Just/Talk: Justin Strauss with Aurélien Arbet of Études

Études: fr. noun (ˈā-ˌtüdz) studies.

It’s a fitting name. For Creative Director and Co-Founder Aurélien Arbert, the formation of his burgeoning French fashion house has involved a lifetime of study. Schooling yourself on the weft and warp of the business of fashion, but also the heart and ethos behind the velvet stitching. For this edition of Just/Talk, longtime Ace pal and legendary New York City DJ Justin Strauss chats with the French couturier about tagging buildings in New York City in the early aughts, his multidisciplinary path, how “music is everywhere in what we do” and that iconic MTA x Keith Haring collection.

Justin Strauss:
Hi Aurélien! What was the impetus behind starting your brand Études?

Aurélien Arbet:
I started Études in 2012, along with Jérémie Egry, who I worked with since 2000. He’s my partner, and we do the co-creative direction.

We’ve been working as a creative duo since 2000, and during all these years between 2000 and 2012, we were involved in different projects. We created a previous fashion brand, we created a publishing imprint.

JS:
What were you doing before Études?

AA:
We had a another brand, called Hixsept, and we also learned fashion through that, working on that brand. We had a publishing company called JSBJ which means “Je Suis une Bande de Jeunes,” in French, and published zines and photo books. And we were also working as artists, so we were doing a lot of photography, graphic design, showing our work in galleries, museums. We were doing all that as a mix of things. It was really multidisciplinary, but we never really questioned it, until the moment where each project became quite big, or there was attention for each project, and we had to restructure. People were asking us, “Wow, you do that? But we heard you do this. Is it the same guy?” Everything was a little confusing, in a way.

And I think we started very early. We were only 20 years old in 2000. So we kind of had the feeling that we had to start something new, something fresh. That’s how Études came out. This was just the end result of everything we have done previously. We never worked for others. We never were designers for another brand. We had already created our own little project. So Études was, again, a self-started project. The motivation was this: try to combine all the different projects we had, and create a new label that was mixing arts, fashion, photography and music in a way. Everything that we consider art and creative, and tried to find a new format.

JS:
And what were some of things that were influencing you growing up that led you in this direction? What were you into in terms of music or fashion that was inspiring you?

AA:
I think definitely graffiti was how I connected with Jérémie, first of all. Through graffiti we discovered more of the hip-hop culture. Rap, dance, and then, Jérémie was also into skating. I was never involved in skating myself, but I think everything that was related to the street culture was a very big influence for us.

JS:
So brands like Stussy, Supreme — were those things that you would reference, or say that was sort of an inspiration?

AA:
I think Supreme, maybe not so much. When we were younger, I don’t think they were as present as they are now. But I’d say a brand like Maharishi, I think they were based in London.

And yes Stussy, yeah. For sure, that was interesting. And we were traveling a lot to London, because that’s what was closer. Not Paris. We traveled more to New York. Those were the two cities where we started to go and find inspiration, because we’re not from Paris.

JS:
Where are you from?

AA:
We’re both from Grenoble. That’s in the Alps, between Lyon and Geneva.

For us, going to Paris felt a little too obvious, so we went to the next step. That was London or New York. And then in New York, brands like Alife or Nom de Guerre were inspiring.

JS:
When did you come to New York for the first time?

AA:
It was 2000. Right when we started, we were already there. And I remember going to Keith Haring’s Pop Shop store, and buying some badges and patches and stuff like that. And then from there, we were coming every year, or sometimes twice a year. Just to stay a few days.

JS:
Was New York what you expected? Or did you feel, “Oh, we missed something.” Because everyone’s always saying, “Oh, New York, it’s not the same,” and this and that.

AA:
No. At the beginning, the first trip… It’s so vivid now, when I think about it. We were so excited to be there. It was like the first time, exactly how we would imagine it would move us. And, as I said, we’re not coming from the big, big cities, so going to New York was huge.

JS:
Did you know people there, or did you just kind of come and see what would happen?

AA:
No, I think the first time, we were kind of lost, which was nice. I think we did the basic stuff. Not touristy stuff. When you’re 20, you don’t really do that when you’re by yourself. But we didn’t really know anyone. But it was just walking in the street, looking at graffiti, taking pictures, buy some interesting clothes, buy some books.

JS:
Did you go out to any parties or clubs?

AA:
No, we were never really into that, going out. That was not so much our thing. We were going out at night and doing some tags here and there, but that was it at that time.

But then later, we met more people, and we started to go out more.

We spent a whole summer in 2009, and that was really cool, because we had an apartment there. We spent three months on that trip.

The motivation was this: try to combine all the different projects we had, and create a new label that was mixing arts, fashion, photography and music in a way.

JS:
Where you mostly in Manhattan, or in Brooklyn?

AA:
In Brooklyn. And by that time, we had a lot of friends, artists, musicians, photographers.

JS:
And this is before the brand started?

AA:
Yes, we worked from there. We launched the Like Lipstick Traces book there at Reed Space in the Lower East Side, and we were already participating in New York Art Book Fair at PS1.

From 2010 til 2018, I then got more involved with the local scene. We did the New York Art Book Fair with Études Books every year. We opened a pop-up store the spring of 2014. We organized a couple of parties and events, one with you and Joakim on the terrace of The Jane Hotel.

JS:
When you started, you were kind of outside of the fashion scene. You started publishing books, what kind of books were you guys putting out?

AA:
We first focused mostly on photography. A lot of emerging photographers with a lot of energy. It kind of defined our whole spirit. It was mostly a lot of snapshots at the beginning. And then there were very limited zines, like 50 copies. We put a lot of attention into them.

JS:
And where would you sell them?

AA:
We were selling them at Dashwood Books in New York or Yvon Lambert in Paris  for example. So mostly small bookstores that were looking for photo stuff , or artist’s editions. It really defined our whole language.

JS:
You were more or less experimenting with different creative outlets?

AA:
Yes, if we’re talking about that time, with the zine, we didn’t question it too much. You just do it. But when I think about it now, retrospectively, it’s just like we realized that so many people had this practice, that were doing photography on the side. And we just wanted to give them a platform to show their work, so there were a lot of portfolios online. Either we were publishing a series of something, like 20 or 50 images online. So we were giving them access to the platform, and people could discover every week. But it was not branded. It was very much like posts on that blog that we had. And then sometimes when we felt like, “Okay, there is a nice body of work, then let’s do a little zine.”

It was just a way to spread the word. And for us, because we were both on the creative side, artists, but also doing graphic design, and we liked that idea of creating a whole scene. We had the energy to put that together, when some people do it and stop. We always were very ambitious, in a way of like, “Let’s do this. Let’s do that. Let’s bring people together. Let’s invite this person. Let’s show his work.” It was really creating a space for that scene to be presented. But it was part of a whole thing. There was Tiny Vice in New York, I think, that was very active, with Tim Barber. I don’t know if you know him. But he was kind of doing the same thing around the same time, but more with American photographers.

JS:
Nothing to do with Vice?

AA:
No, and then there was this guy called Lele Saveri. I think you know him, he’s in New York also. Now he’s doing the 8-Ball Zine thing, but he was doing a project called I Thought I Was Alone. There was Tim Barber doing Tiny Vice. We were in France doing Je Suis une Bande de Jeunes. And then we started to hear more about other European people doing that. So everybody was doing this photo thing, and then it started to be more of them at the book fair. And then there were zine fairs everywhere. So it’s not new to do a zine. But there was I think suddenly a new generation appearing.

JS:
And this was all before you started doing clothes?

AA:
Clothes, we were doing it, but under a separate name. But we were doing it parallel. All that was creating a nice energy.

JS:
So you guys were kind of outsiders still?

AA:
We were, yeah. Definitely.

JS:
And you still like to keep it that way?

AA:
We’re quite autodidact, and we weren’t from Paris. It took us more time. We are really into the work, and we’re not too much into the social thing. And we were not at all like that. Now we are starting to meet more people, but I think we were always very much into just — we do our thing. We work. If someone wants to enter the world, then we’re open to it. 

JS:
But now you’re kind of getting more established, in a way?

AA:
Yes. It’s true.

JS:
And now you’re not the outsiders anymore. How do you keep the original passion and the original concept when you become more popular and more mainstream, even though you’re not mainstream, but … You’ve crossed that bridge from being the new kids on the street, and now there’s someone new doing what you did coming up, and shaking things up.

AA:
Absolutely. It’s a question we ask ourselves, and we realized that’s who we are. For that, we want to keep being active and meeting younger people, and include younger kids in the team. Give them the space to create things with us.

JS:
How big is your design team?

AA:
Now, in terms of design, we are a team of eight people, plus Jérémie and I, and José Lamali, who is the head designer of the collection. It’s a team of creatives.

JS:
And do you work on the designs as well?

AA:
I’m mostly doing the creative direction, the artists and brands collaborations, and the design a little bit. But way less than at the beginning. Now I’m trying to focus more on everything we do, make sure everything stays cohesive, and that every time we do a project, a collaboration, an event… Every evolution of the project, I’m just overseeing that as a bigger company now or a more established company, it doesn’t go into a direction we don’t want. So that’s mostly what I do.

But always to keep it relevant and exciting, it’s the energy we give to it. Make sure we still travel, meet with creatives, go out, still go see new works in galleries, and do studio visits, listen to new music, go to design fairs, things that create that energy, to maintain the energy we have. But of course, with time, this energy is limited. There are a lot of moments where it’s not as impulsive as it used to be. But I think being a collective also, working as multiple people, helps create this dialogue.

We are really into the work, and we’re not too much into the social thing.

JS:
And as far as doing collaborations, what was the first collaboration you guys did?

AA:
With Études, we started right away as if it was part of the concept. Each season, we wanted to do an artist collaboration. So the first one was with a New York artist called Travess Smalley. And then from there, every season, we had an artist collab. And so from that, to more recent ones with Dike Blair, or Henry Taylor, Louisa Gagliardi, Chole Wise, Mark Gonzales. We’re really also balancing it with more emerging artists to more established ones like Keith Haring.

JS:
So how did that come about, the Keith Haring collaboration?

AA:
For us, the choice of doing an artist collab is always dictated by the collection itself. We work on a theme, we have a message, we have a story we want to tell. And based on that story, we reach out to different artists to emphasize the message. We believe that the work of the artist, he or she spends so much time working on it… It will be so perfect to include it in our collection, it will give the collection even more power.

Keith Haring, for example, was quite simple. We were working on that collection with that idea of the subway in mind, and so the idea of moving in the city, the underground… We had all of these references, so we thought, “Okay, who worked with the subway? Who did some stuff in the subway?” Then we thought about Keith Haring. The subway drawings, how he started, and how fast he was doing it, and just the line. It’s maybe a little less known part of his work. Because people think more about the dog or baby, some of the more obvious Keith Haring images. So we thought, “Okay, let’s think about that.” And then we approached them, the Foundation, and then from there we got access to the work. We said, “Okay, we want to focus on that.” And then we also contacted the MTA. So there is some products that are three-party. MTA/Keith Haring/Études.

JS:
I saw the Transit Authority pieces in the collection.

AA:
Yes. Because we wanted to keep the idea of why we thought about Keith Haring, so we included that. And then we extended it to more pieces that are more known Keith Haring artwork, like with the maze, and the more tribal series he did. And that’s how we created that capsule collection. But then, the funny thing is that it connects with other pieces in the collection.

All that to say that we like to tell the whole story, and that’s how we choose the artist collab and make sure it fits in the collection and when you see downstairs in our Paris store, the Keith Haring pieces and the collection of the season works perfectly together. It’s the same color: the red, the white, the black chain/snake motif. So we included that in our own collection.

JS:
And Keith is probably the most well-known artist that you’ve worked with, would you say?

AA:
He is, definitely.

JS:
Were you conflicted about working with someone so popular?

AA:
Yeah. Absolutely. It’s not an easy choice. And so many things have been done with his work… we had a lot of pressure, how are we going to make something new, something interesting, something that was never done? There’s always something you want to try. And I think we succeed in some of the pieces technically, the way the work is presented. The quality of the product, also. I think we put that to a different level. But yeah, it felt like something that’s hard to touch also. We were conflicted in that way. We were such fans of his work. He led the way to combine art and commerce in general, like printing or publishing.

JS:
He had his own store as you know, The Pop Shop. He would always be giving away things. He was always giving his work away — posters, T-shirts, to people. He’d just walk around with stuff, and if someone came up to him, he’d give them buttons or a poster. He was generous with his work, and who he was, was just about giving back to people. He was such a cool, genuine guy. And yes I love what you did with his work in your collection.

AA:
Hearing that from you is an honor, because you are one of the best voices to say that. And for us, we really wanted to do it right, as we do with every artist, but of course, with this one, the weight was a little bigger.

JS:
And as a fashion house in today’s world how are dealing and focusing on things being ecological and sustainable?

AA:
That’s something we always question. That was always important for us. That was not the angle of the brand. But without using that as a message, we’re always very careful about who we work with: the factory and on down from there.

JS:
Where are most of your clothes made?

AA:
Most of the collection is made in  Europe, and we are working to reach 100%. So it would be Portugal, Italy… These are the main countries where we produce. And this already was a choice, to produce locally, even though our store is based in France. It’s much easier to travel to these countries and produce there than going further away. So that was always important. But we recently also questioned that, and now we’re thinking more of everything like the bags: making sure the poly bags are recycled. This is something also we will start doing. Try to in every small step make sure we are doing it the right way and with care about it. We do not over produce, we make only the quantities that are pre-ordered, no stock. When you think Études, the quantities are quite small, and we really want the big brands to take on the problem because they are the ones that can really make an impact. We are working with the team to also be sensitive.

JS:
Do you get political with your brand, or do you keep it away from that?

AA:
The idea of being engaged was always a question, because as a brand, you have a voice, and you’re putting out projects… As you say, you take it on or you don’t. Our first engagement was really to create projects that had sense in everything we do. Try to make sure we were talking with younger people, older people… to be conscious. So that’s our first engagement globally, what we do is that. Make sure it’s intelligent, in a way. That is kind of the first thing. But then we started to touch a little bit more political or sociological or ecological ideas, and of course by using the European star logo, which is one of our key logos.

JS:
You have a line that has the Euro star.

AA:
Yeah, we have that. And that was really a reaction to the US, in a way. Because we’re like, “Why American brands use the American logo everywhere, and why not do it with European logo?” We could be proud of it. We could feel like a part of something. So we created that logo once, and then we realized there was a lot of strong reaction to it.

JS:
When was that done?

AA:
That was the third collection. So, 2013. And then we kept it. That brought us to a different stage, because people were really buying it for one reason or another: pro-European, or not pro-European. And for us, we were questioned by media. “Why are you doing that?” So we had to explain. And that obviously was, at the time, the idea of the multicultural, multi-everything that is Europe which we love. We want to put that as something positive. And that’s how we’re also linked somehow with Wolfgang Tillmans’ involvement around all-Europe things.

JS:
He was a huge proponent of the anti-Brexit movement.

AA:
Yes, exactly. He did it his way, very super-smart in creating this series of posters, and then he did the whole T-shirt thing that he sent to everyone. We received some, we took the photos, so we were involved then. But I think what he did there, we are doing it in a different way. It’s not as engaged as how he’s doing it, because he had to take a step and explain why he’s doing it. But for us, we are proposing a sweatshirt or T-shirt in a subtle way.

So that, and then we did once a collaboration with the Smiling Sun. And Smiling Sun is that logo, red and yellow, with a kind of sun. There is a Danish project from the ’70s, and it’s an anti-nuclear logo. As kids, we always saw that logo. Our parents had that on their car. So we reached out to them and did the licensing of the logo. We did a collaboration. So then, suddenly, we were involved in that anti-nuclear message. So that’s how we became a little bit political there.

So we touch some projects, the European aspect, the anti-nuclear collaboration with the New York Times … that’s us being involved, being creative, showing and pushing the creative ideas all the time, I think that’s how we are an engaged brand.

JS:
What’s next for Études?

AA:
I think what we did here, opening the store five years ago, we really want to open a few more.

JS:
Is this the only store at the moment?

AA:
Yes the only stand-alone store. We have a corner store at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. So the idea is to open some new ones, definitely something we would love to spread. We’re looking at another store here in Paris, maybe another in the city. Maybe it will happen, New York, or somewhere in Asia. We also just launched our eyewear line.

JS:
Any future collaborations you’re excited about?

AA:
Definitely the Chloe Wise that we presented in June will be out in February will be super… I’m looking forward to it because she’s a great person, a great artist. I think there is really an interesting dynamic to create between her and us. So I’m looking forward to the release of that, beginning of 2020. And then the Wikipedia collaboration we did, that was also presented in June, that we will launch in February next year. That’s something else I’m looking forward to, because Wikipedia is such a big global project that, connected with Études, is something I’m curious to see how this will be received. But with the reaction already when we presented, we received strong signs.

JS:
Then there’s a Part Two of the Keith Haring.

AA:
And there is a Part Two of Keith Haring also, yeah. That focused more on the colorful part of his work, very primary colors and this aspect. So I’m looking forward that, yes. This will come with the great mix you did for us; An Imaginary Night in NYC in 1984.

JS:
And publishing any new books?

AA:
Yes. We released two books this year, Tobias Zielony and Peter Sutherland, who is also New York-based. And then we’re working on three new books that should come out sometime in 2020. Three new books. Same format, like those blue books we do. And they are three works that are in connection with photography.

JS:
And have you ever done a music project?

AA:
Music is everywhere in what we do.

JS:
But you haven’t done an Études release?

AA:
We did one — the only one physical thing is, we invited Lori Goldston to do the soundtrack for one of our runway shows, and we released the vinyl of the soundtrack. We did that with Ed Banger Records. It was a collaborative effort.

It was not a project where there was the idea of spreading the sound of Études or something. It was much more intimate. She created the soundtrack for the runway show. We recorded it live a few days before. That’s what was used for the record. She played it during the runway and improvised a little bit. So what people saw at the runway was slightly different. And she’s a cellist. She had played with Nirvana when they did the Unplugged MTV show and we had this whole collection around Nevermind and all the grunge culture, so we invited her to do the soundtrack for the show. But that’s maybe the only physical object we did. But music is very present in Etudes. It’s really something we want to explore more.