Eight months ago Mathieu Arsenault had barely picked up a paintbrush. "I was the kid in art class who didn't want to paint," he laughs while sitting in his cramped Queen Street apartment that doubles as his studio. "It didn't feel organic in class, so I never realized I had the ability to do it." It's a surprising revelation given that his rental looks like it belongs to a fine arts student in the midst of producing their thesis. Half painted jackets engulf the room and splatters of acrylic cover the floors. Some of the pieces are being prepared for his upcoming collection, Hold Your Own , while others are for select customers who have placed personalized orders. "I'm never working on one piece at a time, I can't do that. It's always a couple."
Arsenault is the creative force behind Leo Current—a burgeoning apparel brand centered around one-off reworked denim jackets. If you pay attention to hip-hop and fashion then you may have encountered his work. His Instagram flaunts an impressive array of prominent rap personalities clad in his custom outerwear. Metro Boomin, Virgil Abloh, Lil Uzi Vert, Theophilus London and Roy Woods are some of the notable artists who have sported his pieces. Considering that Arsenault only initiated his foray into designing back in April, Leo Current already appears to be a successful venture. And while solidifying a place for himself in hip-hop culture was always his focus, painting on jackets was never how Arsenault envisioned carving out his spot.
Growing up in Montreal's West Island , Arsenault moved to Toronto to pursue an education in sound engineering to become a beatmaker. While in recording school, he began developing connections in Toronto's music industry but was unable to find his place within it. Even so, during his school term, Arsenault was struck with the desire to express himself through a different medium. Clothing had always intrigued him but he lacked the tools to cut and sew or screen print. He had an acid washed denim jacket he'd been wearing and decided to paint on it. "I had seen people do that in the past, in the 80s and the 90s, and I felt like that was a way of organic expression."
That first jacket he made hangs in his apartment and features a painting of a wave and a sunset. Arsenault showed the piece to a few close friends who were impressed, feeling that it embodied the distressed aesthetic being popularized by artists like Kanye West. Seeing his idea resonate with his peers, Arsenault continued to make more, and used his network within Toronto's music scene to jump start his new experiment. Instead of sending out beats he was now sending out jackets to locals making a name for themselves. This time around the results were much better. "They really wanted to wear the jackets and post pictures of themselves in them. It really kind of happened like a wave. It's crazy how that first jacket I painted a wave on was what started the wave. That's something that goes directly back into Leo Current—water has a current, a wave is the manifestation of a current, so it's just crazy how it all happened."
Noisey: Who were you getting jackets to that helped your brand take off?
Mathieu Arsenault: I had developed connections with people in Toronto: local rappers like FIJI, some local DJs like Cyber 69, producers like Wondagurl — I had met them all from just being present in the scene. I think the first international artist I got a jacket to was Lil Uzi Vert. He was coming to do a show here in Toronto and my friend was opening, so he facilitated it for me. Uzi absolutely loved the piece, he took a couple pictures with me, we talked the whole night about clothing and different things. It was a really nice experience and it gave me the confidence to approach other people like Rich The Kid, YesJulz, Virgil Abloh and Theophilus London.
Where did the creativity in your life originate from?
My father comes from a family of super creative people and it's a very large family. They've all gone into different realms of expression and creativity. There are some people that do music, some that do clothing, some that do culinary arts and we have a lot of painters as well. We've always been quite tightly knit and I've always been around people who are trying to express themselves through different mediums. I grew up with my father playing drums all the time, so I had music around me at all times. Drums are something that have been instilled in me since I was a little child. Music, rhythm—that's something that I incorporate largely into my art.
What's the process of making these jackets like?
I usually get the pieces that I use from higher-end consignment stores or really trusted thrift stores. I've developed quite a good relationship with the stores now but originally it was just about exploring jackets. I'm not thinking about painting when I'm buying jackets, I'm looking for high-quality denim that I find to be aesthetically pleasing: good sizing, a good cut, something that's unique. I'll usually sit on a piece for a few days and ponder about it but I'll never think about what I'm going to paint ahead of time. It's always something that happens on the spot, something switches in me and I just start going. That's why the pieces end up being so different from one another. It's just my train of thought turned into images, writing, and abstract painting that just expresses what's in my head at the moment. It's kind of crazy how it happens — my friends tell me I'm possessed when I'm doing it. It's something that feels amazing and is almost therapeutic to me.
Who inspires your work?
I would say my largest inspirations is Jean-Michel Basquiat, in every aspect of my life, whether it's art, fashion, music, everything. Raf Simons is also a huge inspiration for me when it comes to fashion — I feel like he has a unique ability to translate emotions that we can all resonate with into fashion. I really appreciate Virgil Abloh for inspiring me. The first time I had met him was in École Privée in Montreal. He was walking through the venue behind the owner who I happen to know. I asked Virgil if I could talk to him for a minute and I just told him how he had given me the ability to believe in myself and inspired the youth to chase their dreams and show them that it's possible to succeed in whatever medium. I told him that and he looked me directly in the eyes and was like 'man you've got a big heart, you can do whatever you want, you've got it.' I felt it there and lo and behold a year later I was in the venue giving him a jacket.
What else are you working on right now?
I started to develop a website after I decided that I wanted things to be a little more open for all the people that wanted to have access to my art and clothing. Recently I did a collection of t-shirts called Think Outside The Box Logo, which was all about thinking outside of regular clothing or just regular thought. Soon we're going to be doing a video lookbook for the collection I have coming out called Hold Your Own, which is based around me building my independence and helping people have the confidence to do the same for themselves.
Dean Rosen is a writer based in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter.
All photos courtesy of the writer