Just past the reception area of Toronto’s new high-end fitness centre, Ten X, Darrell Kopke is standing in what looks, at first glance, like the world’s most luxurious locker room for a non-existent rugby team.
Kopke, grey at the temples with broad-shoulders and dressed in a clean white dress shirt, tapered dark dress pants and sneakers, might pass for the team’s coach. He looks alert. Game-ready. Except in this case, he’s not making a play on an actual field, but in the competitive market for sportswear-inspired business and casual attire sometimes known as athleisure — a space where he’s already scored victories in roles at Lululemon and Kit & Ace. With his new brand, however, dubbed Aedelhard, the approach is going to be a lot different.
“With Kit and Ace, it was meant to be a beacon of style for the creative class — creating an aspirational culture around those in art, people working with their hands, musicians. In that case, people wanted the clothes, but they had a hard time identifying with the culture.”
In contrast, Aedelhard is building off what Kopke describes as a shift in attitudes towards the “West Coast” style from looking like a bum to something relaxed but refined.
“People want to dress up, but they will not forsake comfort in order to do so,” he says. “People don’t like being stuffed into a suit.”
Kopke co-founded Aedelhard with Michael Nguyen, a stylist who has worked with everyone from Drake to Ryan Gosling. The clothes include more upscale takes on traditional striped rugby shirts, but also sports jackets and dress pants that have the lightness and bounce of a pair of sweats. The four-way stretch throughout the line — Aedelhard will not release collections but simply add new items periodically — is focused on comfort as well as style.
“We went with a sports angle because we’re telling a new story about a societal discourse that’s emerging,” says Kopke, who played rugby for 10 years. “Ruby is a perfect mechanism. It’s the fastest-growing sport in North America. It’s also a ‘please and thank you sport’ — sometimes it’s been described a hooligan sport played by gentlemen. In rugby there’s no back talk, no fighting with the referee. There’s a code of honour that you play with respect and comraderie. We feel that is what is missing in the world today.”
Rather than the standard one or two paragraphs that companies usually take to define their brand positioning, Kopke authored a 3,000-word manifesto on “why the world needs more rugby” on the Aedelhard site that makes the case for a work hard/play hard-but-nice mentality. Those who have only watched rugby from a distance might only know the sport’s hard-core side, but Kopke says there’s more to it than that.
“You can play tough an after the final whistle, you liaise socially with the other team,” he says. “There’s this mutual respect of being gladiators and warriors on the pitch, but afterward you enjoy each other’s company.”
Aedelhard has been developed around the idea of “kit dressing,” which basically means you can choose any of the tops or bottoms, mix and match or layer, and the end result should work. This helps men eliminate ‘decision-fatigue’ when they’re getting dressed, Kopke says.
Although athleisure and the overall trend towards a more comfortable way to dress up isn’t new, Kopke thinks there is still plenty of room for Aedelhard to innovate.
“I think about James Perse, John Varvatos — there’s surfer chic or rocker chic, but for the professional person who wants to wear an elevated piece to work but wants to be super-comfortable, where do they go?”
Unlike Lululemon or Kit and Ace, which have focused on developing their own retail presence, Aedelhard is selling online and leveraging other department stores such as Holt Renfrew, independent retailers and pop-ups to bring the brand to market. Wherever they find it, Kopke says Aedelhard’s customers will also be part of a specific “tribe” — professional men who are ready to bring an element of their athletic performance into their working lives.
“It’s about being switched on and ready to make their life happen instead of letting their life happen to them,” he says. “It’s about being in control and making things happen.”