Just over a decade ago, the team behind Atelier New Regime started their business by hawking T-shirts out of their trunks in Montreal. Today, they’re widely regarded as one of the hottest streetwear brands out of Canada, turning heads the world over—and most recently, catching Havana Club’s attention.
Well versed in the art of the collab, Havana has tapped the incendiary Canuck brand for “Pa’ Los Santos,” a limited-edition collection paying homage to the rum company’s Cuban roots—and New Regime’s origins as well. “This collection is inspired by our respective stories of resilience,” says Koku Awuye, New Regime’s co-founder and creative director.
If you’re going through hell, the saying goes, keep going. Having weathered everything from independence struggles to natural disasters, Cuba has long had resilience woven into its DNA. Appropriately, artwork inspired by the Caribbean island features prominently in the new collection, which includes hoodies, tees, Cuban collar shirts, and a one-of-a-kind Havana Club 7 bottle. (The name of the collab translates to “for the saints,” referring to the Cuban ritual of ‘pouring one out’ for the homies.)
New Regime, too, knows a thing or two about thriving through the worst. Facing cash flow issues and resistance from the local fashion industry early in their journey, the label needed to devise creative ways to attract consumers. That’s how their signature colour—bright, striking, call-to-action orange—came to be. “Out of necessity, we had to find a way to brand ourselves in a way that we would stand out without having the finances for the marketing expenses to do so,” says Awuye. “We needed something cost efficient, so we started branching out with the colour orange, and slowly found more meaning to it and embraced it.”
Of course, the fact of the matter is, 2020 has required a little resilience from all of us. No industry has been spared by the pandemic. But on top of this, New Regime experienced significant changes this year—co-founders Gildas Awuye and Setiz Taheri stepped away from the label, choosing to pursue different projects—which made adapting to the new normal all the more challenging.
And yet, can’t nothing break New Regime’s stride. “As surprising as it may sound, I think 2020 just made everything even more vivid for us,” says Koku. “We’re more focused than ever on accomplishing our mission: we still want to be one of the most recognizable brands, not only out of Canada, but internationally.”
Read our chat with Awuye, where we touch on the Havana Club collab, the many obstacles New Regime has faced, and his unflagging resolve to keep on keeping on.
Let’s talk about resilience. That seems to be the connective tissue between Atelier New Regime and Havana Club on this collab.
I think the story of New Regime is just a story of resilience. So it makes sense for us to come together and explore that theme. People have a hard time seeing how we are resilient on the daily. The company experienced many changes in the last year or so, and just that in itself was super hectic to manage. And on top of that comes the pandemic. Just being here today and still operating and not being bankrupt is the story of resilience in itself. And I can’t stress that any other way. That’s real life.
COVID-19 has obviously thwarted countless plans in 2020. Was it a struggle getting this campaign off the ground during the pandemic?
Of course! We’re probably the only brand that didn’t get a chance to go to Cuba to shoot their campaign, which complicated a lot of things. And we had to change a lot of plans and change the collection several times. It made us work a lot more and under the pandemic circumstances, it was definitely harder to execute. But at the same time, honestly, we just tackled it head-on. We took major risks in pushing through the pandemic. Still, troubled waters aren’t new to us. We always find a way to manage. Actually, what’s surprising is we found ways to get more creative in every aspect of the business, from product development to marketing strategy to content production to supply chain. We literally just never stopped and kept pushing through.
Where would you say that comes from—your determination to keep powering through difficult times?
I think it comes from how you were raised; how you were brought up. My parents always raised us to never quit and always push for whatever it is that we want. You have to work hard to get what you want. And that’s the kind of mentality that we have: you don’t work, you don’t eat.
“I think a lot of people did not believe that we would last or they did not necessarily adopt our designs from the early stages. We had to really prove ourselves from the ground up.”
What sorts of obstacles did New Regime face when you first started out?
I think a lot of people did not believe that we would last or they did not necessarily adopt our designs from the early stages. We had to really prove ourselves from the ground up. There were stores not necessarily wanting to sell our stuff. We had cash flow issues, and didn’t necessarily have the means to produce what we wanted to produce. But I think we all embraced the fact that it was part of the journey. Those are lessons we needed to learn in order to be better and compete in this sphere.
It’s baffling to me that stores wouldn’t want to carry your stuff—it’s all so dope!
I mean, we all start from somewhere, right? It wasn’t always this dope. [Laughs.] Sometimes you reflect and you’re just like, Well, there might be a reason why they didn’t want to fuck with us. But at the same time, we remain consistent and we’re determined to succeed in this industry. So we kept pushing, and everything you put your mind to eventually you get good at. That’s the mentality.
Since we’re talking about the Havana collab, how do you take your rum?
Straight. I don’t mix. I drink everything straight. I just prefer the taste. I don’t remember one time that I actually made myself a drink.
You don’t do cocktails.
No, I don’t have time for that. [Laughs.] Even in clubs, I don’t like getting [cocktails]. I just drink the thing straight.
Tell me about designing the limited-edition Havana Club 7 bottle.
We wanted to create something simple but yet visually appealing and timeless. For the design, we opted for our signature monogram pattern and signature orange, staying true to our visual identity and messaging.
Your messaging, by the way, is really powerful. You guys have these eye-grabbing statements that really stand out on your clothing. How much thought goes into those messages?
To be honest, all we ever wanted was to do whatever we wanted. So we put whatever idea we feel like expressing on our T-shirts, fashion being our means of expressing ourselves. So it’s not as if it’s calculated or anything. What we feel at the moment, what we want to talk about, what we want to express, is what we put out on our garments. One of our first T-shirts said, “Peace in the Middle East.” So that sets the tone for the brand.
“Once we make it through this year, I think the world—that’s what’s next. Because after this, nothing can stop us.”
Fashion is your platform.
Exactly. A lot of these messages are coming from a personal standpoint. During the pandemic we released a “Can’t stop, won’t stop” T-shirt, which was actually a flip from another shirt we had in our collection. And that came from just me entering the whole pandemic panic and telling myself, “Well, we’re already in it. We came so far. There’s no way this is gonna stop us.” And, I pretty much just voiced my thoughts on that T-shirt and then put it out. And then we actually ended up raising money for charity with it. So that’s kind of how it happens. Personal stories, personal experiences. If we feel strongly about it, then we’ll use our platform to express those ideas.
Resilience is obviously a very pertinent word in 2020, applying not only to the pandemic, but the ongoing wave of civil unrest swelling around the world. New Regime has been outspoken about the situation on social media. How would you say you’ve responded to it through your fashion?
I mean, it’s something that was part of our brand’s DNA already. It’s funny because our Fall/Winter 2020 collection is basically reflecting everything that happened and everything that people have been talking about during this year, and some of the items and artwork in the collection were designed in 2017. We planned on releasing this collection since the end of 2019 and then everything happened. And I look at some of the designs and I’m just like, Damn, it’s like we foresaw this whole thing. It’s a really weird feeling where I’m just like, Are people going to think, ‘Oh, they designed this collection around everything that’s going on in the world?’ Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, but at the same time, it’s just a coincidence and funny timing. But we always talk about issues that matter to us. If you look at our resumé, we’ve been pretty vocal about things that we feel should be expressed. So in that sense, I don’t think there’s any reaction. The vision has not changed and we just keep moving with it.
What are some examples of you accidentally predicting the present moment?
We have a T-shirt in our collection that says, “Freedom always has a price.” Just navigating the pandemic now, it’s like our freedom has been taken away from us. A lot of things that we took for granted have [gone away.] We were second guessing the importance of certain things. Some of the graphics just look like the riots and everything. We had a T-shirt with a burning car, which was designed two years ago, and then 2020 happened and we were just like, Yo, what the fuck? Just a bunch of weird coincidences.
What’s next for Atelier New Regime?
I mean, once we make it through this year, I think the world—that’s what’s next. Because after this, nothing can stop us. That’s how I feel. If we were able to get through this, there’s nothing that can stop us. At the beginning of the year, we had a whole new team, a lot of challenges, a lot of changes in terms of production and content creation. We took so many risks while still navigating the pandemic, and we’re still standing. We’re pretty excited about the future. We have a bunch of dope collections that we’re so excited to reveal. And it’s just gonna go up from there. As cheesy as it sounds, that’s what it is, man. There’s no finish line.