Cultural Agitators w/ Pihakapi Vejas

Vejas Kruszewski expands on Pihakapi, the importance of design conversation and the challenges of crafting leather.

Given the vast amount of information available at our fingertips, ignorance is a decision. The new breed of do-it-yourself millennials can readily agree with this notion.


Hailing from Montreal, self-taught designer and creative director Vejas Kruszewski learnt to create garments through YouTube clips and studying diagrams from Japanese fashion tomes during his high school years. In fact, he’s been sewing “craft projects” since the age of 10. His pursuits led him to open his Toronto Studio in 2014 and then debuting his eponymous collection as Vejas that same year. By 2015 Vejas was frequenting New York and doing off-calendar shows at the fashion capital’s Johannes Vogt Gallery, starring a creative community of artists he met through Tumblr and transgender models such as Hari Nef.


Vejas’ initial embarkment in fashion featured reworked sportswear and deconstructed military designs which appeared on the backs of Kelena and Drake, and attracted accounts like Opening Ceremony. Without formal categories, these works were statements of bohemian expression and lacked the support of a business infrastructure to grow. A hallmark came in February 2016 when Vejas became one of the 23 designers shortlisted for the acclaimed LVMH prize. He was the youngest-ever nominee to be awarded the competition’s Special Prize. This allowed him to expand his team and continue the vision of designing with both functionality and innovative storytelling in mind.


But how did a 21-year-old of Lithuanian and Polish descent from Montreal end up designing leather goods for a newly-founded Italian imprint with an extraterrestrial name and logo? By 2017, the designer had outsourced manufacturing to the Italian leather workshop Pellemoda which specializes in woven production. Around the same time, the Directors of Pellemoda wanted to explore innovative ways of crafting leather with age-old techniques developed at their father’s Tuscany factories. This was when the young designer found new allies. Up till then, one of the bottlenecks for Vejas was manufacturing and delivering goods on time. With the logistics handled, Vejas could focus on design and had the ability to sample and create as much or as little as he wanted, not needing to worry about minimum order quantity. Vejas is able to hark back to the purity of designing as he did with craft projects, bringing ideas to fruition in the highest assembly and manufacturing, while ensuring the products are priced accessibility than other heritage brands.


Having recently relocated from Montreal to Paris to work closer with the Italian label, we caught up with Vejas for the second installment of our Cultural Agitators series to learn more about how things have changed.

Vejas Kruszewski
Vejas Kruszewski
Vejas Kruszewski

How did you get into fashion design?


I started making clothes in high school through whatever means possible. I was fascinated by Japanese fashion magazines and the different diagrams and design illustrations. I taught myself to sew and eventually hired someone to do the patterning. I didn’t want to go to school so focused on making collections instead. The brand to me was always personal and malleable, so if my ideas changed then I would go off of my instincts.


When did you wrap up your eponymous brand to start Pihakapi?


Since winning the LVMH prize, we did sales for three seasons and two presentations in Paris. In 2015, we did the first two seasons in New York but the last line I did for my brand was in 2017 Fall before moving on to focus on Pihakapi.


How come you stopped your own line?


Well, for the last season of my brand, I produced the whole collection with Italian leather manufacturer Pellemoda. Pellemoda then pushed me to create Pihakapi. It would be too much to do both my brand and Pihakapi at the same time. Both brands are fairly small, so it felt right to put my project on halt to prioritise.

Vejas Kruszewski

Is there a thread that you’ve carried from your brand through to Pihakapi?


Stylistically, there are similarities, but the intentions are different. When you have your own brand, it’s more personal and volatile. Now, I have to work with a target in mind and an operating statement. I have to operate with leather because it’s the core of Pellemoda. Distribution has to be happy, owner has to be happy. It’s not about me anymore.


It’s hard keeping everyone happy!


The fashion industry is very multifaceted. You can do something very personal to you that might not reflect well in business, or a piece that’s very extravagant that would work really well. But even when people want to buy and wear your brand you’ll have to deliver on time. The great thing now with Pihakapi is that I don’t need to think too much about production and sales, I can just focus on being creative.


So, a lot of pressure has been alleviated?


Yeah, now I work with different people who are all very good at what they do. Before when a mistake was made, we’d have to go back and fix it and it would cost more money, which is added pressure that takes away from the purity of turning a great idea into product.

You were the winner of 2016 LVMH prize, what was the process like?


Some of the people from the selection committee told us to apply for the competition so we just did it. There was never an expectation of any reward, but sometimes things work out. We were paired with a mentor who gave suggestions to boost our business. These are individuals who have minority stakes in small businesses, people such as Nicolas Ghesquière. The visibility you get from winning the prize opens up new opportunities and adds to your credentials. People will take more interest, and it’s a stamp of legitimacy that you are a real brand and serious at what you do.


For someone who didn’t go to fashion school, you won the LVMH award. Do you think it’s still important to follow a traditional schooling system?


In this industry there are so many levels of approval that people desire and that are necessary, but everyone’s ego is very fragile so everyone needs constant reassurance from institutions or individuals. The LVMH prize is a nod of approval that you are going the right direction but so is a degree from Parsons or Central Saint Martins. There is no one way of doing things.


What do you think are the key factors to a successful brand?


So much to a brand’s success is based on who is wearing it, but I think the quality of the garment is key to the longevity of a brand. You will lose customers if you are not delivering good product. From a merchandising perspective, you have to get the right balance between creating profitable categories and conversation pieces. The categories ensure there is a strong foundation to the business, then you have the freedom to do other things. Categories such as denim or other items from your ready-to-wear line. You have to make sure you design consistently innovative products that drive the business. In terms of overall image, you do other pieces that drive a conversation, a design conversation. This could be a concept that might not be practical but is convo-worthy. The buyers also play a very important role in this ecosystem. Consumer wear what has been made available, so it’s really in the buyer’s hands to dictate what items the world is exposed to.


Are there certain designers you look up to?


Out of interest, I’m always checking out other people’s work but I wouldn’t sight someone particularly. I don’t see the point in being creative, if you’re not producing something that’s genuine to you only. You have to believe in your ideas.

For this brand Pihakapi, there’s an ongoing theme and that’s not really going to change, it has to feel right. It’s all about taking small construction details and think about how you can work them into many different pieces. Through the process of playing with that details, you think of new ways to incorporate them, then the final product you make departs from the original reference point and turns into something unique. Plucking from various parts of a theme and building from that.

Vejas Kruszewski

What’s the key inspiration behind the inaugural Pihakapi collection?


This first season was all about taking heritage garments such as the motorcycle jacket, trench coat, fur coat, and tweaking them into something that is a little bit different. There are also other pieces that are more conceptual. There’s a traditional hunting jacket that’s entirely wrapped in bubble wrap then bounded to leather, so we’re exaggerating a classic piece. Elsewhere, a burgundy jacket is inspired by the monkey boots which were popular in the UK in the ’60s. We’ve taken all the elements of the shoe and thrown them onto a jacket. For the white jeans, I was thinking about how to bridge denim and leather, so I attached leather belt loops which allows for different wearing and more of a graphic touch.


Bridging opposing fabrics seems to be a reoccurring theme.


There’s a lot of balance of opposites. Vintage and modern, denim and leather. A key piece is a vintage World War II military raincoat which we have elongated, and the inside is finished really technically with a tape seam finish which you usually only see on GORE-TEX material. We’re using a modern technique over traditional materials, lambskin in particular.


The collection is very design-focused, do you feel the need to add logos on your work to ensure people recognize it?


My designs tend to speak for themselves, but the guys at Pihakapi added more logos before we launched the range. You’ll notice a diagonal design motif running throughout the collection. In the forthcoming collection we’ll reduce logo motifs but since it’s the inaugural range, the owners wanted to make a statement.


You recently moved from Montreal to Paris to focus fully on Pihakapi, how’s the relocation been?


Montreal is definitely more relaxed, but it’s been really exciting moving to Paris, a city where everyone visits. I get to see my friends from New York and London who pass through for Fashion Week. I’m also closer to Italy so can make quick work trips. The transition’s been easier than I thought, largely due to do the fact that I’m a native French speaker.


As creative director, do you have any plans to collaborate with any other brands?


No, not for the time being. I think it’ll take a few seasons for the brand to develop its own DNA before its mature enough to collaborate.

Vejas Kruszewski

Words: Arthur Bray

Photography: Arthur Bray

Video: Christopher McIntosh