What (or Who) is JJJJound?
What (or Who) is JJJJound?
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date October 14, 2019
JJJJound is an oddity. In existence for more than a decade, JJJJound has been one of the most influential entities in contemporary menswear. But, ask people what exactly JJJJound is, and you’re likely to get rather convoluted answers—even from those in the know. To some, JJJJound is a person; to others it’s a mood board; some see JJJJound as a brand; others see it as a general “aesthetic.” To a certain extent, none of those answers are wrong. But they are all incomplete. JJJJound is—or has been—all of those things. But it’s also become so much more over the years.
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Who is JJJJound?
JJJJound is Montreal-based designer, curator and creative Justin Saunders.
Growing up idolizing Bill Watterson, the man behind Calvin and Hobbes, Saunders was fascinated by Watterson’s anonymity. “I was like, ‘Man, you can be somebody but have nobody know you,’” he explained to Saturdays NYC, which helps contextualize why so many people know about JJJJound but don’t know of Saunders.
In 2006, Saunders launched JJJJound as a personal blog. The website was unremarkable and not unlike other early blogs. What set JJJJound apart in the long run, though, was Saunders’ decision to focus exclusively on images. Some time around 2008, JJJJound, as we know it, came into being. Saunders removed text from the blog and it became a personal “mood board”—which he insists it still is. Updates are referred to as new moods, and, often, the only text that appears will be the first post people see, to help delineate different moods. As users scroll down, a never-ending, color-paletted stream of aesthetically-pleasing images, providing an examination of, “the recurring patterns in timeless design.”
Put into words, it all sounds very nebulous and needlessly high-brow; this may be why the site has thrived without being verbose. Shortly after JJJJound became an image-based blog, people started taking note of it. While Tumblr and Instagram eventually normalized and democratized image curation, JJJJound was a precursor to both, using Blogspot to provide the concept of a wordless blog. It was only after the words disappeared that the encouragement appeared. Emails rolled in and Saunders was even enlisted by The New York Times as a men’s style contributor for T Magazine’s online imprint. By the turn off the decade, JJJJound was one of the internet’s foremost (albeit, anonymous) tastemakers, with Saunders pulling the strings.
Work with Virgil Abloh, Matthew Williams and Heron Preston*
Central to JJJJound’s success has been, as you’d expect, the image-obsessed internet. The borderless online world allowed JJJJound to thrive on a global scale, despite Saunders being based in Montreal. It’s a great city, and one that’s inexpensive and attractive for creatives—but it’s not exactly a global hotbed on the level of New York, London or Paris. “The reason I’m so supportive of the internet,” Saunders told Saturdays, “is that I was just this dude in Montreal, and then all of a sudden people started contacting me from around the world via email.” It was thanks to his ability to build a robust, global (online) audience that Saunders was able to connect with two of today’s most influential pop culture figures: Virgil Abloh and Alyx’s Matthew Williams. Inevitably the pair (along with fellow multi-hyphenate Heron Preston) would go on to create #BEENTRILL#. “I’ve met everybody through the internet,” he recalled.
Even with such high-profile friends, the internet also allowed Saunders to maintain his anonymity. While JJJJound’s following grew steadily, Saunders’ name was not exactly well-known; people referred to JJJJound as a person in interviews, rather than by Saunders’ own name. Saunders, for his part, was consulting for a number of brands in ways unseen to most. What exactly Saunders has done over the years remains shrouded in mystery, but his name has been linked to the likes of A.P.C., Montreal retailer SSENSE and Kanye West (as well as his DONDA creative agency). West famously said that he asked himself if things were “Jound-approved” (something which Saunders has downplayed in interviews). Besides that and the occasional Instagram post alongside Abloh, there is little proof of Saunders’ involvement in the myriad creative projects he’s worked on.
Online Aesthetics, I.R.L.
On a more tangible front, the early 2010s saw JJJJound expand from being just a blog into the design of hard goods. The period around 2013 represents a key moment in JJJJound’s evolution from something purely digital to an entity leaving a tangible footprint in the real world. In the summer of 2013, HVW8 Gallery in Los Angeles hosted “Correspondence”, an exhibit comprised of paintings of emails between Saunders and his friend, Claudio Marzano; the pair’s emails were essentially the moods that would end up on JJJJound. “Correspondence” brought something inherently digital into the real world; beyond showing the clandestine process behind the blog, perfectly encapsulates JJJJound’s digital dreams for the best aspirational reality.
Canvas tote bags were released to commemorate the opening of the exhibit and, before long, more JJJJound-branded products began to pop up on the “Shoppe” section of the website. Some of the first products put out by JJJJound were enamel “Bandwidth” pins, which were sold to help pay for the hosting services required to support such a gargantuan catalogue of images. Then came tonal JJJJ-branded Ebbets Field Flannels caps, followed by socks and beanies. Also sprinkled among the offering were seemingly mundane things—like dog tags and coffee mugs—but outfitted with tasteful touches and colors.
The products being put out through Shoppe were exactly what one would expect to find when scrolling through a JJJJound’s running “Mood” section. They were simple, but they were emblematic of the aesthetic JJJJound had made its own. They were items for every facet of life that offered knowingly curated nods to fellow JJJJound enthusiasts.
This period, from 2013 to 2015, coincided with JJJJound becoming more widely-known. Virgil Abloh was actively name-dropping the site; Saunders was an integral part of #BEENTRILL#; a collaboration with Montreal-based skate imprint Dime was beneficial to both parties. Meanwhile, new moods slowly trickled out and made for appointment viewing when word got out that were new images on JJJJound. Photographers and brands flocked to the website to see if any of their images had made the cut, while others were eager to see what products had earned a JJJJound co-sign.
In 2015, JJJJound outdid “Correspondence” in terms of merging the internet with real life, thanks to a partnership with CIFF Raven, a tradeshow in Copenhagen. JJJJound was commissioned to create a “mood” and then print the images on T-shirts, rather than uploading them to the site. The immersive installation, known as “Post”, was not available for purchase. Saunders later stated that “the whole installation was stolen,” but left the statement open to interpretation: Had the 200 T-shirts been stolen, or was he referring to the oft-cited criticism that JJJJound was simply an amalgam of “stolen” images. Regardless, “Post” was another example of JJJJound’s singular ability to bring our favorite elements of the digital and real worlds together.
But, then, just as JJJJound’s legend was growing, it started to recede into the shadows. JJJJound became more of a niche reference, as the internet culture surrounding menswear shifted to more hype-based publications and product. Still, JJJJound was updated with new moods sporadically and, yes, Saunders was still involved in myriad creative projects—there was even a steady trickle of new JJJJound-branded product, like embroidered fleece and other basics.
2016 saw JJJJound release a collaboration with little-known footwear brand Victory Sportswear. The Trail Sneaker was, like all other JJJJound products, perfectly in line with what one would expect to find on the digital mood board. The shoes were manufactured in Massachusetts and featured a predominantly grey upper—made from suede and mesh—with a beige hit on the heel. It was a niche collaboration, but it marked JJJJound’s expansion into footwear and set the stage for what would become JJJJound’s most transformative release.
In 2017, JJJJound began teasing a trio of Vans Old Skools. The shoes would eventually be released as in-store exclusives for “Patience”—a Montreal pop-up shop—alongside a range of basics and home goods including canvas tote bags and coffee mugs. Available in brown, white and green, the Vans x JJJJound Old Skools were remarkably simple, with little in the way of alterations made to the classic silhouette—cork footbed and 8 oz. canvas notwithstanding. Due to the limited supply and the fact they were only available in Montreal, the collaboration became one of the hottest releases of 2017. The green version, in particular, became one of the most coveted shoes of the year and now fetches four figure prices. While many who trafficked JJJJound’s website we fans of his clearly defined aesthetic, this release almost single-handedly shifted JJJJound into the realm of “hyped brand.”
“Patience” remains a seminal moment in JJJJound’s history. It helped establish JJJJound as a design studio and elevate the kinds of products that the once-quiet blog could aspire to produce. The digital Shoppe is filled with a tasteful mix of home goods and minimal clothing— Canadian-made fleece sits next to mini basketball hoops; simple mugs can be bought alongside graphic T-shirts; coffee beans sold to those also looking to buy reusable water bottles to drink from—much like the physical pop-up space was. Of course, there’s also the occasional collaboration sprinkled in for good measure. In the two-plus years since "Patience”, JJJJound has worked with Reebok on a pair of Club C 85s, reissued the Victory Trail Sneaker, unveiled a New Balance 990v3, reworked a classic Garrett Leight frame and teased an upcoming collaboration with A.P.C.
What’s stayed the same from collaboration to collaboration has been a commitment to a specific aesthetic and a reticence to following the increasingly rapid pace set by the industry. JJJJound products come out on a schedule that is unique to JJJJound and in ways that are unique to the studio. The inspiration cited feels so deeply researched that it’s almost tongue-in-cheek. Take the aforementioned JJJJound x Reebok Club C 85s, which supposedly reference the color of a vintage keyboard. Then there’s the way in which the most coveted JJJJound products are sold: From the Old Skools to the Club C 85s, products are never immediately available; customers had to wait for their purchases to be delivered.
From the Mind of Justin R. Saunders
Taken together, there is a timelessness to JJJJound moods and JJJJound products. You can scroll through the site’s archives for hours at a time and, even years later, none of the products that have been put out over the last half decade feel dated.
That is the magic of JJJJound. That, and the fact that JJJJound is creating products to curate every aspect of your life—a 360-degree design studio making your T-shirts, your coffee cups, your sneakers and your desk.
Thanks to that magic, JJJJound is now a brand that resonates with customers across the spectrum. What started as a personal mood board for Justin R. Saunders has changed wildly over the years. There was a period when he and his blog were synonymous—he was JJJJound—and when JJJJound was an ideal—something that people and brands strived to emulate. The unanticipated success from the blog transformed JJJJound into a brand and, on the back of that success, it’s arguably in its final form as a nebulous design studio.
“I’m a kid who grew up listening to rap music and loved art and beautiful things,” Saunders explained in an interview. “I grew up in Germany and I was obsessed with Bart Simpson and North American culture. I think people connected to my site, and we were all going through the process of removing logos from our lives and dressing like adults.”
The only condition, it seems, for JJJJound to make something, is for it to be pleasant to look at. And, isn’t that what a design studio should strive to do?