Feb 5, 2007
Author: Fanny Lestelle
Highly appreciated by the industry for his revolutionary ideas, Julien Fillion is also respected for his riding skills—be it in kitesurfing or the many other sports he “plays” at the highest level. Gifted with a Midas touch, he’s the kind of guy men are jealous of and women fond of. At 25, he is not only chief designer for kiteboarding at Liquid Force and a talented rider, he’s also a student. He was about to complete his degree in computer science at the University of Ottawa when I reached him for a “visio-interview” through Skype at one of his favourite spots—a café where he spends a lot of time, not just for the best lattes in town but also to grow his innumerable ideas. He sure is a hard worker. He gets by on just six hours of sleep, so he’s able to find a little time to indulge in a few river surf sessions. Here’s what a collected, self-taught Fillion has to say about his life, his experiences and his views.
One week from now you’ll no longer be a student, but you’ve already had a job for a while. How paradoxical is that?
I signed with Liquid Force after I got into university about two years ago. It seems that they wanted me so badly that they didn’t mind me working from a distance and being partly busy with my studies. They knew I had done a good job working for Neil Pryde in such conditions, so they were confident. I’m very lucky I had understanding professors as well. For the last two years I’ve managed to combine working, studying, riding and traveling.
How have you been able to live such an atypical lifestyle?
I was born in Ottawa, but I grew up two minutes away from the city, on the other side of the river, in French-speaking Quebec. In the ’80s and in such an environment, for a kid dreaming of the ocean and of surfing, windsurfing [on lakes] was the only watersport available. I first tried it when I was eight, but I only got seriously involved in the sport when I was 19. By then I could drive, which was more convenient, and I had friends really into it who showed me how radical it could get with smaller and good equipment on the sea. I got so addicted that I decided to go to Maui after high school, and my one and only goal was to make a living out of windsurfing. Actually, my whole life is a series of choices I decided to entirely dedicate myself to. I had my rock-climbing and mountaineering period from 15 to 18, and a transition with freeride mountain biking before the windsurfing obsession. And before my current kitesurfing passion, I had another transition with an intense kayak experience.
What happened once you arrived in Maui?
Considering what a motley crew of fellow French-Canadians had accomplished there, I figured I could at least equal them. I did manage to be successful, but I happened to follow a parallel path, making a name for myself in the shadows of the industry rather than as a rider getting a lot of media coverage. Three days after I landed on Maui, I went to JP’s workshop and explained who I was to Richard Green, the famous board brand’s shaper, and that I had left everything in Quebec, and that I was willing to work for him for free. He agreed and even started paying me after a couple of days. I’m very grateful to him for immediately trusting me and for showing me all his knowledge and skills. Richard is very close to influential people at the even more prestigious brand Neil Pryde, and I ended up working for them.
So you dropped your dream of becoming a pro rider?
Yes, and I guess it’s for the best, after all. I immediately made my way through the design path, whereas it would have taken way more time to break through as a rider. Plus, I realized I get bored when all I do is riding. I really get my kicks by using the best possible equipment—the ones that I design. A job is never so well done as when you do it yourself.
What was your level?
Not so good, to be honest. I could waveride but could barely jibe. Each time I fell to flip the sail, the current would carry me off-course and I often ended up on the rocks at Ho’okipa.
How about your technical skills to work for JP and then Pryde right out of school?
I had studied computer science in high school, but it’s definitely recently, at university, that I took more sophisticated courses. For these first experiences, I relied only on what I had learned on my own. As a teenager, instead of chilling, doing nothing or going to clubs and getting drunk, I was more interested in learning how to handle 3-D software.
Your parents let you go abroad so young. Are they into alternative sports at all?
They’re absolutely not familiar with that world and lifestyle, but they have always fully supported me. When I didn’t make the most intelligent decisions, they would let me know but never hampered me, knowing I would “fall back on my feet,” having learned in the process.
Why did you leave Maui?
I wasn’t that happy out there, after all. I had everything I could dream of, yet something was missing, especially some real friends. I decided to go back to Canada, but as the people at Neil Pryde were happy with my work and my ideas, we continued working together. I could’ve been hired in a big computer company for loads of money, but I was satisfied with what I made and, above all, I loved what I did. My goal isn’t to get rich; it’s to create, to have and to develop new ideas.
How did you switch to Liquid Force?
Neil Pryde and Liquid Force are clients of the same factory in China. Thus, Liquid Force had heard about me and my revolutionary ideas and somehow knew that I was very interested in kitesurfing. They invited me over to California, and it just happened. I’ve been working for them ever since. I wouldn’t want to sound like an apple polisher, but I have to say it’s an awesome company to work for, and I can see myself there for a while. It’s huge, yet we’re a small and tightly knit crew of only 12. What I appreciate above all is the fact that the bosses are grateful for the job I do, and they say so every day. I think it’s essential, and it’s rare enough, to be mentioned.
Can you give us examples of ideas you implemented?
It’s a delicate question because of the teamwork involved. Let’s say that, regarding Neil Pryde, I had a strong impact on the 2003 Wave, Freestyle and Freeride sails. I improved their wishbone technology and created a revolutionary 3-D molded tack fairing that completely encloses all pulleys and base elements. And as far as Liquid Force is concerned, I can mention the preformed harness and the chicken loop with a molded cleat. Generally speaking, I try to make our products as rugged as possible but still ever lighter and better performing. But what I like most is to add value in the details. The tack fairing, for instance, I chose to manufacture it from heat-molded, closed-cell foam in order to offer maximum protection and minimal weight without water absorption. My design includes an uphaul hole where the uphaul rope can be neatly fastened; the neoprene front piece makes it easy to fold the tack fairing when threading the downhaul rope through the sail’s tack pulley. These may seem insignificant elements, but it’s a hell of a practical improvement and great comfort-wise.
What are your plans now?
I have nothing against pursuing my studies, but not now. I might go for an MBA later. I’ll have more time to ride now. And like I said, I want to go further with Liquid Force. My main focus is really to seduce new riders. Too many people think that kiteboarding is like windsurfing and don’t want to get into it because they’re not attracted to that image. I want to show that kiteboarding is more like wakeboarding, which has a way more dynamic image. Young people aren’t interested in complicated disciplines where you need to have a minivan in order to have fun. Also, I want to prove to surfers that not only is it possible to have a pure surfing experience with a kite, but it also makes it possible to surf way more waves—and bigger ones too. When it’s windy and/or when the currents are strong, and when the waves aren’t perfectly glassy, it’s a bummer, or impossible, for a surfer to swim up to the peak. If you don’t have the money or the heart for a polluting Jet Ski, a mere kite is the best way to catch the most possible waves in a session. Unlike three years ago, it is now possible with a flat kite and a more voluminous board to have enough power to go up the waves and then to let it go and ride them without any constraint.
Do you think it can have an impact?
Yes, I do. At least, I definitely hope so. Even if riding waves concerns an elite, a minority that is to say, it’s important to have that positive image close to surfing. It’s like sliding demos—it impresses audiences. It’s all-important to attract new people, even if they just go back and forth, maybe jump a little when they get to it. That’s what’s so great about kitesurfing: there are so many possibilities, everybody can choose their style.
You have many ideas, and with the sport being so young, there’s still a comfortable margin for you to improve things. A year is short, so are there substantial innovations for every new range, or is it mostly marketing hype?
If we communicated on everything we improve, customers would be lost. I won’t say that aesthetics aren’t important, but our priorities are performance, security, ruggedness and—very important—affordability. What we deal with is extremely complex, but our job is to make it clear and easy for our clients. That’s the reason why we have a range of only three extremely different kites that can satisfy every single rider: a wake-freestyle-oriented one, a wave-freeride and an all-round. That way our customers know exactly what they need.
You’ve been in the business for a couple of years. Have you noticed an evolution in the market?
It’s hard to tell. I believe there is a gradual increase all over the world. I think the sales figures are good, very good, but there was no explosion. The industry is big and strong now, and my guess is that it will continue to grow.