In Japanese folklore, the fox – or the kitsuné – is a beautiful, cunning animal known for shifting into different forms, including human. It’s an appropriate mascot for the Parisian company of the same name which, in its eleven years of existence, has played the role of clothing boutique and indie record label with a stylish, easygoing aesthetic woven into its fabrics and its danceable beats.
Since it was founded in 2002 by Gildas Loaec and Masaya Kuroki, Kitsuné’s brand has transcended its Parisian roots and spread around the world. 2005 brought its first ready-to-wear collection and three years later came its flagship store, located in Paris’ Palais-Royal area. Since then, boutiques have popped up up in Milan, Tokyo, and in April 2012, New York City got its first taste of Kitsuné, at the site of Chelsea’s NoMad hotel.
Kitsuné’s first release, a 2002 electro mix called Kitsuné Love, set an enduring trend; over the years, DJs and acts spanning the spectrum of synthpop, electro, house, danceable indie rock, and everything in between have populated its celebrated compilations. The likes of Bloc Party, Crystal Castles, Hot Chip, and Charli XCX -- even unlikely remixes of artists like Feist and Wolfmother -- have popped up on Kitsuné mixes over the years. Although compilations, remix EPs, and one-off singles dominate the Kitsuné back catalog, they’ve dipped their toes into the LP format, signing and breaking international success stories like Two Door Cinema Club.
Gildas “Gets Lucky”
As a teenager growing up in the west of France, Loaec got into indie rock bands like the Charlatans, the Smiths, and the Happy Mondays by listening to UK radio. After getting into UK rave music, he moved to Paris at 19, and eventually opened a record store called Street Sounds at the site of an old skate shop.
“We were dealing with DJs and stuff, selling vinyl,” Loaec remembers. “Among those customers were Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter. They were starting their Daft Punk project and I got along well with them. I went on to live with Guy-Manuel.”
Maison Kitsuné's storefront in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan -- its first in America -- opened in 2012 (Clément Pascal)
The timing was perfect. It was 1993 and Daft Punk had just released their debut single, “The New Wave,” on the Swedish label, Soma. As part of Daft Punk’s inner circle, Loaec went on to oversee duties that included management and art direction. He worked closely with them for 15 years -- through their seminal albums Homework and Discovery (the latter he owns a gold record plaque for) -- up until they relocated to Los Angeles to work on 2010’s “Tron” soundtrack.
“They’re the best band in the world, no?” he says, and you can tell he’s not entirely joking.
“From a French perspective, it's very rare to get a project with such an international success,” Loaec says proudly. “I learned the music business from them.”
Inspiration From Japan
Loaec’s experience with team Daft Punk provided him the tools necessary to build out Kitsuné from the ground up. While traveling through Japan with Daft Punk and future co-founder Masaya Kuroki at the turn of the millenium, he noted how boutique stores often included all sorts of different wares -- from clothes to coffee to music to furniture -- under one roof. He also found inspiration in the Japanese hip-hop group Teriyaki Boyz, who founded the popular streetwear brand A Bathing Ape (commonly known as BAPE), along with their own record label.
“Being in Japan at that time, it was a really interesting concept, being a clothes brand and a music label,” Loaec says.
“We wanted to make something more European and be a popular music label, but not being just an excuse to have artists wear our clothes and make it popular. [We wanted to] take care of the artists.”
Both Loaec and Kuroki fronted three thousand euros towards Kitsuné and the self-funded project began. Though the clothing and music ends technically fall into the same company, a specific team helms Kitsuné’s label department. Loaec heads A&R, which means hand-picking artists for Kitsuné’s many compilations, along with the occasional signing. He looks for indie-friendly artists with a degree of crossover potential.
“We are in the position where we have a network of people around the world sending [us] music, who have good taste in music, who I trust,” Loaec says.
Kitsuné’s hip, dance-friendly sound -- the sort you’d hear at summer rooftop parties and gallery openings -- has become so emblematic that industry contacts will often ask Loaec for “something kind of Kitsuné” when seeking for the perfect synch song.
Breakthrough Success with Two Door Cinema Club
After establishing itself through popular compilation series like “Kitsuné Maison,” Kitsuné began to sign bands to record contracts and release LPs. Loaec caught a set from Irish indie rockers Two Door Cinema Club at Kitsuné Maison En Vrai, a live event the label runs several times per year, showcasing its favorite artists.
“After two or three songs, I thought they were massive,” he remembers. “They were really young -- like babies! We did a single together, we got along well, and they took the risk to work with us on the album.”
That album, 2010’s Tourist History, would become Kitsuné’s biggest seller to date, selling 178,000 copies in the United States (according to Nielsen SoundScan) and according to Loaec, 600,00 copies in Europe and Japan, and about a million worldwide. Two Door scored “two or three big synchs per country,” Loaec says. Since then, they’ve released two studio albums through Kitsuné, have played to over 100,000 people at England’s Glastonbury Festival, and have become a familiar name in young, alternative circles.
Inside Maison Kitsuné (Clément Pascal)
Their master recordings are licensed to the label, although other Kitsuné artists like Citizen and Is Tropical are signed to artists’ deals. The latter, a stylish dance-punk outfit from London, inked a deal with Kitsuné after Loaec caught them opening for Two Door.
“We had a great conversation, quite short, and that got the ball rolling for us to end up putting our albums on Kitsuné,” remembers frontman Simon Milner.
Is Tropical were signed to a three-album deal (though other bands are signed for less) and hit the studio to begin recording their 2011 debut LP Native To about a month later. Since then, they’ve remained close friends with Loaec, often going out for food and drinks when he visits London. Milner even painted a portrait of Loaec and his family as a Christmas gift.
Like the length of Kitsuné’s contracts, profits are split differently (50/50 deals are a possibility, for example), depending on the nature of each artist and the relationship the label has with the artist. For publishing, Kitsuné uses its own company, Les Éditions Kitsuné domestically, and Warner/Chappell in the rest of the world.
Loaec was recently in New York City, visiting to represent Kitsuné and DJ a party at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg. Gaining a stronger footing in New York is among his current priorities. Last year’s opening of Manhattan’s Kitsuné boutique was a great start, and the second Kitsuné America compilation, which features American artists like Theophilus London and Toro Y Moi, came out this April. He’d like to eventually set up an American office and sign more artists from the States.
“Without even noticing it, you can walk for three hours,” Loaec says of his love for New York. “You don't even notice it until the day after it when you can't even feel your legs anymore.”
A thirst for adventure has taken Loaec and Kitsuné this far, and he’s facing the future on solid ground, regardless of which shape he shifts to.
Stream Kitsuné’s latest compilation, Kitsuné Soleil Mix 2, featuring Hot Chip, Yelle, Is Tropical and more below.
Previously on Independent Study: Innovative Leisure