“Excuse me if I sew while we talk,” says Simon Bélanger, in a bright atelier on the eastern edge of Montreal’s Plateau district. For five years, Bélanger and José Manuel St-Jacques have been living, breathing and dreaming fashion. The partners in life and business are the designers behind UNTTLD, a Canadian women’s clothing line known for its androgynous minimalism and elegance. They have gathered awards, buzz and critical acclaim for their avant-garde designs, but now the designers have reached a level of maturity that has them tempering their wild ideas to appeal to real women. Take the Fall 2012 collection, one of their first. It was almost entirely made of fur and inspired by Conan the Barbarian. “We sold nothing,’’ says St-Jacques. “Now we know that we need to have a balance—it’s called growing up.” They are ready for their business breakthrough. “It’s easy to make crazy, costume-y things,” says Bélanger. The idea is to take those extreme ideas and incorporate them into garments that can be worn, he explains. Along the way, they have discovered their clientele. “They’re all business owners,’’ says Bélanger. “Because of this, we want all of our garments to exude power.” One black dress in a sturdy ponte fits the bill: It’s long, high-necked and intricately seamed, and fits close to the body but flares from the hips. It shows serious intent in its quality of fabric and construction—there’s nothing flimsy or weak about it.
The pair have been racking up honours since St-Jacques won a $100,000 prize in the Quebec runway reality show La Collection, in 2010 (Bélanger was competing against him). Last fall, they took the Mercedes-Benz Start Up top prize: $30,000 and a spot to show at Toronto Fashion Week. Their winning Spring 2016 collection is a melding of traditional Japanese and Spanish influences. A jacket, for instance, has a flared kimono front but is short with fringe and lacing in the back, like a matador’s bolero.
“The details we often play with are pleating, lacing, some kind of transparency, leather and black, of course,” says St-Jacques. “Our goal is to build a complete wardrobe through time in opposition to fast fashion, where clothes are considered out of style the next season,” adds Bélanger.
Professional guidance has helped the designers evolve. Montreal fashion veteran Julie Pésant, owner of Édition de robes boutique, has worked with them since the Fall 2014 season to create a line of dresses. The frocks have been a hit for cocktail, work and red carpet events. Now, Toronto agent Elsa Reia, of Reia Studio, is repping them. “The energy and confidence she has in our product has changed our vision of where we could be,’’ says Bélanger.
The designers live one level below their atelier and work together a minimum of 10 hours a day. Unsurprisingly, they admit to occasional disagreements. “It’s a balance. If one goes over the top, it’s like, ‘Come down, girl,'” says St-Jacques. “And that’s good, because we need to keep the craziness going. Yes, it’s a business, but it’s a creative business.”