On a rare holiday, Nikolaj Hansson was playing a round of tennis with his brother. The two had managed to book a court – a tall order in small towns on the shins of the Pyrenees – and they didn’t expect all that much. Prying weeds and flaking clay are inevitable on courts that enjoy few players in villages with few people. But a court was a court, and the two Danes rallied under a fiendish sun. The sweat began to bead and T-shirts were removed.
“We’re halfway through our game, and this guy comes out from the middle of nowhere, this coach or whatever,” the 28-year-old, still in France, tells me over FaceTime. “He starts saying ‘the president has made the rules so that you have to wear a shirt, the president cannot allow this’. Like, this isn’t Queens or Wimbledon?”
Hansson is au fait with tennis’s puritanical streak. So pervasive it is, that the experience encouraged him to launch Palmes: an insurgent menswear label that wants to build anew on the sport’s creaking foundations. It’s tenniswear at its core, but it doesn’t much look like normal tenniswear. That’s probably because Hansson and his friends aren’t normal tennis players. “I only started playing about two and a half years ago, because I was bored during the pandemic,” says Hansson. “I fell into this YouTube hole of tennis videos so I made a text message group with about 10 of us and said, ‘I’ve collectively decided on behalf of all of us that we’re all gonna start playing tennis. Here’s the link to sign up to a club, here’s the link to buy a racket, see you Tuesday’. I’ve been playing three to four times a week ever since.”
Appearing within the frame of an iPhone from a French farmhouse, Hansson doesn’t look like a tennis player either. His cap (Palmes – it has the embroidered logo to prove it) sits at an acute angle, and hides a close buzzcut. He wears a thin chain, and has a soupçon of tattoos across various limbs. If the word ‘skater’ comes to mind, then you’d be very good at a game of Articulate; Hansson spent the majority of his youth skateboarding, until it faded out a couple of years ago. Tennis has replaced this lost romance. “I fell in love with something like I did when I was a kid.”
In Palmes, the skate references runneth over. It’s also preppy, but not cosplay, and very practical. The brand is an amalgamation of all of these things and feels new and familiar at once. The polo shirts are baggy, boxy and stiff; slightly wavy, and yet still Wimbledon. The shirts are clean and crisp, well within the court rules, but they’re still cool, and not entirely classic. “I was looking around the space within tennis, and you can either do hardcore performance brands, and I love that stuff. Or, you can do the retro nostalgic brand, which is amazing, but that’s about what tennis was in the past and not what it is today,” says Hansson. “There was something missing. I couldn’t find anything I could relate to anywhere. So the brands I wear have always been skate brands, and this stuff is really what I like.” Palmes is for the new gen of tennis players, then. They’re familiar with the fashion brands-as-bands-of-brothers movement, and they shop by drops, not seasons. It’s a smart move. Here’s hype culture, but transplanted into the sort of menswear that came well before (and is largely detached from) the snaking queues of clout-conscious teens in Soho.
Tennis has, by design, always been something of an isolationist. Like the over-zealous coach on a backwater court, its overlords are needlessly bureaucratic, with regulations more complex than getting a box of kippers from Cornwall to France post-Brexit. It’s also an expensive sport, which means, historically, that only the wealthy could play. “In Copenhagen, there isn’t a single public court in the city. So you have to be a member, which is at least £200 a year. Then you have to buy a racket, which is about £60 a year for a beginner. Most clubs you have to wear the correct shoes because most courts are clay here,” says Hansson. “You’re at least £400 deep before you’ve even hit a ball and know if you like it.”
Palmes is more egalitarian in its approach. “There’s a lot of barriers of entry into tennis. There’s the cultural barrier, where I think a lot of people don’t feel they fit in. Tennis can be stiff and conservative… To fit into tennis, and be part of a tennis club, and be part of the culture and community, you might think you need to change,” says Hansson. “Then there’s a technical barrier too. It’s hard if you’ve never played before, and it takes some time getting into it. We really try to be like, whoever has the most fun wins.” The former comms professional then draws another parallel to skateboarding: repetition, repetition, repetition, then the resulting ecstasy as you finally land a backhand, or a kickflip.
One could be forgiven for questioning this definition of democracy though. Under the stack ’em high doctrine of Sports Direct, a pair of Slazenger shorts will set you back £7. At Palmes, £100. But Hansson is making clothes that can play on and off court. The canvas shorts have inserts at the crotch to allow for extended step outs without locking. Materials are light for long games in the sun. They’re also trying to set an example. “It was a big trade off. People said ‘oh, you’re making tennis for everyone, but a T-shirt is £60. I get that sentiment,” says Hansson. “But it was very much like, if we want to make [these clothes] in Europe in good factories from sustainable or recyclable materials, that’s what it’s gonna cost. It we wanted a sustainable business that allows us to invest in the culture, and be just about financially OK, then that’s just the cost.” The bulk of Palmes’ clothing is made in Romania, Lithuania and Portugal in sound working environments. The rest from California and New Hampshire. Why? “Just because they make the best caps in New Hampshire.”
Proceeds are also giving back. Hansson talks of the Palmes Conservation Society: a project that looks to maintain and upgrade the tennis community by refurbishing and preserving neglected courts across the world. He runs regular tennis meet-ups, footing the bill so like-minded Palmes fans (Palmers?) can play and socialise. Budget is apportioned for editorial, some of which spotlights creatives and makers who like tennis, with the rest going towards self-help guides with headlines like ‘The Ways to Properly Hold a Racket’ and ‘Five Tennis Rules You Should Ignore’. The aim is to bring more into the fold. “Say one percent of the world plays tennis. You can add more percentage points with the people who watch Wimbledon, and the people who like it on the telly, people who think [Nick] Kyrgios is cool because he’s entering the mainstream,” says Hansson. “Then you have people who just think tennis is cool, like the people who wear skate clothes because they like them even though they’re not necessarily into it. That’s a lot of people.”
Skatewear, with its coastal US roots, has lent a sense of Americanness to Palmes. New Yorkers often mistake it for a native brand. In reality, it is headed by Hansson and two friends back in Copenhagen, and this ambiguous heritage was always part of the plan. Palmes takes its name from ‘jeu de paumes’, a spiritual predecessor to the tennis of today, and was dreamt up to invoke a resort that could be anywhere and everywhere all at once. It wants to be global in a world that has never been more connected, and yet never lonelier. Palmes’ success can be apportioned to the cool clothes it makes. In the thirteen months since launch, it has accrued a collab with bi-coastal elite podcast How Long Gone, big buys from Ssense, The Hip Store and Browns, and a limited capsule collection with Nordstrom. It’s also making a genuine attempt to forge genuine friendships through these clothes, though. Palmes is not a pastiche of a club, like so many of its contemporaries. This is an actual club. A brand, and a tennis club, first and foremost. But a social club, too.
“A few months ago, a friend was at a bar in New York, and he had a Palmes T-shirt on, and this guy with a Palmes’ tote came up to him because he didn’t anyone else who was familiar with it,” says Hansson. “They got talking and had a few more drinks, and swapped numbers. They even play tennis together now.”