Tetsu Nishiyama, aka TET, is oftentimes mentioned in the same breath as such illustrious figures as Shinsuke Takizawa, Hiroshi Fujiwara, NIGO or Sk8thing - a group of likeminded creatives who went on to form the nucleus of the Harajuku street fashion scene in the early 1990s. Providing a more contemporary and youth-oriented alternative to avant-garde fashion of the likes of Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, or Issey Miyake, they managed to solidify and maintain Japan’s reputation as a constant purveyor of premium styles. Without doubt a cornerstone of this vibrant scene, prolific designer TET significantly shaped the perception of Japan as a fashion-forward nation. Besides pursuing his design ambitions through his brands WTAPS and FPAR, he launched the successful retail outlet Blackflag, followed by the GIP-STORE in 2011. Numerous successful collaborations with brands like Stussy, BAPE© and Supreme quickly gained WTAPS recognition outside of its native Japan. We recently caught up with TET in Berlin where he promoted his latest collab with Vans. Check out the full interview to learn more about the philosophy behind his brands, his ideas regarding collaborations and his penchant for military clothing.
WTAPS slogan reads “Placing things where they should be”. Please tell us more about the brand's philosophy.
“Placing things were they should be” originated as the WTAPS principle for if you create something simple, that is where you end up reaching. That’s basically the whole point of that slogan. But WTAPS is now moving on to a different concept, it came from a Japanese word called "seikatsusha" which we coined the term “lifeist”. A lifeist basically draws no distinction between work, play and learning. And that is actually what WTAPS is trying to strive for – a form of lifestyle.
You seem to have a penchant for cryptic abbreviations – WTAPS, FPAR, GIP. What exactly does WTAPS mean? How did you come up with it?
The meaning behind WTAPS comes from a military term “double tap," which occurred I think in the 1920s or 1930s, I’m not sure exactly. It’s a form of shooting, in which the second bullet hits the same spot where the first bullet hit, in order to penetrate for a total kill. That meaning, however, doesn’t hold any meaning for the brand.
How about FPAR? Where does that name derive from?
The name was actually created by Sk8thing (one of the BAPE© designers). FPAR (“Forty Percents Against Rights”) initially started out as a graphic bootleg label. FPAR is based on a concept he heard of before saying if an original artwork was modified at least 40% the rights to that particular artwork don’t exist anymore. That’s why it’s “against rights." However, Sk8thing is not really sure. It’s kind of an urban legend he heard of.
Where does your infatuation with military garb originate from?
What draws me the most to military wear is the practicality, process of production, how they are stitched, materials, etc.
Military garb was largely appropriated by the protest generation during Vietnam War as a means of undermining the ruling system. By now, military-inspired clothing is a dime a dozen in fashion and largely devoid of its subversive power. FPAR, however, emits a rebellious, almost anarchic spirit. Do you think fashion should have a political message? Is it even possible to convey a meaningful message through fashion?
If it’s possible to convey a meaningful message through fashion… the buyer or the customers are not wanting that. That’s not what they are demanding. I don’t think that’s possible to work.
So people just want a nice piece of clothing?
Not just nice. Trends are also a part of fashion and at times an aspect demanded. But, FPAR is not fashion, it is a muttering activity using silkscreen as a form of media to spread a message. That is FPAR.
Though it has been around for a much longer time than WTAPS, most people are not familiar with your first brand FPAR. Are there any plans to make it available outside of Japan?
The first goal of FPAR is to have activities in their area of origin and to be able to spread the message within their original area and roots. But if there is a need and want from the international market, that’s something I would surely consider. But it’s a really small tight-knit group based on doing and being active in their own place first before spreading out and expanding.
So it’s more or less tied to Japan and Japanese society?
I feel it’s tied to Japanese society because I live in Japanese society. And also it’s an idea and concept, which probably wouldn’t have come about unless I was living in Japan.
Before opening your latest retail space the GIP-STORE, you ran the Blackflag store. I wonder if this name derives from the American Hardcore Punk band of the same name, as streetwear is commonly associated with hip hop music.
The name Blackflag originated as a location in Aoyama. It’s, however, not really a particular location. The term Blackflag is not from the band, but to raise a black flag in the sense of a pirate flag, to start something new and revolutionary in a new place. It was actually Shinsuke Takizawa, the CEO of NEIGHBORHOOD, who came up with the name.
Speaking of Shinsuke Takizawa. You are part of a close group of Harajuka creatives including the likes of Sk8thing or Hiroshi Fujiwara. Where did you guys meet? What was it like back then when you guys started your brands?
Back then everybody was more or less doing their own thing of what they liked to do. It was a really fun atmosphere. We were able to enjoy the stuff we were doing and help each other at the same time. There was sort of a synergy, which created new things. Like Shin Chan (Sk8thing) was doing designs for BAPE© and because of that I was also able to design for BAPE© as well.
Do you think there was a need for a new wave of Japanse fashion?
The timing just happened to work. But there probably… definitely was a need from the fashion market in Japan. There might have been a shift going on in Japanese society. Indie music was becoming popular. So that shift from major to independent happened in the same period and therefore contributed to the emergence of a new Japanese fashion scene, for sure.
WTAPS and Japanese brands in general are highly regarded and sought after in the West. In your opinion, where does this success stem from?
Actually I never felt that personally. But through interviews like this I can feel it, but still I really don’t have a whole feeling that it’s there.
So I suppose there was also no particular time when you realized your brand was doing pretty well outside of Japan?
No, not really.
You collaborated with some of the biggest names in the business including Stussy, Supreme and BAPE©. How did these collaborations come about, especially the one with Vans?
As for Vans it started through an introduction of a personal friend who lived in Los Angeles. I felt that afterwards it continued into developing into a really good relationship, probably because there is such a good feeling and vibe going on between us, which goes both ways. But also the people who are in charge over there at Vans are the same generation as we are and the things they like are the same, or at least similar. So on those terms it’s really easy to communicate and it’s also fun. And even if that’s for Supreme or BAPE© it’s still the same.
Do you have any personal guidelines or principles based on how you chose your collab partners? What is it you look for in your collaborators?
The priority is if it works and fits into the WTAPS collection. That’s the number 1 priority. Everything is selected and chosen by my own eyes. That’s actually the most important factor.
There is a sheer abundance of collabs nowadays, with some of them seeming a bit random at times, if not downright redundant. What do you think makes for an outstanding collab?
I really can’t round it up into one version is better or not, because there are two forms of collaborations. One might have more exposure, or you can have a collaboration where not much marketing etcetera is done between the brands. But as long as both brands match and have the same sort of feel, and if there is a meaning behind it and if I am able to understand the meaning behind it, then I feel the collaboration works.
Can you name your favorite collaboration?
My favorite collaborations don’t have to materialize. It is really just the initial stage of someone, a client or a potential collaborator asking me and wanting my work, which appeals to me. That was the case with Supreme, when James (Jebbia) was asking me for my artwork for example. When I just have that request, that offer, just at that early point it would become my favorite collaboration.
And in terms of past collaborations?
I’d say Vans.
Interview & Photos: Fritz Radtke / Highsnobiety.com