123Klan are superstars of illustration and design, and the two founding artists Scien and Klor design for streetwear labels everywhere. Rob Carney finds out why they've become so synonymous with cool
"Every little girl dreams of working in fashion, and that's kind of what happened to me. Not as a top model - that's too boring - but as a graphic designer." Klor, the female founding half of the enigmatic French design house that is 123Klan, wouldn't have it any other way. With roots in graffiti, over the years the company has sidelined into one of the world's most recognised illustration and design pairings.
With big-name clients including Adidas, Stüssy, Zoo York, Carhartt, Vans, Mighty Healthy, Johnny Cupcakes, 5 Years Clothing, nitraid and Rated Rookies (the list goes on) 123Klan has worked for anyone who's anyone in streetwear. "There are no brands in the world that aren't cool," says Scien, the other half of 123Klan's founding pair. "It all depends on the relationship between the designer and the brand. If both sides can understand each other, the possibilities are endless. Every project is different and can become very interesting."
So, what's 123Klan all about? "123Klan is still, and will always stay, before anything else, our posse of graffiti writers," Scien is quick to tell us. "Today, there are seven in our Montreal-based studio." Specialising in branding and new trends, the team carries out projects in design, logos, character design, art direction, creative consulting, photo shooting, video, and so on. "Our approach stays the same as it did from our first tag made on the street: we can apply or impose the 123Klan style on just about any medium."
And how true that last statement is - from illustration to graphics to the big-name streetwear and apparel shown on the following pages, the company is a creative force to be reckoned with. Some of their biggest collaborations have come about from brands seeing their designs on their website, and approaching them for work: "We're quite lucky that way," says Klor. "The fact that they come to us because they like our style establishes a trust between the client and ourselves. Most of the time we have total creative freedom to work on the collections, which ends up giving the best results because we have no boundaries."
"Because we spent too much money shopping, we thought that if we actually worked for them we could get trendy clothes for free," Scien laughs. "Since we also get paid to do it, it's a win-win situation!"
And what's the best thing about designing for, and collaborating with, these companies? "Getting sneaker packs or other goodies by mail," Scien admits. "But hey, not all brands are that generous; then again, our wardrobe is already pretty full." Klor agrees: "Knowing the next trendy thing before everybody else means we can play it pretty well when we go out," she grins.
"We have no limits," says Scien enigmatically, talking about the potential limitations of designing for fabric. "But the client can choose his own. Sometimes our humour isn't well perceived, and some take it the wrong way, or way too seriously - which is ridiculous in streetwear, or even with creativity in general. But you have to respect the brand image every time."
"When we create a visual for a brand, we often have to wait at least a year before we can finally hold it in our hands because of the production process, sample validation, photo shoots, communications and sales," says Klor. "It can be quite frustrating to finally receive a product that has lost its freshness to us, but is 'brand new' on the market." According to Klor, 123Klan doesn't adapt its style when designing for apparel."There's no difference whatever the medium," says Klor. "Adapt, improvise and dominate, such is the 123Klan motto."
123Klan's typical approach to completing a product design brief - for a sports shoe, for example - begins with meeting everybody involved in its making. "For Adidas, we had a workshop that united everyone," says Scien. "It was very interesting to talk with the shoe designers at different stages in the making - printing limitations, stamping techniques, and so on. All of this information expanded our creative possibilities for this medium, being able to play with the material and transparencies."
One Adidas brief completed by 123Klan was to design a Decade Low shoe to be sold exclusively in Foot Locker stores. "We were approached by [creative agency] U-Dox, which was in charge of the End 2 End project for Adidas and Foot Locker," Scien recalls. The project was a collaboration between Adidas and some of Europe's most influential graffiti artists, making 123Klan the ideal choice. "The brief was very open, so we pretty much had creative freedom," Scien remembers, before highlighting just how much influence the two designers now have. "At first, Adidas had planned for other colours, but we weren't satisfied with them so we ended up picking the final ones." It was as simple as that.
"Our clients often approve our designs right away, or the changes are quite minimal," Klor continues. "However, that requires an effort on both sides - the brand must respect our graphic style and must approach us for our originality. At our end, we owe it to them to try and understand and visually represent the brand's state of mind the best way that we can. In the end, time, trends and people will determine how successful the finished product will become."
Bringing the discussion back specifically to shoe design, Klor continues: "Designing a shoe is just as complex as a toy. There are a lot of complex pieces, but you can already get a global idea of the final product in every angle on the template. What's interesting to us in terms of design is mostly to make a piece that people can wear in the end - something that can easily match their wardrobe."
"Just like working with sneakers, you have to think about creating something that people can actually wear while staying original," says Scien, now discussing T-shirt design - a field with which 123Klan is very familiar. "You've got to be good in all the aspects and neglect nothing," he continues. "Concept, design, type, tone and, of course, colours. The line between
cliché and what will become a trend is quite thin."
One hugely successful T-shirt project was a range 123Klan created for New York-based menswear label Mighty Healthy. "Mighty Healthy ordered two mascots," Klor recalls. "One of them represented a cheeseburger mayor - symbolising the success of American fast food, which is also in total opposition to the brand name." For the other, 123Klan drew its inspiration from the first New York/Irish gangs. "The idea behind that was to express that at Mighty Healthy they are quite hard-headed. They never give in unless to impose their quality on all," explains Klor. There were no colour limitations on the project as far as the designers were concerned - in fact, they state they love working with limited colours "simply for the visual efficiency of a logo, but also because it enables us to match the T-shirt with the hat or sneakers," they say in unison.
Klor continues, giving some valuable advice for anyone working for a label such as Mighty Healthy: "Before you start anything, you have to find an idea that will correspond to the brand's state of mind. You then have to translate that idea into a design, then simply retouch it until the visual works on a T-shirt. Finally, try out different colour combinations, always giving the brand as much emphasis as possible."
A long-standing working relationship with skate/streetwear giant Stüssy has been a real delight for Scien and Klor. Ever since Paul Mittleman - Stüssy's visionary creative director - approached the company in 2004, the collaborations between the two have been flying out the door. When asked about how 123Klan retains its own identity while working for a big brand, Scien is very direct: "It was very beneficial to work with them," he says. "First of all, because Stüssy has great respect for the artists they work with, but also because this brand knows how to take artistic risks. The fact that our style may not be recognisable is not important. Stüssy is a client that buys a product - it is not sponsoring 123Klan, just like their own clients are buying a brand first, more than a design. Our role is to put the brand first, as well as its values."
For any brand, the 123Klan approach remains the same: "You have to come back with new ideas that stick to the brand's identity every time, always making it better and trendier," says Scien. "In fashion, what's been done once can't be done twice."
One place where Scien, Klor and the five other 123Klan crew can really push their own identity is through Bandit-1$M, the company's own T-shirt and apparel brand. "What's most frustrating when you work in this field is waiting for the product to finally come onto the market. Often, at least a year goes by between creation and the time the shirt appears on a shelf," reiterates Klor. "With our brand, Bandit-1$M, we're free to print and produce in less than a month from one of our freshly made designs. Another advantage is that we have total creative freedom, we can control the quality of the shirt and the print, and of course get the most out of our money - even if we print in very limited quantities."
"Our plans for the future will stay the same," Klor continues. ""From the beginning, we've always tried to work out our own style, just to be different and original, have fun and be professional.
"Just like our approach, we always try to give the best of ourselves in everything that we make, whether that be a T-shirt, a video clip, sneakers or a toy. It's quality verses quantity. There's no better client than yourself, because you have no-one to convince, and at the same time you're investing in yourself."
So what's the best thing about working in this competitive yet thriving industry - what makes it all worthwhile? It's an easy question to answer, as it happens, and one that Klor cannot help smiling at: "What satisfies us the most is seeing someone happy to wear one of our shirts," she says. "The rest doesn't really matter."