Every now and again I put together the kind of thing that would traditionally be here for somebody else. My friends at size? asked if I could throw together something on Helly-Hansen’s moment in the spotlight back in the 1990s, and its subsequent trend-level moments. It’s kind of a celebration and cautionary tale. I’ll always respect the brand for trying to take that Nautica cash and embracing its hip-hop audience to the point where they ran HH Dead Prez promos.
“Got back to the mansion, to divvy up the paper/Helly-Hansen was the brain of the whole entire caper”
Q-Tip ‘Drink Away the Pain’
“I went from Helly-Hansen to mini mansions”
Mase ‘Top of the World’
“Had on the Helly-Hansen and a knot that was fat/Had the spotlight beaming on my Astro Black hat”
Quasimoto, ‘Hittin’ Hooks’
“I’m holding up for ransom, still rock the Helly-Hansen”
Action Bronson ‘Brown Bag Wrap’
Sometimes trends operate in a strange way — part function and part who-knows-how. For example, how did yacht wear become a familiar name in landlocked inner-city settings? Over the last 25 years, the Norwegian Helly-Hansen brand — a company with 138 years of experience in its chosen field — has sailed the choppy waters of fickle consumers in a world it never initially set sail for.
Founded by veteran sailor Helly Juell Hanson in 1877 (a year after his experience with a particularly brutal storm at sea nearly stopped this story ever starting), the simple act of applying linseed oil to clothing led to an award-winning line of oilskin jackets. By drying the oil using his own unique method, Hanson stayed ahead of his competitors. The company was a serial innovator: even after Hansen’s death in 1914 (with his son taking the helm), new developments emerged. While the understandable assumption might be that technical fabrics are a product of the last 30 years, glossy Linox fabric — launched by Hansen in 1924 — imitated and heightened oilskin benefits in a new way. It developed the first waterproof sealed zips in the early 1950s, then invented new knitted methods to birth layering systems and performance fleeces in 1960s.
Stormproof protective fabrics, survival suits for when it was a matter of life or death, and experiments in waterproof breathability would follow in the 1970s. Helly Tech — the brand’s response to breathable but waterproof GORE-TEX — would be the backbone of some classic creations that followed. Selling skiwear as well as sailing gear, the brand grew with quality as its selling point. Helly-Hansen’s muted performance knits were well-regarded base layers for anyone looking to take on the great outdoors, as its Lifa polypropylene — originally used for nappy linings —garments demonstrated superior moisture wicking abilities.
The first American Helly-Hansen store opened in 1981 and was located in Redmond, Washington. In 1983, the Japanese licence was acquired by Goldwin, the company responsible for the incredible Japan-only North Face Purple Label pieces and premium takes on Champion’s athletic archives. So far, so tasteful, right? Slowly expanding throughout the decade, the early 1990s would be a significant time of change for sailing gear. Skiwear had boomed as a fashion statement — like sailing, its participants had cash to blow and the market could match its performance benefits with ostentatious looks. By 1992, light, loose, colourful rainwear suits, with Velcro cuffs and statement looks had become the norm for competitive sailing, with Helly-Hansen supplying apparel to several America’s Cup crews.