Interview: Sean Brown of NEEDS&WANTS Speaks on the Definition of Luxury and the Legacy of Canadian Design

See what's next for this burgeoning label.

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Complex Original

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NEEDS&WANTS exploded onto everyone's radars with varsity jackets that fucked with the accepted notion that this staple garment didn't need any altering. Some people may have deteced heresy, but once they got a glimpse of what was coming out the studio of Sean Brown, all was forgotten and the mad scramble to get a piece began—even Drake and his squad were trying to get a few. 

We caught up with Sean and his partner Sid while they were in town, and spoke on the alternate definitions of luxury, as well as the history of the Canadian scene that has allowed labels like NEEDS&WANTS to go from a back-burner idea to a full-fledged banger. 

Photos by Liz Barclay and Sid Singh.
Interview by James Harris

Can you give a brief history of how and why you started NEEDS&WANTS?
Initially, it was another way to pay my rent. I used my resources to bring it all together. One of the first models in a NEEDS jackets also walks Givenchy shows, but I knew him before he was a supermodel, and relationships like this really took us a long way. Then Future the Prince (Drake’s manager) copped a few of them at once, and it was with those specifically that we shot the first real lookbook.

Sid (now my partner) was at my house one day and told me I need to take NEEDS more seriously. He convinced me to believe that it can change things if you treat it like it has a place in the culture. Plus, I was sick of working retail. I was sick of being just another number. I was tired of sales goals. You clock in, you sell all of this product for this large corporate establishment, and for what?! I mean, perhaps a bonus, maybe even a good salary, but are you happy? A lot of people I worked with in retail were smart, creative and passionate people who invested into companies where the senior partners didn’t even know their names. I hated that concept. Cleaning a store top to bottom because the district managers were visiting the next day. But it showed me the alternative retail environment I could create.

With the energy I spent all during this time I knew I could make something happen if I stayed committed to my own ideas and worked hard. I had close friends who were traveling the world doing what they loved every single day. It inspired me, I wanted it and I had the audacity to see myself in reality where I saw myself in my head. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, I knew I would have to sacrifice a lot but I also knew it was the only way I would be having an interview like this.

What's the philosophy behind the brand, and how is it a reflection of your viewpoint in general? 
NEEDS&WANTS is a brand that defines luxury not by the accumulation of things but rather by a paring down to the essentials—with a committed taste in home, style and environment.

When I was younger, my only understanding of luxury was of accumulation—how much money, cars, or houses someone had. As I got more and more into design, people I would meet with who had little (by definition), had a lot to offer me. Whether it was their insight, perspective or taste, they felt rich. I would meet wealthy people as well, who had poor taste or who had it all and weren’t happy. It was then that I realized that wealth and luxury are a mentality. It has nothing to do with how much money you have, what you drive and how much you paid for something. It's the confidence in feeling complete. I wanted to create art that celebrated that idea.

NEEDS&WANTS is a debate of life. It’ll always be a question I ask myself. They are two ideas, two options that I am faced with daily. Think about it: what you want and what you need, what's going to make you happier? What's going to make you complete? I find that people know what they want more than they know what they need. Even at 28, I don’t have the overall answer, but I do know that practicality is an aesthetic decision about life. I don’t want to live in excess, nor do I want to live just to get by. I'm in search of balance.

You came up becoming known as doing unique, asymmetrical varsity jackets. Is NEEDS&WANTS comfortable being known mainly for one thing? Or are there plans to expand the brand's offerings? 
In the Internet age, it’s probably best to be known for one thing, primarily. This generation doesn’t have the attention span for a 45 piece collection—and you don’t have the power to change the speed of this fast-paced industry, either. The trick to not falling victim to what's trending is to stay focused and stay out of it. Be known for that one thing first, and constantly get better at it. As a brand, our story is elaborating on the torso of the men’s silhouette. Jacket, tees, sweater, shirt, etc. We don’t want to try to be something we’re not. We know A.P.C. does denim in a specific way. We know Common Projects makes an incredible shoe, so we understand our place as a complementary brand to beautiful labels that already exist and viceversa.

Ultimately, we want to focus solely on the design of living. Go on Tumblr and Instagram and look at the average page of aspiring young people who are not only channeling their interests and identities into fashion, but into home decor, into healthy food, into good music, healthy relationships and living in colour. They are in search for a quality of life. Regardless of the trends that will come and go, it is the connection through our perspective that resonates with people that will stand the test of time. This is why we put emphasis on everything encompassing the wearer and not just a jacket. The jacket, as it represented a level of achievement and camaraderie in Ivy League origins, also represents our take on this modern quality of life.

How have things changed as you've gone from just making a few pieces at a time to scaling up and turning this into a full time thing that you're fully dedicated to, as opposed to it being a side project.
It's gratifying. You watch your brand evolve and grow right in front of you. It goes from this idea you had to a living, breathing thing. It connects you to the whole world. We could’ve become complacent after the first release, but we were so anxious for what we could do next. We operate daily with that same drive and curiosity. We always think where we take it next, how can we elaborate on the idea but also thinking that we still have much to learn. We still want to be better. 

Canada has become a serious player in the world of streetwear and men's style in the past few years. Why do you think that is? And do you feel like the future of the country's legacy is in good hands right now?
In the early 2000’s, Raif Adelberg opened Richard Kidd in Vancouver. It was a contemporary boutique ahead of its time that was already carrying Comme des Garçons, Number 9ine and Supreme. Imagine that! He had Zeb Munir and Jesar Gambino working there, then went on to do Wings + Horns, Richard Kidd the line and a bunch of other things. Zeb and Jesar along with Matt George opened Nomad, Goodfoot, Ransom and brought Stussy to Toronto. 431 was a four store complex in Toronto’s fashion district. I got hired at Nomad in 2009, and from there went on to do The Art of Reuse with what I learned there, and then started NEEDS&WANTS last year. What I’m saying is, there is a pattern involved here. These guys made a way for a lot of young aspiring designers coming out of the country. They also set a standard, and created a culture that didn’t exist. Just a couple of weeks ago, Nomad started carrying NEEDS&WANTS.

I know that when you guys were starting out, you went through some serious trials and tribulations. What's your advice to someone just starting out designing?
Always open the mail! Always. Go over the logistics and not just the art. One of the most challenging things for those in the arts is that they often neglect the aspect of business. To be clear, this is something I’m still learning, but I had to turn it on. You’ve got to acknowledge that you’ve got a business and then adapt. Then you can perfect the art of business. That doesn’t mean you disregard the art aspect of it, because that's who I am first, but my idea of sustainability is when art meets commerce. 

What's next for NEEDS&WANTS? What can we expect to see from you guys in the near future?
We’ve got the flannels coming out, we’re just perfecting the cut, it's very specific. We’ll have it in a range of colours and other materials, so its one of those pieces that you’ll have forever. We’re finally going to release the much asked for Sandstone varsity from the previous lookbook, along with some new colours for fall. We started working with an architect to design the NEEDS&WANTS flagship. We have plans for a new kind of retail, I posted a draft of the space on Instagram. Our brand is a story that tells itself, we’re still on the first chapters.


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