SCENE: N.I.C.E. Collective designs a community

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The N.I.C.E. boys. All photos by Spencer Hansen

Designers Joe Haller and Ian Hannula of burgeoning San Francisco fashion brand N.I.C.E. Collective (www.nicecollective.com) met in a club more than a decade ago and started collaborating on projects — the first one was repurposing an electric blanket into a jumper — complete with tag and plug. Their big idea was to fuel fashion with a musical and nightlife sensibility, enabling the duo to build a community of artists. N.I.C.E. (an acronym for "navigate, inform, create, explore") rocked New York Fashion Week last spring with a show that felt more art installation/dance party than runway presentation, and whose backdrop included a 19th century carriage and much charred wood. The impeccably edgy Time Machine line they introduced there took off and now holds its own on the floors of retail boutiques next to editorial darlings Rag & Bone and more established brands like Comme des Garcons.

But what next? Between constant trips back and forth from New York to the site of their "live fashion installment" in Bolinas, we managed to snag Joe and Ian for a moment to ask them about the concept for their latest, "communal" clothing line.

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SFBG When did you start cultivating the concept for a communal line launch?
N.I.C.E. We came across this stretch of land in Bolinas, and we looked over it and thought, "with the economy tanking, why don't we just set up a little commune together?" This thought became the jump-off point for our design inspiration for spring 2010. We decided to name it the Gathering.

Then when we didn't find what we were looking for to show the clothes in New York during Fashion Week this fall, we thought back to Bolinas and decided to go ahead and actually set up a temporary community there. Instead of art directing an outdoor photo-shoot, we would live it and take pictures of our line that way.

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SFBG How did it go? Were any of the models eaten by bears?

N.I.C.E. It was absolutely fantastic. We underestimated how difficult it would be. We could only drive so far, and had to carry everything to the site for a quarter mile. We didn't finish unloading until 3 a.m. We were up there for four-and-a-half days, with perfect weather, building domes and tents and art installations.

The models were great: they were pitching tents and carrying sound equipment. Even models are creative: they were building visual platforms that had a good flow. We ended up chasing light a lot of the time to capture what was going on, and the images were not as haphazard as we had envisioned. But in the end, it was really a magical experience.

The biggest thing for us is to be able to share our thought process. The design is so close to our hearts, but I think oftentimes it's missed by the customer. We want to give people a path to see it.

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SFBG Do tell a bit about the clothes, then.
N.I.C.E. The idea we're focusing on is pioneering, which highlights utilitarian use. But we try to make the utilitarian component hidden, and clothes that fit and work no matter what environment you're in. Nothing is too precious: everything is beautiful but still sturdy. Each garment has a little way of achieving a secondary use; technology is layered in to communicate that a little more. We have a fabric that has stainless steel woven into it, so it holds where you form it, creates a great wrinkle. And garments reconstructed from military tents that can be worn as either a parka or a skirt.

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SFBG Brilliant. So seems like you've entirely eschewed New York.
N.I.C.E. In New York, there is this typical fashion noise where everyone is kind of vibrating at the same pace. San Francisco lets us be apart from that and do our own thing. It is a challenge working here. The fashion industry is not here, but it's such a great, inspiring city to work in that the benefits are worth it. When we came back from Fashion Week, we needed a month to recover. But since we've been back from the Gathering, we've still got an inspirational glow.

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