Against the flow
OLOW x ISAKIN x KAYONE COLLABORATION
In front of us, the façade of a building in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, simply covered with a plain black background. Unlike the ordinary passer-by, who sees nothing in particular, KayOne envisages his new canvas, ready to be formed by his bombs. Beside him, Thomas is unimpressed; he knows his old friend's work well and shares his observations with him, while sipping his coffee.
Initially specialists in their indiscipline, the two have forged a fascinating career path, punctuated by their experiences in the underground world. Now they're back on a blank page, constantly reworking their creativity.
To mark Isakin's 10th anniversary, Olow has teamed up with the Parisian brand and graffiti artist KayOne. The result is a cocktail of rich influences, and a signature piece. We visited the two designers in the heart of their neighbourhood to find out more about these pioneers of a counter-movement culture.
Thomas first, can you introduce yourself
in a few words ? >
I'm Thomas Traoré, or Grain de Caf' as I like to call myself. I was born in the 19th arrondissement of Paris and grew up a lot in the 18th, where I've had my own clothes shop since 2013: Isakin.
My life can be summed up simply by my two passions: rap and textiles. I started out in music, as part of the Octobre Rouge collective in 1993, followed by a solo album. After a few years gaining experience in the clothing sector, I realised my dream and created my own brand, distributed in my boutique.
It's your turn to introduce yourself, KayOne
My real name is Brendan, aka KayOne. I grew up here in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, between La Fourche and Barbès, and discovered graffiti in the early 80s thanks to a trip to the United States with my mother.
It quickly became a recurrent theme around me, particularly through comic books. Back then there was no internet, so we spent a lot of time hanging out at the local bookshop. It was in the books that the booksellers let me leaf through that I got my first visual kicks. My first works date back to 1985. So I was part of that first generation of Parisian graffiti artists, who were getting a lot of ink flowing, both on the walls and in the newspapers.
How did the idea come about and where do your influences come from?
I've always loved the avant-garde. Even in music, with Octobre Rouge we were already immersed in a rap movement that was still very timid and underground. 10 years ago, I took the gamble of making my pieces in France, based on the principle of upcycling. Today it's almost the norm, but at the time it was risky to offer pieces made near my home.
If I have to talk about my early influences, discovering streetwear has to be the initial anchor point. My first clothing shock was probably a pair of Lacoste jogging shorts and a fanny pack in the 80s. When you grow up in these neighbourhoods, you develop your own visual imagination. My inspirations aren't limited to that, though. I've always appreciated workwear and traditional African materials, which have always been present in my life. I'd add a good touch of Japanese influence, I love that country. With a fairly sharp and creative eye, I think these cultures mix really well.
KayOne, you started graffiti at the age of 15 in 1985, at a time when graffiti was synonymous with delinquency. What was your background and where did you draw your inspiration for your current style?
Exactly. What's more, the term 'street art' didn't exist back then, it was invented by auction houses to legitimise the work of graffiti artists for art lovers. For them, graffiti represented thugs and the ghetto, whereas the term 'street-art' was gentler and easier to market. But in fact, at the time, it was a phenomenon, a spaceship, which even earned us a dedicated programme on France 2 where we really felt misunderstood in our work.
Going back to my early days, the inspiration was purely vandalic. When you met the other pioneers of hip-hop culture in La Chapelle or Stalingrad, they told you to stay very underground. To be recognised and respected, you had to be visible and above all on the street. There were no commissions at the time, the aim was to meet the big boys, the older members of the movement. That's how I met Joey and his gang, who formed NTM, a collective that, in its early days, was based on graffiti. The French rap movement came much later. At that time, I was tagging everywhere I went and I got my first black book to do my first sketches. I went on to learn almost everything from Mode 2, the pioneer of Parisian graffiti. He was a kind of mentor for my artistic education, always very unifying and inspiring.
After a few years of progressing in my styles and inspirations, I met Judy Blame, the London designer with punk influences, in 1993. After talking a lot about our visions of underground culture, Judy invited me to London for a few weeks. I ended up staying there for ten years. I hung out with the whole London hiphop microcosm, we all knew each other in this little family. Amongst other things, I was able to do some visual collaborations with Hardy Blechman, designer of the Maharashi label, my first experience in clothing.
I returned to Paris in 2000. It was a defining period because, with all my artistic baggage, I developed a very singular style, centred around the distortion of letters, something very abstract and visually striking. There was a lot of interest in what I was doing, so I ended up designing album covers and joining art galleries. What's important to me is to always remain humble in my work, a sort of motto that I've always kept in mind: it's good to be important, but the most important thing is to be good. Today I'm still trying to renew my style. If I carried on doing the same thing since I was 20, I'd have wasted 30 years of my life.
How long have you known each other? How did you meet?
I think we met in the early 2000s. After living in the same neighbourhoods, we found ourselves working for The Source, a magazine that played a major role in the democratisation of rap and hip-hop culture. KayOne had just returned from England with a head full of projects and the meeting was pretty explosive. As you can see, we've been together ever since.
Although your career has taken you to many different creative worlds, you continue to pay tribute to the culture of your native neighbourhoods. What explains this attachment?
Thomas : If you go back to the beginning of my career, I used to hang around the 18th arrondissement all the time. It's a pioneering, multicultural neighbourhood in so many ways. From a very young age, I had all my connections, my friends and my roots here, so I really feel at home. Whether it's graphic design or craftsmanship, it's a matter of course to remain attached to these neighbourhoods that have accompanied me throughout my life. As well as my shop, which is located between the slopes of Montmartre and Barbès, almost half of Isakin's production is made in the 18th arrondissement.
KayOne: Personally, I'm very proud to have grown up in a working-class environment. We live together and appreciate each other for who we are, not necessarily for what we have. The wasteland at La Chapelle remains the starting point of my career. Through our messages, I hope to communicate the same avant-garde spirit that makes these neighbourhoods so rich.
What do you think defines the value of a piece (artistic, clothing, other)?
KayOne: What strikes me most is personality and originality. In music as in fashion or painting, what's important to me is to bring something new and unique to the table. You never want to be a pale copy of someone else. If you want something to stand out, it has to come from the heart and from pure creativity.
Thomas: Despite the values that I try to transmit with Isakin, what will make the difference on a piece is not a pretty brand statement, even if it is honest. A good product is a good cut, a unique material, which adds a certain elegance. I wear a piece because I like it, because it suits my tastes, not because I've been told it's essential this season. I've been able to develop an island of resistance here, a sort of Asterix village where everything is centred around the garment itself, what it exudes through its authenticity.
Now we come to the fruit of our collaboration, this Olow x Isakin cardigan with artwork by KayOne. What's in this piece?
KayOne: First and foremost, I'm delighted. In a way, this collaboration reflects all the work I've done in terms of research and graphic development. To be able to apply my style to well-made pieces represents something very coherent in my career.
Thomas: Personally, I find the graphic style very appealing. Apart from the colour code, there are many hidden symbols that sum up what we said earlier: a certain harmony between originality and mastery of craftsmanship. Beyond that, this is our 3rd collaboration and it's always a pleasure to work with Olow.
Each in your own way, you pass on your love of hiphop and underground culture, and you are also steeped in music. If you had to pick just one classic from your repertoire, which would it be?
Thomas: There are so many... One of the tracks I keep coming back to is Biggie's I've Got a Story to Tell. It's got everything that defines hiphop: a well-told story, real violence set against a humorous backdrop and a relentless rap technique accompanied by a cult instrumental.
KayOne: I'm listening to a lot of jazz again at the moment, especially the Blue Note albums and Johnny Hammond jazz fusion. But if I had to pick just one classic that expresses everything I love about the underground, it would be the entire discography of The Clash. They're the protest band par excellence, and I've always followed them. I was even lucky enough to meet bassist Paul Simonon in 2019.