HARDCOVER is a digital content series exploring the people, places and things that define and continue to shape the Highsnobiety universe. In this chapter of Brands You Know But Don’t Know Much About, Gregk Foley takes a deep dive into the world of WTAPS, a label that defined and remains a foundation of Japanese streetwear.
For the longest time, WTAPS was the one Japanese streetwear brand that every Western retailer wanted on their roster. The military-infused label founded by Tetsu Nishiyama back in 1997 has long been one of the vanguards of the OG Japanese streetwear movement, but the brand’s cagey operations and lack of accessibility to stores outside of Japan have made it hard to come across. Until very recently, the brand only sold out of their showroom, meaning prospective stockists were expected to make the long trip to Tokyo if they even wanted to get a look.
And that’s before the product even hits the rails. When it comes to drop day lines, it’s only really Supreme (and increasingly Palace) who have the reputation for drawing long queues of customers week by week. Over in Tokyo, however, WTAPS is equally notorious for rapid sell-out times. The brand might move much more stealthily than its more brash and boisterous Western counterparts, but it’s certainly no less coveted. And like the other two, the reason for this is simple: for over 20 years, WTAPS has stuck to a winning formula of creating consistently high-quality clothes that tie into a larger story and create a culture you want to be part of.
Like so many Japanese streetwear heavyweights, WTAPS' roots can be traced back to the Ura-Harajuku movement of the early '90s which birthed labels like UNDERCOVER, NEIGHBORHOOD and BAPE. WTAPS actually arrived on the scene a little later than its cohorts, however. Brand founder Tetsu Nishiyama and NEIGHBORHOOD founder Shinsuke Takizawa first became friends in high school, and Shinsuke, being roughly seven years his senior, was a couple steps ahead in his development.
A Tale of Two Brands
So when Shinsuke founded NEIGHBORHOOD in 1994, Tetsu (or Tet) was hot on his trails. His first brand, Forty Percent Against Rights, was a simple graphic T-shirt brand that printed bold political slogans on simple garments. The brand’s anarchist-inflected sensibilities showed glimmers of what Tet would eventually create in WTAPS three years later, developing the molecular concept of a guerrilla military-influenced streetwear label into a fully fledged brand.
So it was 1997 when WTAPS first properly launched and it hit the ground running. As was common practice among the Ura-Hara scene at the time, WTAPS immediately dropped collaborative releases with UNDERCOVER and BAPE, solidifying the brand’s place in the heavyweight roster – and with good reason. Even early on the graphics and designs were strong – so strong that a lot of the general motifs and elements are still common features in collections today, such as the brand’s GPS coordinates, sickle logo and “visualuparmored” tagline.
As far as the history goes, WTAPS tends to be grouped alongside its “older brother” NEIGHBORHOOD, and like its sibling, the brand generally flew under the radar outside of Japan well into the late 2000s, certainly not getting wrapped up in the Soulja Boy BAPE hysteria of 2006. Like NEIGHBORHOOD, the WTAPS business model was by all metrics one of slow and steady growth selling to a devoted domestic customer. In fact, until the early 2010s, the brand was still printing its T-shirts on Bull Ink, a premium Japanese T-shirt blank company, with the original tags left in – hardly the moves of a company seeking to build a world-spanning fashion brand empire.
Similarly, despite having been around since the late ‘90s, it was only in 2011 that WTAPS opened its first and only flagship, GIP-Store (Guerrilla: the Incubation Period), a low-lit space decorated inside and out to resemble a mid-20th century military bunker. The Japanese approach to fashion is often best summarized as quality over quantity, but few take this ethos to the level that WTAPS has.
But like so many of the best Japanese streetwear brands, that’s part of WTAPS’ charm. The core staple pieces around which each collection is built each season haven’t really changed so much as they’ve evolved. Whereas Supreme’s three evergreen hype pieces are the box logo hoodie, crewneck and T-shirt, WTAPS has its Jungle Stock shirts, trousers and shorts, its Design T-shirts, and a whole roster of military jackets, most notably its M-65s, which have become the pinnacle iteration of the silhouette much like Alpha Industries’ MA-1 jacket or Raf Simons’ fishtail parkas.
WTAPS as an Extension of Its Founder
If there’s one thing that distinguishes WTAPS from other labels in the field, it’s the deeply personal and biographical turn that the brand has taken at certain times. References to philosophy, growth, evolution and spirituality have been a constant thread in WTAPS collections, and Tet has often seemed keen to reflect his personal perspectives in his label’s collections from season to season.
Collections have occasionally been accompanied by short essays, poems and aphorisms, or manifestos-of-sorts, extolling a particular aspect of his personal philosophy, while collections are often underpinned by a central thesis that is reflected in the garments themselves. On some occasions, Tet has even placed himself in lookbooks, videos or other content, skating through town, working in his studio, playing with his children, and so on.
One of the brand’s many slogans is “Way of Life” and this mantra can certainly be felt in the utilitarian nature of WTAPS’ clothes. Sure, military silhouettes have been a staple of fashion almost as long as they’ve existed, but if you’re a child of street culture like Tet, there’s a simple logic to clothes made of durable nyco and ripstop fabrics with lots of pockets and a comfortable fit.
This view of the brand is only strengthened when you take into consideration some of Tet’s other projects. In the mid-2010s, he revived his original Forty Percent Against Rights label as a means of returning to his more spontaneous and less-restrained early days, bringing back original graphics from the archive and printing them on simple blanks.
Likewise, a few years back he launched Descendant with his wife and fellow designer Mikiko, a men’s, women’s and youth label that softens a lot of WTAPS’ harsher aesthetic tendencies into a clean, comfortable label clearly targeted at contemporary, style-forward families. Tet is a designer whose creative processes and references have shifted and changed with his life, reflecting a fundamental understanding of clothes as something that should integrate into one’s life, not vice versa.
The most recent of these subtle developments was the creation of WTAPS’ new MILL collection, a small, all-seasons collection that offers the quintessential staple pieces that every WTAPS customer wants to own. Typically when a fashion label stumbles upon a hit, what follows is a careful process of limiting supply and increasing demand in such a way that the golden goose can lay eggs for as long as possible; it’s precisely such practices that have dogged the modern sneaker industry as consumers bemoan having to compete with bots and resellers over shoes with deliberately limited production numbers. In contrast, Tet’s decision to make his best-sellers more available (at least in theory; they still sell out like hot cakes), is a refreshing approach.
Like many of Japan’s biggest streetwear labels, WTAPS has also been at the forefront of some of the most coveted and collectible collaborations to release over the years, some of them rivaling Supreme’s in their ability to hold, and even increase in value, over time. Much like how Supreme’s 2002 SB Dunk was pivotal in solidifying the Nike SB series’ place in streetwear history, WTAPS was one of the collaborative partners that helped put the Vans Syndicate series on the map with their limited edition "Bones" sneakers. Produced from premium materials in simple colorways with a distinctive embroidered crossbones pattern, each successive release has only increased their mystique and appeal. Even their wider 2013 release through the Vans Vault franchise have reached grail status after Kanye West was photographed wearing them.
Likewise, collaborations with the usual suspects, such as Supreme, Carhartt WIP, A Bathing Ape and NEIGHBORHOOD have cemented WTAPS in the top tier of the streetwear hierarchy. Even further, for several years Tet was at the helm of URSUS BAPE, a subline of the cult streetwear brand that produced more mature, understated clothing than the brand’s typical cloud-camo splattered affair. All of which is to say that, like many of the Tokyo scene’s best-loved designers, Tet’s influence can be found in many corners of the subculture.
More Than Just a Brand
There’s a reason so many of our comings-of-age in style and streetwear tend to move in three stages; first, that initial discovery that such a thing as streetwear, everyday clothes designed to look cool, exists; then, discovering Supreme, the brand that arguably does this to the highest standard in the West; and, finally, entering the world of Japanese streetwear, where those first two points converge into their pinnacle execution.
There are as many definitions of streetwear as there are brands that fall under its ever-expanding umbrella. The thing that really distinguishes streetwear from other forms of fashion is a deep understanding of, and commitment to, telling a story through clothes; creating narratives and identities that customers want to become a part of, to adopt and express in their daily dress.
In that light, it’s almost impossible not to see how WTAPS has come to have such an esteemed status in the scene. The narratives that WTAPS weaves through each of its collections, whether focused around prep, military, punk, skate, or any amalgamation of these genres, being channeled through the eyes of its founder, is perhaps the most personal and personable you can get. The term "lifestyle brand" gets thrown around a lot these days. When every label that’s been around for six months has the idea to create the odd novelty tissue dispenser or ash tray, what was once a term that described a very particular form of fashion brand becomes just another watered-down, uninspiring category that marketing majors seek to capitalize on.
In reality, it’s labels like WTAPS that really capture the potency of that first word, "lifestyle." WTAPS is a brand that speaks to a desire that many of us have, to have clothes that speak to some essential quality somewhere at the crossroads of form and function, comfort and culture. Since he first started his label in 1997, Tetsu Nishiyama has created the type of clothing he wants to wear. We know this, because he wears the clothing he designs. It’s everyday wear, just elevated. In terms of style, it’s hard to think of a better marker of great design.