I’m already thinking about resolutions for early 2015. One is to drag the look of this blog and the clumsy URL out of 2009 and the other is to chuck more interviews up here. This site probably wouldn’t be here without Mo’ Wax’s influence and, seeing as I chucked up some Converse press bits a few weeks back (and discussed the MW bulletin board a couple of years ago), here’s a longer version of a chat with James Lavelle on the subject of shoes for the build-up to the Nike project that dropped today. He was very gracious with his time and particularly talkative on the subject of collaborations, answering a few questions I’ve always wanted to ask. That Mo’ Wax Manga project was a significant opportunity missed.
How did the Converse project begin?
JAMES: Once the book started and was on social media right at the beginning, there were a couple of interviews right at the start of the book and it started this wave of re-interest with Mo’ Wax and I wanted to do a series of collaborations around the Mo’ Wax thing, with people who we’d worked with in the past — we did a few things with Bathing Ape again and there’s other collaborations coming as well from people we worked with in Japan. For some reason it came through that Converse would potentially be interested in doing something and I know Ian [Ginoza] from DJing back in the day and I’d done some work with him back in Asia when he was there. We met up in New York when I was there at the end of last year and we talked about doing a possible collaboration that would be a friends and family type project.
Did you pick the Jack Purcell?
To be honest with you, the sneakers that I wear the most are Jack Purcells now. So I was quite keen to be able to work with Converse as a contemporary thing, representing me as a person right now. I buy Converse — it’s the sort of thing I wear and it’s generally a Jack Purcell. I designed it with them basically and the detail was really, really important. Just new ways and new technologies and things that hadn’t necessarily been down before — the idea was to create something that had the Mo’ Wax feel. I really wanted to create a shoe that would stand out as a shoe in its own right and wasn’t gimmicky or over the top and garish. It would fit in with where I was at now and not necessarily where I was at 15 years ago, do you know what I mean? It was with me and Matt [Sleep]. Ian facilitated it and has been very open, like, “Do what you wanna do!”
To be honest, there wasn’t much compromise with what we did. The idea was to take something that was iconic from Mo’ Wax, so the camouflage — it’s a recurring theme in a lot of elements of what we’ve used recently. It’s on the book, it’s on the Nike sneaker, it’s in the Nike garms, it’s on a lot of other collaborations — all these other things, like the Medicom. It’s not a graphic design thing — it has a pattern quality to it. It has something that, in its own right — away from Mo’ Wax — is an interesting image. I didn’t want to do anything where it felt like we were printing images, like when we did the DUNKLE and it was really garish, with lots going on. How can we get the design aesthetic into something really subtle? And with the mids, it was just self-indulgent for me because I really wanted to do something with stingray or something that had an interesting fabric to it. We talked through lots of ideas and I’d just seen the Margiela shoe and was quite jealous of that, with it being such a great idea. They were very much against repeating anything that might have been done in the past or something that was too similar to something that was going on, because I’d suggested about something that involved painting shoes — then I saw the Margiela and was like, “Oh fuck, that one’s done.” So what was interesting with that was keeping subtle themes going, like having Mo’ Wax on the sole of the feet or on the tips of the laces or on the insole or on the little strip on the back — there’s this sort of Mo’ Wax touch. But the stingray was just to try and apply something that would hopefully look pretty cool.
Stingray always looks good — I’ve seen real stingray used on a New Balance before.
The only compromise was that I couldn’t use the real thing. There’s laws about exotic materials. But actually, how it came out was pretty cool because it has a weird, unique feel to it.
Collaboration culture really seems to have become a business model now rather an organic act or logical progression. Do you keep up with the current state of collaborations?
No, I’m pretty out of that world now. I don’t pay masses of attention. Because what I was doing back then was about being part of the culture and reacting to that environment. Once it became a business it changed. I mean, collaborations have been going on forever — it’s the nature of the collaborations that changed and the way that certain companies that were unapproachable that you’ve grown up with, that I’ve grown up with — Nike sneakers, Medicom toys, Major Force…all of these things that, when I was a kid, were the things that you collected and the things that you never dream that you’d ever be able to be a part of, were suddenly something that you had access to. And as those things became cool — most people forget that a lot of the things I did at the time did not do very well, because people weren’t very interested in buying the toys, and they weren’t very interested in buying all the stuff and that’s one of the reasons that Mo’ Wax isn’t around any more — and they were in very, very small circles, because there wasn’t the internet involved back then, so things weren’t like they are. You couldn’t see Japan in that way — you had to go there.
So there was sort of a mythology and there was something very much about a united group of people around the world that were collaborating together and also getting to collaborate on the things that they’d admired or grown up on, so Nike was involved. And in many ways, Nike was the beginning of that, because Nike was a commercial brand. It was adidas and Nike, with Nigo doing Bathing Ape and adidas and Nike doing things like the Dunk and other collaborations with Futura and Stash — they were the first time that companies like that were doing fashion-based collaborations or music-based collaborations generally. Nike never did that before and adidas had a bit of history. And once it opened up, it just became the norm that everybody and every company had a Bearbrick, from Chanel to Gucci. Everything becomes a limited edition, you know? From Top Shop to whatever. It’s just a way of marketing things now, more than anything else. It wasn’t really about marketing back in the day — it wasn’t thought out. It was based around a small community of people.
There seemed to be a lot of collaborations that never dropped with Mo’ Wax. There was a Vans that never dropped, plus a mooted Clarks collaboration.
Yeah. There were so many things I tried to do. You see things in the book like the 3D toy and Vans stuff. Then the LEGO. There was the Glen Friedman poster. There was a lot of stuff that we tried to do — a lot of records and a lot of people that we were going to work with that never happened and to was pre-internet and it was a pretty mad, young hedonistic, lunatics taking over the asylum kind of time, you now? So you’d meet somebody that wanted to do something at a company and maybe by the time you got so far, they would have left, or the company closed down or moved on. There was Manga film — was talking to Manga for a year about making a movie. I was talking to a games company for a while about a game. There was endless stuff that never came out — there was almost more of that than the stuff that came out.
Mo’ Wax never really seemed to end for me — I only called off the search on the Friedman poster five years ago. I forget how young you were then — it makes me feel lazy.
I dunno man. It’s hard to look at yourself then. It was a long time ago and I was a different person really. I think one of the fundamental things was that I was very young but so were many of the people who were the fabric of the label — Shadow, Ben, Will, Charlie — everybody was young. Most music that you hear now that’s big is from young people, whether it’s the XX or Young Turks. There’s always that spark in music that creates a lot of people who are successful. With design and art it’s happened more in the last twenty years because of the nature of information and how we look at things. But back in the day, if you were a designer or whatever, it was just before Lee McQueen and that new generation. Most people would work in that world honing their skills for a long time so you know? Your image was based around older, more successful designers and people that had quite a long history of learning their craft.
With the whole friends and family nature of the Converse project it feels like a celebration — has the Southbank project and book allowed you to just back at what you did in a fonder way and see the influence?
It’s funny. I was with Michèle Lamy, who’s Rick Owens’ wife, at Meltdown. It was mad seeing her read the book because she was just fascinated and she said, “Oh, I thought Kanye and Pharrell invented all this — I can’t believe this is 10 years earlier!” So in that way, it’s great. It’s a mixed emotional experience for me because there’s a lot of regret and emotional history and time but there’s also a lot of joy and it’s been really good working with Ben — and that’s been a very consistent relationship — and how we went through it and achieved that process. It’s great that sort of came together and Meltdown came together and could be celebrated in that way and the opening of the exhibition was a very wonderful evening. Going back to your last question, it’s about that environment you’re in as well. Mo’ Wax was a product of its environment and that success was when the environment was really thriving and there was an amazing amount of imagination and creativity, you know? And so looking at this room and seeing all these people that were there…also, a lot of these people at that period in time had a lot of politics. Part of what I did was bring people together who wouldn’t necessarily work together, so we were trying to weave around the politics to achieve something. So that made it quite difficult and quite volatile at times — seeing all these people in one room, and some hadn’t spoken in 10 or 15 years, or fallen out, and them leaving that behind was very joyous. I think, by being in a public space like the Southbank, we all just looked at ourselves and went, “Oh fuck! We’re all part of this.” That was an amazing time and how brilliant it is that it’s being celebrated.
The record as a tangible, beautifully packaged thing seems like a thing of the past now.
It was an amazing time, but you’re young and your priorities are different. There was an infrastructure and there were successes. There was just this will to create and to do — we did a lot of stuff. It was a different time. In many ways the internet has changed a lot of how creativity works — some for the good and some for the bad. With record labels it totally changed because of the fact that there’s free digital records. People would buy records and there was money to spend on making them because they had an economic value. There are still a lot of interesting, creative labels that do unique things — I think that it’s more boutique now. Mo’ Wax was actually quite successful and well-known — it was a successful brand in that we were selling a million Shadow records and we weren’t selling 500 limited edition 180-gram, hand printed records.
As far as the relationship between Nike and Mo’ Wax, how did that begin? I recall a CD back in early 1997…
Yeah, yeah, the running thing that we did. That was weird. I can’t remember what the hell was going on there — that was a really strange project that was. It really did not connect — I wouldn’t connect the dots between that project and creating a sneaker. To be honest with you, that Nike project, and if my memory serves me right because it was a fucking long time ago, it was done through a marketing company — an ad agency. We were always interested in doing things like that — I think the mad thing with that was that it had to be all new music and there couldn’t be any samples. That’s why it ended up being Richard File and Ils doing it.
How did the real Nike relationship begin?
At the beginning we all went out for dinner with Sandy [Bodecker], Mark [Parker] and various others — it was me, Michael Kopelman, Fraser, Giorgio and the guys from Nike. I remember that I had to leave very quickly because I was going to a Queens of the Stone Age gig. I was like, “Hi, nice to meet you!” And they were like, “What would you do?” and I just said, “An UNKLE shoe or something like that…” and it just seemed to happen. So Fraser and I met them at the same time —he wasn’t working with Nike then. Fraser was at Footpatrol then — that’s when the collaborations with them started.
So how did the new project come about?
I spoke to Fraser and spoke about the book and originally asked if we could reissue or do something with the Dunk — I was put in contact with SB and for some reason we didn’t connect. I was meant to have a meeting with some guy and that never happened. Then Fraser asked if I wanted to do something with him and he asked me if I liked the Blazer. I really like the Blazer — I like what Supreme have done with the Blazer. And he showed me the Destroyer jacket and we went from there. And with that collaboration, what I really wanted to do was not use too much of the old graphics.There’s camo in part of the shoe design but it’s done subtly. There’s inner-linings and embossing again. I like repeat graphic patterns — buying into that and repeating imagery in a classic sort of Warhol-esque way. So the Converse and Nike are linked but they don’t look the same — there’s recurring theme and the history’s there. There’s a bit of Ben and there’s a bit of me and a bit of Futura — a bit of Mo’ Wax in general. But the thing with Gio is that when we looking at placing logos on the Destroyer that has patches and stuff, we found the original ideas garish and it wasn’t something that you would want to wear. While this is a Mo’ Wax collaboration, I want these to be wearable. things — I don’t just want it to be for Mo’ Wax people and I wanted to wear it myself, you know?
What’s the concept behind the Nike project?
What is it about Mo’ Wax that we’re trying to translate in a shoe? It’s this kind of sample culture idea of Mo’ Wax being part of this generation and why people made the records they did. It was this sample collage generation. We’re trying to look at how to use these elements and do something different. So I thought it would be good to take this idea of sample culture and collage and build and destroy and all of these words that were asserted with Mo’ Wax, because there was a lot of wording on Mo’ Wax records and were on the advertising — I took the classic titling like “Headz”, “sample culture”, “build and destroy” and “our past is your future” and asked Gio to basically write them out and because he also writes backwards, again it’s sort of something where it’s not in your face — it just becomes textual but there’s a historical and a wording concept to it — so yeah, it was just trying to play with how you how you make a record and apply that to something else. The whole thing with the shoe was that there’s lots of different fabrics so there’s it has this sample and collage feel to it.
How did you meet Gio? That’s a relationship that goes back a long way, right?
I met him 19 years ago. He did work on UNKLE stuff and Mo’ Wax stuff. There’s a toy with him that never came out that’s in the book. It’s a skateboarder toy of one of his characters. He is one of my closest, most dear, best, best friends. He’s like my brother. I have of some of his work that he did for me on my arm. When you’re designing the thing I want a certain amount of connection to what we’re doing so it connects you in a way that’s subtle and justifies the work to me by giving it context.
Is the orange lining an MA-1 reference?
Yes. It’s very classic of that era.
Were you a big Blazer fan when it came to that model? You mentioned the Supreme collaboration but it also stretches back to the Glen Friedman images of Tony Alva wearing a pair. It has subcultural relevance.
Yeah. I’ve worn Blazers back in the day — I’m a fan and a I really liked what Supreme had done and I liked it because it was classic. I didn’t want a new tech shoe. I wanted something that I’d wear. I’d do a Dunk because it reflects the time or an Air Force 1 because those were the trainers that we generally wore but I wouldn’t really wear them now so I wanted something a bit more subtle. Build and Destroy repeats on both the Nike and Converse so there’s little links.
Do you follow the build and destroy ethos to some degree?
It was just something that me and Shadow used to talk about a lot when making records. Make something and build it up then move onto something new. It was always about trying to be new — it’s not about being negative.