Toward the end of our interview with Sebastian Dollinger, head of design at the Swedish brand Eton–makers of arguably the finest dress shirts on the market–he shared his love of lying:
“One time I told a reporter the whole collection was inspired by fish. And they printed it!”
So forgive us if we have doubts about the existence of his new EDM band, which he said is called Highly Sedated and appears to be un-Googleable.
Dollinger has a rock star personality regardless, and is a master designer with a deep history at Eton. He was practically born into the company and as an elementary school kid, used to sneak into his dad’s basement to watch him design Eton shirts.
Read on for a candid interview with Dollinger and photos from the Eton showroom in midtown Manhattan.
Sebastian Dollinger: We started a new band based on electronic music, but we wanted to add a Woodstock flair to it. Because we’re sick and tired of this push-play stuff. I mean I guess people are having fun with that, so well done. But I’ve been in bands all my life and we wanted to do things differently. So we got two of Sweden’s best vocalists: one of the best rappers in Scandinavia, his name’s Patrick Gray, he’s got an American dad from Detroit. And a wonderful blues singer called Werner. None of us have worked in electronic dance music before, but we thought, the hell with it. It’s back. New Order. Happy Mondays. All that scene is starting to brew again. Rave, techno. We want to do techno with vocalists. Maybe our sound is more commercial than the Berghain, Berlin techno. We’ve played a few gigs, festivals. We’re called Highly Sedated. It’s going really well. You know, record deals these days, you don’t want them. You want distribution deals. So we’re having conversations right now. Music is my passion. But I love what I do for a living, which is Eton. My father [Jan Borghardt] has been there for eons, so in a way I had no choice.
Nordstrom blogs: What do you remember about growing up in Stockholm and watching your dad work at Eton? What was his attitude?
Hard-working man. Hard-working man. Both my mother and father grew up with literally nothing. Well, my father had a little. He’s Dutch, and his father passed away when he was 14. So he had to work. My mother got carried around in a plastic bag when she was a kid. So very poor. My father, when I was young, I remember him working on Eton collections in the basement. I wasn’t allowed to go down. Of course I went down. I saw what he was doing, and textiles all around. Those were my earliest memories. Then going to the factory with him, and coming up to the entrance you could already feel in the ground that the machines were working. You could feel it outside. Then you walked up a spiral staircase and opened a huge iron door. And this barrage of industrial sound. Quite huge. Quite raw. I was six or seven. It’s a fragrance of life. I don’t care that much about clothing, actually, if I’m totally honest. But I was always interested in the product. In doing something well. Because in my mind it’s a working class mentality. If you do something, you do it properly. And that was our ethos. So it was interesting when I eventually came to Eton to just do it properly and take care of the heritage. It happened that the applied creativity was on men’s shirts. It could have been umbrellas. It could have been stamps. But it was Eton, and it mattered to me that it had heart value to it. The job came with emotion. It meant something. That’s what happened with Eton, for me. I’ve been working there for ages.
You started in the stock room?
Yes in the stock room. Sixteen years ago. Worked in every position imaginable. I’ve left and come back. I love my colleagues. Our hiring is not necessarily who’s good for business, although that’s important, but who’s a good person?
Clearly you’re visually expressive–you say you don’t care about clothes but I don’t believe you. Does it frustrate you that some of your more conservative designs are Eton’s most popular?
Well, maybe it used to. I took it a little more seriously before. But I’m not serious anymore. I’m sincere. I try to make the best quality stuff. Your staples should be the best quality so you can be proud of it. Walking down the street in New York, and you see someone who you can tell wears a suit because they have to, not because they want to, I don’t criticize that. I say good on you. Not everyone has the luxury to dress flamboyantly. But I feel everyone wants to dress the best as they can, at the end of the day. I do appreciate a nice flower on a shirt, I admit. But I’m not bothered if someone else doesn’t. I like interesting people. The people are what is important.
Your shirts are all completely European-made. Why are the best mills in the world Italian? Why don’t other countries compare?
It’s because of their heritage. Looking at Europe, more or less all cotton came from Egypt, and there you had the spinning mills as well, and it’s close to Italy, with its history of art and design. It was natural. Italy started its tradition so long ago, and takes care of its tradition, writing books about it, carrying it on to the next generation. Financially they’re threatened by North Africa and China, but they manage to hold on because they’re so good at what they’re doing. If you ask for a basic design, Italians just have a different way of doing it. And it’s usually good. It’s in their blood, maybe. It’s more important to us than ever to make things close to home. If our neighbor is unemployed, who’s going to spend the money? I wish Eton, some Eton, could be made in the U.S. That’s why I appreciate brands like Gitman Brothers, which is made in the U.S. Good on them. People always want more margin, but at what price?
Our photographer Robin over here is wearing a Gitman Brothers shirt.
Chris, who runs it, is a phenomenal guy. A lot of heart, too. We talk to each other. I asked him a few years ago, do you know a good printer who can print on a flannel base? He said, Yeah, yeah, there’s one over here.
Is there a community of master shirting designers?
The bigger brands won’t tell you anything. But yeah, in general, we all know each other. And if you need some help, yeah, I’ll help you out. But there are some brands I wouldn’t tell a single word to. Because they’re in it for the money. I’m not.
Who is your customer, do you think?
Me and [designer] Valerio Leone, we want to design for the bank dude, the lawyer, the hipster, the rock guy, everybody. Because we see ourselves as a modern specialist. In the past, a specialist made white and blue shirts. A modern specialist needs to take all men into consideration. I want a builder to come in and say, Oh yeah, that’s a nice print. That’s a modern specialist. It’s better than having the same shirt in 60 colors. If you want to want to build a brand, you have to talk to all men. Short-sleeve linen shirt to super well-made office shirt. All ages. All sizes. If you’re a big guy, we should have a shirt for you. And we do. Not everyone can be six-four, three kilos. The fashion industry is awful when it comes to people’s bodies. So we have four different body fits. Skinniest guy to the big guy. No typecast of perfection. That’s ridiculous.
Can we stand up and look at some details of Eton shirts that you might miss at first glance, but which are crucial and important?
Yes. There are lots of things. For example the buttons are fused, like suit buttons. That’s quite unique. Especially durable. Because we’ve been making shirts for 85 years, every detail is considered. But actually I feel the tailoring world is a bit like the sports car world. This has one billion horsepower. Great. When are you going to use that? So the higher the stitch count, that’s more nerd points. And shirt nerds care, which we are, but we’re about balance. Shirt companies will try to impress customers with high stitch counts, as if I higher number is automatically better. It’s more important to think about the structural integrity and then look at it and ask what truly needs to be done. We have a nice balance of stitches per centimeter.
What else? Let’s get into the nerdery.
A lot of people hide this area [points to the bottom of the side seam]. They put a band-aid on it, a little piece of material, and they pretend it’s an aesthetic choice. But really they do that because it’s the hardest seam to stitch cleanly, that cross of the seam and the hem. You can see ours is exposed and perfect. There are loads of those things when it comes to construction. We use cotton thread for the stitches, instead of what most brands use, which is polyester. Because if you use cotton then the thread moves with the shirt as it develops with your body over time and with washing, instead of creating little bunching lines because the polyester doesn’t stretch at all. Here in the back of the shirt, at the top by the shoulders, the yoking is one piece. Many shirts will be two pieces with a seam down the middle. Ours is one piece, and it’s harder to stitch, but it’s cleaner looking and uses fewer parts. People say a two-piece yoke moves better, but that’s garbage. We want to have a shirt that’s as technically good as possible. The Swedish tradition is to to engineer simply. As opposed to a more Italian, romantic idea. All our steps are straightforward. We minimize the steps. We don’t overwork the shirt. The buttonholes are the strongest you’ll find on the market. But we don’t go overboard with the stitch count. Sometimes too much is too much. For example, hand-sewn shirts. Why should a lady sit for hours making a shirt in 2015? Maybe if it’s for her son. But we have machines. Maybe I’m wrong.
What are you working on now that’s exciting to you?
We’re making shirts that are lighter than the lightest t-shirts, but look like stuff you could wear to the office. Here, look [grabs shirt, throws it in the air and it falls gently like a feather]. We could do a collection that imitates Yves Saint Laurent in a day. We could do a Ralph collection in a similar way. But what’s most fun for us is to be diverse. To try and fit everything in, and hit that performance. It’s not about aspirational values. It’s about a challenge. It could be anything. It’s about trying to solve a problem. And I don’t feel like I have to express my personality in these shirts, but my expertise. That’s why it’s so easy. Shirts. It can be so boring, holy mother of Mary. But within the world of Eton, our customer, he enjoys it, he likes it. Sometimes in a collection to find something that I would wear is impossible. Sounds strange. But it’s a huge puzzle. We’re trying to not just please the market, we’re trying to do what’s best for the brand. And we know what the brand is. It’s wearable shirts for a huge range of guys, with the utmost integrity of design and manufacturing. This is not our hobby. This is our trade, and we’re the best at it. Sometimes I think it was my destiny.