By Paul Lang
Your first impression of Julien Fillion might be that he’s a quiet guy. He always has a thoughtful look on his face, like he’s trying to work out some problem in his head. Get him talking about kiteboarding gear and you’ll quickly realize that not only is Julien not a quiet guy, but his head is so full of ideas that sometimes he has a hard time getting them all out.
When asked about Julien’s strong points as a designer, Liquid Force Brand Manager Gary Siskar said, “His passion, knowledge, and dedication to kiteboarding for one, plus he’s very flexible and rigid at the same time. He takes feedback, processes it, and uses it to make better equipment for kiteboarding, but at the same time he has a forward vision and pushes his ideas that he knows will change the way we kiteboard. He will stick with these ideas even if it is not popular with the group and he has proven over and over by believing in his vision that his ideas have been right on point and have changed the way we use and what we expect from kiteboarding equipment.”
Julien is not only a kiteboarding designer, but he’s also a talented musician, a sponsored stand up paddler, and is also a team rider for Liquid Force. We asked Siskar how it helps to have Julien as a designer and a team rider and he said, “How can it not! He is a top level athlete and he is the one designing and developing the equipment. It’s not just a benefit to Liquid Force, it’s a benefit to our customers!”
When did you first see kiteboarding? How did you get started?
Originally I was living in Maui for windsurfing. I was working and riding with Neil Pryde and I thought my life would revolve around windsurfing forever. To me kiteboarding looked very dangerous.
Most of the guys were not able to make it upwind and it didn’t look like that much of a good time. When I came home to go back to university, windsurfing on the lake or river just wasn’t very exciting anymore. It was actually really boring after riding amazing waves in Maui.
I ordered a few kites and I got into it so much that I wasn’t really into windsurfing anymore, like everyone else.
Do you have a background in design?
I went to school for computer science. I was always interested in design. With design, it’s always been easy for me to learn on my own and to be surrounded by good designers who are willing to let go of their knowledge. In every sport I’ve been into, I’ve always wanted to make the gear better.
That’s exactly what I did with windsurfing. I got really lucky because Neil Pryde really liked my ideas and I was able to ride with the team and learn a lot with them. I love to ride, but I’ve always been a little bored with just riding. I have to do more, and making the gear better is very interesting for me. I love it.
As a designer, what’s the starting point for designing a bridle for a kite?
For any inflatable kite designer, the hardest years are the first three. There’s no school that explains how it all works. There are no books about it, so you just have to try everything.
With bridles, you have to play with where they attach to the leading edge, what angles you are going to use, what kind of bridle to use, the number of pulleys, what kind of opening you want to get, where you want the bridle to lock, and where you want it not locked, and all that comes only after you choose the right outline, aspect ratio, and everything else. For me, the bridle comes at the end.
When you get a new prototype kite, are you ever surprised by how it performs?
When we get a new kite and it does what it’s supposed to, I’m not surprised, I’m just happy. When we try to go into more edgy areas, especially when we play with the number of struts, that’s when, sometimes, the kite just won’t work.
We’re not really surprised by it. For the past few years, we’ve put a lot of effort into removing struts, and it’s a lot more complicated than just removing them. When you choose to build a three-strut kite, the whole structure of the kite has to be built to work with the three struts.
What else do you do other than design equipment for Liquid Force?
I’ve been riding for NPX for many years and I’ve helped them design wetsuits. I designed their snowboard-style drysuit with them. I’m also really into creating equipment to use in big waves and am into SUP as well. I ride for Imagine and I’ve helped them create smaller SUPs.
All that keeps me really busy, but the other part of my life right now is music. I have a Montreal-based band, Trusted Waters, and we’re in the studio right now recording a complete album, which will be released in July.
How does being a team rider for LF change your role as a designer?
There’s many ways to look at design. Maybe I’m not a true designer. I can basically only design gear that I use. When it comes to designing something like women’s equipment, I’m not very good at it because I don’t use it. I have to be in the water because I love it and I get to spend a lot of time riding with all levels of riders, so I see when they have a problem or when they have a good time, which helps me learn the needs of riders out there.
Designing kites is not a normal engineering product. It’s very much about what we believe is right and how we like a kite to behave in the air. You can try to do that on a computer as much as possible, but it’s only when you are on the beach doing the last adjustments that you can really bring it all together. If I wasn’t in the water clocking hundreds of hours a year, I can hardly imagine how I’d be able to create good kites.
You’re the second designer we’ve interviewed who is also a musician. Does your creative musician side help you with your work as a designer?
When you have to travel a lot, there are a lot of lonely times. Those have always been the moments when I’m writing music. When I’m home in Montreal, I can kite a lot, but not all the time, so having music helps balance my life.
I’ll be working on design in the office for half the day, and then I’ll spend the other half of the day playing music. It’s just a good way to split your life. I’m so into kiteboarding and all these watersports that I need another passion to keep me from getting sick of it all.
What is the starting point of a new product?
Usually choosing what to make is related to what the market needs and what our retailers, distributors, and customers want. We don’t try to reinvent the wheel with all our products every year. What we try to do is to look at what people love about our gear and then work off that.
We also look at what people might not have been crazy about and we try to make it better. Between August and October, we ask a lot of questions. What do they love about our gear? What do they love about other brands? What do they want next year? It’s not always the same year to year. Then we create a product line based on what people want and we get to work on it. I’ll be in Montreal doing the drawings and trying the gear, and when the kites are ready, I start mailing these kites everywhere so I can get feedback.
Usually the kites are approved by March or April, and then we have to produce and ship them. It’s not a long window and where we’ve been really good in the past few years is to imagine what people will need next year and to nail it. When we knew that three strut kites would come on strong, we made the Envy and it has killed it. This year we have the MaxFlow and people love it.
When you are introducing a brand new product like MaxFlow, what’s the testing process like to make sure consumers won’t have problems?
It’s crazy. It took us more than two years to make it happen. We knew for many years that using an 8mm valve is a horrible way to inflate your kite. There have been wider valves on the market, but we were never crazy about them.
A few years ago, a friend was working on a crib for babies that used bladders to create the structure of the crib. We have a lot of knowledge of working with TPU bladders, so we worked with him to make his crib really good right away. He’s a very good engineer and was working on this valve that would make it very easy for anyone to use and quick to inflate. I grabbed two of the valves and put them on the leading edge of a kite.
After being used for a year, they had no problems. Everything was perfect. People who were using those valves told us they would get mad when they couldn’t use those kites and had to rig kites with small valves. We had to work on the valve a lot to get it right for kiteboarding.
It has to go on the leading edge, which is not flat, and it has to work in all kinds of weather. Once we were done with the valve, we used it for a year to make sure it was perfect. We knew we were on to something big and everybody loves it.
How do you decide which ideas to pursue and which not to?
Usually before we waste our time on an idea that people may not like or want, we investigate it with our close retailers and distributors. Usually we get instant feedback if we’re on to a great idea or not. People either tell us, “Yes, I want it now” or “Umm, I’m not so sure.”
We usually don’t waste our time on the not-so-sure ideas and we put all of our energy into ideas that people want. When I was younger, I would waste a lot of time on ideas that people were not into. It’s much better to ask before wasting hundreds of hours. A long time ago I was a pro kayaker and I worked on some crazy ideas. I worked on a brace to use inside the kayak and everything was mechanical. I wasted almost a year on that idea and it never went anywhere.
Do you pay much attention to the products from other companies?
I try to know all the product lines to see what the other companies are promoting because that’s a good gauge of where the industry is heading. We have our own way to design our gear and we have our own ideas. I don’t go around and fly all the kites, unless there is a product that everyone is into and I don’t understand why.
Then I’ll try to ride that gear, just to know what people like about it. I’m really not into using other people’s ideas; it’s just not my thing. I’d be really bored if I was just copying other people’s ideas all day.
Liquid Force has an image of being a very wakestyle-oriented brand. How do you make sure your kites will satisfy the larger market while keeping the wakestyle riders happy?
That’s a really good question. We’ve been working really hard for years to get the masses to ride our gear. Our gear is not core wakestyle gear. OK, we have bindings, but that’s because we have a crew of wakeboarding people creating the craziest bindings on the market. Everything else is made for the masses.
Sometimes our wakeboarding image works against us. Liquid Force is the largest wakeboarding brand in the world. We have an amazing kiteboarding product line which we create for the masses and we constantly have to tell people. Some riders think Liquid Force kites are only for really good riders or riders who use boots, but we design the gear for all riders. People are usually surprised when they try our kites.
For example, the Envy is a really easy kite to fly and a lot of people love it, but some riders don’t even try it because they think it’s only for wakestyle riders. The Liquid Force team riders ride bindings because they love bindings. They love to land hard and to have complete control of their boards. When it comes to the kites, control bars, and everything else, we design them for the everyday rider. A lot of us do a lot of wave riding and a kite that works well in the waves will work good for everything.
It needs to have a lot of depower, a lot of power, a super quick relaunch, and to be able to roll around in the waves and come back up. This is what our kites are designed to do. We have to educate people though advertisements and demos that our products are not only for wakestyle riding. Of course, the products work amazing for wakestyle, and we don’t even need to promote it. All those riders already know it.
Can you give us any hints about new stuff you’re working on?
It’s still too early to speak about what we’re doing for 2012. All I can say is that we will have three models of kites next year and there will be some new areas that we’ve never explored before.
There are crazy new ideas coming that we’ve been working on for more than two years. MaxFlow was a huge idea for us this year and we have one or two more big ideas coming for 2012. You’ll see.