Toby Feltwell"What I think is interesting about streetwear is that it is basically negatively defined."
Portrait by Will
Toby Feltwell's career in music and streetwear has existed largely behind the scenes. As an A&R for UK label Mo' Wax & XL, his interest in Japanese culture found him brokering connections between east & west, leading to a longtime collaboration with Bathing Ape founder Nigo and the creation alongside Pharrell of Billionaire Boys Club. Today, Feltwell is the creative director of Cav Empt , the anomolous label started alongside veteran designer Skatething. With it's co-opting of markings found on almost all manufactured goods, C.E is a reminder how the vernacular of streetwear & branding can speak to the zeitgeist in a way that no other creative medium can.
Where were you born?
I was born in 1974 in Northamptonshire, England.
What was it like there?
Looking back it was quite dark and depressing. For most of my childhood Thatcher was in power so it was politically tense. Not a great time in western civilization in general.
Were you in the suburbs?
Yeah, definitely. My parents were pretty young when they had me. They got married when my mum was a teenager. We lived in this small suburb with a lot of other young families. It was a first house kind of thing.
Did you skateboard?
I started skating when I was about thirteen. That was pretty important for everything else I got into. Back then, especially in England, skateboarding was kind of a package deal. You wanted to be as authentic as possible so that meant listening to American punk bands that skaters listened to in California.
So you were getting American gear?
Yes, exclusively. Eventually I was only really interested in World Industries or something connected to that. We didn’t really wear non-skate company products other than maybe some thrift clothes.
Were you going to concerts?
My friends were in a hardcore band so I was involved in that scene. I kind of grew up going to hardcore gigs. For years I was going to shows three or four nights a week. It was kind of a perverse thing to be into at the time because what was really happening in England right then was rave. The hardcore and punk scene was small and not particularly vibrant, but that’s what my friends and I did.
Were you a creative kid?
I was good at drawing for my age and used to win prizes and stuff. Eventually we moved house to the countryside and I got a scholarship to do art. Part of the deal was that I was supposed to study painting at university but I didn’t.
Why not art?
I went to interviews at a few universities for art, but what they just weren’t that interesting to me. I figured that if they weren’t going to actively teach me something and if I was going to carry it on I could just do it myself. I ended up studying English Literature. I’m a sucker for praise and the guy that was in charge of the department thought I was good at it.
Were you a good student?
I didn’t really spend much time in college. It was a bit dull, to be honest. The kids there seemed like they wanted to flock together and make a new circle of university friends, which I wasn’t really into.
Where did you hang out?
I spent most of the time hanging at Slam City Skates. My friend Andy Hartwell was the manager and it was a good vantage point to just see what was going on and who was around. You could just sit down and hang out for hours, you didn’t have to buy anything. I met a lot of people through Slam.
Did Slam City Skates sell Japanese streetwear?
Yeah, they did. They were probably the only store in London that stocked Good Enough and Bathing Ape when they started.
Were you were into it?
Difficult to say, really... It didn’t seen 100% authentic and I was kind of prejudiced against fashion that wasn’t somehow connected to skateboarding. But it was interesting. You did somehow get that feeling of a global network of cool dudes.
Were you aware of Harajuku?
You’d see pictures of Hiroshi in i-D magazine. We all kind of knew what was going on. I went to Japan the first time when I was 20, so by that stage it all became quite apparent.
How did you learn to speak Japanese?
I got a friend to teach me some basics. It’s easy enough to pick up. I was 20 years old and didn’t have much to do. When I came back from Japan for the first time, having had the experience of going there, I could actually have more meaningful conversations and interactions with my Japanese friends in London, so I just kept it up.
How did you first hear about Mo' Wax Records?
There was a strong connection between Slam City Skates and Mo' Wax. I wasn’t a huge fan but I was friends with Will Bankhead, who was doing graphics for them.
How did you end up working there?
I left college and had no idea what to do. I was just going for really depressing job interviews. I wasn’t interested and they weren’t interested in having me. Will Bankhead told me to talk to Andy Holmes who had been at Slam and was the label manager at Mo' Wax at the time. The label had been signed to A & M Records, and they needed somebody to come in for a junior position.
What was your actual job?
I was basically sending out promos and doing dogsbody work. It was fun, though. You got records which you could trade or sell if you were stuck for money. I wasn’t totally behind everything they were putting out, but they did put out some good jungle remixes. I was really into jungle—which made the work kind of legitimate to me. It was a pretty relevant place to be given what I was into.
How did you position change over the years while you were there?
Eventually James Lavelle started trusting me to do more creative stuff like commissioning remixes and working with artists. Also because I could speak Japanese, I was helpful on that side of things. James was always interested in strengthening the connection and liked going there. I was making quite a lot of trips to Japan and looking after his Japanese connections. Eventually I took on more of an A&R role which eventually became label manager.
You ended up working at XL too. How did that occur?
Basically Mo' Wax had never really had financial success. I mean, the DJ Shadow album sold well but other than that it was just a red number on the balance sheet. This was during a period of a lot of consolidations and James was looking at alternatives to getting dropped. There was no way he could go back to being independent, so it needed some kind of support. XL seemed to be the best option.
How did you end up signing Dizzee Rascal?
When we started talking to Dizzee Rascal it was pretty clear that James wasn’t going to be into it: although I played it to him, it wasn’t what he was listening to. We were kind of concerned about being saddled with the Mo' Wax baggage cause we could see the relationship with XL getting dysfunctional. I asked Richard Russell if it would be cool for us to just do some stuff ourselves and put it out under XL without the Mo' Wax logo. We just kind of defected. That was really the end of the Mo' Wax story as an active record label.
That Dizzee Rascal record was a huge success.
There’s always been moments in the UK underground scene when everything aligned and everybody saw into the same thing. It was pretty underground, but the underground was big. A lot of people knew who Roll Deep were and we probably found out about it relatively late.
By this point you were studying law, right? How did that start?
I got kind of bored of what I was doing day to day at Mo' Wax. It was fun but very low pressure. I didn’t get paid much, but it was survivable. I needed to do something new.
I kind of looked up to the lawyers that we worked with in the label. They had a skill that other people didn’t have. The basic knowledge that you need to operate a record label could be learned in a half a day. With law you actually had to go and study for it and as a result were useful and sort of respected. They also acted pretty cocky because they knew that they were around a bunch of people that didn’t know what they fuck they were doing. That was quite attractive.
Did you do night school?
Yeah, and the college of law was three minutes from my house which made it easy. I went from 7 till 10, two days a week for four years. It actually was quite a pain in the arse but I’m really glad I did it. I felt that I wasn’t really using that many brain cells then working in the music business, so law school helped on that side of things.
What happened once you graduated?
I was supposed to leave XL and do two years of supervised work in a firm. In England that is the only way you can become a practicing lawyer. The legal director of XL’s parent company was a really famous music lawyer and he gave me some good references. I got a training contract with a really good firm focusing on music law and copyright.
How did you end up working with Nigo?
Nigo had been asking me to go and work in Japan for a while—probably because he figured that Mo' Wax was on its last legs. I wasn’t ever sure about living in Japan so I was reluctant to do it. Once I finished law school, knowing that I had to leave XL and go into this law thing eventually, I figured I would just do Japan for six months. I knew that Nigo would look after me and it was bound to be fun if nothing else.
Why did he want you to come to Japan?
He had just hit a plateau in his career. He’d accomplished more than anyone expected and he’d sort of run out of ambitions. He’d built an amazing house, the business was running fine but he was in a bit of a funk. He’s a very ambitious person and without having a direct, immediate goal, he lost the enthusiasm for a lot of things. I think my coming was kind of a good distraction for him.
What would you guys do?
We spent a lot of time together not really doing work—just buying lots of records and talking shit all day. Buying records was super important, though. We would go record shopping twice a week which meant every record shop, checking out everything that was new. That was the key process while I lived in Japan; record shopping, driving around, talking about stuff, trying to work out what to do next.
Did he have any vague goals?
He had an ambition to open a store in New York, but was being discouraged by a lot of people in the company. There was a general feeling in that they had come so far that they didn’t want to try something that they might not be able to pull off and fuck up. Since opening a tiny shop and deciding to print some t-shirts BAPE had become a success, step-by-step, bigger and bigger. When you get to a certain level it gets more conservative and people are more worried about taking risks.
What kind of store did he want to make?
A lot of Japanese brands open a store in New York, Paris, or London just as a lifetime ambition. It doesn’t really have any interaction or effect on the local population, it’s just some kind of weird shop that everybody ignores and doesn’t make money. Nigo didn’t want to do it in New York if people didn’t care about it. So when we were visiting New York we were forming these connections with Jay Z. We felt that maybe there was some possibility of building a store that we could actually open and people would know what it was. Then we met Pharrell and that accelerated everything.