Ten years after its inception in 2011, Japanese brand Cav Empt remains one of streetwear's most enigmatic and disruptive labels. Sifting through their giant, unorganized archive with founders Sk8thing and Toby Feltwell, we discuss how this mess of clothes, books, magazines, records, memorabilia, and obsolete technology still informs their current designs—with a keen eye for leftovers, unpopular items, and surprises.
Interview by W. David Marx
Sk8thing and Toby Feltwell are legendary figures of streetwear history. In the early 1990s, Sk8thing was part of the team that created Japan’s first streetwear label, Goodenough, and went on to provide the most iconic graphics for A Bathing Ape (Bape). Originally from the UK, Feltwell relocated to Tokyo in the late 1990s to assist founder NIGO® in Bape’s global expansion and also played a role in launching Pharrel Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club line. So when Sk8thing and Feltwell came together in 2011 to found a new brand, Cav Empt aka C.E.—from the Latin phrase caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware”— it was perhaps the first streetwear supergroup. And it pushed both men with graphic design backgrounds into full-fledged apparel production. With so many brands rehashing ’90s ideas or just sticking logos on standard items, C.E. continues to lead the streetwear scene by operating on a higher spiritual plane. Each season the brand offers arguably the most extreme and innovative garments in the entire industry: neon colors clash, dystopian line drawings are ripped from abandoned monochrome MacPaint files, pants are covered in glowing grids like the light cycle racing tracks in Tron. There is a lazy tendency to call this aesthetic “retro-futuristic,” but no one in the past ever portrayed the future with the same kind of sinister, yet alluring dread.
I sat down with Sk8thing and Feltwell at the C.E. oce in Harajuku, Tokyo to discuss how their archive—a giant, unorganized mess of books, magazines, records, CDs, vintage clothes, film memorabilia, old computers, sports gear, skateboard decks, and garbage scattered across the space—plays a role in inspiring their design.
W. DAVID MARXDo you keep all of the pieces you’ve made?
SK8THINGWe have all our full collections in a warehouse, but it’s all piling up. You can’t pull things out from the bottom. It’s a mess.
WDMDo you use your past pieces as reference for new designs?
TOBY FELTWELLWe tend to look a lot.
SI’m most interested in what was leftover, what wasn’t popular. I don’t know if I use those as a reference, but that’s what I’m interested in.
TFI look at what people on the streets wear, I don’t go rummaging through boxes. On our site now, we have images of all of the items that we’ve made to date. So it’s quite easy to look at pictures and kind of remember. One thing that’s been really difficult about making new stuff during COVID is not being able to see people in the streets.
WDMWhat do you think of NIGO®’s immaculate archive in his office?
SIt’s interesting. Everyone says Ralph Lauren did that first. I don’t think it was in imitation, but he wanted to do the same. I’ve even heard his archive runs mechanically. We only have what we’ve made in the past, and we don’t have everything cleanly lined up like NIGO®.
WDMWith Cav Empt, it feels like you’re chasing the future, and the past influence is not so obvious. How important is it to look at old things, avoid seeing old things?
TFWe intentionally search on eBay or Yahoo! Auctions for clothes where you think, “Who made this? Why did they make this?” We consciously want to make that kind of thing.
SYes, that’s true. Good point.
TFOne of the goals for C.E. is to make the kind of things that we come across on eBay, either from a known or unknown brand. “Did this brand really exist? Who did they think they were making this for?” We want to produce things for future generations so that people who go on eBay and find our future relics have to try and imagine what world they could possibly have been produced to fit.
WDMTell me about your broader archive here of clothes and media.
TFBasically, our archive is chaos. It’s not cleanly organized, and we don’t know where anything is. Things we forgot we had just tend to pop out.
SYes there are a lot of accidents. If we’re not surprised, it’s not interesting.
WDMWhat specifically in the archive provides design inspiration? Old music? Magazines?
SI probably look at clothes the most. With music, I look at the clothes that musicians wore. I tend to look more at old magazines, but it’s more interesting to look at the real garments. It’s more surprising. Even if you try to look for things you’ve never seen before, it’s usually stuff that someone else has organized, and maybe it’s just us who have never seen it. Those clothes are probably standard for someone else.
WDMSk8thing, you’ve been designing streetwear for almost thirty years, right?
SWe’ve done C.E. for 10 years. Before that, I didn’t really design clothes. I just did graphics.
WDMBut you’ve probably seen all the streetwear since Goodenough in 1991, and it’s all in your head.
SNot exactly. Probably most of what I know is from after starting C.E. I didn’t really know many Japanese brands until then, and I had to study up. It’s been interesting having to learn. Like having to go to school. It’s fun because there’s a lot I don’t know about who made what etc. Whether things sell well or not, that’s a different topic.
At this point, we go into Sk8thing’s “office”—a room overflowing with so much stuff it’s nearly impossible to enter. Sk8thing rummages through the room and pulls out various items including:
Pink and black striped punk pants from England
Dozens of skateboard decks
Newspapers from South India
Memorabilia from the Amazon series Man in the High Castle
American comic books, including Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger
Empty boxes of American breakfast cereals such as Cap’n Crunch
A Mac G4 running OS9, with music playing from Sound Jam and the visualizer on
An empty Claris MacPaint box
A box of doggy-doo pick-up bags for Sk8thing’s dog
Old copies of RE-SEARCH Magazine.
A Nintendo 64 clear-black edition
A novelization of the film Goodfellas
Copies of Hokusai ukiyo-e prints from Sk8thing’s mother
A Manic Panic hair color card
An English-language Bible
A Last Orgy 2 t-shirt showing NIGO® and Jun Takahashi of Undercover
Beastie Boys figures made by Medicom for A Bathing Ape
A book from Cream Soda, Japan’s first rock’n’roll brand
Bootleg CDs of late 1950s American rock’n’roll
CDs from The Residents and Ornette Coleman
A Devo mask
Protective ice hockey pants from CCM
An unlined BMX helmet
Jimmy Cauty’s artwork, a yellow UK riot shield turned into a smiley face
WDMWhen a magazine is going to use a C.E. piece in a shoot, do they pick it up from this office?
TFThat stuff is organized. Current things would be properly lined up, and that’s because [C.E. employee] Wataru’s a slightly more organized person. Although his actual desk when I looked through it the other day was... he’s just another one of us. It was just covered in junk eBay purchases. But I thought at one stage it would be a good idea to have a separate showroom that could be pristine. Like, “We’re cool. Don’t worry about us”. Because this is embarrassing, but I actually kind of think, no.
WDMIt kind of works with the brand, no?
TFYeah. I think it gives people an insight into what’s going on here, which is not a lot of organization. We definitely understand that we have no control over this stuff. It’s kind of more in control of us—the mess. So it’s not like a ready-available resource at any time. It’s just like, you might remember something and search for it for hours and then find something else you’ve forgotten. It’s a new concept in archiving. What deserves to stay? What should be thrown out? I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to tell.
WDMSo when you have the new season come in, what happens to the clothing lined up now? This all goes into the warehouse?
TFYeah, there’s a transition period, then it does get sort of folded up and put in a logical order and placed into boxes. So we’ve got an archive of that, and Wataru is good about archiving other sorts of ephemera bits that we do: flyers and things like that. And the cassette tapes are actually all now on the online archive as well. So people can actually listen to... Not everything because there are a few people that don’t want their stuff to be available.
WDMDo you feel like it helps that the brand’s been so consistent that the older pieces don’t feel out of place in the present?
TFYou always have weird feelings about seeing the old stuff, but you also forget a lot of the things that you’ve done. So it’s kind of fascinating to see that there’s been so much stuff. I mean, obviously, it’s ten years, so it’s going to be a lot of things, but there’s a lot of variety, as in there are not very many standard pieces that we do. It changes quite a lot, but there is a kind of noticeable, recognizable thread going through it. So there are some things that you’re always a bit like, it didn’t quite turn out how we wanted, or like, we wouldn’t do that the same way now, but it’s, on balance, still pretty nice to look at what you did earlier.
WDMDo seasons have very clear themes?
TFNo. There’s not a theme per season right?
SI think they tend to emerge after.
WDMAs you make it, the theme comes out?
SAfterwards we understand.
TFExactly, yeah. We’re usually trying to communicate what we’d like to do in a not clearly defined or articulated way. It’s like trying to capture some mood like it needs to be more... you know. And then, we use various props to illustrate that. That’s why it wouldn’t be useful for us to have an archive of just vintage clothes. Because if it was too direct, there wouldn’t be space for useful misunderstandings. In our working method, there are conscious attempts to reduce the level of control so that the stuff just sort of happens. It all seems to work in hindsight, but it’s a sort of quite sloppy kind of deliberate miscommunication we have working.
WDMSo if you are working on something, and you think, I really want to reference that thing that I know is somewhere, it’s a gamble whether it actually comes out?
TFYeah. I might find something else on the way, or that was actually never the thing. If you sort of had a very clear idea of something that you want to make, like a PDF line drawing in your mind, the process of making it would be so uninteresting that it would be hard to stay motivated to do that constantly. I’ll have a kind of not quite fully formed idea and then come up with ideas for things to do. Sk8thing mostly making graphics and some clothing ideas, and Hishi knows how to make clothes. He’s got a background in production. So passing it between the three of us, at each stage, it’s kind of an exquisite corpse. But it sort of realizes itself in the process. And then, when the sample turns up, you’re just like, “Yes!” It’s definitely more than the initial seed of what you wanted to do. So that makes the process really exciting. You can’t shortcut it as well. And one of the side effects seems to be this sort of growth of weird junk that just sort of swarms us out of our own working space.
WDMWhat’s going on with these clear air-packets taped to the ceiling?
TFThat’s Sk8thing’s artwork.
SThey’re the air packets that come in Amazon boxes. We get so many, so I decided for the time being to put them up. They flutter around in the draft from the air conditioning. I thought it was good.
TFYeah, they just started appearing one day. Sk8thing often in the office at night after we’ve gone home, and I’ll come to the oce in the morning and things will have moved a bit, been re-arranged. Or the pile outside the door of the office might be smaller or larger. Things are constantly getting shifted around.
WDMJapanese brands have become very famous, in what I’d call the NIGO® model, which is to have the perfect archive, whether it’s in photos or whether it’s actually in physical things, and then creating these exact reproductions. You seem to almost be doing the opposite, which is the stuff is here somewhere, it’s in your heads, you’ve seen it, but you’re trying to make sure you don’t get a chance to perfectly copy.
TFYeah. And I think there’s something in that model, I agree. I think that’s particularly important in Japanese men’s fashion. But it’s this sort of mastery of the subject—knowing everything there is to know about the various iterations of an MA1 or something—that makes the inherently suspect occupation of making clothes a bit more sort of solid. Like, there is some background to this. It’s not just like we just come up with some idea from nowhere. And I think that we have those roots as well, but it’s just not specified or grounded in anything particular. Or there’s a sort of desire to know about so many things at the same time that it doesn’t coalesce into a proper solid collection. It’s just a mess. I think that’s fair enough to say. And we’re not trying to complete things.
WDMC.E. isn’t really a brand that’s focused on one thing, obsessed with a single idea.
SNo, that’s certainly true. Maybe we should focus more. We can’t pay attention. We just go on to something new. Nothing gets put together.
WDMWhat have you been buying these days? What do you want to buy next?
SA lot of records. Reggae records. I bought too many. I got them for 100 yen a piece, but now I have too many, so I’m taking a break. I’d like some clothes. But when I buy too much, they pile up like my office.
WDMWhat clothes do you want?
SSomething I’ve never seen before. I want to look for that.
SYes. I see a lot where I’m like, “What’s this?” I just ordered this Castelbajac book... it was really expensive. It was 9000 yen for a photo book.
WDMHas the pandemic made you want to buy more, or fewer things?
SThat didn’t really make a dierence.
TFThere are multiple daily deliveries from various unusual sorts of quite exciting.
WDMBefore someone said we’re going to interview you about your archive, did you think this was an archive?
TFI think, well, yeah. I mean, we’ve got a bunch of stuff, for sure. And it serves the same purpose as an archive would for other people. We’re suffocating in piles of junk, which would be the best way to describe it. But it seems that it is important somehow. We’re always moving onto the next thing and most excited about whatever package is turning up next, and we’re just not the kind of people that are going to carefully order the stu and understand where it is. I kind of feel like I remember stuff quite well, but that’s probably an illusion because when I actually go and look for something, it’s not there. I’ve seen NIGO®’s archive and it’s excessively tidy and pretty amazing. And that would be great, but it takes a serious effort. NIGO® likes that stuff. He’s really into tidying up. Whereas we’ve got this sort of pathological inability to tidy up. I mean, my house is very tidy. I have a space to not do that. But it’s quite good, I think. It must work in some way. It seems to be working. But there’s not much useful advice to pass on to potential archivists out there.
WDMIt’s the anti-archive.
Characterized by acid, esoteric imagery, Cav Empt is a Tokyo-based streetwear brand. It was founded in 2011 by mysterious fashion designer Sk8thing—widely regarded as a demiurge of the Japanese streetwear scene—along with Toby Feltwell.
W. David Marx is a writer based in Tokyo. In 2015 he published Ametora, a cultural history about the Japanese assimilation of American fashion.