This story is taken from Issue 18 of Highsnobiety magazine. You can buy the new issue here.
Back in the ’90s, the street culture found in the backstreets of Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood arguably laid the foundation for today’s global streetwear obsession. Jun Takahashi, NIGO, Sk8thing, and Hiroshi Fujiwara — household names to any Highsnobiety reader — were in their 20s and simultaneously excited and scared about their futures, much like the youth of today. Tsuyoshi Nakano of SKOLOCT was there too, and it’s about time he got his due.
Tsuyoshi Nakano got his start in the ’90s at the label NGAP, a multi-disciplinary collective that designed clothes, interiors, and furniture. NGAP was heavily influenced by graffiti culture (the “AP” in NGAP stood for “Action Paint”) and reflected an era in which street artists like Eric Haze and Futura 2000 went from bombing walls to putting their work on T-shirts, accessories, and storefronts.
Before NGAP was founded in 1998, Nakano spent the early ’90s hanging out at a nightclub where A Bathing Ape founder NIGO, UNDERCOVER’s Jun Takahashi, and Ura-Harajuku godfather Hiroshi Fujiwara DJed. At the time, the Japanese streetwear movement was still in its infancy, and Nakano — a little younger than the others — became a key part of the Harajuku story. In 1993, he applied his craft of painting and design to NOWHERE, the seminal concept shop run by Takahashi and NIGO, which became the launchpad for UNDERCOVER and BAPE. Takahashi and Nakano’s relationship is especially close. For a time, the two lived together and Takahashi even fronted the cash to get NGAP started.
Among NGAP’s most-remembered items were painted bags that appealed to both stylish city dwellers and graffiti artists looking for a great way to carry around spray cans and other supplies. In an interview with EMPTY R _ _ M last year, Nakano explained how NIGO once sold ¥100 million worth of the bags (roughly $900,000). NGAP came to an end with Nakano tiring of the business side of the project. Like any true creative who’d rather worry about craft than business, Nakano was more interested in making cool shit than thinking about finances.
So in 2007, Nakano branched out on his own, starting SKOLOCT. It began with an eponymous googly-eyed character, who appeared in art and on clothing. Inspired by Nakano’s childhood love of Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters like Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, and Scooby Doo, the SKOLOCT character has often been repurposed for garments that lean on pop culture references, such as a black T-shirt with a yellow SKOLOCT graphic that plays on Kurt Cobain’s classic Nirvana smiley logo tee.
Since its launch, the SKOLOCT brand has found its audience organically, carving out a place in the modern Japanese streetwear scene. True to Nakano’s roots, his connections with Takahashi and NIGO have led to a series of collaborations, not only with UNDERCOVER, but also TAKAHIROMIYASHITATheSoloist., VLONE, and Stüssy. Last fall, Amazon Fashion also put on a SKOLOCT art exhibition titled “AT TOKYO” in the Japanese capital.
We caught up with Nakano at his atelier shop in a small alley in the heart of Harajuku, where the Urahara OG, now 47 years old, talked to us about his past, his creations, today’s youth, and culture in Japan and beyond.
First, we’d like to ask you about your early days. How did NGAP start?
The first thing I worked on was a store called NOWHERE — it was what became A Bathing Ape. I was more like a painter than an interior designer or an architect. That was the early ’90s. After that, I started NGAP to design stores and make clothes. NGAP was around from 1998 to about 2005. We did 12 collections in six years.
How was the transition from NGAP to SKOLOCT?
NGAP was always about building spaces, so we made clothes that looked architectural. That was the box we fit in. But as I continued, I wanted to express myself freely rather than staying within the architectural concept. That’s when I closed NGAP and started SKOLOCT. I created a character and started making art. That was the direction.
The theme of this issue is “disruption.” Are you inspired by rebellion against established ideas and the impulse of fresh ideas?
Of course. I basically try to make things that no one has ever seen before.
You grew up in Tokyo. Can you tell us about your childhood?
My family lived in the Itabashi area of Tokyo when I was in elementary school. Our neighbor was a surfer guy and I kind of latched on to him and started surfing and skateboarding. We used to go to surf spots in Ichinomiya in Chiba a lot. I found those surfers really cool. Many of them were involved in fashion. Elementary, junior high, high school… I didn’t go to high school too much. I was always surfing or skateboarding back then.
Wow, you really got into it.
Yep. I also started going to clubs when I was in my teens. That was about the time I met Jun [Takahashi] and NIGO.
So clubbing was how you met Urahara fashion icons like Jun Takahashi, NIGO, Sk8thing, and Hiroshi Fujiwara?
Yeah. An older friend hired me to work something like security at a club called Milo’s Garage in Shinjuku [in central Tokyo]. Monday was a rock event, “London Night,” Tuesday was hip-hop, Wednesday was reggae, Thursday was rockabilly, Friday was house, Saturday was Hiroshi Fujiwara, a mix of all kinds of music. That club was a hub for meeting those fashion people. Hiroshi was working at many different places, but all of those Urahara guys were DJing there, so it was natural for me to get to know many of them and become friends.
It’s interesting that such a club was in Shinjuku, not Shibuya.
The club scene back then was in Shinjuku. Roppongi was another spot. But I think the people who really loved music were in Shinjuku. We were all hanging out. Then, one day, NIGO and Jun told me they were opening a store in Harajuku and wanted me to help them out. That was NOWHERE. From that work, I realized Harajuku was a really fascinating place and started making stuff there.
SKOLOCT has collaborated with UNDERCOVER, BOUNTY HUNTER, and Hysteric Glamour, among others. Are there any collaborations that really stood out for you?
There are many, but UNDERCOVER always has a place in my heart.
How many collaborations have you done with UNDERCOVER?
I wonder how many… [Laughs] I’ve known Jun for 25 or 26 years. When I see him from time to time, it’s like, “Hey, let’s do something together.” Another brand I’ve enjoyed working with recently is OJAGA DESIGN. They do handmade leather goods. I met them back when I was doing NGAP and they make really interesting pieces. Right now, we carry iPhone cases and wallets by them in our store.
Looking overseas, working with VLONE was an awesome experience. They have a different cultural background, so it was a completely different process compared with other collaborations I’ve done. A$AP Bari comes to the store every time he’s in Japan. He once asked me to come to Miami and when I went there, Playboi Carti was there too. Their community is an entirely different world, so working and hanging out with them was a valuable experience.
Tokyo’s street scene in the ’90s was majorly influenced by hip-hop culture. Then, in the ’00s, we started seeing US hip-hop artists wearing Harajuku brands. What artists did you like back then?
Well, I did like hip-hop, and I was listening to the Beastie Boys or Run-DMC when I skated back then, just like other kids. But when I made something, I wasn’t particularly influenced by hip-hop. Pharrell wore a lot of my clothes, though. That was nice. Nowadays, I listen to trap music a lot. I’m listening to Young Thug.
My boys working at the store listen to him — those guys are in their 20s — so I started listening too. I’m always interested in new things that have global influence in some way.
So you spend time with the younger generation every day?
Yeah. When my generation was in elementary and junior high, there was a skateboard store in Harajuku called STORMY. [Pro skateboarder] YOPPI [aka Yoshifumi Egawa] was there a lot. It’s not like I lived there, but there were always kids at STORMY, all hanging out together. I think that’s what the Harajuku vibe is, and I hope people will make my store a place like that.
That’s better than being a business that just sells things to adults who have money to burn. Is there a particular artist that has influenced you?
I don’t think there’s one in particular. Of course, I’m closely involved with famous brands like A Bathing Ape and UNDERCOVER, also Sk8thing and some other very talented people. I’ve traveled outside of Japan and seen the work of other artists as well. But I feel like I take in what I’ve seen and experienced, and process it in my own way. It represents me and no one else. I would love to make something that amazes the world, just like other great artists.
Is there a particular place or scene anywhere in the world today that you’re interested in?
We did a fashion pop-up store in Chongqing, China last year. I found that many people there genuinely wanted to buy what’s new to them. There wasn’t any major trend or hype, it was about the simple feeling of wanting to buy something. That felt fresh. I felt like… it’s easy to create a new culture or style there because they have a big population. The possibilities of China interest me. I’d also like to be more proactive in working in the States and Europe.
How do you spend an average day?
I get up, have some coffee, get to the store about 10 a.m., work until evening. That’s a normal day. I’m planning a solo exhibition in Toyama, so I’m working on creating the pieces now. A solo exhibition means I need to create about 50 to 70 new works.
Finally, can you share your personal philosophy or a motto you live by?
I don’t know anything about that kind of stuff. [Laughs] But nothing is impossible — that’s what I keep in mind as I work and run my business.
Highsnobiety magazine Issue 18 is available now from our online store and at select premium stockists and boutiques worldwide.