COURTESY: BILLIONAIRE BOYS CLUB
Leaders in the Japanese streetwear scene are the best brand-builders in the world: They understand the appeal of exclusivity, and how to maintain secretive public persona to safeguard loyal fans' investment in something special. They assert loyalty to sister brands with continual collaboration and cross-pollination. The epitome of cool, in this context, is A Bathing Ape (Bape), the brand with the faceless gorilla as its logo and effusive pop graphics. Bape is otherwise personified by its founder, Nigo, and well-worn circuit tours of his vast collection of all things cult-pop.
Mysterious, Tokyo-born Bape lead designer Sk8thing has served since the label's inception while maintaining an incredibly private existence. He's also remained incredibly busy, designing for BAPE, Pharrell's Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream lines, Neighborhood, W-Taps, undercover, Bounty Hunter, and T-19. Here we speak to the man who's second-in-command at the brand second only to Comme des Garcons in Japanese revenue.
HARSH PATEL: It has been a bit tough to find information on you. I've assumed that's to protect the sanctity of your private life, and to put your work forward as a representation of your personality.
SK8THING: I usually turn down interviews... I just have no desire to do them, and I am always working for a brand with a "front man" I don't feel a necessity to do it either. Maybe that is one of the reasons I have enjoyed working for brands with such visible leaders (Nigo, Pharrell, Hiroshi Fujiwara, etc.)
PATEL: Nonetheless, do you ever get recognized on the street in Japan, or abroad?
SK8THING: No! I'm not famous! If it's at a Bape event or something, maybe, but that doesn't represent the general public at large.
PATEL: What was your art or design education, if any?
SK8THING None. I was always drawing, but I was taught to use a Mac for the first time by Hiroshi [Fujiwara]. I learned from my friends.
PATEL: Do you maintain an archive of all your work? My guess is that the number of T-shirts that you've designed alone must number in the hundreds, correct?
SK8THING: I don't have an archive. I haven't ever counted how many designs I've done... I'm sure it's a lot. I have been designing T-shirts for about 20 years.
PATEL: Do you work alone on most projects, or, do you maintain some kind of a team?
SK8THING: I work alone in my studio, but I feed into different teams at the brands I work with. So both, in a way.
PATEL: In a recent interview for this publication, Mr. Fujiwara said to Fraser Cooke about the continual emergence of "new" styles and cults: "If there's a really good thing going on now and I don't know about it, I think that's kind of right. If I know what's going on, then it's not truly new, if you know what I mean." Do you keep up or collect any current labels?
SK8THING: I do care about finding out about new stuff. I am always looking, although unlike Hiroshi I don't travel, so I am limited to what I can discover from my studio. I do buy things I am interested in... I don't find too much new happening in fashion at the moment, but there are a lot of new things happening in military wear, small independent companies innovating new products, particularly in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I don't find Tokyo very interesting and never have, so I am always looking outside.
PATEL: "Looking outside" would seem to explain your restless pace. Is there any particular reason you don't travel?
SK8THING: I don't like traveling, and I especially don't like planes, airports, etc. I do want to go to other places and see what's happening. It's not that I have a phobia or anything; it's just that when I am asked if I want to go on a trip it always sounds like a lot of trouble so I usually just avoid it. I always have a backlog of designs that need to get finished, and I don't really work outside of my studio so that often prevents me from traveling. I often feel like I want to go to New York or London or wherever, but it only happens very rarely. I have a set routine based in Tokyo that works for me and allows me to get my work done but also see people and stay open to new influences.
PATEL: You are in a band, The Changes, with Misha and Shauna of [T-shirt brand] Perks and Mini, and [London-based artist and homemade tattooist] Fergus Purcell. How do you collaborate? Do you work via e-mail? Are Misha, Shauna, and Fergus fluent in Japanese? Or is your primary exchange mainly a visual one?
SK8THING: Misha is the driving force there. He has a lot of energy and is good at connecting people. Everyone else speaks English—I am the odd one out. I can get by a bit in English and it's quite easy to communicate about shared reference points. It is also possible that I've completely misunderstood everything the other members were saying and they have been totally confused by what I've made but were too polite to say anything. The band is still going, or at least I think it is. I haven't done anything in a while, but I saw Misha recently and he was talking about an exhibition in Milan.
PATEL: Please indulge my curiosity. What is your favorite food?
PATEL: Do you have a favorite television show?
SK8THING: Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
PATEL: What are your plans tonight?
SK8THING: Tonight I will be making graphics.