We were lucky enough this past week to sit down with JJ Wilson and Courtney Chew of wings+horns to discuss the brand’s evolution, origins and the Fall/Winter 2012 collection. We’ve written about wings+horns on the Facing Page before; it’s one of our favorite local clothing brands. Their basics line has long been a staple in CK’s wardrobe. Of late, they’ve seen a great deal of expansion in their collections, most recently drawing on the influences from the nomadic tribes of the Central Asian steppes. In our conversation with wings+horns we covered how they approach the design of new collections, where they are pushing the brand and how to balance protecting brand identity with expansion. But we began by discussing the origins of wings+horns. Enjoy.
The Facing Page: First off, would you mind giving us a brief history of wings+horns?
Courtney Chew: wings+horns started in 2004. At that point it was called Spruce, which was a brand focused on knitwear. From that we developed into wings+horns. The CEO lived in Japan for 7 years, which was a big inspiration for him. So Japan has become a big influence in our brand story and in how we approach design. Attention to detail, quality manufacturing, quality fabric, all the minute details – those have really been integrated into the brand.
TFP: But you’ve still stayed very true to Canadiana, no?
John James Wilson: It’s very important for us to stay true to the origin of the brand, it’s very subtle but there is focus on both Japanese and Canadian influence. We stay true to Canadiana because we live here, we work here, and our brand is designed and made here – aside from that that the focus is really on producing quality goods that we love and that speak to our customer.
TFP: How has the e-commerce store been doing thus far? Has it taken off with customers?
JJW: Great. Our main purpose behind the new site was to establish a working place to showcase the brand and give our customers an opportunity to view the whole collection in one place.
CC: Like JJ was saying, up until now we’ve been really fortunate to become a brand that people have really just been talking about. So our main source of marketing up until now has been blogs talking about the brand without us even having to talk to them. Now with the new site we have more control over how we want to present ourselves and have an outlet where those blogs can actually pull content from.
TFP: So how do you see yourselves, how do you present wings+horns in an ideal world?
CC: We are very much a masculine brand and we always stay true to classic tailoring, slim fits, and utilitarian elements. I feel like that’s the foundation that has kept wings+horns aesthetic consistent.
JJW: One of the things I think we do best is taking staple menswear pieces and tweaking them just a little bit. Our main focus is fabrics, creating different fabrics, manipulating elements, and always trying to bring forward Canadian and Japanese influence. For example, we’ve created a Japanese inspired print for the SS13 collection and integrated it into classic tailoring- so we have suit jackets, tailored shirts, the like. We also try new things but make sure each collection speaks to our customer.
CC: It’s always nice to see each new collection and the inspiration behind it. We always get great feedback from existing and new customers – and when you introduce the brand to someone it’s cool because often people really get behind it, it’s nice how it connects to people with its wearability.
TFP: So the last collection was influenced by Central Asian Nomadic Hunters, how does something like that come into play? How do you take the Canadian, take the Japanese and then add something like Central Asian Nomadic Hunters in?
JJW: I think at the end of the day in order to push the element of design every season with new palettes, new designs, and new fabrics we search for a theme that stays true to the brand but gives us new ideas.
CC: The theme of each collection is usually a work in progress. We spend a lot of time as team discussing what we want to do next. For this FW season we took the approach of using color and texture to create a darker aesthetic to tie the inspiration to the collection. Something that’s important to wings+horns outside of a collection’s theme are the core styles. For example our westpoint chino is something that we will always do.
TFP: Would you say the most recent collection (F/W 2012) was the biggest step away from the original concept thus far?
JJW: It is definitely the biggest collection to date, it has the most different uses of fabric, and I think we recognized that we needed to offer something more outside of what we consider core. Our customer base is also growing and the collection was reflective of that both in design and size. That being said, I do not think that we will ever venture too far away from what wings+horns is.
CC: Back to Fall/Winter. One program that we really expanded this season outside of core is our indigo series. It’s a yarn-dyed indigo, enzyme washed series of styles that are unique to wings+horns. It resembles what makes wings+horns – taking something core and tweaking it in our own way. There is a lot of character in each piece and its something that I can see us continuing to do beyond SS13.
TFP: Speaking of pushing the brand forward, you recently made the step into denim, how did you approach entering such a saturated market?
JJW: Expanding the core was the real inspiration behind that. It’s a natural place in menswear to be. The funny thing is I agree in that it doesn’t seem very wings+horns considering our past. That being said, we made a pair of black denim in Japan for F/W 11 that was a one-off and was really successful. Then we questioned if denim was somewhere we should be, if it was something that was important to us to do. So we only introduced two styles. We kept it small, we kept it raw, and we did only one wash. I think that’s the way that we’re going to keep doing it.
CC: With the denim, everything – every little detail – was thought out, what shanks we’ll use, what stitching, what washes, what fits, and the denim itself
JJW: Exactly, like you said it’s a very saturated market, so for us to get into it our product had to be very much wings+horns. We kept it simple and basic. It was just a natural place for us to move to and I doubt it’ll expand much from where it is.
TFP: So getting back to the staples of your collection, I’m just curious; you work under the same parent company (CYC) as Reigning Champ (RC). Is there any overlap there at all? Do the designers work together to make sure there isn’t too much of the same thing being done?
JJW: RC is very product driven whereas we’re much more collection based. For a collection to be cohesive it’s important to include some of those basics, but there are more category’s to work with. Our designers don’t work together per se – but they’re literally side-by-side, they’re talking everyday, they’re going through the archives of both brands, what styles worked and what styles didn’t. Some overlap is unavoidable but it’s great because we can bounce ideas off each other. RC is also growing quickly and becoming much more established as its own brand.
TFP: So in the next 5 years, where do you see wings+horns going and how do you see yourselves protecting the brand identity?
JJW: For me, the biggest thing about growth is not moving too quickly. I’d rather go slowly and grow the brand right than go too fast and lose the essence of the wings+horns along the way. As long as we continue to focus on providing quality garments I think that we will continue along our current path.
TFP: Would you ever consider having a wings+horns brick and mortar store?
JJW: It’s not something we’re actively looking at. It’s more a topic of conversation.
CC: It comes down to timing and how we want to develop the brand over the next few years, we’ll see what happens along the way.
TFP: Do you do the majority of your manufacture in Vancouver right now?
JJW: 98% of our manufacturing is done here. From time to time we’ll look somewhere else just because they are more specialized. We’d ideally like to do it all here, but if we can’t do the best job here and there are people that can are more specialized, we’ll get them to do it. Our main focus is always quality.
TFP: Right now you’re based in a relatively small building just outside downtown – that must be getting a little small with all the growth?
JJW: The problem is that there’s only so much capacity to produce in Canada. So yeah, if expansion is unavoidable then we will have to move. It’s funny, a lot of people think we’re really big but the wings+horns team from a sales, marketing, design, product development side is less than ten people.
CC: It’s great because we’re so close. We can really bounce things around, everyone has a say, and we all really know where we want the brand to go and where we see the brand in the next few years. It’s a good team.
TFP: Speaking of Fall/Winter, you’ve done a few variations on the 60/40 parka for Fall/Winter 12, that was nice, sticking to the Vancouver necessities.
JJW: We also used that fabric in our FW Mac Coat as well – which has a removable wool lining. It’s super nice. That Mac coat has been something that we have done for a number of seasons now and each season it gets better and better.
CC: The Parka should be in stores now and the Mac coat drops at the end of this month. We always get a lot of questions about when those two styles are expected to arrive at our retailers and online.
TFP: So what is your favourite piece, both from this collection?
CC: From the F/W 12 line, I think the primaloft quilted shirt which is coming in September in delivery 3. It’s a wool/cashmere blend with a primaloft on the inside.
JJW: Primaloft is a bit like down, but with technical elements. It’s awesome.
CC: It’s a really nice fit as well – it comes in charcoal and heather grey. I love the charcoal. It just looks really good. My other piece would probably be the camouflage button down shirt. I feel like it’s a very wings+horns piece. It has the pattern and the detailing but it’s quite discrete.
TFP: I noticed that about your camo patterns, they’re not as direct or in your face as other camo styles other brands are putting out.
CC: Yea. We aimed to make it more tonal, it’s very wings+horns.
JJW: For me, the camo bush pant in black – I’m pretty sure it’s sold out almost everywhere – but for good reasons. I also can’t live without the henley’s, I think I have about 14 or 15 of them that I just rotate, and then of course our sneakers.
TFP: Is the footwear something you’d like to build on going forward?
JJW: I think our sneakers have become a classic for wings+horns. Hopefully we’ll look at doing more styles in future – that really just depends on the direction of the season.
TFP: Is getting into womenswear something you’ve ever talked about? I know it’s a totally different game but would it be something you’d consider?
JJW: It’s something we joke about – yea. I know Courtney would love it. It would be really exciting, and hopefully there would be tons of girls out there that would want wings+horns. That being said, it’s a whole new ball game with different fits, different fabrics, new seasons, etc.
TFP: Alright – thanks so much guys. We really appreciate you taking the time to sit down with us and chat today. We’re both really looking forward to seeing where you’ll go from here.
– CK | AP