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INTERVIEW: Design by Julien Fillion

By Paul Lang

Your first impression of Julien Fillion might be that he’s a quiet guy. He always has a thoughtful look on his face, like he’s trying to work out some problem in his head. Get him talking about kiteboarding gear and you’ll quickly realize that not only is Julien not a quiet guy, but his head is so full of ideas that sometimes he has a hard time getting them all out.

When asked about Julien’s strong points as a designer, Liquid Force Brand Manager Gary Siskar said, “His passion, knowledge, and dedication to kiteboarding for one, plus he’s very flexible and rigid at the same time. He takes feedback, processes it, and uses it to make better equipment for kiteboarding, but at the same time he has a forward vision and pushes his ideas that he knows will change the way we kiteboard. He will stick with these ideas even if it is not popular with the group and he has proven over and over by believing in his vision that his ideas have been right on point and have changed the way we use and what we expect from kiteboarding equipment.”

Julien is not only a kiteboarding designer, but he’s also a talented musician, a sponsored stand up paddler, and is also a team rider for Liquid Force. We asked Siskar how it helps to have Julien as a designer and a team rider and he said, “How can it not! He is a top level athlete and he is the one designing and developing the equipment. It’s not just a benefit to Liquid Force, it’s a benefit to our customers!”

When did you first see kiteboarding? How did you get started?
Originally I was living in Maui for windsurfing. I was working and riding with Neil Pryde and I thought my life would revolve around windsurfing forever. To me kiteboarding looked very dangerous.

Most of the guys were not able to make it upwind and it didn’t look like that much of a good time. When I came home to go back to university, windsurfing on the lake or river just wasn’t very exciting anymore. It was actually really boring after riding amazing waves in Maui.

I ordered a few kites and I got into it so much that I wasn’t really into windsurfing anymore, like everyone else.

Do you have a background in design?
I went to school for computer science. I was always interested in design. With design, it’s always been easy for me to learn on my own and to be surrounded by good designers who are willing to let go of their knowledge. In every sport I’ve been into, I’ve always wanted to make the gear better.

That’s exactly what I did with windsurfing. I got really lucky because Neil Pryde really liked my ideas and I was able to ride with the team and learn a lot with them. I love to ride, but I’ve always been a little bored with just riding. I have to do more, and making the gear better is very interesting for me. I love it.

Photo Paul Lang

What was the first product you designed?
When I was younger, I worked for a board company based in Montreal called Wind Obsession on board designs and ideas, but the first idea I had that was produced worldwide was EVA protection on windsurfing sails. Today, the sleeve on most windsurfing sails has an EVA piece at the bottom to prevent the mast from hitting your board. I invented that with Neil Pryde a long time ago and then every company did it afterwards.

For Liquid Force, I was originally a team rider in Canada and then they realized I had a lot of great ideas. The first kite I did was the Menace. It was a very radical C-shape design, but right after the Menace we went into doing bridled kites. The original bridled kite I did was the Assault.

It was the least flat of all the SLE kites at the time. Everyone was making really flat kites that were inverting and the Assault was almost a mix between the SLE kites that we have today and the Bow designs that used to be out there.

As a designer, what’s the starting point for designing a bridle for a kite?
For any inflatable kite designer, the hardest years are the first three. There’s no school that explains how it all works. There are no books about it, so you just have to try everything.

With bridles, you have to play with where they attach to the leading edge, what angles you are going to use, what kind of bridle to use, the number of pulleys, what kind of opening you want to get, where you want the bridle to lock, and where you want it not locked, and all that comes only after you choose the right outline, aspect ratio, and everything else. For me, the bridle comes at the end.

When you get a new prototype kite, are you ever surprised by how it performs?
When we get a new kite and it does what it’s supposed to, I’m not surprised, I’m just happy. When we try to go into more edgy areas, especially when we play with the number of struts, that’s when, sometimes, the kite just won’t work.

We’re not really surprised by it. For the past few years, we’ve put a lot of effort into removing struts, and it’s a lot more complicated than just removing them. When you choose to build a three-strut kite, the whole structure of the kite has to be built to work with the three struts.

What else do you do other than design equipment for Liquid Force?
I’ve been riding for NPX for many years and I’ve helped them design wetsuits. I designed their snowboard-style drysuit with them. I’m also really into creating equipment to use in big waves and am into SUP as well. I ride for Imagine and I’ve helped them create smaller SUPs.

All that keeps me really busy, but the other part of my life right now is music. I have a Montreal-based band, Trusted Waters, and we’re in the studio right now recording a complete album, which will be released in July.

How does being a team rider for LF change your role as a designer?
There’s many ways to look at design. Maybe I’m not a true designer. I can basically only design gear that I use. When it comes to designing something like women’s equipment, I’m not very good at it because I don’t use it. I have to be in the water because I love it and I get to spend a lot of time riding with all levels of riders, so I see when they have a problem or when they have a good time, which helps me learn the needs of riders out there.

Designing kites is not a normal engineering product. It’s very much about what we believe is right and how we like a kite to behave in the air. You can try to do that on a computer as much as possible, but it’s only when you are on the beach doing the last adjustments that you can really bring it all together. If I wasn’t in the water clocking hundreds of hours a year, I can hardly imagine how I’d be able to create good kites.

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