Photography by Alexis Gonçalves Ramirez
“Mance, as in ‘romance.’”
By Natalie Michie
Date August 28, 2023
The designer duo behind Montreal-based label Mance — formerly Unttld — chat about being partners in life and business, using clothes to travel through time and what it means to be an icon in 2023.
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You first met on the dance floor of a Montreal bar in 2007. What drew you to each other?
José Manuel St-Jacques: “Simon was wearing a gingham shirt, so he looked like a little picnic. I basically jumped on him, and I was like, ‘Hi, I’m José.’ He said, ‘I’m Simon.’ We kissed, and then we just danced for the rest of the night. We only figured out that we both worked in fashion once the bar closed and we started talking.”
Simon Bélanger: “We kept eyeing each other at opposite ends of the dance floor. I thought he was out of my league because he was too pretty for me. But once he jumped on me, I was like, ‘Okay, cool.’ We were very goofy dancers so we could see that we both had a good sense of humour.”
You launched your label together in 2011, after José won $100,000 on Quebec’s Project Runway–inspired competition show La Collection. How did you fuse your identities to create a cohesive brand?
SB: “I have more of a gothic, serious aesthetic, and José’s is more happy, whimsical and dreamy. So we had to find ways to align. For us, fashion is a form of escapism, but it’s an escape to find yourself. We have always wanted to create inspired pieces that help people define themselves.”
JMS: “We both have a sense of drama, we’re both romantics and we both like sensuality. So that’s where we align.”
What’s it like working together while also being life partners?
JMS: “The first year we started working together was an adjustment because we’re both very strong-headed. But in the end, it’s really rewarding. He pushes me further than I would go alone. When one of us brings an idea to the table, we really have to convince the other person. So by the time we share it with the world, we’re super confident.”
SB: “Over time, it has become a way of life. Whenever we decide we’ve worked enough hours, we change gears into just being best friends. It’s not complicated. Our industry is very difficult, challenging and fickle. So having someone you love and trust next to you makes you pretty much invulnerable.”
Up until now, your label’s name has been Unttld (pronounced “untitled”). What inspired you to rebrand as Mance for Fall 2023?
SB: “In the beginning, Unttld allowed us to disappear behind the work. We wanted our pieces to speak for themselves and not impose upon anybody a name or intention.”
JMS: “We always felt like we didn’t want to put our name on the clothes. Like, ‘You’re not wearing me; you don’t need my name to tell your story.’ But now, we feel ready to put a name on it. And that name is Mance, as in ‘romance.’”
SB: “We were looking for a word that evokes feelings without being an actual word. Mance is also the name of the street where we first moved in together, just the two of us. We still stand for the same qualities and brand values: drama, craftsmanship, luxury and sensuality. That’s really what we’re all about. But after over 10 years of doing this, we were ready to have a name.”
You’ve said that you use fashion to travel “through space and time.” Can you expand on that?
SB: “We spend many of our evenings watching historical documentaries. We especially love learning about all the kings and queens of Europe. We’re fascinated by the fight for power and the saga of the rise and fall of royalty. So we always use references from movies and history, with a mix of what feels right for the moment.”
JMS: “Clothes are like the first shell that you have between yourself and the world. You can travel in your mind by wearing something; you can build a story around yourself through clothing. You put on a garment and all of a sudden you’re somewhere else — you’re someone else. We always say that the clothes we make are for the movie of your life…for a fantasy.”
You draw a lot of inspiration from notable figures from the past. What’s your opinion about the term “icon” in today’s zeitgeist?
SB: “I think it’s a word that is attributed to people a bit too easily these days. True icons stand the test of time. An icon is someone who incarnates something spiritual and artistic. They carry with them certain concepts, ideas and emotions that we need to be reminded of and that we can apply to our own existence. Marilyn Monroe is an icon. She incarnated a certain kind of effervescent femininity that doesn’t necessarily resonate with every woman but represents one aspect of what a woman can be. For a lot of the figures that today’s young people consider to be icons, I would say, give them the benefit of time. Because I think it’s too early to tell.”
This article first appeared in FASHION’s September 2023 issue. Find out more here.