At a rare party, Nikolaj Hansson was playing a game of tennis with his brother. The two had managed to book a court – a tall order in small towns on the shinbones of the Pyrenees – and they weren’t expecting much. Intrusive weeds and flaking clay are unavoidable on courts that benefit from few players in sparsely populated villages. But a court was a court, and the two Danes rallied under an evil sun. The sweat started beading and the T-shirts were taken off.
“We’re halfway through our game, and this guy comes out of the middle of nowhere, this coach or whatever,” the 28-year-old, still in France, told me on FaceTime. “He starts saying ‘the president made the rules that you had to wear a shirt, the president can’t allow that’. Like, isn’t that Queens or Wimbledon?”
Hansson is well aware of the Puritan streak in tennis. It’s so ubiquitous that the experience encouraged him to launch Palmes: an insurgent menswear brand that wants to rebuild on the creaky foundations of sport. It’s basically tennis clothing, but it doesn’t look much like normal tennis clothing. It’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 created a group text message with about 10 of us and said, ‘I’ve collectively decided on behalf of all of us that we’re going all start playing tennis. Here is the link to register in a club, here is the link to buy a racket, see you Tuesday. Since then, I play three to four times a week.
Appearing as part of a French farmhouse iPhone, Hansson doesn’t look like a tennis player either. His cap (Flippers – 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 hint of tattoos on various limbs. If the word “skater” comes to mind, then you’d be great at playing Articulate; Hansson spent the majority of his youth skateboarding, until he passed away a few years ago. Tennis replaced that lost romance. “I fell in love with something like I did when I was a kid.”
In Palmes, skate references overflow. It’s also preppy, but not cosplay, and very practical. The brand is an amalgamation of all of these things and feels both new and familiar. The polo shirts are loose, square and rigid; slightly wavy, and yet still Wimbledon. The shirts are clean and crisp, well within court rules, but they’re still cool and not quite classic. “I was looking around the space within tennis, and you can either do hardcore performance marks, and I love that kind of stuff. Or, you can do the nostalgic retro brand, which is amazing, but that’s pretty much what tennis was in the past and not what it is today,” says Hansson. “Something was missing. I couldn’t find anything to refer to anywhere. So the brands I wear have always been skate brands, and that’s really what I love. Palmes is therefore for the new generation of tennis players. They know the movement of fashion brands as groups of brothers, and they buy in drops, not seasons. It’s a smart decision. Here’s hype culture, but transplanted into the kind of menswear that came long before (and is largely detached from) the snaking queues of influence-conscious teenagers in Soho.
Tennis has, by design, always been something of an isolationist. Like the overzealous coach on lost ground, his overlords are unnecessarily bureaucratic, with more complex regulations than smuggling a box of Cornish herrings to France after Brexit. It’s also an expensive sport, which historically meant that only the wealthy could play. “In Copenhagen, there is not a single public court in the city. So you need to be a member, which is at least £200 a year. Then you have to buy a racquet, which is around £60 a year for a beginner. At most clubs you have to wear the right shoes because most of the courts here are clay,” says Hansson. “You’re at least £400 deep before you’ve even hit a ball and you know if you like it.”
Palmes is more egalitarian in its approach. “There are a lot of barriers to getting into tennis. There’s the cultural barrier, where I think a lot of people don’t feel like they belong. Tennis can be stiff and conservative…Fitting in in tennis, being part of a tennis club and being part of the culture and the community, you might think you need to change,” Hansson says. “Then there’s also a technical barrier. hard if you’ve never played before, and it takes a while to get into it. We’re really trying to be like, whoever has the most fun wins. The former comms professional then sets another parallel with skateboarding: repeat, repeat, repeat, and then the resulting ecstasy when you finally land a backhand or kickflip.
One could, however, be forgiven for questioning this definition of democracy. Under Sports Direct’s stack ’em high doctrine, a pair of Slazenger shorts will set you back £7. At Palmes, £100. But Hansson makes clothes that can perform on and off the court. The canvas shorts have crotch panels to allow for extended outings without blocking. The materials are light for long games in the sun. They also try to lead by example. “It was a big compromise. People were like ‘oh, you’re playing tennis for everybody, but a t-shirt is £60’. I understand that feeling,” says Hansson. “But it was a bit like if we wanted to do [these clothes] in Europe in good factories from sustainable or recyclable materials, that’s what it’s going to cost. If we wanted a sustainable business that allowed us to invest in culture and be pretty much OK financially, then that’s just the cost. The majority of Palmes clothing is manufactured in Romania, Lithuania and Portugal in healthy working environments. The rest comes from California and New Hampshire. Why? “Just because they make the best caps in New Hampshire.”
Profits are also donated. Hansson talks about the Palmes Conservation Society: a project that aims to maintain and improve the tennis community by renovating and preserving neglected courts around the world. He regularly hosts tennis meetups, footing the bill so like-minded Palmes (Palmers?) fans can play and socialize. The budget is allocated to editorial, some of which spotlight creatives and creators who love tennis, with the rest going to self-help guides with titles like “Ways to Hold a Racket Properly” and ” Five tennis rules you should ignore”. The goal is to bring more into the fold. “Let’s say one percent of the world plays tennis. You can add more percentage points with people watching Wimbledon, and people enjoying it on TV, people thinking [Nick] Kyrgios is cool because he’s getting into the mainstream,” says Hansson. “Then you have people who think tennis is cool, like people who wear skate clothes because they love them even though they’re not necessarily in them. That’s a lot of people.
Skatewear, with its coastal American roots, has given Palmes a sense of Americanness. New Yorkers often confuse it with a native brand. In reality, it’s run by Hansson and two friends back in Copenhagen, and that ambiguous legacy has always been part of the plan. Palmes takes its name from the game of palms, the spiritual ancestor of today’s tennis, and was designed to evoke a station that could be anywhere and everywhere at the same time. He wants to be global in a world that has never been so connected and yet never more lonely. Palmes’ success can be attributed to the cool clothes he makes. In the thirteen months since its launch, it has racked up a collaboration with the bi-coastal elite podcast Since when, big buys at Ssense, The Hip Store and Browns, and a limited capsule collection at Nordstrom. However, he also tries to forge real friendships through these clothes. Palmes is not a club pastiche, like so many of his contemporaries. It’s a real club. A brand, and a tennis club above all. But a social club too.
“A few months ago, a friend was in a bar in New York, and he was wearing a Palmes T-shirt, and this guy with a Palmes tote came up to him because he didn’t know anyone else who knew him,” Hansson explains. “They talked and had a few more drinks, and exchanged numbers. They even play tennis together now.