The Future Starts at the Floor —
Taka Kasuga of VEILANCE
Interview by Eugene Kan
Photos by Christopher Lim & Fahim Kassam
Interview by Eugene Kan
Photos by Christopher Lim & Fahim Kassam
For a significant amount of the year, Vancouver is blanketed with dreary fog and rain. The Pacific Northwest may not batter you with the same frigid cold of its neighboring provinces and states, but it forces you to constantly consider your relationship with the elements and the place of your comfort in the overall equation.
Arc’teryx and its fashion-inclined diffusion label VEILANCE are nestled firmly between the sea and the mountains. A short drive in any direction offers picturesque landscapes that become ever slightly less hospitable should you venture into them. Here, years of trial and error and dreaming on the design floor have made Arc’teryx and VEILANCE leaders in the world of performance. Crafting the ultimate garment means carving a path towards freedom. Regardless of your next destination, whether it’s the summit or the office, you’re doing so knowing the gear will enable you to get there comfortably, in one piece. This is the definition of freedom for VEILANCE’s Taka Kasuga.
In the emerging stages of any new brand, the philosophy may not always be apparent nor will it have had time to crystallize. In the last few years, VEILANCE has come under the Taka-san’s watchful eye and capable design direction. Pushing against the expectations of his family and community, the Japanese-born designer chose a far different path that was expected.
He traded the opportunity of a lifeline — the chance to become a 50th-generation Shinto priest to be precise — for the allure of sneakers, t-shirts, and denim, symbols of a different kind of freedom to him.
VEILANCE represents one of the purest examples of minimalism within fashion. Any individual piece embodies a sense of thoughtfulness and consideration. It’s a personal belief that for minimalism to work, it must lead with cohesion. If any particular detail is off, there’s nowhere to hide it, and no superfluous elements that could otherwise divert one’s attention.
Over the course of our conversation with Taka-san, we explored his past and his early career, the value of being in such close proximity to innovation and production, and ultimately how a role at VEILANCE requires you to be futurist.
Eugene: Was there ever a moment in your youth that really influenced you from a fashion perspective?
Taka: That’s a good question and a big one. I knew that I wanted to become a designer at an early age in my teens. I knew where I wanted to go, which is strange in a sense. In Japan, you go to school, you study hard, you go to college and you end up at some job. It’s all mapped out. But I came from a very traditional family. Have you ever watched this Netflix show called Unorthodox?
Eugene: No. What’s it about?
Taka: It’s about the community and the life of Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But it’s a totally different world, and their culture and personas aren’t always accepted but they’re able to fit into the community. In a sense, I felt the same way: It wasn’t to that extreme, but I just started to question why everyone was expecting me to follow the path that was already established in a sense. It’s not something that I wanted to do, so I had to come up with something else. I had that pressure at an early age and I wasn’t good at communicating verbally. But I was able to express ideas through drawing and designing. The other occupation I considered becoming an architect. Because I like combining the two sides of things. One side is expression and form, and the other side is a more mathematical part.
Eugene: What would’ve been that traditional occupation put forth by your family and your traditions?
Taka: My dad is a Shinto priest, I’m not sure if many people are aware of what that is. It’s a beautiful tradition. He’s the 49th generation. I have two sisters and one little brother. That means I’m the oldest male heir, so they were all expecting — they, means not just my family, but the community in this little town in rural Japan — me to become the 50th generation. So while I respected the culture and tradition. I thought, “Why does it have to be me? If there’s someone who wants to do it, that person should be doing it. I’m not the one.” I guess the difference between Hasidic Orthodox Jews and myself is I had access to the Internet and TV, so in a sense, I at the same time grew up with a Japanese version of American culture that was heavily influenced by digital globalization. So with that, I grew up wearing t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers.
At some point in time, the utilitarian thing needs to be democratized; this might be just part of it. How do I feel about it? I think it's good that people are adopting more of our design. It would be even better if we could somehow have a dialogue with different types of people about nature and the outdoors because I think that's the type of thing that will be missed in urban life. There's so much beauty to the outdoors and people, especially during times like these, are trying to find more balance in their life.
Eugene: Do think that because you were the one person in your family to go against tradition, that provided you a different point of view in design? Because you didn’t grow up in a family of creative people and you were able to choose your own path.
Taka: It’s kind of funny. I wanted to become a designer and then actually became a designer, and it’s a constant soul searching in a sense and finding out what I’m very passionate about. I worked in Tokyo and then in New York for 10 years. And now I’m in Vancouver. When I was in New York, I was called a fashion designer and thought ‘Hmm, that doesn’t sound right to me. Is that really who I am?’ In New York, the design was more of a status symbol. I was missing more purposeful design. That was the whole reason I originally went to the US. The whole reason I wanted to come over was I wanted to be a part of what was next because I grew up with American icons such as T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. I wanted to design things that provide that sense of freedom regardless of whatever circumstance you’re in.
I’m very very interested in the outdoors because if you think about T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, all of them were invented for ultimately utilitarian purposes. Jeans were made for coal miners and T-shirts came from naval underwear. But then at some point in time, people adapted this functional approach into the every day, because it works. And at some point, it also became the symbol of freedom. I was very interested in that phenomenon, When I saw that Arc’teryx was looking for someone, I said ‘yeah, why not?’ It was a big change, but it’s been great.
Eugene: How would you describe the VEILANCE versus Arc’teryx (mainline) relationship and how do you think it’s potentially changed over the years? I look at things such as F1 racing because it’s a trickle-down effect. Technology that’s developed at the highest level of automotive racing might eventually end up in your economy car, for example.
Taka: I think it actually goes both ways. We work on the same design floor and we share ideas, resources, and the technologies we’re developing. Some ideas that were developed by the Arc’teryx outdoor team and vice versa influence each other. The big difference is that the application is different and we target different end usecases.
Eugene: The VEILANCE aesthetic is quite pared down and minimal. When that becomes your design language, in what areas are you thinking so you can make something minimal but not boring?
Taka: So far we only do menswear but we’re launching womenswear in the future. When we design, we start with modern-day icons. Let’s use the Mackintosh trench as an example. It could be a starting point, but it’s just an icon reference. We then combine that with the most advanced materials and construction and create an ultra-modern garment solution. I think that aside from not really having an external logo, VEILANCE’s job is to combine these modern icons and extreme outdoor technologies.
Eugene: When you guys sit down to design a new season or a new collection, how do you guys set limitations? I think, for the most part, a lot of people think that if you have no limitations, your outcome becomes more creative. Obviously, as a designer or a writer or photographer, limitations actually help define the outcome of it.
Taka: First, we identify why we’re making something. There’s a purpose to each garment and design so that they’re making a difference in the world. There’s actually a high-level of limitation in terms of how many garments or designs we can turn around, which I think is the biggest difference with other companies. At COMME des GARÇONS, each collection was made in two months and every piece was new. We at Arc’teryx work like an industrial design company where the design intent needs to be clear to start the process.
Eugene: Fashion is starting to come around more and more of the idea of being seasonless and not releasing something new for the sake of having something new. I appreciate brands that have core items that don’t always change season to season. How does that iterative mentality influence the output? It seems to follow more of ‘I need to make something better’ mentality as opposed to making something new. Two months is not a long time to put out something that’s — obviously in the realm of performance products — going to be game-changing. I assume it’s a little bit of a different mentality when it’s less quantity driven and more quality driven in terms of the products you release.
Doing a new thing is not easy because not many people understand it (VEILANCE's Cambre denim) and this was one of the things that everyone opposed. Not everyone was behind it. No one thought it was going to work, but once it hit the market, it was the total opposite. It was one of our most successful styles. Sometimes the hardest thing is what’s happening inside. Sometimes you need to follow your gut.
— Taka Kasuga, on the success of Spring/Summer ’20 Cambre denim
Taka: I think there are two parts to it: One is actually you and the team assuming the role of the end-user and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t and then improving upon that.
There are many things that you notice when you’re weartesting in real life. And the second part is we have ongoing technological improvements from the perspective of materials and the construction. That also drives the refinement and the evolution of each concept.
Eugene: Where do you look for inspiration? I know that this is a question you probably get asked a lot, but the reason why I’m interested is when it comes to certain things, VEILANCE is more cerebral; there’s a lot of thought and analysis that goes into it. So does that mean your inspirations need to match that? Are you reading deep, philosophical books [laughs]? Are you looking at the future of technology? How does that all coalesce into what inspires you? Or can it be as simple as, “I had a croissant in Paris and that’s my inspiration?”
Taka: Yeah, definitely not Paris [laughs]. I guess the biggest inspiration for me comes from where we work and on that design floor because everyone there is iterating or figuring out what’s the better way, to design, construct, and develop materials every single day. It’s such an inspiring place. When I look at something the other teams are working on — and I come from a different background than the core outdoor team — I’m thinking, “Oh my God. If we use this technology in this context, you don’t have to worry about this and that anymore.”
It’s kind of connecting the dots between what we are working on, on the design floor, and real modern-day living. That’s where I get ideas from. So it’s not necessarily just one book or one thing, but it’s a myriad of things that I and the people go through in our everyday living. We marry that philosophy with what’s happening on the floor.
Eugene: Is there a different mindset needed when coming from a more traditional fashion house like at Junya Watanabe and going to VEILANCE? What did you relinquish and what did you keep in terms of mentality?
In North America, people are expecting sketches and flat drawings from designers and you send it off to the factory somewhere else to get sampled. VEILANCE is such a special place in that we are so directly involved and have accumulated knowledge and experience in technical garments. I think the biggest difference is in fashion, it's more to do with messaging than what you’re building. How we work is more to do with an experience that we want to achieve with the design.
Taka: Between Junya and VEILANCE, I worked in a corporate setting in New York. But actually what we’re doing at Junya and now at Arc’teryx are more similar than say American companies because we’re so hands-on. We make everything in-house and we don’t sketch as much. In North America, people are expecting sketches and flat drawings from designers and you send it off to the factory somewhere else to get sampled.
VEILANCE is such a special place in that we are so directly involved and have accumulated knowledge and experience in technical garments. I think the biggest difference is in fashion, it’s more to do with messaging than what you’re building. How fashion works, is something more to do with an experience that what we want to achieve with the design.
Eugene: Do you think there’s a Canadian/Vancouver design sensibility, given there’s a decent amount of brands that have come out of Vancouver? Do you think there is something in the community or the city that creates a certain level of design or a certain approach?
Taka: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about that. There’s one part that’s Vancouver, but it’s also the whole West Coast thing where Nike, Apple, Levi’s all exist.
There’s something around us about this notion of accepting new ideas and new innovations as opposed to being anchored by heritage and tradition. There’s definitely more innovative ideas and companies popping up on the West Coast. And furthermore, there’s definitely a need for GORE-TEX and performance gear because there’s a lot of nature, but also rainy weather in Vancouver [laughs].
Eugene: How does proximity with your local production facility in the Vancouver area enhance your guys’ ability to create? Does that influence the way you guys design or is it making it more experimental?
Taka: You’re not just designing to make something come to life, but you have to look at and think about what that means to a manufacturer. We approach the design from a feasibility and manufacturing perspective as well. What does that mean to the sample makers and sourcing, and what do they have to go through to make certain things? There’s a lot of problem-solving that we need to do during the process.
Eugene: The average Arc’teryx and VEILANCE consumer has really high standards. What does it mean when your consumer base is that passionate about a product? Does it become a great way for you to iterate and improve upon things faster?
Taka: Yeah, I think the latter one. Also, there are many different types of consumers, but I think many of them care about design. What we care about is also what consumers care about.
Eugene: I use reddit a lot, so I’m always on the VEILANCE subreddit. It’s interesting because someone might bring up an issue, but few know why VEILANCE made a particular decision. Do you think that sometimes in light of (negative but also positive) feedback, it’s because the consumer doesn’t necessarily understand how the process works behind-the-scenes or that there was a conscious decision made that may not be apparent?
Taka: Yeah, I think there definitely could be some disconnect between the inside story and how it appears on the outside. Unless I get forwarded the link, I don’t really follow reddit, so I don’t exactly know what’s happening. But I’ve heard stuff.
Eugene: In terms of the movement around, call it “technical fashion” or “performance fashion,” whatever you want to call that category, what does it mean for you guys when bigger brands are coming and entering the space. Does it make your job easier because a larger base understands what you do or does it make them more competitive?
For example, obviously, Nike ACG as of a few seasons ago with Errolson or even the Gap launching their own commuter/everyday city performance line align with that idea.
I think the answers can be simple. 'Hey, here’s a traditional t-shirt. And here’s another t-shirt that works better. Which one would you choose?' They look the same. They’re both cool. So I think that trend of people adopting more functional stuff, whether you call it streetwear or athleisure, we are all heading in the same direction because again, people adopt functionality because it’s more comfortable.
Taka: I think the answer can be simple. “Hey, here’s a t-shirt, a traditional t-shirt. And here’s another t-shirt that works better. Which one would you choose?” They look the same. They’re both cool. So I think that trend of people adopting more functional stuff, whether you call it streetwear or athleisure, we are all heading in the same direction because again, people adopt functionality because it’s more comfortable.
Eugene: We touched upon the fact that VEILANCE is a little bit more seasonless in the sense that there are core products. Is there an underlying message there about consuming better products? As a company that makes clothing, how do you guys look at the overall approach towards consumption and how do you guys try to play a part in that including the newly launched Used Gear program?
Taka: In the future, there’ll be more people living in limited, smaller spaces as we move to urban centers. Our approach to performance hopes to support that lifestyle. The old school approach of, ‘you have this, for this activity and this for that occasion,’ needs to be reconsidered. The more you can do with less the better.
Eugene: How do you guys both design and develop fabrics in-house versus something off the shelf and how do you guys find usages for it, given there’s a difference between something for the outdoors and something for the city?
Taka: Often the fabric that’s been developed for outdoors can be used for other things; if it works on a mountain, it should work everywhere. And yeah, the long term R&D in terms of materials, there’s long-term development and as well as seasonal stuff.
We always have long-term R&D innovation that’s in the pipeline. Whenever they’re ready, they get pulled into seasonal development. The starting point can be different in terms of each project. Some could be sustainability-focused. So we’re using more sustainable materials and dyeing methods. Maybe something more durable. And sometimes it’s about ultra-lightweight, making the lightest possible material but still durable. These two are hard to match, but I think an overall direction is how can we continue to push innovation as a company but also merge that with this sustainability initiative.
Eugene: You mentioned before where everything’s heading in regards to fashion and bigger macro movements. Obviously there has been a lot of from streetwear or streetwear pulling certain brands into its world. How do you look at Arc’teryx’s increasing popularity among more pop culture personalities, whether it’s Drake, Virgil, or Travis Scott?
The reason why this question was so interesting to me is that a lot of people felt Arc’teryx was so sacred to them and some seemingly took offense when they saw Virgil and Drake at a runway show wearing the LEAF joints. A big concern was that ‘their’ brand would still be infiltrated by those buying it for what they perceive to be the wrong reasons [laughs].
Taka: Arc’teryx remains and continues to be authentic performance design. There is definitely this adaptation from streetwear in terms of outdoor performance and technology or at least as an aesthetic look. But again, it’s coming back to what’s the modern-day symbol of freedom? When I was growing up, wearing denim was the symbol of youth culture and freedom.
At some point in time, the utilitarian thing needs to be democratized; this might be just part of it. How do I feel about it? I think it’s good that people are adopting more of our design. It would be even better if we could somehow have a dialogue with different types of people about nature and the outdoors because I think that’s the type of thing that will be missed in urban life. There’s so much beauty to the outdoors and people, especially during times like these, are trying to find more balance in their life.
We’re in an interesting situation where having more access to the outdoors provides you with a balanced and healthier lifestyle. That lifestyle needs to be promoted in some way. I hope for more of a connection between what’s happening on the street level, and where Arc’teryx is coming from.
Eugene: So it’s a bit about channeling hype/broader interests and introducing people into the roots of VEILANCE, Arc’teryx, and the outdoors?
Taka: Yeah, and hype is okay. It could be an entry point, but it’s about connecting the dots.
Eugene: Over the course of your time at VEILANCE, is there one piece that you’ve put out that you’ve been especially proud of? I know this question comes across as one of those types of ‘picking and choosing your favorite child’ type questions, but I’m sure there are specific challenges you guys solved that you were proud of.
Taka: Ooh…[laughs] Almost everything has had its own issue. Like you’re saying about choosing one’s favorite child, it’s always a tough question to me alongside ‘What’s your favorite piece for the season?”
I often say, ‘I like everything.’ But actually, in the back of my mind, that’s my sentiment for what we are working on for Spring ’22 when people are people asking for Spring ’20. But the (Cambre) denim is we did is something very new to the company, not just VEILANCE but for Arc’teryx. The whole notion of product quality standards at Arc’teryx is that it’s durable, it doesn’t age, and it shouldn’t lose color.
The Cambre project started with the usual process of material development and design development. But at every single step, we had to go against the grain. Doing a new thing is not easy because not many people understand it and this was one of the things that everyone opposed. Not everyone was behind it. No one thought it was going to work, but once it hit the market, it was the total opposite. It was one of the most successful styles. Sometimes the hardest thing is what’s happening inside. Sometimes you need to follow your gut.
I’m motivated by potential; there are so many great things that we could do. That's my motivation. Am I a futurist? I don't know, but because we have such long development times, I have to be.
Eugene: That’s a great story. I’ve been watching that whole release unfold with the denim. And you’re right, it feels like the antithesis of VEILANCE, right? It’s unlike any other product in your line. So it’s good to see the process behind a final product because a lot of times, you see it on the shelf or in a press release, but you want to know all the small and big decisions that went into developing it.
Before you joined VEILANCE, what did you think it’d be to design and work for them and what has been the reality now that you’ve been doing it for a few years?
Taka: I don’t know. I thought I would have had a more of a culture shock coming from more of a fashion background, but I didn’t.
When I first saw VEILANCE, back in 2011, I thought it was a very progressive brand. That progressiveness was something that attracted me. When I first joined five years ago, VEILANCE was only doing a couple of updates, or style updates, per season. We had the most progressive brand that adopted the newest, most interesting technologies with innovative applications. In the beginning, I was a bit disappointed by that and wished we could do more, but it was a matter of bringing back that progressive edge.
The people who love, buy, and wear VEILANCE, they are early adopters; they understand and adopt new things, which is great. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I think VEILANCE needs to represent that we are leading edge in progressive design.
Eugene: I think one thing that I’ve understood over the course of this conversation is you’re always very future-looking.
Taka: I’m motivated by potential; there are so many great things that we could do. That’s my motivation. Am I a futurist? I don’t know, but because of our long development times, I have to be.