On Waves Less Travelled: a conversation with Sillage founder Yuthanan
In 2019, then 24 year-old Nicolas Yuthanan Chalmeau founded label Sillage, its name a French word which translates to wake. A French citizen with Thai heritage, Chalmeau—known by his middle name Yuthanan—had recently moved to Tokyo after feeling its pull on a trip two years prior. Started with very little investment, Sillage has broken the rules of the fashion industry since day one. With the help of partner Masa—who brings to the label many years of experience and an intimate knowledge of the business of fashion in the Japanese context—Yuthanan has built Sillage into a coveted label with a global following using an innovative online operating model, with no flagship storefront and very few stockists. Instead, the label functions largely through Instagram, holding occasional pop-up stores across Japan and beyond to allow their customer base the opportunity to get a feel for their garments in person. With the recent release of a range of Sillage garments at Double Double, Yuthanan spoke to us about the creative freedoms opened up by rejecting strict seasonal schedules, the past lives that influence his designs, and Instagram as a site of organic collaborative possibilities.
How did your move to Japan come about?
You know, if you like fashion, at some point you will become interested in Japan. I’m from France, and you know, fashion there is very traditional, so there isn’t really a way to express yourself. I came to Japan for the first time for a holiday in 2017. I just came to visit with my friend; I really liked it here and I wanted to stay. So after that first trip, I planned to really move, but I was still studying fashion in Paris and working a part-time job in a sneaker store. It’s all related actually, my past, fashion school; I was also manager of a sneaker store in Paris. all of this contributed to the person I am now in Japan.
After that first trip, I really wanted to come back, so I looked for a way to get my visa and then I came by myself and looked for a job. I had some contacts, but it was hard. When you arrive, you don’t speak the language and don’t have much money; I came to Japan with one month’s rent, so during that time I had to find a job. But luckily I was hired by 1LDK store in Nakameguro where I was managing the international press and the showroom, bringing in international brands. That’s also when I started doing photography, when I arrived to stay in 2019.
So you didn’t study any photography in Paris?
No. I didn’t even know how a camera works to be honest. I really had no idea how to shoot; I just shot photos with my phone. But when you spend time and money buying nice clothes, it’s nice to share with people what you like. My Instagram was not very big at that time; I had maybe 4000, 5000 followers, but already I wanted to share what I wear. The quality of my phone at that time was a bit sad, so I was like “I should just buy a camera, practice, and then be able to share good content.” I’ve been sharing my styling and what I like already for over ten years; I started my Instagram account in 2012. I’m 26 now. I was maybe 12 or 13 when I started to like clothes, maybe before that. I had a blog before, sharing things there, but it didn’t really work. Since I’ve been in Japan, I can have more freedom with what I do and people here, they just push you. And also myself; I push myself more, so it’s working.
What’s the story behind the first piece of clothing that you released under the Sillage name?
It was a pair of Hakama pants, which are pants used in martial arts, Kendo, Judo, and others. With Hakama pants, in Japan it was hard for me to find my size—I’m 185cm and 90kg, so even the biggest size in my favourite brand would not fit me. Making my own brand was the solution. I wanted to wear the clothes I want to wear in my size. I also wanted to create something with a wide, oversized silhouette, so the Hakama pant was a good start.
I had a design in mind and that’s when I met Masa randomly and he also wanted to start a brand. I was still working my job, but I wanted to start my own brand rather than work for someone else, so I just quit. Then we started Sillage. Hakama pants were kind of the new thing in the market—there are other Hakama pants from other brands, but we made it look more elegant than the classic style used for sport. Our Hakama pants have become iconic. When people start to buy Sillage, they will often buy these pants first to understand the concept of the brand, because the whole concept of Sillage is in these pants. We rework and rethink pieces from the traditional wardrobe or other domains and make them look the way we want them to look.
We had no budget to start a collection, so we just made one pair of pants. And we had no money to buy stock, so we just bought one sample and I launched a pre-order. We got enough orders in the first few days to make another one and another one and eventually a whole collection. We didn’t start with any money. We invested a bit in the first sample, but that’s all we invested in the brand.
How has your work as a photographer developed alongside Sillage and how do you think your experience as a photographer influence the way you design garments?
I think it’s one-way; my photography doesn’t affect the design process or the brand DNA. Actually, it’s the opposite. Of course, my photography and Sillage have grown at the same time. I’ve been shooting for the brand since the beginning; no other photographer has been involved, which was a good way to practice.
You’ve mentioned before that one of the advantages of being such a small label is that it’s easy to skip bureaucratic bullshit. If you have a design you want out there, you and Masa can get it out there in a matter of weeks. How is this possible in terms of manufacturing? What are your relationships like with the people making Sillage garments?
Since Masa has been in the business for fifteen or twenty years, he knows all the factories. He knows the best factory for each piece, whether it’s more technical or traditional etc. He knows all about the different kinds of craftsmanship involved. So when I have an idea it’s easy to make it happen. Japan is well-known for craftsmanship and being able to work with these kinds of factories is a great opportunity; it’s a big advantage for a brand.
Being an online-based brand with no retailers, just occasional pop-ups, it’s hard sometimes to explain to people how a certain fabric or process is difficult to create. There’s a challenge for me too, to grow the brand while it’s just online when people cannot touch or try pieces. That’s a real challenge. Every day I try to push it and up to this point it’s been working. It’s a good thing that we can be in your store in Australia, because we have a lot of community there.
Usually, when we start in a new market, a new country, we like to open a pop-up first so people can come to try and then after hopefully they go on to support us online. We hope that this can happen with Double Double, because we get requests from people in Australia who want to try, so I think it’s going to be a good opportunity for all of us.
Japan is the place to be if you want to start a brand. I don’t think it’s easy to start a brand here, but once you’re in the loop you can create some amazing clothes and since we are a small company—just Masa and I—there’s nobody to manage us. We manage ourselves. So if I want to create something, in a week we can have it designed and ready, and after that, we go straight to production and then we launch. So it’s a very short process, but I think it’s a new way of working, V 2.0.
This kind of freedom, and your work under the Sillage name in general, seems to emphasize single pieces over collections. What are your feelings towards the traditional fashion season cycle?
I’m an outsider in this market; I’m not following the schedule. I do respect that though. When I talk to friends who are working for brands with a classic schedule, I really respect the fact that they design a collection one or two seasons in advance. When I’m working on Fall/Winter 2021, they’re already working on Fall/Winter 2022. So it’s wild because I have no idea what will happen for Sillage in 2022. I have no idea what I’m going to create, even for Spring/Summer 2022. So it’s a completely different way of working. I think it’s harder, so I really respect that they need to always create a collection in advance and guess what’s going to be good to sell at that time. But for me it’s just now, what I want to sell now, or in a few months max. It’s much easier I think, in terms of creative process. But it’s not easy to manage, believe me. If I want to launch an item quickly, Masa needs to do a lot of things to make it happen on time.
I think a classic calendar with collections twice or four times a year is a lot of work. And I am fine with existing in the same world with a completely different market that is online-based. Even seasons; we are following seasons but it’s not that clear. Because we often launch mid-season. It’s just very different. We sell worldwide; we have customers in so many countries. So that’s why we have short pants in winter, because we have customers in Thailand or in South America for example. So we need to adapt to all these factors. But after three years we understand how it works.
You’ve emphasised the importance of collaborating with smaller, local brands. Do you have any upcoming collaborations you can tell us about?
Yeah. I like to collaborate with small brands. It used to be only in Japan, but since last season, we’ve collaborated with some foreign brands and artists too, but mainly from France and Japan, because that reflects my roots: I’m French and I now live in Japan. Since I’m Instagram-based, I like to check what’s coming up, what’s cool; I like to research. So when I find a brand or an artist I like, I’ll reach out to them. It’s not really about popularity; these days, the coolest brands and artists are not famous. I put Sillage in that group too; it’s not a famous brand. That’s what’s sad these days, for people like us, smaller brands and smaller artists who have great ideas; usually, we’re not the ones who are highlighted by the media. So my goal also is to help them and to be at the front of what’s happening in this market.
One collaboration I really liked was with a French brand called BaeMa T BoA. We made a shirt with embroidered flowers on the chest. It’s a cool brand with an ethical approach that few people knew in France at the time. So we might have another collaboration coming this fall, but to be honest, like I said, we are very last minute on everything and we haven’t even talked about it yet with the brand. So you’re the first one to know about this (laughs). The shirt we made together, it sold out in like two minutes. That was super cool. I want to do another one, a sweater or a jacket or something. Maybe after our call, I’ll contact them; thanks for reminding me (laughs).
Also, we made an incense chamber, a ceramic incense chamber made in Seto, a city well-known for its ceramics. We moulded my favourite shoe, the New Balance 990v3. It’s not clothing, but Sillage is not only about clothes, it’s also about items that I like. If you look at it, it’s not flat, because it was moulded from my used shoe. We’ve done other incense chambers too. We’ve done three designs with this artist.
How do you find those kinds of artists and craftspeople?
When we have a pop-up in another city—like Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka, or elsewhere—we will do some research and our friends there will introduce us to some local people. This has been happening in other countries too. When we used to travel to Taiwan or Hong Kong before Covid, it was the same. We would find local artists in those countries in the same way and collaborate with them. But those people, you can’t find them online; they are not on Instagram. Usually, they are in their 50s and have no idea about social media. You need to go and see them. It’s cool; it’s kind of like a video game you know? You need to go to this city and talk to the locals. It’s like a quest.
I know you studied there, but did you grow up in Paris?
Je suis né dans le onzième, à Ménilmontant [I was born in the 11th, in Ménilmontant.] When we talk about Paris I switch to French (laughs). English now: so yeah, I was born in the 11th (arrondissement). It was a very mixed, working and middle-class neighbourhood. When I was young it was very local, just a few local stores. But when I left my neighbourhood in 2019 it had become a super trendy area. So maybe I got a bit bored by Paris becoming trendy; all the neighbourhoods kind of became the same.
Some cities in France kept more of their character, but in Paris there are so many things happening and different kinds of people coming from all over the world and they are building the city in this image. I like this diversity, but at the same time, it’s sad that it’s all the same now. Paris looks like every other city. I would say the same of Tokyo, but a bit less, because Tokyo really tries to keep its Japanese roots. But the Paris I knew is slowly disappearing step-by-step.
I’m kind of nostalgic about the Paris from when I was born; maybe it was more dangerous than Paris now, but it had a special vibe. But I don’t miss Paris now. I left Paris for a reason. I’m not planning to go back, other than to see my family. It was a one-way ticket; I’m not going back.
Hip-hop has a long and rich history in France, and hip-hop style seems to be a reference point in your emphasis on oversized silhouettes. Were you involved in hip-hop in France before moving to Japan?
Of course, I grew up with rap, but that wasn’t my inspiration for Sillage in the beginning. In fact, other people have kind of given Sillage the hip-hop identity; every time I do an interview people ask me this and over time I think it brainwashed me (laughs), like “maybe it is.” But I say yes, because it is linked actually to what I was listening to when I was younger in France. So it’s an indirect influence. When I was younger, my first step into fashion I will say, I won’t call it fashion, but I was wearing baggy trousers and oversized clothes, a bit US hip-hop inspired. So of course now when I think about Sillage and new designs, that’s one inspiration. And, you know, Sillage is a brand supported by the community. I’m the face behind the brand and Masa is working behind the scenes. But it’s also really linked to how the community grows around the brand. I’m not saying I’m creating things according to what people want; I receive lots of requests. People think that because we’re a small brand that can do what we want with a short delay that they can just tell us what they want and then we can do it. We do take into consideration small things that people request, but we don’t want to cater too much to people in this way because we want to keep the brand DNA our own. So we focus on creating new things that we want to create.
But it’s true, other people are also making the brand what it is. I like to share people’s styling on Instagram, from the Sillage community. Looking at how people style the brand, it’s nice to see that there are many different ways people do it. You know, with Balenciaga, or Rick Owens, or Off White, you can see the profile of customers because they tend to be one way. You know, Rick Owens guys will just wear black, Balenciaga people will just be trying weird styling, but Sillage people, they wear Sillage with every brand. There are different styles, different vibes, and different moods; it’s not one type of customer. That’s why Sillage is a worldwide brand for everyone. If you like clothes, quality, and craftsmanship, then it’s for you. It doesn’t matter if you like more high-end or streetwear brands. I don’t like too many logos. I like colours, I like good design, I like prints, but I don’t like logos. I don’t think logos are cool. I want Sillage to be recognised for its designs and vibes. A lot of people tell me “we recognise Sillage even though there’s no branding,” and that’s the goal for me.
©2021 Nicolas Yuthanan Chalmeau, Sillage & Double Double Store. All rights reserved.