Habilitate Talks to Frederik Wetzel

Frederik Wetzel aka Happy Preppy wearing a pink tie

The world of clothing can sometimes be a fairly self-serious place. It’s tough making the case for the importance of putting on a nice outfit when a glance at news headlines on any given day can leave such lowly concerns feeling pretty frivolous. Maybe that’s why fashion shoots and look books are often so smolderingly earnest: it’s a way of staving off awareness of the inevitable silliness of the whole enterprise. 

Some people, though, greet this silliness with open arms — and thank goodness for it. The relief that so often accompanies the comic is all too gladly received in the context of that daily, headline-induced dread. 

One of the people I can always rely on for this kind of welcome, comic-minded distraction, is Frederik Wetzel, who you may know as @happypreppy on Instagram. As his username suggests, Frederik injects everything he posts with a sense of humour and playfulness. His images and captions are a delight for anyone looking for a dose of light-hearted relief in their menswear content. 

Let there be no mistake, though: Frederik can always be relied on for a good joke, but he is every bit as dependable when it comes to putting together a great outfit. He proves time and again just how broad and versatile the preppy palette can be by assembling the range of colourful, creative, and even classically-styled looks that have become his signature. 

Frederik is one of the most fun people to follow in menswear and I was delighted when he agreed to talk to me about his life, his wardrobe, and all things preppy.

Hi Frederik, thank you for doing this. To start us off, how did you first get interested in preppy clothing? Were there ever any other styles you were drawn to?

I would say there were two starting points for that. When I was young, at some point more and more of my friends started wearing Ralph Lauren polo shirts, so it quickly became some sort of status thing. Naturally, I started begging my parents to get me one as well — and then more in various colours. In university a lot of people (those who also studied law) were clad in Ralph Lauren, Barbour jackets, and boat shoes — so was I at that point — and I became interested in the nuances of that style. Weirdly enough, it was (don’t laugh!) the TV show Gossip Girl that really pushed me over the edge. I got my first bow tie because of that. After that, there were books, then blogs, then social media, until I got where I am today.

Way before all that, there were some unfortunate episodes of baggy pants, of stonewashed jeans plus matching jacket and, yes, I’ll admit: A black leather coat because of the film, The Matrix. But preppy and Ivy is the only style that stuck.

Simon Crompton of Permanent Style wrote a piece not long ago in which he discusses different iterations of Ivy clothing. He called it ‘What Ivy means to me’. There was also a series of illustrations that Wes Robinson did for Sperry where he characterised a bunch of different types of preps, each with their own distinct look, like ‘the traditionalist prep’, ‘the country prep, ‘the modern prep’, and so on. So can you tell us what Ivy means to you? What kind of prep would you say you are?

I read that article and also saw the illustrations — great pieces, by the way. I have never been to an Ivy League university and only later got into all the details of Ivy, but I’m not overly obsessed with them, although I really do like looking for 3/2 rolls, the natural shoulder, a good collar roll, and so on. Funnily enough, most of the things that Mr. Crompton mentions that aren’t ‘his’ Ivy are mine: Brightly colored or embroidered pants, blazers, fun shirts, and so on. All of those of course also share a preppy connotation, so I suppose I’m somewhere in between: An ivy-fied prep maybe?

One of the hallmarks of your Instagram page is a sense of fun and humour that characterises almost everything you post. Do you think that same sensibility feeds into the way you dress at all?

Absolutely, I love having fun with clothes. There are days when I want to go with khaki-colored chinos and a blazer and will feel good with that, but I like weird pants, madras blazers, or embroidered sweaters. I love having the liberty of dressing up for fun, so I also like to go for fun pieces that, I am sure, others might find ridiculous at times — but that’s also part of the fun.

What would be the items in your personal style starter pack?

Navy blazer (I suppose most #menswear guys would answer that), a candy striped oxford shirt, and some kind of fun pants or, as Tom Wolfe called them, ‘go-to-hell-pants’. So embroidered with little critters and/or in bright colours. That’s my everyday uniform!

That’s great — I love that Tom Wolfe coinage. How do you decide what you’re going to wear on a given day? Do you always dress the way you do in your Instagram posts?

I mostly dress like this, yes. When I’m not travelling and have to pack in advance, I sit in front of my closet in the morning and stare at it for a while if my daughter lets me and doesn’t want to be carried around in the apartment. I think about what I’ll be doing that day, whether I’ll be at work, on the playground, hanging out with friends, going sailing, and so on, and then I choose accordingly. Depending on how the day will be it’s sometimes more, sometimes less “formal”, but always in the same direction of style.

Frederik Wetzel aka Happy Preppy standing at his closet

Where do you usually buy clothes? Do you mostly get things first- or second-hand?

When I started dressing the way I do now, I quickly discovered eBay and the likes. There are not many good thrift shops around here, plus many brands I liked (Brooks Brothers, J. Press, Kamakura, and so on) didn’t have shops in Germany or didn’t even ship here back then. Online thrifting has become my primary source for clothing now — I’d say that 80% of my clothes are second-hand.

You work as a Creative Director in Hamburg. Does your job affect how you dress at all?

Absolutely, yes. If I had gone working in the law sector like my studying suggested, I’d probably be dressing much more seriously — more suits, less pattern. But working in the advertising industry has given me the liberty to dress the way I want because everybody does it around there. Although for others it means being able to wear tank tops and ripped jeans or sweatpants to work — but hey, chacun à son goût!

Well said! I’m also curious whether being a dad has changed the way you dress?

That definitely had an influence on me. I quickly figured out that light colours are much harder to pull off when you’re sitting on a playground in the mud or somebody throws food at you. Plus, my bow ties made a comeback because my daughter can’t pull on them like on a necktie. In my three months of parental leave I’m currently on, I wore blazers and sport coats less often. But at the same time, I try to keep dressing the same way as before, and when I get stains on something, so be it. That’s life after all!

Frederik Wetzel aka Happy Preppy playing with his child

I’m a South African living in Scotland and, I suppose, mostly wear clothes that take inspiration from American and European sources. The upside of this is that, as an immigrant, I don’t typically experience the same cultural burdens around wearing certain garments that some of my friends who hail from those contexts do. I, for example, don’t have the same negative associations with Barbour jackets that I think a lot of my British friends do and none of my American ones seem to. Conversely, I think something like a pair of boat shoes can have much heftier connotations in the States than they do here in the UK. What is it like for you to wear clothing in Germany that, despite a global following, is still most commonly associated with America? How do people typically respond when they see your clothes?

Things like Barbour jackets, boat shoes, oxford or polo shirts are associated with posh people, snobs, ‘rich kids’, or law students around here — same as in Great Britain, I suppose. And sometimes it’s a cliché that is actually very true. So I think I have been judged by people for wearing stuff like that more than once. And, well, I used to be a law student, so they weren’t entirely wrong. 

Going for the more formal stuff from the Ivy/preppy world like blazers, ties, and so on or for the more extreme things — madras, wild plaid, bold colours — I think especially the latter is clothing not really known around here, so sometimes people might find it funny or weird. But most people that I talk to — and not just pass in the street — react in a positive way to how I dress.

I usually focus on stories of interest behind specific clothing items or brands on this site. Do you have a favourite garment that has a particularly interesting or meaningful story behind it that you can tell us about?

I have quite a few pieces that have a special meaning to me, yes! Two immediately come to mind. 

One is a pair of slippers from the now defunct Rugby Ralph Lauren. Back when Rugby was closing, my brother gave me plane tickets to London for Christmas. We didn’t have a store in Germany and he wanted to give me the opportunity to shop there once. We flew to London, didn’t have a hotel but spent the night in a club with clothing worth hundreds of pounds — among them those slippers — stored in the cloak room and flew back in the morning, completely hungover. Still one of the greatest Christmas gifts of all time.

The other one is an old Polo tie. It used to belong to my late father-in-law, back when he wasn’t my father-in-law yet. Sadly he passed away a few years ago and, one day, my mother-in-law led me to his closet and wanted me to have his ties. This particular one used to be his favourite, a pink one with blueish-green stripes, old and frayed and with a few stains on it. It immediately became one of my favourites as well. I then wore it to our wedding to kind of have his spirit attending, even though he couldn’t be there anymore.

Those are both fantastic stories, thank you for sharing them. Do you have any other hobbies outside of your interest in clothing?

I’ve played field hockey for almost 30 years now and I’m an avid sailor. Apart from that I bought a vintage Jaguar XJ6 together with my dad a few years ago and we completely restored it on our own. Now we attend classic car rallies with it. 

I feel like all of that works really well with your sense of style too, so that’s a nice bonus! Now, finally, saving the toughest question for last: You make some pretty bold claims in your Instagram bio about how fast you can tie a bow tie. How long does it take you to clock the perfect knot?

My wife took the time right after dinner today: 12.21 seconds. So I can keep that in my bio!

Frederik Wetzel aka Happy Preppy wearing a dinner jacket

All images courtesy of Frederik Wetzel