While walking down Melrose Avenue on a sunny, LA day, one store with a minimalist meets street vibe caught our eye. Rock ‘N’ Roll People is brand new on the block and is itching to make a statement - dare I say movement - in a big way. Nikolai Nalu, Creative Director and founder of the brand and brick and mortar location has planted his Scandinavian feet on the iconic avenue in hopes of bringing his own label to the next level.
Nalu has also managed to curate an eclectic mix of European labels to complement his own, but maintains his aesthetic. With big aspirations to become the next “beautiful, classic store,” Nalu is bringing an inspiring element of European beauty to the streets of LA and breaking the rules every step of the way. We were able to chat with Nalu about his brand new store and how he got to the West Coast.
Labeling Men: Tell us your name and what you do.
Nikolai Nalu: My name is Nikolai Nalu, I’m from Copenhagen, Denmark. I was born in 1975, means I’ll hit a rough corner soon...
Labeling Men: In your prime!
Nikolai Nalu: Ah, I’ll take that! I design clothing, a clothing line called Rock ‘N’ Roll People. It has nothing to do with music; it has nothing to do with dirty, trashy backstage rooms or anything. Being “Rock ‘N’ Roll” for me is an approach to life. It basically means not ordinary, and it means do whatever you want. Just don’t be a dick, that’s basically it. I mean you can do whatever you want, but the wrong person might misinterpret that and that’s definitely not what I’m promoting. Be a good person, but don’t be too afraid to do whatever you feel because the world actually likes the originals. Especially in fashion, I guess in hip-hop or even surfing, there are a lot of rules, what is right and wrong or what’s credible or what’s fashion and what’s not. All this stuff and Rock ‘N’ Roll People basically just means, if you like something then do it. I mean, it worked for Metallica.
Labeling Men: It did [laughs]. They are doing ok!
Nikolai Nalu: Exactly. They always said if they think they are going to do it then they will do it, and the world listens or they don’t. But that’s just to explain the feeling behind the name because it’s a “wrong” name in fashion. Rock ‘N’ Roll People is not the correct name. My brand was supposed to be Nikolai Nalu if I was supposed to follow the rules of fashion - Rick Owens, Ralph Lauren. But you know, I’m not that interested in following the rules in that sense because it tends be a bit more boring and it turns it into a job. Then it’s just a job where you follow everything that’s going on. I, of course, know what’s going on, otherwise it’s impossible to sell anything. But I just want to do it in my own way and bring something new to the table if I can. Being in Los Angeles, I try to stay European and I am from Scandinavia and we have a certain aesthetic there that I grew up with. So it’s of course fairly easy for me to know what that is. But at the same time I love LA and the whole street culture and so I’m basically trying to build a bridge between American street culture and European style.
Labeling Men: That’s very cool. I feel like that’s a very new thing right now.
Nikolai Nalu: Yeah, it’s becoming more known here in America. I’ve done it from the beginning – 2012 - but I think over here it’s becoming more and more normal now because of this guy called Kanye West [laughs]. Every time I say that to people who don’t really like Kanye, I’m actually serious, I have to point out the fact that I actually mean it. Because he’s so influential and he’s in Europe a lot and he’s from American street culture. So that is exactly it, that’s why it’s so trendy right now. He might be the main reason why the European fashion style is so mixed in with the American street culture. Like hip-hop and even I think skate culture might be picking up on it. Because skate boarding, and hip-hop, and punk it’s all tied together, it’s different but it’s still street, whatever version. For me it’s natural because I’m from Europe and I have that and at the same time being a fan of American music, so that was natural. But for Americans that never experience fashion from Europe and Americans that didn’t necessarily have interest in fashion at all, now they are into fashion because Kanye is into fashion. Before he was just a rapper and there was some swag, maybe they were looking at Jay Z and he was wearing oversized clothing. But because Kanye is into fashion then everyone else is into fashion too. And that is interesting for us as designers and store owners because we have a brand new crowd of people that are interested in fashion.
Labeling Men: Right! And people who normally wouldn’t go out and purchase something that is $300-$400 are now wanting and making that happen.
Nikolai Nalu: Exactly. Now it has a certain value for them because it’s apart of their lives and culture and everything that turns them on. I’m definitely also here to be a part of that change in this area, because ironically enough I don’t really like Melrose, I never really did. But Melrose is so famous, it’s probably the second most famous shopping street in the world. The only other one that I can think of that’s more famous is Rodeo Drive. Because even if I say Via Monte Napoleone - do you know what I’m talking about?
Labeling Men: Not a clue…
Nikolai Nalu: Exactly, but in Europe that’s the Rodeo Drive of Italy. One of the things that I don’t get here, from the city, is you have this brand called Melrose, why the fuck don’t you do something about it? It’s very expensive to build a brand and you already have it, Melrose. Everyone who comes here says, “I want to go to Melrose,” and then they get here and they go, “Oh, that’s it? I could have done that in London, or Copenhagen, or Paris, or Stockholm.” So I’m trying to contribute to something prettier here than what is already here.
Labeling Men: Did you ever think about going to Fairfax?
Nikolai Nalu: Yeah, but I don’t want to get boxed in. Not that I don’t like Fairfax because I do, it’s just around the corner, but is already in that box that says hip-hop, street, skate. Certain labels are there, and I don’t want to have any labels. I want this to be whatever, to be pretty stuff, to be a place that is a bit unpredictable. Unpredictable, but within my aesthetic.
Labeling Men: So the other lines that are not your own, are they just lines you like or is there a certain rhyme or reason?
Nikolai Nalu: We are selling feelings here, we are not just selling clothing. If people needed just clothing they could just go to Ross, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about a certain feeling. And to not just be another clothing store coming from Europe. I felt that maybe it’s interesting if we had a certain niche, like at this place you can get stuff from Copenhagen because the owner is from Copenhagen. So to sort of divide myself from everybody else, I wanted to make a store that was based on that. It’s not like it’s a rule that it has to be from Denmark, but if I can find somebody who’s from back home then I want to prioritize it if it’s good. Step two is at least European, but in real life it’s not always like that.
Labeling Men: Yeah, that is not always so easy.
Nikolai Nalu: Right, I have a brand that’s from Korea that someone suggested to me and they wanted to be here and it works, so why not try? So I’m just trying to stay within a certain aesthetic and to stay away from the predictable expectations from Melrose. That’s basically what generated the grounds from where I pick brands. I don’t have any interest in being another “Melrose store,” otherwise I would just do something else, get a job or something. So when I pick something, we are looking for this balance between what I like personally, what I think is beautiful and high end, all these words, but also, I have to pay rent. So we have to have something that sells and sometimes it’s difficult to find that balance. I think everyone in my position would hate to compromise something that they don’t 100% embrace but it’s still within the aesthetic, kind of matches with the store but it sells and that’s the balance. In the long run, I want my own brand to dominate most of the store so that I have more control over the products and what it looks like when you walk in the store. If you make your own [clothes] you can make the store look the way you want it. But other brands are really good too and they produce and they design and they deliver, so it’s a big obligation to wanting to have your own. Life is about balance, I guess everyone knows that, I just say it cause Jay Z said it [laughs]. Since he said it I’m like, “Oh now I remember,” but it is about balance. Everything in life, whenever something is extreme, it’s never good.
Labeling Men: Going back to your own line, aside from European influences and street wear, are there any other influences or inspirations that help your designs?
Nikolai Nalu: I’m looking into Asian and Arab culture right now. I’m actually doing some embroidered patches with some Arab writing on it. Again, like I said about being boxed in, I don’t want to be boxed in with white culture, black culture, Scandinavian culture, Arab culture, Asian culture, or certain races. A woman that I do some work with lives in Dubai and I went down there to check it out. I didn’t necessarily like it and I didn’t necessarily want to go but I knew that I needed to make the trip because she’s very fond of it and she understands it better because she lives there and she has another way to communicate that to me than if I was there by myself. It made me want to look more into it and I was looking at the writing and the aesthetic from that culture, so that is one place that I’m into. We have another brand that I’m part owner of and I didn’t get it at first and but it actually works and it’s a big part of the culture in the Middle East and if you use that and transform it into something that Americans understand then that’s interesting too. Again, maybe it’s a little bit unique because not everybody else is doing it here. We are going to go to Japan within 2 to 3 months from now and hopefully we will get some more inspiration there. Regardless where the inspiration comes from, I think the magic is in converting into something that works. Because everyone can go on Instagram, everyone can go to Japan or Dubai or wherever. It is not something that I have found that no one else can see. The challenge is to convert that into something that works. So that is what I spend a lot of time on. Sometimes, when I don’t work, I hate that feeling. But I sort of pinch myself and I’m like, “Okay, are you working?,” because it takes time to think, you know? Some of the best ideas I get are when I’m on the treadmill and I have to stop and write it down. If you’re just so focused on writing emails or doing the traditional stuff, then where is the magic or genius ideas, and the aesthetics and the feelings? That is just as big of a part as the whole thing if you want to be successful.
Labeling Men: Yeah, I’ve always heard the best ideas come when you are distracted and doing something else.
Nikolai Nalu: Exactly, the worst possible scenario is when you can’t get to piece of paper or something. I used to write rap music…
Labeling Men: Really?!
Nikolai Nalu: Yeah, that’s what I’ve actually done the longest. I used to perform for 8 years in a band and I was the lead rapper, singer, screamer. I was like the wannabe Fred Durst.
Labeling Men: Hah! Wow! What is the band called?
Nikolai Nalu: It was called Sutrapumo, which is short for Surf Trash Punk Mother Fucker.
Labeling Men: I love that!
Nikolai Nalu: I had a girlfriend at the time that said to me, “All you listen to is this Surf Trash Punk Mother Fuck music,” and I was like, “Huh? Surf Trash Punk Mother Fuck music? Is that how you hear it? Okay.” I was like if I shorten that down that’s Sutrapumo. Just like Rock ‘N’ Roll People, it’s just a platform where I can do whatever I want. But my point being, that I had a lyric book next to my bed for years and I had to move it away because subconsciously my brain knew that the book was there. So I would get ideas and I wouldn’t get enough sleep. I have trust myself, that if I can get an idea now, I can get another idea in an hour or five hours. I don’t always have to write things down because I would email myself all day long with ideas. I’m trying to not do it because I think once you are a creative and you open that channel, you can’t produce 500 new pieces a day anyway. So if it’s a really clever idea then I email it myself, write it down, whatever. But if it’s just another pretty good idea I’m really trying to not burden myself with too much that I don’t even have time to turn into real life anyway.
Labeling Men: Yeah, try to edit it down a bit.
Nikolai Nalu: Exactly, it’s like making a record. You record 40 songs and 12 songs end up on the record.
Labeling Men: How long have you been in Los Angeles?
Nikolai Nalu: At this time, two years. I moved here when I was 15 in 1991, I went to Newport Beach High School because I was in the National Kayaking Team.
Labeling Men: Oh, wow!
Nikolai Nalu: Yeah, I had already done the European World Championships as a junior where I had met the American team. I asked them where do you guys train and they said this thing called Newport Beach. Which in my world was Los Angeles.
Labeling Men: Haha, not so much.
Nikolai Nalu: Haha, no, not so much, I didn’t know that. So I was in 9th grade back in Denmark so I rented a room in Newport and I walked to the local high school and signed up for it and I remember them asking me, “Don’t you have any parents?” [Laughs] Yeah, but they are in something called Denmark on the other side of the world. So whenever I was in trouble or needed something I had to find someone over 18 to sign for me. So I turned 16 a couple weeks later and lived there for a whole year. Actually, I moved to Hawaii after maybe 6 months or so because in Newport Beach it’s a tough place to be when you are 15-16 with no money, no power. I mean, I didn’t know, I was just this little white boy from Denmark, a kayaker. But I grew up with an uncle that went to UCLA in the ‘80s and he was always into Los Angeles and American cars and LA culture and all that stuff, so combination of all of that, I always wanted to go to LA. My passion for music especially and I always like this whole illusion of Hollywood and rock stars, sunshine and beaches and waves, so for me it has just always been LA and I always thought the opportunity was here. So I’ve been in and out for work for 24 years now. It finally got to a point where I was like, “Okay, I’m going to move to America for real this time. But I had shifted into fashion so I actually thought I was going to move to New York because my illusion was New York is more fashion. And so, I did that. I lived in Manhattan and I lived in Williamsburg and I was there for three months and I didn’t feel that New York was more fashion in the sense that I thought it would be. People in the street are just people, you know. I didn’t feel like that was particularly more fashion, it was just a difficult city, I didn’t like the weather, the rent was high and you know, no nature, no beaches, no waves, no palm trees, not a lot of celebrities. After the first few months, I had to sort of establish myself. I decided to go back to LA just to make sure. When I got here I was like, “I can get this space for this money, hmmm. This building has pool, wow!” So much different than New York. The whole music industry is here, the whole movie industry is here and I can go to the beach and it just made a lot more sense. LA has just always been a part of me somehow. But living here it becomes more and more your daily life and you see how a lot of it was an illusion and not necessarily all that great. Some things are great and you meet people here that you wouldn’t meet in Denmark, for sure. But like we initially talked about, Melrose isn’t that pretty of a street anymore and the aesthetic here is not very pretty. You know I was just in Paris a couple of weeks ago and I was reminded, “Ohhh, Europe.” But somehow Los Angeles is such a big brand and everyone looks to LA and I don’t think anyone wants to accept that a lot of LA is also a shithole. Everyone wants to keep that illusion about LA and Hollywood that it’s heaven on earth because if it isn’t, is there a heaven then? Like where do we go then? So we want to hold on to that illusion. So at least I can say for myself that I don’t want that to go away, I want to keep that fantasy land, big money and big houses and beautiful girls and palm trees and all this stuff and you don’t want that to go away.
Labeling Men: So what is coming up next for your own brand? Will you be showing at Fashion Week?
Nikolai Nalu: I think LA Fashion Week is pretty much nonexistent.
Labeling Men: It’s pretty ridiculous.
Nikolai Nalu: Yes, it is very ridiculous. No.
Labeling Men: What about going to New York [Fashion Week]?
Nikolai Nalu: I never really believed in Fashion Week so I haven’t joined one of them before, maybe I should at some point. You know, Instagram and all the social media has changed so much about the whole way of buying and selling, and the production process and the sales process. Maybe I could get some orders and do things by the book a bit more. But I think it’s a matter of time, the game is going to change. When you have something new put it out there, basically like music. You know you don’t always necessarily make a full album anymore. You make a song, mix it, master it and put it out there. Maybe one day there will be an album. I think that’s the direction it’s going. There are so many brands out there. When I started three years ago, everyone was like, “Wow, you are starting your own line,” and just over the last few years everyone wants to start their own brand, so now I’ve lost a little bit of interest in it. It’s not that difficult to get some t-shirts and print on them if that’s your ambition, so my passion or whatever, my interest has shifted a little bit in the direction of making a very beautiful, classic store in the long run. Like Collette’s in Paris, it could be the store that sets the tone for most fashion. If you were to point out one store in the world, it would be that one. It’s been there for years and it’s classic, people every day all year round, for forever. Like I said, a lot of kids have their own brand and put it on Instagram and have someone with a lot of followers post about it, so they get a lot of followers, but it’s really not that interesting in my opinion. I see someone with like a million followers and I’m like, “Why?! Why do people follow this person, what is this person doing and why is it interesting?” Maybe I’m old, but that has become random too. Because things change and that’s just how it is.
Labeling Men: It’s very unpredictable.
Nikolai Nalu: Exactly. Maybe a year ago, “Oh, I have this many followers on Instagram,” and it’s still very relevant and you can sell a lot of products, but right now because it’s so accessible to do your own stuff, all depending on your vision of course, because the stuff that I’m making you can’t just make it out of the blue. But my interest has shifted in terms of how do you make a very beautiful store that is going to be relevant in the long run in terms of a physical store and how you compare that to the web store universe, the online stuff? I believe that to have an actual store will be relevant forever. People like to go shopping, it’s fun. You go to see a beautiful store. To create a store that is going to be relevant for years down the line is a big interest of mine, combined with my own line to have in it.
Check out Nalu’s line at rocknrollpeople.com or at the brick and mortar location at 7711 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles
Interview by Mischa Teichgraeber