Toby Feltwell"What I think is interesting about streetwear is that it is basically negatively defined."
Portrait by Will
He was the first person that we met from that scene who really understood what Nigo was doing. Both of them needed to meet each other- they were on the same wavelength from the beginning. Within a few days of meeting, Pharrell asked Nigo if he would help with Billionaire Boys Club. Nigo volunteered to design it, which kind of took me by surprise. That became our whole new direction quite quickly.
Why did Nigo and Pharrell have such a good rapport?
It wouldn’t have worked if Nigo hadn’t been so obsessed and immersed in what was happening in hip hop at the time, particularly with the language barrier. But if the references are the same you can have a real, deep understanding just based around that.
And you were facilitating that by translating, right?
I mean, obviously, I was traveling with Nigo helping him communicate, but I was also in on the plan. Pharrell had a very specific idea of what he wanted as a logo so I spoke to Sk8thg about it. Sk8thg drew it and Pharrell liked it which was kind of the acid test. We could interpret what he wanted and do it properly, it didn’t just sound good, it really could work. And that’s how it continued. I would get Pharrell’s ideas and feed them back and get them made.
What about your legal work?
By the time a draft contract arrived from Pharrell’s lawyers in New York I was about to start working at the law firm in London. It was handy timing cause I could just take over the contract negotiations for Nigo, which went on forever. The legal team in New York had never heard of this dude so they assumed that they didn’t really need to take him that seriously. But I was also locked into doing the law training for two years. When I eventually finished that, Nigo presumed I was just going to come back and start working with him, which I did.
What was your job in Japan?
When I came back to I began managing Bathing Ape’s international business and the whole BBC operation. I was kind of responsible for all of it, everything from taking Pharrell’s ideas and feeding them to everyone from designers to accounting. It was a staff of ten people, and Nigo was busy looking after BAPE generally. For most of the day-to-day stuff, it was down to me.
How did you stop working for BAPE and Billionaire Boys Club?
Nigo eventually sold BAPE to our Chinese distributor. I helped him with that sale, which was not really a fun process. It wasn’t the original plan to sell when he did. As a part of that process, Nigo decided to get out of BBC too. He just wanted to have a more simple kind of life and just be friends with Pharrell and not business partners. It was quite complicated running the business between the US and Japan.
Was this around the time that you started C.E?
I knew early on that the writing was on the wall for BBC & BAPE but Sk8thg and I were really kind of enjoying the process of how we worked together. I didn’t want that to stop so starting C.E was the only way to ensure that.
What is it you like about working with Sk8thg?
He’s a very interesting character. I find him easy to talk to. Of all the people in Japan that I met around that time, he was the one that would get my references.
What about the graphics?
The graphics themselves? I don’t know. I guess they have that kind of authenticity. They look right in a way that is hard to explain. You can see why it’s the output of a conversation but it also makes sense as a graphic.
And C.E was your first company on your own?
Yeah. Having the responsibility to stand behind something you created and say “this is what I want to do” is something that none of us had had to face up to for a long time.
Where did you guys come up with the name C.E?
For some reason I had started reading Philip K Dick books again. I had bought a Kindle and was looking for something light and easy to get me back into the reading habit. I think it was kind of back in people’s minds—as the modern world seems gets closer to what he was talking about. It was strangely prophetic. Shin read it and he picked up on a character that has a Caveat Emptor tattoo, which he though was a cool concept. He took the name from there.
Caveat Emptor means “buyer beware” right?
Yeah. When I told some lawyer friends I was starting a brand called CE for Caveat Emptor, they thought it was a brilliant, because it’s a legal concept really. The basic position of commerce before consumer laws impose more obligations on the seller, meaning if you’re buying something, then it’s up to you to make sure you’re getting what you’re buying. It’s a basic position of common law that’s been modified to protect consumers over the years and has a heap of meanings when you apply it to a brand.
The marking CE is also ubiquitous. It’s on the back of my phone.
That CE mark is a safety standard allows goods to be imported into the European Community. Now that the world is a global marketplace, everybody wants to sell their products in Europe, but they have to comply to certain safety regulations and a CE mark shows that they’re compliant. We like the idea of reverse adopting all these other products that are everywhere. You don’t notice until somebody points it out and then you start seeing it everywhere.
It makes you kind of paranoid. It’s cool that a streetwear brand could inspire that.
What I think is interesting about streetwear is that it is basically negatively defined. It’s about what you can’t do. This changes with every generation but the idea is that you want to turn up to meet your mates and they gonna go “that’s cool.” They’re not gonna laugh at you for being totally irrelevant or outlandish. If you push it too far, then it’s not street anymore. And it depends on what street you’re on. The concept of it being a kind of peer pressure aesthetic is quite important to keeping it street wear, I think. People who are proper fashion designers who are influenced by street wear are often looking at street wear as an aesthetic phenomena rather than a social phenomena—and the social aspect is my experience of it.