Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Cornelius Suen
Photography by Jenkin Au
Within the pantheon of the world’s most prestigious fashion designers sits names like Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Donatello Versace. Could Jean-Philippe Beausejour soon be a name associated with luxury fashion design? Jean-Philippe’s talented hands is the impetus behind the rise of Soldier Brand, a Montreal skate wear brand. However, calling it a skate brand would be reductive, as Soldier Brand offers a unique product not offered by many other skate brands: Jean-Philippe is a master tailor who takes his craft very seriously. With his skills, he is able to inject a sense of quality and luxuriousness derived from traditional techniques into his brand. A descendent of five generations of Beausejour tailors, Jean-Philippe was born to sew, a talent that he has prodigiously displayed his entire life. From piecing together a button up shirt to fashioning himself a new pair of paints from torn and ripped jeans, Jean-Philipe is a master tailor that rose from the streets and is well on the way to making his dream of establishing a maison de couture a reality.
justalilhype! had the privilege to speak with the man himself. Throughout our conversation, he described for us his humble beginnings, his dreams, his “soldier” attitude, his passion for his craft, his love for creativity, and his thoughts on the recent upsurge in fashion designers. Take notice and make sure to keep your eye on Jean-Philippe. He is making his way up the mountain top and will stand at the peak smiling down, sooner rather than later.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Jean-Philippe Beausejour and I have been skating for about twenty five years. I am from Montreal. I am also a fashion designer and I hold a diploma in fashion design. Fashion design is a business that has run in my family for five generations.
How did growing up in a family of tailors affect you as a child? Did that help you learn the fundamentals?
It sure did. My parents were strict, super religious people who raised me to be respectful. I would watch them for hours as they worked. I had many questions and they would listen to me and say, “Okay, since you look interested, let me teach you.” My dad gave me fabric and taught me how to use the machine. I would practice all the time. By the time I was eight, I had already started acquiring the skills that I would use to start Soldier Brand.
What are the origins of Soldier Brand.
It came straight out of the streets. I’ve been skating since the late ‘80s. There were only a few black guys skaters then and they weren’t really well known. Every time you saw a black skater, he had to have a Mohawk and the whole punk rock look to be accepted. In the 1990’s I was like, “I did the punk rock thing, I am done,” because that style just wasn’t me. I am a black guy who listens to hip-hop and I couldn’t find anything that matched my style, so I started Soldier Brand. There were a couple of clothing brands in the skate world at the time, like Eightball and Freshjive, but they were small and just starting out.
Throughout hip-hop culture and popular culture, the word “soldier” can have a negative or positive connotation. What is your definition of the word?
My definition of soldier is somebody who has to do a job and is a person who puts their hands into their work. Whether you are a general or a captain, you are still a soldier and my definition of soldier reflects who I am. Everything I did in my life I put my hands, heart, and soul into.
You made your first piece when you were seven. Tell us a bit about that design.
That was a button up shirt with a hoodie. My parents weren’t home that day. They were working at the flea market and they left the machine out. I took some fabric and I just did it. I can’t tell you how I did it because that was so long ago but I just did. I showed my mom my work when she came back and she wasn’t impressed because I put the machine together. She was more surprised at how I got the pattern down and how I knew what a sleeve or hoodie looked like. This is what led me to believe that I was made to make clothes.
You have an educational background in fashion design. How has your degree assisted you in the running of Soldier Brand?
It did a lot. First off, it made me a little less ghetto. I am from the streets and I did not know the terms or lingo of the industry. I cut my dreadlocks off just last week. I had a big beard and big dreadlocks. I looked very grimy and people kept looking at me funny. I have the diploma and everything but people still looked at me differently. It is what it is and you have to clean up your act sometime.
Were there any pieces, like your first button-up hoodie, that you made purely through experimentation?
Oh yeah, throughout my entire life. When I was a kid, there was this place in the basement of a church where poor people went to buy second hand jeans. I took a size 42 pair of levis, unstitched it, and made it into a brand new pair of pants that fit me. I would also pick up super ripped pairs of jeans and fix them up into new pants. That saved me money on fabric and I didn’t have to do the washing. I was broke and I was poor so I couldn’t afford fabric or to do the washing. I am always improvising. I tried to mimic a storm wash using an old pair of jeans. Most of my clothing is done from recycled pieces.
You said that you are a skater first and foremost. Does your insight into the world of fashion every carry over into the skate world?
Not really. I am a kid from the streets. I had no money for sports. Skating was all that I could afford to do. I saw this kid with a skateboard and started to skate. You can use a piece of wood to shred the streets. I knew people who would skate with makeshift skateboards. I guess I had talent and ended up where I am today.
Tell us more about the creation of your designs. Back then, you did not have all the production resources or the materials to create whatever you want. But now, with your education and your experience, how has the design process changed?
Yeah, I had no fabric before. I didn’t even know the name of the different types of fabrics. I would just go into the stores whenever I needed fabric and describe to them the type of fabric I needed. For instance, I needed nylon fabric once but I did not know what it was I called. I went into the store and asked the storekeeper, “Do you have any shiny fabric? You know, the kind you put on the inside of blazers?” I hardly ever got the fabric I needed that way and sometimes the storekeepers would con me. Now, I know the terms and techniques and I have access to greater knowledge that will prevent me from getting conned. I know more about the industry and I have my own specific vision now. I no longer have to emulate others.
You do all the production yourself?
I do everything.
Most brands start off with screen prints but you jumped straight into cut and sew, something that all brands want to get into. With so much production involved with cut and sew, how long does it typically take you to make one piece?
Time is not a factor when you buy Soldier Brand. When I make clothing, I am giving a piece of myself to my customers. I am giving you something that you want. If some guy comes to me and says, “Dude, I have this pair of jeans that I used to rock back in the day. They were fly and the cut was excellent. I wish I had another pair, just like this,” I will take the guy’s pants and I will make a pattern of the pants and then I will tell the guy, “You want brand new pants off of this pattern or do you want it exactly the way it was?” 99% of the time, I try to convince the guy to accept my cut because I don’t want to copy stuff. I would want to push you to accept my cut. But, if you do not want my cut, I will recreate your cut but it will not be a knock-off. It may have different seams, different stitching, or different pockets placements, stuff like that. Soldier Brand is art. Fabric is my canvas. I do not look at clothing as mass production and cheap labour. Clothing is a craft. The first rich people in the world were tailors.
Has anybody been disappointed with your work or your custom made cuts?
No one, so far. For example, I gave the guy a board and ever since then, he has been so thankful to me that I helped him get mainstream and get sponsors and everything. He is one of my best supporters. All his life, he has been buying soldier brand. He is twenty-four now. It’s been like ten years. I am thirty-five now and I have people my age who have been buying my stuff since they were seventeen. I even make gear for their kids now.
One of your goals for Soldier Brand is to turn it into a “Maison de Couture.” Tell us about this.
“Maison de Couture” literally means “house of fashion.” It’s a niche. For me, as a Beausejour, tailoring is part of me and part of my family. I am a fortunate guy because I was born in Montreal. For people who are born in Haiti, they make clothes as part of a large, cheaply paid labour force. I was born in Canada and I had more education and more opportunities. Being black may be a factor. Was it a factor for me in skateboarding? Maybe it was. But I didn’t let it stop me. That’s the same mentality t I applied to Soldier Brand. My father said, “No! If you make clothes, you are going to starve! You will never have money for food!” He thinks this way because he came from a country with an old mentality that said making clothes is nothing but labour. I come from a country with the mentality that anyone who makes clothes can become the next Tommy Hilfiger. Give me a million dollars and I will become the next Christian Dior or Yves Saint Laurent in a year.
Since you make all the clothes yourself, how will you cope when your brand grows and demand increases?
I will be like Lamborghini or Ferrari. If you want my gear, you have to come to my shop and wait for something to be available. Nothing will be mass produced. Once I realize my dream of having my maison de couture, it’s not going to be called Soldier Brand. By then, it’s just going to be something simple, like my name: Jean-Philipe Beausejour. Soldier Brand is what I am using to enter the fashion world and it is my alter-ego within the skate world but I don’t want it to be like this forever. Eventually, I want to be a fancy guy with a bowtie.
Establishing a maison de couture is your goal. What happens when you reach that goal? What will be your next goal?
I will just smile and be happy that I made it.
Speaking of luxury brands today, they are often mass produced, even in high fashion, and losing their true essence as fashion items. What do you think about this?
This is the world we live in. We seem to take everything and turn it all into something that is not worth anything. The guy who works and knows how to take the fabric to create something is the smart man. He is smarter than the guy with the company who pays him. Clothing is a craft. You are actually doing something and you are not just overseeing something. When I reach the top, I am going to give back to the people. Whatever you do, make it worth something. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I worked for big companies before. I worked for Wal-Mart and they told me that they had big opportunities for me, but I didn’t take any of them. That was not my goal. My goal is to build my own maison de couture.
You have had many struggles directly related with fashion and design throughout your life. What was one of your hardest struggles?
Being taken seriously was probably my greatest struggle. Back then, you had to personally know me to want to hire me and to realize that I was a good person. Fancy places thought I was a gang member because of how I looked. I didn’t even work in shipment. I used to work in an office, pattern making and working with computers, but people still stereotyped me because of my appearance. I don’t want to whine about this because it’s not me. I will never let anything stop me.
Talking to you today opened up our minds about what makes a fashion designer. While you stick to the traditional methods of using fabrics and manufacturing products by hand, lots of people are jumping onto the bandwagon and calling themselves fashion designers because they have money and connections. What is your definition of a fashion designer?
If you do not devote your life to your craft and explore all the aspects of your craft, I would not call you a fashion designer. But, who cares about my opinion? If you want to call yourself a designer, go ahead. Screw the other people. Do your own thing and good for you. I feel that making clothes is different from printing clothes. Making clothes is what makes me a designer. I work on the piece from every aspect. I make the labels, I choose the fabric, I draw the pattern, and I stitch together the finished product. That’s what makes me a designer. However, if printing is your thing and you consider that designing, then suite yourself. Good for you and don’t let anyone tell you different.
You focus on many elements of hip-hop in your magazine. It seems like technology has diluted the true essence of hip-hop, with serano for DJing being a prime example. We see this in the fashion industry also. It seems like just about anyone can start their own brands nowadays. What do you think about this and what is your vision of the future?
Mechanization will become more prevalent. Everybody will be doing the same thing and wearing the same thing more and more. I wish that creativity stays a part of the human race. It makes us individuals whereas if we all accepted that we are the same, our ideas will all start to look the same and creativity will soon be gone. For example, everybody is trying to do the superman dance now. Soulja Boy created it because he is an individual and that is why the dance caught on. You can’t go trying to do his thing and expect the same level of attention. It’s fun to be original. With everything you do, it is good to know where it comes from. I wish that people knew how to do everything instead of paying someone to do something that they can do themselves. Fashion and skateboarding is not enough for me. I want to rap, sing, dance, play tennis, and I would want to go to the moon! I desire become knowledgeable and grow so that I will gain new ideas and new inspirations. Everyone should have this motivation instead of being lazy. I am here to grind. Even when I achieve my goal, I will be a soldier. I will not change my mentality.
Speaking of the direction of your brand, there aren’t many people like yourself who does solid work with traditional techniques; your whole operation is inspiring. In the future, as your brand achieves success, how will your inspire others? Do you think there is a solution to the problem you outlined above?
I want people to open their eyes. You cannot let the system make everything worthless. Everything that you do is worth something. Strive to learn so that you can do your own thing. If I knew more I wouldn’t have to ask anybody for anything. I could even help others. I want to learn stuff. I want my brand to go international so that everybody can enjoy it. You want Soldier Brand in Canada? You are going to get it. You want Soldier Brand in China? You will have it sold in China at prices that the Chinese people can afford. Since the living standards in America are higher, I would sell Soldier Brand for higher prices in America. Everyone will get soldier brand, even if they only have one cent.
What is HYPE?
HYPE is what people make of it. HYPE is something that you do not generate for yourself. You do not innately have HYPE nor can you become HYPE yourself. People have to put that label on you. If people say Soldier Brand is HYPE, then it’s because they say it’s HYPE, not because I said it’s HYPE or I set out to make it HYPE.