A Conversation with - Gildas Loaëc
I met Gildas Loaëc around 12 years ago in a purposely-dim lit Restaurant in Paris. The Place’s name escapes me now but it was a dinner to celebrate the signing of Kitsuné’s first guitar based band “Cazals”. During this dinner I remember Gildas pulling some Polo shirts and white jeans out of a bag to show the band. They had a little Fox logo on them… I didn't realize it at the time but that was the beginings of Maison Kitsuné. A brand that has grown into a 40 million euro international Apparel & Lifestyle business since that point. And on the eve of the brands first on schedule Paris show, I caught up with Gildas to talk about the brands origins and that journey to now.
Gildas since meeting you I feel like I have been lucky enough to see this huge evolution from what feels like the start of the clothing at least, right through to the first on schedule show with a full atelier and new Creative Director.
Oh yeah. Well, that was our starting point. And we found a way to build a brand the way we wanted to. I would say as a brand you could go one of a few ways. You go as a forward thinking designer, find your silhouette and you could make a sensation on the catwalk in fashion week. Or you are having money to do what you want from the start. Or you have something like what we created, which was more for our thinking. And yeah, we were not having much money to begin with. But we wanted to create something kind of easy and casual in the commercial sense. And try to build a business organically.
It's interesting to me because that model you created of combining music culture, clothing and basically starting with what could be viewed as merchandise, was something that wasn't really the norm then. And now it feels like are lots of people working around this idea. Starting with a radio station, magazine or a music label, and then they have a few t-shirts and it grows.
Well we actually didn't want to do t-shirts for the first few years. No, we wanted to not go that way in the early days. Back then it was not that easy to go from being a music label and then going into fashion. We were trying to not do the easier things that could feel more merchandise based, as we wanted to build a silhouette based around simple styles such as the classic polo, cardigans, pull over, a pair of jeans and a sneaker. But under the same umbrella name as the music label.
Were you're designing yourself then?
Oh No… I mean like “designing” is a big word. We were having an idea of doing certain pieces. For us it was about making something that was easy for people to buy. But adding a small element of cool with the Fox logo which is strong. But it was always about being easy to wear, because we wanted to push and develop the business without having huge investment. So it needed to have a level of commerciality.
So in terms of where you were when you started the clothing, I personally got a sense it was very reflective of what you guys were wearing at that time?
Yeah, true. And at that time most of the department stores or select shops were mostly buying designer brands. And yeah, for like a normal guy to get into the fashion extravaganza it was not really reflective of what he would actually wear on a day-to-day basis. Back then the market outside of Ralph Lauren or APC was not really developed. It was lacking an offer on the men’s side for something more fun and wardobe focused.
I feel the French do this area really well, and also the Swedes. Perhaps the combination of wear ability and price is something that has driven this sector forward?
Maybe. French brands are also getting benefit from the fact that Paris in an unconscious way is known for fashion. And a Parisian brand in Japan also has a different halo effect, and this has definitely helped us to build the business over there. I remember at the start we were not so good in terms of what the brand was offering. But we had this strong idea and it went down well there. We were also lucky that we had early interest from the Japanese buyers from Beams and other stores. And when we got the chance to travel and visit them in Japan we were looking at what the stores or brands were doing locally and we were like, why are they buying us…? (Laughs).
I think a lot of western brands feel like that when they visit the Far East. Everything is done to such a high level and what we do in Europe can often feel a little slapdash or not as well finished. But what we lack there we make up for in dynamic usually. And maybe this is what is the attraction to the Japanese I feel?
We were lucky that they felt that way I guess. They understood the fun side of what we were doing with clothes and the music label. And it was a strange time because music was also starting to lose a lot of its physical value. It was a real turning point in the music industry with how the Internet was shaping things, so for us it was a super interesting time of change.
Do you think fashion is going through a similar… not crises, but similar point where it's really looking at itself in a difficult way. With everything that's going on with instagram and the industry power shifts. Its perhaps similar to how music was changing 10, 12 years ago when everyone was like, oh shit, no one's buying cds anymore. What do we do?
Yeah this is true, Music was one of the first industries to be hit hard by the Internet or changing technology.
Music seems to have now caught up and all the labels have realised that they can make money other ways, by either doing different deals or having part of the merchandise and brand extensions etc. And it seems to have really got back on top of itself again?
If you look at a lot of other industries now from cinema to taxis, its non-stop. And a lot of the corporates are trying hard to retain control instead of going with the flow and adapting. Its not going to stop so you may as well get used to the idea. People want progress and you can try to ban things like Uber but new versions will always come back.
Well I think definitely the way power is structured in the fashion industry has been disrupted, traditionally the power was very much held with editors and buyers. And now there are so many other channels to be seen and create a demand.
Yes and we've been very lucky because when we were starting, independent media was also starting to grow. I am talking about Hypebeast and High snob etc. Which was where the market was. And true certain traditional media didn't see this coming and now the game is done. But for us it was a great chance to find some exposure in our early days.
And now the brand has its first show on the PFW schedule, a full Atelier in Paris and a new Creative Director who has come from Céline? How does that feel?
Yes we've got a studio and develop everything in house along with the pattern makers and our new Creative Director Yuni (Ahn) who we appointed in the summer. We have a sharper, more precise collection, which is still above all about the wearability of product but with a clean slate. And it's very effective because we're very happy with the results. It’s not a crazy turnaround from what we were before, but a good evolution. And the timing is good because we are opening many new stores in 2019, so we wanted to take a chance to step into Paris Fashion week and to push our creativity further.
Was there a process that you had to go through with the Paris Fashion Federation to get to that stage?
We did two interviews with our team and we had to apply to be on the calendar, which was not so easy. But we are happy because Fashion week is dominated by the investment of the bigger houses into Paris, and now we are able to show and to have our own part of that Paris fashion week story. Not only in fashion but in music and our coffee spots as well.
And now you have these three separate areas of business that all are self-sufficient and growing in their own right. And then you have a Kitsuné hotel coming to Bali as well?
Yes we have a hotel planned to open in Bali in 2020. But for us it was always very important that the music, clothing and now the coffee were able to support themselves and be profitable business on their own. We didn't want the music to be marketing for the clothing or something like this. We work the music label as a music label. We have staff who does just that. And don't get involved with the clothing and visa versa. And we are constantly learning about the coffee trade all the time, and we eventually want to have our own plantations and be more sustainable in this way.
Finally one thing I did want to ask you, and as I look around your office there are a lot of reminders of your time working with Daft Punk? You were part of the early management team right?
Well like designing, “managing” is a big word. They didn't need managing really, but I was working with them to assist their development. I also took my first trips to Japan with them when they were working on the animations for their album with Leiji Matsumoto This was when we began to think about the idea of Kitsuné. We had brought Masaya (Kuroki) with us on the Daft Punk trips to Japan as I knew him from the music scene in Paris and he was Japanese but spoke French. And it was better that we had someone young who understood our style to be able to translate this. So we spend a lot of time together on the trips and got on well. We started to think about our own vision of a brand inspired mainly by what we were seeing in Japan which was nuts at that time. There were these huge stores that had different areas on each floors under one brand. From furniture, clothing to cosmetics and cafes etc, they were really curating the space. And we had discovered that Japanese people loved French people so much. So Masaya and I began to really think about the idea of a French brand in this way.
So this was Kitsuné’s genesis point?