Browsing in one of Hossegor's many shops a few weeks ago I came across one of the best tshirt designs I'd seen in ages. "We live in the woods next the beach", it said, the words drawn around pine trees and over the sea in elegant swirls. How very We Follow The Sun I thought. There were other designs too, one that said "Love is All", another that read "Puis que la mort est inevitable, oublions la" (as death is inevitable, forget it). I noted down the name of the label and looked them up online in a nearby café to discover that they were local. I fired off an email, left a message and hoped they would get in touch.
We were invited to meet Stepart at their garage office, close to Hossegor's lake. Morgan and Quentin have been best friends for the last 30 years. They both grew up in Pau and when Morgan moved to Hossegor, their parent's close friendship meant they still spent holidays and summers together here by the sea.
Morgan went on to work as a pro-snowboarder for Quiksilver before joining them as a product manager. In 2010, inspired by labels from Japan and the US, he had the idea for Stepart, a t-shirt company without a fixed graphic identity of it's own, but which served as a wearable gallery of art from new and established graphic artists. Morgan used his product knowledge to start the brand and Quentin, who was working in property in Toulouse, joined the company soon after.
"We wanted to do the opposite to a brand concept with a strong fixed identity that never changes," explained Morgan. "We felt that idea was over."
They liken what they do to music production. Morgan, who handles the creative side, sources the artists. The t-shirts, sweatshirts and accessories are produced to the highest quality in Portugal, and are then printed in France.
"There's a big trend of putting 'Made in France' on branded clothing. But the reality is you only need to do 30% of the production in France to be allowed to state that and most of the production happens elsewhere," said Quentin. "We felt it was important to be honest. We sourced our shirts in Portugal because they were the best quality and we have them printed locally because there are great printers nearby."
Morgan finds artists through sites like juxtapoz, graphic design blogs and many hours of exhaustive online research.
"We've done some work with established artists but over time we're focussing more on new artists, especially those who haven't done clothing before," said Morgan. "It doesn't always work out, some work just doesn't translate from frame to tshirt, but we enjoy giving these artists a new medium to exhibit their work."
Some artists now have an established relationship with the company, such as locally-based Steven Burke. Working on a range of medium from felled tree trunks to a vintage caravan, and with graphic identity work for local restaurants and shops, Steven has established himself as one of the most interesting artists and designers in the area. He has produced some of StepArt's most popular designs and is the artist behind the "We live in the woods next the beach" design that I fell in love with and which led us to this little hive of creativity by a lake.
Aside from Steven Burke they've also worked with California-based graphic artist Steven Harrington, as well as other artists/designers from Japan, the UK, Spain and France.
"We're disciplined about what we choose," said Morgan. "We don't want it to be narrow and just about our taste. We want to produce a broad range of styles so we're just as likely to appeal to someone in their sixties as a teenager, men and women, and people from all walks of life."
StepArt produces around 10 prints per bi-annual collection, usually from around four to six artists. And each shirt has a limited production of between 100-300 pieces. They currently sell to around 50 carefully-selected shops across France, and jealously guard their brand's integrity.
"We've been very careful to only work with shops we feel can tell our story," said Quentin. "So we know each of the store owners/managers personally and we visit each of them in person to explain what StepArt is all about."
Equally if they don't manage to sell to the store they select in any particular town they'd rather wait and build their brand elsewhere, rather than opt for a second choice of retail partner.
"There's a strong story to our company and that means we can't get too big. We're happy to take things slowly," Quentin continued.
"We prefer to be small," Morgan agreed. "This was about creating a company to be happy not to be rich. You don't need a million to be happy, you just need enough and we have a great life here."
For Quentin and Morgan it's all about good relationships - whether that's the 30-year friendship which forms the heart of their partnership, or the relationships they've built with artists and retailers.
"For us it's all about working with people we like," says Morgan.
"By working together as a small team we have real freedom," added Quentin.
Amen to that.