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How Kitsuné Cultivated a Loyal Fashion Fanbase Through Music

Masaya Kuroki and Gildas Loaëc of Kitsuné | Photo: Sara Nataf
  • Julien Neuville

PARIS, France — "Last week Kitsuné was in Tokyo. Monday we're in New York. Next weekend, we're having parties in Paris and Copenhagen the same night. Tonight, we're in Stockholm. Obviously you see me here in my office, so I'm not in Sweden, but my people are over there," says Gildas Loaëc, the former Daft Punk manager who, in 2002, along with architect Masaya Kuroki, founded Kitsuné, the Paris-based music cum fashion label, which throws hundred parties and music nights per year.

Over the last 12 years, the hybrid music-fashion label has managed to build credibility in both spheres. On the music side of the business, managed by Loaëc, Kitsuné has attracted a roster of successful artists, including Platinium-winning Irish band Two Door Cinema Club, German eletronic duo Digitalism, British trio Is Tropica and British pop-rock band Citizens. In the past, the label has also released music from major artists such as Block Party, La Roux and Phoenix and was amongst the first to spotlight Hot Chip, Boys Noize and The Klaxons on their well-respected compilations.

On the fashion side, which Kuroki handles, Maison Kitsuné (as the clothing label is known), is currently available at more than 300 points of sale and counts influential retailers like Bergdorf Goodman, Colette, Barneys New York, Dover Street Market, Isetan and Lane Crawford among its stockists. The brand also operates three retail stores in Paris, two in Tokyo and one in New York — and by February 2015 will open a fourth store in Paris as well as a store in Hong Kong. A second New York store is also in the works.

The last five years have been critical for the growth of the label. In 2009 Kitsuné’s turnover across the company’s music and fashion businesses was about $2.5 million. This year, revenue is set to hit $15.9 million.

Gildas Loaëc and Masaya Kuroki first met in Paris when Loaëc was running a vinyl record store. The pair didn't spend much time together then but seven years later, when Loaëc was manager and creative director of Daft Punk and needed a guide for a trip to Japan (Kuroki is a Japanese native), the two reconnected. On the trip, Loaëc and Kuroki bonded over a love for music and began talking about a clothing brand and concept store.

In 2002, Kitsuné was born. The company launched its first ready-to-wear collection for Spring/Summer 2005. Connecting music and fashion was not new (Hedi Slimane, for one, had linked Dior Homme to several emerging artists). But until Kitsuné arrived, no one went as far as to produce actual albums. With hindsight, it would be easy to assume that the decision to blend music and fashion was a well-considered strategy but the truth is, it was a risky and challenging move. "At the beginning there was skepticism among many people about whether the music label could be taken seriously because we also had a clothing brand. Same thing for fashion. So this association could have harmed us," said Loaëc. "And the timing didn't help! When we launched Kitsuné ten years ago, it was a period when we knew things were going to fall apart, especially in the music industry," adds Kuroki.

"The idea was to do a music label and a clothing brand and do both very well," continues Loaëc. "For the music department it involved having a dedicated team, signing artists, putting them in studios and releasing their albums and singles. For the clothes, it meant offering new collections according to the industry's cycles and opening stores."

The music and fashion sides of the business are interconnected, but separate. “I don’t necessarily think about the record label when I’m designing the clothes,” says Kuroki. “Kitsuné exists as a real standalone clothing brand but there is definitely a drive to be modern and to be pop that is inspired by the artists we sign. It’s always in my head, but it’s not omnipotent. If we sign hip-hop artists, I’m not going to do hip hop clothes.” Instead, the clothes are more influenced by the strong relationship the brand has with Japan. “I try to bring my Japanese touch, that is maybe seen through my admiration of American and French styles. Kitsuné is a bit like a French preppy style.”

Kitsuné's clothing offering is divided into the "high quality timeless products" and the "fashion collection", says Kuroki. The former is made up of knitwear, blazers, shirts and polos and references Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers while the latter, which includes more visual and daring pieces, is inspired by brands like Comme des Garçons. The blend allows Kitsuné to capitalise on a wide range of customers. "Our customers are between 15 to 60 years old, maybe older in Japan. We do t-shirts and hats but we also have collaborations with Weston and Edward Green in the same shop," adds Kuroki.

For the most part, Kitsuné’s older customers are simply drawn to the brand’s clothes but younger customers generally enter the brand through the music label before discovering the clothing brand. By widening its roster of artists, Kitsuné also widens its potential clientbase for the fashion offering. In a recent coup, the music label recently signed r’n’b singer Kilo Kish, who also wore Kitsuné in her music video ‘Locket,’ prompting calls from Beyoncé’s and Lebron James’ stylists.

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Indeed, Kitsuné's music label can be an incredible marketing tool for its fashion brand. "The music label brings the brand to places it may have never been otherwise and it creates a sense of aura, of love around it, it tells a story. When we do parties now people come wearing our t-shirts. It's like a live version of Kitsuné," says Loaëc. "We don't have millions of euros to invest into advertising campaigns, but we do the coolest parties all over the world, which work like our own ad campaigns," adds Kuroki.

Last year, Kitsuné was a special guest at Pitti Uomo and set up a “musical fashion show” featuring performances by Yelle, Citizens and Say Lou Lou, all dressed in the label's Autumn/Winter 2013 collection.

Traveling the world to stage music events opened opportunities for Kitsuné's fashion brand. "With the label, Masaya and I toured the world ten times, going to Seoul, Bangkok, Moscow, Stockholm. And whereas during the day a regular DJ would maybe stay in his hotel room and rehearse his set, we would go out and meet store owners to talk about the brand. We were the sales representatives. It was worth the time and we established strong ties with people," says Loaëc.

Japan was probably the most important destination of all. "We were very lucky to have the Japanese market supporting us more than any other; it allowed the brand to develop quicker," continues Loaëc. "We've been going there for ten years, every two or three months, for a week or two. Not many people did what we did there."

Alongside its value as a marketing tool, the music side of the business also helped to finance the development of the fashion collection when it was still finding its feet. "Today, there is a big difference between the two in terms of revenues and, in terms of volume of business, fashion is much more important. However, the music label has often helped the fashion side by providing the cashflow to produce a collection or open a store — fashion needs more investment than music," explains Loaëc. Kitsuné's fashion label now generates about 80 percent of the company's overall revenue, with the music label driving the other 20 percent.

Maison Kitsuné took a big step forward this September when the brand presented its collection in New York for the first time. "We wanted to be there, to come meet the people and make the most of the opportunity," says Loaëc. From a positioning standpoint, the move seems to have worked. Following the presentation, published an article entitled: "How Maison Kitsuné Became a 'Fashion Brand' This Week."

“Deciding to show our collection in New York was also because we’re aiming to strengthen our retail situation over there,” adds Kuroki.

As for the future, Kitsuné aims to develop its accessories line, adopting a tried-and-tested strategy. “When you start to get the hang of how to do a collection, you can go towards accessories, shoes, bags and leather goods,” explains Kuroki, indicating the scale of Kitsuné’s ambition. “For the big brands it’s more than half of their turnover.”

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