Clothing is, for many, an essential part of self-expression. Street fashion, in particular, is able to convey significant meaning in a casual manner. Sage Montreal, a streetwear brand started by a group of students from McGill, Concordia, and the University of Waterloo, aims to represent east Asian culture within a western reality.
Jian Qiao He, U3 Management and one of four founders of Sage Montreal, explained how his brand explored the cultural backgrounds of its creators for inspiration.
“[There were] not really any brands that reflected [my Asian] lifestyle and upbringing,” He said. “[Sage was created to] represent us authentically.”
One afternoon in 2017, after a day of CEGEP, He and three friends were chatting in a bubble tea shop, as they often did. These friends, Victoria Kwok, U3 Economics, Rulin Nie, U3 Management, and Yu Tong Lui, an engineering student at Waterloo, were all interested in street fashion and had Asian backgrounds, so together, they decided to create their own brand, which they called Sage Montreal.
Today, the team has grown from the original four founders to a dozen team members. A friendly atmosphere remains, even as the team has grown.
“Since we started as friends, it’s easy to work together,” Kwok said.
The name “Sage” comes from the necklace that a frog wore in popular anime Naruto. This name captures the casual and referential vibe that the brand projects.
Sage Montreal’s attention to small details that evoke broader emotions, like the frog’s necklace, is clear throughout the brand’s launches. Their most recent launch, “In the Heat of the Sun,” embodies the brand’s emotional lifeblood.
“Before the profits, we’re really just driven by the vision of Sage, which is to analyze our upbringing and culture under the microscope, [which] drives us to consistently deliver projects,” He said.
“In the Heat of the Sun” is a play on words, referring to both the sun’s warmth, and Sun Wukong, the monkey king from Journey to the West, an influential piece of 16th-century Chinese literature. Slyly, this reference appears on the top of the launch pages’ bar.
Sage connects cultural reference points, such as Naruto and Journey to the West, from across history and across Asian traditions as these designs aim to share many stories.
Beyond bridging cultural boundaries, Sage pushes creative boundaries by taking full advantage of their resources at hand. In particular, their interactive and dynamic online presence was created by Liu, who has a background in software engineering and led Sage’s team in building their innovative website.
The homepage of Sage’s website takes viewers through an interactive gallery that showcases several pieces from the brand. The team collaborates amongst themselves and with Montreal photographers and graphic designers on lookbooks for each launch. This strong online presence helps Sage to achieve their vision and reach a wider audience.
Despite the recent challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the brand is using the hardships as an opportunity for growth. Due to interruptions in supply chains that backed-up their orders, Sage shifted from relying on third-party manufacturers to produce their clothing to producing their products completely on their own. The brand has its own printing press, adding to the unique, artisanal quality of their clothes. They also plan to make more clothing by hand in Montreal to further Sage’s sustainability mandate.
Sage’s quick adaptation to pandemic conditions, along with its visual branding, have allowed them to continue to grow in the absence of an in-person store.
“[Sage had] a seamless transition from [the] physical environment to [the] virtual one,” Nie said.
For their most recent launch, Sage dedicated its resources to revamping the website instead of a physical pop-up shop. They added detailed animations to their online boutique, giving it the look of a rotating storefront, along with a complex 3D virtual gallery.
Sage hopes to expand its partnerships by collaborating with small businesses in Montreal, other groups, and creators. The company also hopes to develop an inclusive platform for under-represented creators to share their art and experiences.
“[Ultimately, Sage is] all about growing our community,” Nie said. “Community is what keeps Sage alive.”