A Conversation with: Oli Van Roost of HORAI


OTH: For the people who don’t know who Oli Van Roost is, could we get a little lowdown on you and your past?

OVR: Yeah so, it’s a long story because I'm getting older but yeah. I moved to Canada from Belgium in 1981 and to Montreal in about ‘86 and found a passion for skateboarding really early on in life and it really came full force in the late ‘80s when street skating really started to get big.

OTH: Did you discover your passion for skating here in Montreal?

OVR: Actually I don’t know what it was but the first thing I ever bought in my life that I remember saving up for and my mom paid half for was a banana board back in Belgium. I was around 7 or 8, and I left there when I was 9 years old. Then I really got into BMX because it was really big in the early ‘80s. I took a trip to San Francisco in probably around ‘86 or ‘87, and just hanging out at Fisherman’s Wharf, seeing these guy’s skating… I had never seen that before so I immediately came home and sold my BMX to get a skateboard.

OTH: What was the first board you bought?

OVR: The first board I bought was a Steve Caballero, which I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this board but it was so freakin’ wide. But we weren’t really doing ollies back then, we were just doing acid drops, basically just rolling off anything we could. We were skating a lot of banks and we were really just skating street not so much about tricks but more just skating downtown.

OTH: Just going from point A to point B.

OVR: Yeah exactly, but not just to get from A to B but also just to skate. It was really more of a surf vibe. Then in the late ‘80s we started building our own ramps. We’d go to construction sites and borrow wood to build ramps and just skate. That’s when Bones Brigade- when Peralta started putting out videos and we could really see what people were doing in California and we’d basically emulate everything they did. That’s really when skateboarding as we know it today really grew everywhere.

OTH: We had an interview with Jeremy Elkin, he ran us through his whole documentary, and during this interview with him you could really see the growth of skate culture and its ties to everything really within the streetwear community.

OVR: It’s crazy.

OTH: Yeah it’s really crazy because when you think of the people who are buying “streetwear”, they probably don’t know that Zoo York could’ve been what Supreme is or that they have ties to each other or that all of the brands that blew up in New York all have ties to each other and it’s just crazy to see how everyone ends up where they do and how everything is just a big connected web.

OVR: Yeah, streetwear was born out of skateboarding, there’s no doubt about it. You know as a skateboarder you always talk about it. I have three girls and I always tell them that skateboarding saves lives, but really it’s about having a passion for anything. But skateboarding when you look at any of the major fashion houses that are now run by more streetwear “kids”, I call them kids, but the early streetwear kids are running all the major fashion houses from Kim Jones to Nigo, all these guys, it’s crazy. Back in the ‘80s, everyone was like “these kids are cool” but it wasn’t as accepted as it is now. Now it’s come full circle because most people can’t skate because of the dedication you need, and you’re gonna bleed and break bones. It’s actually really hard and everyone kind of emulates skateboarding.

OTH: It’s like when longboarding came back into the mix. There were always the cool kids who were just skateboarding everywhere but then there was the less gritty version of that with the longboard. You had that functionality of getting from point A to point B a little bit better, but you could still ride with the cool kids, just not do the tricks that you can with a skateboard.

OVR: That’s why skateboarding is so street. I grew up dirt poor but I was good enough on a skateboard that I could get free decks and free shoes. You know we left the house at 10 in the morning and came home at midnight and our skateboard got us everywhere. You could bring it on the metro, on the bus, so just as a means of transportation it’s amazing. That’s essentially what got me into design. I was lucky enough that in the late ‘80s I was sponsored by basically the downtown skate shop in Montreal, Footloose Sports, and they happened to be the first and only Stussy store in Quebec for a long time. I grew up in NDG so I was very affiliated with reggae music and the rastas, so when Stussy first hit out here and it was with all the lions and the reggae colours, we just fell in love. The store would get very limited quantities and usually we’d go through the boxes before they even hit the floor. We were pretty much the only ones. And Stussy protected their brand, I think they only had one store in Quebec for about 5-6 years and then they opened a store called Juan & Juanita, which was in Cours Mont-Royal and because the store here was in NDG they just couldn’t sell enough so it moved there. But I really think that’s what really got me into fashion. Stussy was the first brand that I was like “Wow!” That was the first time I had a connection to a brand and what got me into brands in general. I wanted to associate with it.

OVR: The story of Stussy is great because it kinda just started off as the phenomenon out State’s side, it grew and came to Canada and by the time I was growing up and getting into clothing, Stussy at that time was perceived as a mall brand and was hitting Zumiez and those types of stores, but now it’s had this huge resurgence where a lot of the stuff that they’re putting out is amazing cut & sew, yet they don’t forget about their core audience that loves a classic tee with the classic logo on the back. A lot of people forget that story of how they were on top, then they dipped off a bit but managed to really come back and establish themselves all over again.

OTH: It’s an amazing story. Shawn Stussy himself is a great guy. You know he just started by kinda buying surplus pieces and I think the logo, I’m not positive, but I think one of his uncles was an artist and that was his signature. And then Shawn kind of commercialised it a bit and did his thing, but yeah it’s an amazing brand. I also think I may have started to fall in love with clothing a little earlier because my dad’s second wife in Belgium had opened boutiques and would sell Cacharel, Lacoste and these high end brands. We would sometimes be in Paris and we would go to showrooms so I don’t know if maybe that was part of it, but Stussy was when I was really like “Yo, I wanna do this.” So from there, my uncles were all nerds and they were very early into Apple, they went to Berkeley University at the same time as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates so they were very affected by that and because my moms brothers were all over the States, It must’ve been around 1988 and we used to communicate through Email/AOL on Macintosh computers. Back at the time Radio Shack had these computers called Tandy 1000 that could run Apple software, so they were a lot cheaper but could run the software. So we were emailing back then because phone calls were so expensive, so I got a hand-me-down Apple computer and started playing around with that and it really piqued my interest in design.

OTH: So you started appreciating design because of the technology?

OVR: Well I was never that good of a drawer and so there was I think it was called Mac Paint, and you could draw on the computer and edit your drawings and it moved very quickly. So from skateboarding, and graphics and all that I just knew that this was what I wanted to do. So the natural thing was to start with graphics. So I started working on them in high school, for our grad year we did the T-shirts. Like the old school silk screening but making our own films and everything, and then snowboarding came along which was also a big deal for me. So through graphics I started working for Lithium Manufacturing, which was an early brand in the rave days.

OTH: How old were you at this time?

OVR: At that point, it was my first real design job, I was probably about 21. The designer was Willo Perron, who is now the biggest set designer in the world hands down. Any stage show from Rihanna to Drake to even Fenty Savage, the Pornhub awards, it’s all done by Willo Perron. And his brother is Zeb who’s one of the bigger interior designers in Montreal. Willo designs all the Stussy stores as well around the world. Anyways, these guys were doing cool shit and we’re living right now what was going on back then. There was technical and then stuff that wasn’t that technical but it at least looked like it was, it’s kind of like right where we are now but 25-30 years ago and that’s where my career started. So we would look at North Face pieces that were selling for like $250 such as a Polartec fleece and we would do it in a more affordable fleece, same styling and then sell it for $100. At the time, I was doing labels and stuff, I was paid but it was almost more of an internship for me because I got to learn from Willo who wasn’t there that long but then another guy William came, and I just got to learn how to build a brand, how to market, how to sell it, develop it and all that. Then there’s a company in Montreal called Gordini and Kombi, Gordini in Vermont and Kombi in Canada and they would both distribute each other's brand so they were almost like one company. I was doing design stuff for Gordini, just helping them draw some gloves and whatnot, not really involved in development and fabrics but just the sketching of the gloves. At the time snowboarding was just starting to take off and I myself was snowboarding so I had ties to the community so they gave me an offer to start a snowboarding brand for them. So I started this brand called Drop, which had an office here in Montreal, and it grew to about $10 million in a few years and we also had one of the best snowboard teams. We were selling to Japan, Korea, China, USA, Europe, it was THE snowboarding gloves company. I did that for about 7 years and in the last 2 years we also were doing backpacks.

OTH: You were only making snowboarding gloves? Nothing else?

OVR: No, just gloves. I mean a few T-shirts and stuff but it was really gloves.

OTH: Wow, 10 mil off just gloves that’s crazy!

OVR: It was insane. I think we were doing a million just in Japan when I left

OTH: And the backpacks didn’t really work out?

OVR: Well it was working but slowly. The collection was cool and innovative, there were a few other companies that started at the same time and by that time I was just kind of burning out. I was working crazy hours, travelling a lot between trade shows. It was almost a 2 month run between Vegas, Japan, Germany, everywhere. Then I would do about 2-3 weeks in Asia on the production side so I was burning out, and I just decided it was time. My wife was pregnant with twins and I was making more money than I ever thought I’d make with my job so I was like that’s it, I gotta go. And from there, because I had a good reputation, I started designing for basically every other snowboarding company like Burton, 686, Rome, a little bit with Orage who was making a lot of noise at the time. Their creative director and designer was Jeremy Bresnen who’s now Ciele.

OTH: As a freelancer?

OVR: Yeah, I started an agency called Recognize Productions and I was doing mainly accessories like gloves and bags because that's what everyone knew me for. But from there I got a bit tired of doing gloves because there’s only so much you can do so then I launched my own brand called Bruxe which is short for Brussels where I was born. It was a backpack brand, but it was more of a lifestyle brand but we launched with a series of 5 backpacks that were definitely different from anything anyone had ever done. They were perforated patent leather bags. It was cool, we got a lot of hype but I still didn’t really understand enough about business and I didn’t have money. So we did a few years of that then me and my twin brother launched a store called the Bruxe General Store 2 years in for the drop of our 3rd collection. We were selling at Off The Hook, at Empire, Simons and getting a lot of attention from bloggers. It was when blogs were just starting like Hypebeast, Cool Hunting, Highsnob. Then we did jewellery which was really cool. When I was at Lithium, the owner made me fall in love with mid-century design and specifically chair designs and so I launched a collection of jewelry called “Tiny Little Chairs” and it was replicas of Eames chairs that you wore on your neck. People didn’t get it but the architect and design community got it so we were in Colette, Holt Renfrew. But it was really expensive and kind of weird because the design stores were like we don’t sell jewelry and the fashion & jewelry guys were like “It’s a chair for your neck”

OTH: Did you get any C&D’s?

OVR: No but funny enough when I started, at the same time we did a T-shirt that listed the first names of very famous architect chair designers and the last few names were Ray & Charles Eames, the most prolific mid century designers. I actually then got the idea for the jewelry, so I contacted Herman Miller who was the manufacturer behind all the Eames products because I wanted to do it with them so it could be really legit and they were like “No no no, this is never gonna happen. We’re very protective and your T-shirt is already very touchy.” So we had to just do it without them. We weren’t making chairs and even if we were, there aren't any patents on those chairs anymore, it’s just copyright. Eventually we decided to close the Bruxe store and I began designing for other people again. I designed for the snowboarding brand Nomis, for O’Neil and then some other brands, but eventually I was really just starting to think about doing my own brand. This was about 2018-ish. I always wanted to do essentials, even when Bruxe started, it was really meant to be an essentials brand. And I’m a passionate guy. I follow passion projects so I’m usually pretty broke and so I was thinking about this idea, and luckily for me I have amazing contacts at factories. So I did about 10 styles, sampled them, but then I got headhunted by Aubenerie. I said no 3 times but they kept asking me to come so finally I said okay and I went there as director of outerwear, but so I only lasted a year. I quit 2 days before COVID went crazy. During COVID I started making some masks with the idea of like let’s make cool masks and we sold them at Simons, Empire, Off The Hook, but I was making them myself here and I don’t like to sew and I don’t like the limits we have. So finally coming out of COVID it was time to start rethinking this idea of HORAI.

OTH: Yeah because at this point you’ve been thinking about designing almost forever. You started with Willo Perron back when you were 21 but you moved around the industry so much that it’s almost like it was a now or never type of deal.

OVR: Exactly. That’s it. It’s almost been 20 years that I’ve been thinking about this brand. Meanwhile, I forgot to mention an important one before Aubenerie. There’s this brand called Howl Supply out of Portland. They came to me to start heading the design department but they were focusing on gloves. So I was like “Oh my god gloves again… I’ll do it but we’ve GOT to lead to outerwear.” So I’m not in season 6, we’ve just finished next season which is a full outerwear brand and it’s all done through my factories.

OTH: Oh so you’re still with Howl?

OVR: Yeah I’m still doing Howl. So this is the 6th season I’ve done I believe. The gloves are being done with one of the best glove factories in the world and the outerwear and apparel is going through one of my factories which does amazing work. They’re the factories I’ve worked with forever, so I’m bringing them all this business, I brought other projects a bit outside of our circle, and I’m bringing these factories around 2-3 million dollars in business every year. It’s not huge for them but it’s pretty substantial. So that allowed me to start HORAI with not too much money and still get a factory that’s very dedicated to what I’m doing. I’ve got a girl that I’ve been working with for about 15 years whose office is in the factory, and she’s a Montrealer, so it’s almost like I’ve got a full-time office person in China in the factory.

OTH: That’s crazy.

OVR: I mean you can’t buy this stuff. So it allows me to have a look. I’m on the phone with on video at least 5 nights a week. So we get to really get to follow the design and development process very closely. I can send her to fabric markets. It’s what allows us to do what we're doing. Staples are something I’ve always wanted to do but coming out of COVID, 2021, EVERYBODY’S doing essentials. For most brands that means fleece, but for me essentials goes a lot further than that. So first I try to make them technical, but I’m doing the opposite of what a lot of “techwear” brands are doing. I want the pieces to have a lot of technical merit, but I think because of my love for mid-century, I love love love understated design. So I want the technical to be there, but I don’t want it to be screaming at you. The 3-ply waterproof pants we have are built exactly like a snowboard pant, so besides the cut of it, it’s as technical as the best snowboard pants out there.

OTH: Like you could go snowboarding in those?

OVR: I mean you could, the only thing is it wouldn’t fit over your boot. That’s the only difference. If you were to bike to work, and go to a 2 hour meeting, you could wear that pair of pants. It’s breathable and it’s 15k waterproof and for example the high-end Arc-Teryx is 20k. It’s that and then some pieces are maybe not as technical but I love fabrics. Everything starts with fabrics so for my T-shirts, yeah it’s a tee but if you look at the fabric, the ribbing, even the cut was made with a specific boxiness to make it a true unisex shirt. It’s easy to wear.

OTH: So the overall ethos of HORAI is understated design, drawing from your love of mid-century design. You don’t want it to be too loud but the details are there if you look for them.

OVR: Exactly. Some examples are like the lightweight pant, I came with that because in the summer now it’s so hot I find it hard to wear even a twill chino. I want to wear nothing. So that pant is me saying I want to make the lightest pant I could ever make but I still want it to be durable so that you can wear it and wash it. So those pants I wear almost every single day in the summer and even now I’m wearing them. I can wear it to go golfing, to a meeting, even a dinner date. They’re clothes that you can wear almost every day of the year, from day to night. This is the story that everyone talks about at every brand design meeting now, but I’m trying to really live it and make clothes that are easy to wear during any occasion.

OTH: Tell us about the name HORAI. Picking a name for a brand to be one of the hardest things.

OVR: I always liked names, like Bruxe for example, it doesn’t really have a meaning, but it does for me personally, but it sounds a bit luxurious, people might have a hard time pronouncing it which is a good thing because they might investigate. So with HORAI I wanted a name that doesn’t pigeon hole, that doesn’t really say anything about the brand outright but has a nice sound to it, maybe sounds a bit worldly. I look at Nike which has such a great name and to most people it doesn’t even mean anything, it’s just Nike, but Nike was the goddess of victory. So I started looking at a lot of Greek mythology and at first what I found was that Horae was the goddess of the seasons, so I was liked that. The more I started looking into it, and I haven’t started really playing with this yet, but eventually when I start doing some T-shirts and things it’ll come out a bit more, but it’s way beyond the goddess of the seasons, it’s actually 3 sisters who represent social justice, the natural order of things and and just a lot of different things. For me social justice is just something that eats away at me. I mean we live in this world that is so fucked up. I’m definitely a socialist at heart, I don’t believe in survival of the fittest, I think it’s our job, the people that are smarter or have an easier time in life, it’s our job to help others. And I just love the sound of it.

OTH: Right now we have your first collection, but where do we see HORAI going in the next 2,3 or even 4 collections?

OVR: I kind of know where it’s going to go. I would’ve loved to do outerwear from the start but the reason I haven’t is because it’s very expensive. Your fabric development takes more time, and something like a technical jacket will sometimes have 20 to 30 components, so it’s a lot of work. If you don’t want to be generic it’s a lot of money. As a side note I did start a snowboard brand this year called Souvenir, which is a ‘90s throwback snowboard brand. What we did to get past that whole issue is we launched with 1 pair of pants. Just one pair in 4 colourways and it’s killing it. But so with HORAI, I just received my samples today of the next collection and there’s some crazy pieces that’re outerwear, but not yet extremely technical like snowboard stuff, but they’ve still got really good technical aspects.

OTH: And so when can we expect the next drop from HORAI?

OVR: I’ll start showing it off early January and it’ll hit stores maybe next August. But there’s going to be a small summer collection as well, but very small. We’re gonna sneak in that summer one, then it'll be the fall, and after that there’s gonna be drops every 3 months. The idea is really going to be to focus on little capsule launches so that we can work within fabrics groups and maybe themes. Almost like how KITH does it