Last week, legendary LA retailer UNION played host to the North American launch of iconic Japanese brand WTAPS' partnership with Canadian brand Herschel Supply. Staying true to WTAPS' principle of “placing things where they should be” the travel-ready collection, entitled “RECONNAISSANCE,” features military-inspired pieces with functionality rooted in daily life.
To celebrate the first release in what will be an ongoing project, key members from each brand, including WTAPS' Tetsu Nishiyama, Herschel Supply Co-Founder Jamie Cormack and Herschel Design Director Jon Warren came together for a pop-up event featuring food, drinks and live DJ sets from Jules Gayton, Tet and UNION's Chris Gibbs. Outside of WTAP's flagship GIP-STORE in Tokyo, Digicam versions of each WTAPS x Herschel piece were available exclusively at Union LA, while a limited WTAPS x Herschel Supply sleeping bag was available only at the LA event.
We traveled to LA for the event where we caught up with WTAPS' Tetsu and Jamie and Jon of Herschel to discuss the enduring appeal of military style, the relevance of skateboarding, the importance of travel and how family is everything.
Note: Tetsu Nishiyama's answers have been translated from Japanese.
What was your goal when you started WTAPS? Did you think it would become such a cult brand?
TET: When I started I was teenager, so I wasn't really thinking anything of it. I just wanted to make something that I wanted to make.
What is it about WTAPS that has allowed it to persist for so long?
TET: People around me such as Takizawa of NEIGHBORHOOD, Hiroshi Fujiwara, Sk8thing, NIGO, they showed me how to use expression, methods and approach. Their great influence made me who I am today. Also, my customers and supporters, I could not have come this far without their support. I haven’t changed in creating and making what I want to make.
20 years is a very long time in the “streetwear” world, how has the culture surrounding it changed?
TET: I think a big change is the fashion that was born in the streets began to be recognized as expression. I believe groups such as teams, crews and members of people who support their community were street fashion and there is no doubt that we have evolved the environment as a single movement. Produce products, advertise and sell. This process hasn't changed, even over many years. If this is good or bad, that's a different feeling for each individual. I do not hope for anything nor regret anything. I accept the present and support now.
Are there specific people you're looking to right now from youth culture that you find inspiring?
TET:I was all about the skateboard culture when I was a child. It kind of died down a bit once but has recently opened up especially amongst the middle-aged guys. I think that this culture is expanding all over the world again. I think some of the guys that were skateboarding the past aren’t feeling the younger generation but I find inspiration from the kids who are skateboarding now. Skateboarders are sensitive to their surroundings. That is why it is an inspiration.
Much of the WTAPS collection is military-inspired. What is it that initially drew you to military design? What do you think keeps it relevant today?
TET: Initially I had a lot of inspiration from military and its relationships and it was an element for expression. I think the brand WTAPS reflects the cultures and backgrounds that draw from its construction and my feelings of expression at that moment in time. So, I’m not particularly stuck to the essence of military.
Do you have an archive of pieces that you reference?
TET: Broadly speaking, the era may be an archive in itself. There is a culture for each era and there is a characteristic of that era. Places and people, these are the kind things that make a street culture. And when that time passes and becomes an archive, it will be a great reference.
Jon Warren: There was a time period where we went to army surplus stores to get stuff that we could go skateboarding in. It's always blended in with music, art, and skateboarding because there was no clothing for us. We would go to an army surplus store and I could go get a pair of Dickies for 10 dollars. Dickies were a certain type of fabric and there was a certain type of stitch, and then the military pants had triple stitch. Your shoes and your pants were your primary gear for skateboarding. Being that we were skateboarders, you would just obsess over these weird things. I would buy something and then I wasn't just content with it being a pair of pants. I wanted baggy pants and then I learned to go to a tailor and then I learned how to sew. Then I would pleat my pants so that I could get bigger pants.
Like TET said, there's a beauty in American-made things because it's just "get it done." It's not very graceful, but there's a beauty in its imperfection. I think for me, that's always been the draw of the military. We love those types of things. I think I've been chasing that kind of thing my whole life through product. It's not a love affair with the military, it's a love affair with the utility of the product.
Jamie Cormack: The utility aspect we talk about all the time, how you can take that design, add a little bit, almost modernize it, and twist on how you can make it for the street. That makes it really exciting. You still get the look and feel and the details.
JON: Also, the scale at which they produce things. When you take something and you scale it for an army, there's a beauty in the fact that things are stripped away for price. You have to strip it down to its pure functionality.
You're sort of saying you don't need an archive because you've experienced these pieces throughout your life and you know the stitches and you know the details.
JON: Trust me, I have more military shit than you could ever imagine. I've been designing for 20-plus years. Now, it's just a matter of taking those things and seeing them from a new angle. I've been doing this since I was a child, and now I'm a man with a family, but I still love seeing it. I'm learning how to manipulate it in a way that seems more contemporary and more challenging myself to move it forward.
JAMIE: I think it's fun to travel around. I don't care if we're in Japan or if we're just at home in Canada, but you walk into a military store, and you look at something differently. You can pick up the same pair of pants, you find a new detail. You find that twist, and it gets your head thinking someplace else. I think that comes from being a kid. When I first started getting into skateboarding, was how you would set your deck up. I was so specific to how I wanted grip tape, how I wanted my trucks, how I wanted my wheels, the way I would do it, and I think that really opened my mind to details and how I wanted everything. It was how I placed my stickers on that board. Everything had to be perfect. It's those elements that I love.
One of the things that strikes me about WTAPS is the importance placed on words and phrases. What is the origin of "placing things where they should be" and how do you explain it?
TET: There is a word or people called Miyadaiku. They are carpenters. They follow the… okay well let’s explain with this wood. They use these… what do you call this, these lines?
TET: Okay, so they read along this grain and work to understand the characteristics of the wood to make use of it as much as possible. They do not go against the grain and resist the flow. This is also derived from Taoism. I was deeply impressed with the idea and want to think it is also connected with human philosophy, that's where the origin of these phrases came from. People flow as… what do you call them, grains?
The grain? The grain of the wood?
TET: Yeah. People flow like streams or rivers. That’s the philosophy.
What does RECONNAISSANCE mean to you?
TET: When I first was offered to do a project together with Herschel, they suggested to do travel goods. The word Reconnaissance is also a military word. I thought when people come here [to LA] or wherever they travel, they observe, reconnaissance, as well. This word is related to the travel goods and the theme of WTAPS and that became the name of the collection.
In general, what do you feel is the basis of a strong collaboration? What ties Herschel and WTAPS together? Is there a common philosophy you share?
TET: Jon and I have been friends for over 10 years.
JON: Almost 15.
TET: When I talk about the company, I feel like there is a family bond. We are connected like a family. You know what I mean? The company is pretty tight. The company internally is very tightly connected. Our Japanese company is the same and I think is one of the things we have in common with each other. That's why I decided to do this project.
JON: For me, Jamie, and TET, we all were a bunch of middle-aged skateboarders. TET and my relationship started based on skateboarding and that commonality of a group of kids that didn't know what we were doing, we were just kind of following our own path. When we got into this, we had to make things because no one else was making the things that we wanted. I think that was always the common bond. Even though we lived in the United States, Jamie lived in Canada, and TET lived in Japan, we were all on similar paths of making stuff that we wanted to do on our own. I think that kind of is always the common thread of skateboarding and that do-it-yourself philosophy.
JON: At the end of the day it's like, we're just a bunch of guys that are making things that we wanted to make when we were kids.
JAMIE: I think everything in life for me is for relationships. Fortunately enough, John and TET knew each other, and we got introduced a couple years ago. I've always been such a big fan and followed WTAPS forever. To have the opportunity not only to meet, but to actually work in a partnership was huge for us. You don't meet many people that have brands for over 20 years that have established something that these guys have, so it's an honor. I think relationships are everything in life.
JON: You rarely meet people that you have things in common with, especially on a creative level. To actually come together and have this Reconnaissance project was very natural and organic, and I think that's always the sign of a successful project, is the fact that we wanted to work together and it organically happened.
With this project WTAPS has travelled from Japan, and Herschel from Canada, to launch in LA. Why was UNION selected for the event?
JON: Skateboarding is kind of our roots, so we thought it would be kind of appropriate to take a place that we all thought of as the epicenter of skateboarding. This idea of reconnaissance and going somewhere together and the idea of going somewhere that was in neither of our home bases. I think Los Angeles was the perfect place to do it. Plus, we all have a relationship with Chris [Gibbs] that spans over 10 years. Once again, the whole concept of family, working with people that you really like. People that we just had mutual respect for. Chris is also Canadian, so that helps.
TET, you DJed today, how important is music for your process and in your life?
TET: As music became digitized, it became easy to share it with people around the world. Thanks to that, opportunities to actually talk with friends increased. When I was young, this wasn’t available so it was a very closed culture and closed category. People only gathered and affiliated amongst those who liked the same culture, the people who had the same interest. Now thanks to digitization, it has become very open and made it possible to talk variously by extending to other categories. That's something that I cherish.
As the world becomes increasingly digital, how important are real-world experiences in communicating your message, versus the internet?
TET: The information that you can obtain over the Internet is not a real experience, it is just information. In these real event settings you can experience not only information but also real experiences.
How important is travel to you?
TET: Traveling is very important for me now, but I did not think anything particularly when I was young. Now I can see what’s going on in the world and can see the differences between Japan are quite different. It is definitely an inspiration to go to other countries for reconnaissance, the real reconnaissance, yeah.
Where do you like to go?
TET: I want to go to Canada, I’ve never been there. Lately I’ve been going to Asian regions, such as China and Hong Kong. By going to different countries and different cities it definitely gives you various perspective. I love Europe. Every city, every country has a different vision. It makes sense and worth traveling.
What items would we find inside your bag when you're traveling?
TET: My phone. No, just kidding, but not really though. The only thing I bring is an extra bag because when I go to a city to walk around, I’ll definitely need the extra bag space to do some shopping. That’s really the only thing I'm sure to bring.
I like that. A bag for more things.
TET: Maybe a phone.
What words of wisdom would you impart to our readers?
JON: Start making your own shit. Do what we did. JAMIE: Make your own brand. Make your own dreams. TET: Yeah, yeah, yeah. True, true. Do it yourself.
The full WTAPS Herschel collection out now. See the full set here.