Art Fashion

Fleurs de Bagne pays tribute to the early 1900’s convicts & sailors tattoo culture

Mika Dumas, 34, was born and raised in Aix en Provence France. After spending 15 years working in the aviation sector, his career took a turn in a different direction to textiles and fashion, of course starting at the bottom scraping. Now that the period of cutting his teeth is over, Mika has committed a 100% to his brainchild, the atypical clothing brand Fleurs de Bagne, for just over a year. 

How did you derive the idea to create Fleurs de Bagne?
My interest for the early 1900’s prisons and criminal underworld of that time period isn’t new, I am a passionate collector, always on the hunt for a rare book or a rare object related to that time. Many of my creations are a tribute to this universe. As far as tattoo is concerned, I’ve always been super interested in the culture and I’m tattooed as well. I believe tattoo is a family thing, my father’s body was covered with “Bousille” (a type of tattoos worn by prisoners and criminals in the early 1900’s), so pretty early I was aware of the meaning from those types of tattoos’. Regarding the brand, I was not really interested in creating a common soulless brand, I wanted an authentic brand with a real spirit and integrity. Through Fleurs de Bagne, cotton becomes a support to make people discover a story or a passion, kind of like in a book.

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Is there a story behind the name Fleurs de Bagne?
“Fleurs de Bagne” is the name that was given to the tattoos that covered the bodies of those bad boys in the early 20th century. They were made by hand. In France, you often find inscriptions on the skin of the “Enfants du Malheur” (Children of misery, if literally translated). Being a prisoner and a sailor was often an inseparable whole. Most of them went to disciplinary units and maritime prisons. With the brand, I want to put a light on those tattoos’ and their history, The tattoos which are dingy most of the time but carry a lot of stories. Each tattoo featured on our models does have a particular signification and a reason to be. I don’t create tattoos but I make you discover what they mean. For these men, getting tattooed was like carrying their mobster’s ID on their skin, it was a way of exercising their fears, claiming their rebellion against any form of authority but also to express their feelings, for a mother or a lover…

I read you spent a long time exploring and getting documentation during this period, tell us more about your approach?
The approach was rather natural, really. I think when you’re passionate about something, there’s no limit in wanting to discover new things. In the course of encounters and discoveries, you create your own cultural heritage. Fleurs de Bagne gave me the opportunity to meet great people like journalists specialised in the criminal area, historians, collectors, passionate people… I guess I would have never met those super interesting people if I had created a common clothing brand.

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Where do you get your inspirations when creating collections?
I collect lots of clothing items from that period. I particularly love workwear and military styles, you can find lots of french work clothing and militaria in my collection. Basically, I spend a lot of time hunting, for example in army surplus stores where you can find real golden nuggets. Instead of making identical copies of old clothes, I like to mix contemporary and old that ends up being pieces anyone could wear. There is no need to get the total Apache look from the 30’s. For me it’s important to adapt historical references to contemporary times.There was a real evolution in my collections since I started. For the first one, Fatalitas, I essentially worked on products that came from military deadstocks. What was interesting, beyond the pieces’ origin, original function and history, was to give these clothes a second lease on life, by revisiting them and giving them a new story to tell. With the second collection’s products, the approach was rather different since I got inspiration from old designs in men’s clothing and had the models made in hosieries and French textile factories. When designed with the Fleur de Bagne touch, the products have a rather different impact and image.

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Do you have a reasoning to want to manufacture in France?
Manufacturing Made in France products is a unifying idea behind the project, but also an interesting challenge in my adventure. We have an important heritage in the textiles sector and I’m attached to a French production, as proof of quality. I want to produce in the country I was born in and contribute to growing its economy. I don’t want to sound chauvinistic but I think there are a real knowledge and legacy in the European textile industry, that’s actually why a few products in my collection were made in other countries in Europe, like Germany, Eastern Europe or Portugal. Recently we launched a product in collaboration with the Scottish brand Simmons Bilt for example. It’s important to stay open and accept that in France we are not the best in every domain, we have to get the knowledge where it is. To resume the Fleurs de Bagne’s philosophy, I’d say it’s mandatory to prioritise quality instead of quantity, identity instead of copy, authenticity instead of mass culture.

The last collection’s name was Marche ou crève (Do or Die). Why?
First of all, Marche ou Crève is the slogan of the French 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment. It’s also a motto that speaks a lot to me. Nothing can be taken for granted in life, you need to fight to succeed, whatever it takes you.

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Can you give us some references to know more about this convict’s universe?
Here’s what I consider must-reads in this domain: Les Tatouages du milieu by Jacques Delarue and Robert Giraud. I think it’s the best book about the history of French tattoo. Then you have Au Bagne by Albert Londres, Une Histoire Du Milieu by Jérôme Pierrat, Dry Guillotine by René Belbenoit, L’Argot du Milieu by Jean Lacassagne, Le Travailleur de la Nuit, a very good comic book about Alexandre Jacob, Les Pegriots by Auguste Le Breton (author of several books about French slang)…

If Fleurs de Bagne had its own music playlist, what would we find in it?  
I’m a hundred percent Rock n Roll! Instead of a playlist, here are the groups I often listen to Social Distortion, Backfire, Discipline, Madball, Agnostic Front, Skarhead, Everlast, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Martin Haley, Pokey Lafarge, Django Reinhardt, Cock Sparrer, Cockney Rejects, The Business, Komintern Sect… And there’s so much more!

Any news for Fleurs de Bagne?
We recently opened a new shop, Atelier N°23 in Aix en Provence, France (62 rue des cordeliers), feel free to come visit. Also, the new collection will be out in March, so stay tuned!

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Photography © Wesley Wilquin. You can follow Wesley on Instagram, Facebook and Website.