tired. So I said, I’m going to call it Jeans 1, Jeans 2, Jeans 3, Jeans 4 or Leather Jacket 5, and just do it very simple and straightforward. And I don’t know, it works, I think.
On the fine art of destroying jeans:
Denim is going in cycles, so I’m very excited. I’ve been creating jeans brands [for years]—I created Diesel. I created a jeans brand at J.Lindeberg with a lot of denim from Stockholm—part of kind of a Scandinavian movement. With Justin Timberlake, I was involved in William Rast, beginning level—L.A. jeans. Now, with BLK DNM, I think it’s very interesting to create a jeans brand from New York City. So denim is very important to me, but also, when it comes to denim, you have to live—so for instance, here, I’m on the floor with denim. We’re on the floor, because you need to feel it. You need to live it. The good thing, also, is to have a studio downstairs or upstairs of the store. I hear and see things all the time, so I can tweak. Because jeans is like wine—you need to work, work, work with it. Work with it and tune it, tune it, tune it all the time.
On the extreme versatility of a good leather jacket (who needs pajamas?):
Leather jackets have been with me all my life. I grew up with leather jackets. I grew up in a very anarchistic environment in the south of Sweden, where both leather jackets and jeans were like the uniform—kind of symbols of freedom, very protective. I think you feel quite powerful when you have a leather jacket on. It’s also a kind of item that you can…I sleep in my leather jacket. I have my leather jacket on the beach. I have a leather jacket always. I think that if you have, in your car, a tuxedo jacket and a leather jacket, you’ll always pull off anything.
On hazards of the job, embarrassing your daughter, and making a memorable entrance:
[A good leather jacket] I think is also a little bit of a protest against the establishment, somehow. For instance, I take an example: When me and my daughter, her name is Blue, were going, both with biker jackets on—we were in London, which is very conservative on one side, and very creative on another—but we were going to Claridge’s, the very kind of chic or old-school hotel in London, and on the way there in the taxi, for some reason, I had a needle in my pocket. I don’t know, as a designer, I had a needle in my pocket. I don’t know why [laughs]. But I ripped my finger on my needle, and it started to bleed like crazy. And then I came into the hotel, and Blue was looking at me like, Dad! Dad! This is like a castle! You’re coming in here with leather jackets, and your hand is bleeding? And everyone is standing there, and they’re like, you know—proper old men standing there. And I said, OK! I like that.
Alana Bunte | Waris Ahluwalia
On fitting in while sticking out like a sore thumb:
I don’t like to scream—I never really liked the punk movement because I think it’s too aggressive. But I think I move quite well on the established side [as well as], you know, the creative side, whatever you can call it. Like when my daughter’s uptown in school, it’s very stiff. I’m coming in the morning with my leather jacket, and I have my coffee, and I talk to all the established people there, which are my friends. But, you know, I think that with my glasses and my beard and the whole thing, I look quite…expressive. But I think they like it. I think it inspires them as well, so I think it’s good. I like to be a little bit f—ed up.
On BLK DNM’s revolutionary spirit:
I’ve always been very inspired by the end of ’60s, beginning of ’70s, and the student revolts—people want change, they step out in the streets, they say really what they want. When I used to work with Justin [Timberlake], we had a consultancy company called Paris 68—the name was inspired by the student revolt in May 1968 in Paris. And I always had that in mind, so when I launched this brand, it was all kind of inspired by May 1968 and how I grew up in a university town in the south of Sweden. I think it’s a time when the world is in a great change right now…People have been stepping out on the streets all over the world and protesting, and telling the world what they really think is right. So I want to be part of that. It’s great to have BLK DNM create a brand with a voice, and to try to be part of all that.
On respecting consumers, the message and the medium, and when ‘sexy’ isn’t enough:
Consumers always seem to be able to understand more than some brands think, and want to be more inspired. I think it’s amazing to be able to have a brand, reach out around the world, and use it as a vehicle or structure to communicate messages that you believe in. I believe in brands with a voice, with depth, with texture, ideas—instead of just trying to go out and sell things. Take an example, for instance: I have a hard time to do an ad in a magazine just to look, like, ‘sexy’—you know? I need to somehow add another dimension to it, because to spend all this money on advertising…At least try to use the ads to say something that is inspiring for the world, or humanity, or inspire them in some new direction, or something, instead of just trying to look cool, or look sexy. This is my mindset.
On female CEOs, feminist DNA, and shifting definitions of sex appeal:
What is sexy and what is not sexy…is a very interesting discussion. The way I, for instance, want to portray women in my photography and for BLK DNM is with a lot of strength, a lot of integrity. I think it’s an amazing moment for women right now in the world. You see when Hillary [Clinton] or Michelle Obama stand up, there are big ovations. We have women as leaders in Germany and Brazil. Now Yahoo and GM have woman leaders. I think it’s amazing! I think it’s an incredible moment for women around the world right now, and I think that, somehow, I want to shape and inspire to that kind of movement. I’m very passionate about it. It’s not a commercial trick, really. My father, he was like the biggest protagonist for women to be priests in Scandinavia, so I have it probably in my blood. I think it’s very exciting, what’s happening right now in the world. I should be quite tired, because I’ve been doing a lot, but I’m more inspired than ever right now.
On machismo backlash:
When it comes to women’s clothes, I just want to create clothes to a woman that I admire and that I’m inspired by. I want to portray a strong woman, and I want to portray a woman with integrity, and I think it’s not about trying to make her look like a man—it’s just to make her look, as a woman, like a natural leader. Because I’m a massive feminist, always been. I’m that kind of person who thinks women should take over completely. Macho men have had enough chances over the years. They didn’t pull it off, so I think it’s time for women to take over completely, and give them a big chance to just go, full on.
On the three things every man needs:
I think what a man needs most of all is to respect his woman. Be a really good father and really good husband or partner. I think there’s too much men out there trying to prove themself and are insecure, but I’m really tired of that. So I think that’s the most essential thing.
Anything else, I don’t know…I like cars. My car makes me happy. I would like to have maybe more, but it’s an old Mercedes from ’85.
…And I like things that inspire me. Beautiful things. Books are really amazing to have. I think today is a moment to be inspired. I think a lot of people should read a lot of books, watch a lot of documentaries and quality films, and study a lot of things. I’m very thirsty for knowledge right now—more than ever in my life, maybe.
As seen on the streets of NYC
On freedom of expression:
I think we’re coming into a period of style that I hope will be a massive shift [away] from tastemakers and brands and trends. The trends are coming from individuals themselves—[people] creating their own trends. I want my daughter to create her own trend. I don’t want her to be influenced by this, and by that, and this and that. I want her to be strong enough to be able to feel who she wants to be. I think that’s a beautiful thing.
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