An Interview with Cav Empt's Toby Feltwell

Culture 27.05.17

An Interview with Cav Empt's Toby Feltwell

 

After his formative years spent playing a pivotal role in Japanese fashion with NIGO and A Bathing Ape, Toby Feltwell would still continue to build his legacy in fashion.

Cav Empt, or C.E. as it’s more commonly known, has become a unique approach to design and fashion. It blends sensibilities from Feltwell’s native England, and Japan, the country he’s called home for many years. The post-modern philosophy underpinning C.E.'s work is often translated in graphically distinct ways that embody the message and meaning so vital to the brand.

Naturally, the talent at C.E. isn't limited to just Feltwell and includes production lead Hishiyama (Hishi) Yutaka, as well as infamous Japanese graphic designer SK8THING (Shin), the talented artist behind works for A Bathing Ape, BBC, WTAPS, HUMANMADE, UNDERCOVER, and more.

The three have preferred to stay behind the scenes and allow their work to speak for them, but as the brand becomes more representative and in light of some of its successes—they’ve relaxed their stance on secrecy ever so slightly.

Despite its status as one of Japan’s most prominent brands to emerge in the post-Urahara days, the complexity of the brand is often underappreciated. Extending far beyond the fashion industry, the trio’s overarching perspective and opinion, while never openly elaborated, is essential to the brand concept.

So it's only fitting that we discussed many things not inherently related to fashion over an afternoon at their offices. But it’s these very conversations and diverse interests that ultimately find their way back into the very collections they release.

 

An Interview with Cav Empt's Toby Feltwell
An Interview with Cav Empt's Toby Feltwell

The reason behind starting Cav Empt…

We knew how that (fashion) worked and how to do it, but also the parts of it that we didn't want to repeat as well, so that was in some ways the most useful. For everybody that was involved in Bathing Ape, it was the first time around. Each new point you achieve is the first time anybody’s experienced it, so you're learning as you go along and in different directions.

Some decisions might seem fun, but in reality, it's going to take us to a place where it's actually more work and less fun than if we just kind of avoided that direction. Obviously, times change and we were bordering on a pre-internet success. It wasn't what it is now, and it wasn't mobile.

 

When brands take a life of their own…

Having been involved in these kinds of brands before, I realized what the brand turns into is not entirely up to the people making it. The company in charge of making the clothes are also making the brand, in a sense. So part of it is understanding that you give birth to it, but then it has its own life and you're not completely in control of it. It exists in the perception of all the people who see it.

It's a complicated relationship because you don't want to just give those people what they've come to expect because it's pointless. They can just do it themselves at that point. So you've got to keep contributing by coming up with things that they wouldn't expect while not giving them everything either.

 

Differences in building a brand today…

I think it's good that people can go out and do that now. It’s not because it’s hard to print T-shirts, but it was hard to get people to know about your brand. Now there are clearly too many brands, which wasn’t the case before. Part of that comes down to access to publicity, and if you don’t have publicity, you can’t exist as a brand.

 

The popularity of starting your own brand these days…

It’s kind of hard for me to have a perspective on why fans of streetwear have decided to make their own brand. I guess it's cool if they're enjoying it. I imagine I'm not doing it for the same reasons.

Why are we doing it? You know, I think we just sort of ended up doing this. It's certainly part of a career that makes sense to us, but I don't think it's one that you could choose or design. It just sort of happened.

 

What’s gotten easier and harder with Cav Empt…

A larger (office) space is nice. We’re at a certain size where we don't have to explain everything from scratch all the time, which is quite nice because having to explain everything is quite annoying. It has a space in the world and place.

What's more difficult is that you do have the reality of the things that you've done in the past and it creates an existence, which means that you don't just have unlimited choices in the beginning when choosing what direction you’re planning to go.

But once the brand exists, and is and has been out there for a bit, people begin to understand it. Your options are somewhat limited. You can't completely reinvent yourself every time.

 

An Interview with Cav Empt's Toby Feltwell
An Interview with Cav Empt's Toby Feltwell

 

About C.E.’s previous secrecy between the three…

I think that we backed ourselves into a corner where we had no option but to do it. We were all very reluctant to do, so for the three of us involved, we liked working behind the scenes.

And while that was that was one of the most enjoyable things, we had to get over that. We had no choice. We sort of gave ourselves no choice, I think. It's something none of us are comfortable with, but once you do it, you realize it's not quite as bad.

 

Each new season…

The question is always “what’s the next season of C.E. going to look like,” and it's quite complicated. Every time, it's like we've totally forgotten how we did it last time.

Every time we start again, it’s like we’ve got no idea how the process works. So we've got no kind of shortcuts or systems to get it done. It's quite chaotic, and somehow it just appears. I wouldn't want to systematize it too much because it becomes too much of a job.

 

The current aspirations of people starting brands…

I can't remember it being such a common aspiration to own a brand. A lot of musicians are doing it as well and it’s not just business reasons. The DIY spirit should be exciting because it means that anybody can get involved.

But a lot of people haven't really got much to say. Having a clothing line is kind of just a way of participating in something that exists already. So you make a similar version of something that's already out there just to participate. Maybe that's actually okay, but it's quite interesting to see what brand owners exactly feel by creating their own brand.

 

The process of creating clothes…

When you create something, it's like you're drawing a picture that's under your own control. It may not turn out exactly what you had imagined because it never does. But this process of working with three creative people is different. On top of that, you’re giving instructions to people that make clothes, and they follow your instructions as closely as possible, but you don’t know the final result until the samples come back.

There’s a certain element of it that's not under your control. And when you get the samples back, it's like unwrapping a present. There are nice surprises and nasty surprises. The satisfaction of the process is that you throw in largely abstract ideas and try and make them into something. When it comes back, you're like 'wow, OK.'

You know it works, as if you've managed to make something that's kind of similar to what you imagined. But the problem was you couldn't describe it in any better way than actually going through this complicated process to make it, so that's very satisfying.

And that's kind of a bit of a celebration when it happens. There's certainly lots of drunkenness involved in all of this. That’s what it's about mainly, the process of what we're doing is still really satisfying.

 

The most memorable moments so far…

There have been a few moments where we began to realize, "C.E, now legitimately exists as a brand." In our second season, we had a video made by Tim & Barry in London with D Double wearing the clothes with a jungle track playing by Zomby. That video was maybe the first moment we had bridged our gap between vision and articulating it. Shin and I felt the video had all the elements we were trying to bring in.

 

An Interview with Cav Empt's Toby Feltwell

 

Valuing the process over any success…

With my experience in the past, you're going down this path for the first time with a group of people and each logical next step gets exciting. If things are going in a positive direction—if things are getting bigger, people are into what you're doing, and you're kind of making money for the first time—it’s a wild fun ride.

But if you don’t know where it’s leading, you simply keep walking. Having got to the end of that, once you actually have the perspective to look at both the start and finish point, you see that there were actually different routes you could have taken to not end up at that finish point. And I think it's about trying to consciously ensure that you're valuing the working process. It’s the making of the brand that should be what you're focused on rather than what comes out of the success or what you're doing.

 

Working alone versus with a team…

I can't personally relate to how people can work alone. That must require a lot of personal drive. We’re a collective of three people who are pretty unambitious. But we just like working together and there are things we want to make.

But sometimes you can’t stay in the same place forever. It gets boring and you run out of fuel. So that’s when you keep it moving, whether it’s opening a shop or hiring a few more people. It inevitably changes the nature of what you’re doing, and you’re going to spend your time differently as a consequence of that.

We could have done this any number of ways, but we settled on two collections a year because we know how it works and it's easier to not have to think about it another way; sometimes it’s not thinking about the structure but the contents.

 

Your vision and its reality…

IWhen you make something, a part of the process is actually becoming okay with the final outcome even if it’s not necessarily what you exactly wanted to make. You've got to be critical of it, but you can't like to destroy it because of what was in your eye originally. There’s always a gap between your idea of what you're going to make and the reality of it.

 

The current magazine industry…

I've seen situations where a new title comes along which basically just sits exactly on top of something that already exists. It's like everybody wants to do the same thing, but trying to make that succeed is very difficult because people have got so much more access to publicize what they're doing now that they don't necessarily need help getting it out there.

So it's a weird one because the function is no longer to expose stuff that otherwise wouldn't get exposed, and it's more like joining into something that is already happening. It's like participating in it.

There are certain publications that don't have confidence in their power to just write about exactly what they want to write about.

 

The reality of a Japanese brand expanding globally…

There have been Japanese brands that made it internationally before, but it was really difficult. It’s actually super hard to be based in Japan and then expand all over the world. I mean the system here [in Japan], especially for that kind of clothing company, works very well and it’s dependable and reliable.

You still need to know what you're doing and know some people, but you can get organized and you can have stuff up and running up to a certain level. But it's very much Japan-only without avenues to other locations. To do that, you require a lot of resources to be able to get to that level. Opening [A Bathing Ape Store] in the United States took its own operation and team. It's not an easy process especially when you're kind of independent.

 

An Interview with Cav Empt's Toby Feltwell

 

What keeps Toby excited…

I think one of the things that we took from our experiences in other places was that the valuable part of what we do is the enjoyment of actually doing it. So whatever happens with the brand, if we were to lose the fun, excitement and satisfaction of doing it, then there's kind of not much left. I mean, I guess you know it's still cool to make money, but I think you lose something kind of irreplaceable if that disappears.

 

The importance of music…

We've been sort of doing it for a while. We’ve got a network of people that are making stuff and putting out music. I’m a regular consumer too on Soundcloud, etcetera, but eventually, you build up a human network of people. Maybe in the past that human network is all you had to find out new music.

 

The importance of music…

We've been sort of doing it for a while. We’ve got a network of people that are making stuff and putting out music. I’m a regular consumer too on Soundcloud, etcetera, but eventually, you build up a human network of people. Maybe in the past that human network is all you had to find out new music.

 

Where to find inspiration…

It’s always anything other than fashion. I’m still interested in clothes, but if you input clothes to output clothes, it’s boring. What makes the process interesting is that we want to take lots of different outside influences and somehow they become this clothing collection. So can you translate those outside influences into something?

I think if it's just as simple as, “Oh, that's a nice sweater. Maybe it would be good to do something like that,” I don't think we’d be that excited about it. I mean, not that we don't rip off loads of other designers, we do that all the time. I think that's the nature of making anything. But I can't really get that excited about it.

 

Current musical influences…

I mean there's tons, but Trilogy Tapes is a close one for me. I’ve been friends with Will for a long time. I like everything that he does, and he's a big influence on me. But then again, there’s literally hundreds of labels. I'd say there's only a few where you buy every release and you know it’s going to be good without listening to it first.

Sometimes you get some nice surprises, so it's kind of like a magazine. They put you onto new stuff. When I was working for a label, we had a strong reputation of doing interesting stuff and supposedly had followers as a label.

We used to think, “oh this is this is useful because we can just try something out with each other. If somebody else put it out, maybe nobody would listen to it, but because we're doing it, they're going to give it a chance.”

But that didn't always work out. It was quite often you got the reaction that since you weren’t doing something like the last three releases, something was wrong. It’s a tricky one.

 

Not becoming the old hater streetwear guy…

This is something that I have to make a conscious effort to fight against. It happens a lot for people that have been involved for a long time. They’re part of a scene which becomes established, and they grow older.

The temptation is to dismiss anything that comes after as being relatively crappy in comparison to when you were naturally excited because that excitement is gone. Then you realize what it was like to be that 17-year-old who’s genuinely excited and you embrace that because you’ve known about the older guys who go on about how it was so much better 15 years ago.

The unforgivable part is if you’ve got the capacity to do something and have a platform, and you lose your enthusiasm. That’s a real waste. The opposite is those who have great enthusiasm, but don’t have a platform. I don’t necessarily feel the same excitement as what 20-year-olds are currently feeling, but I have to appreciate it. And for me, I need to stay focused and excited about my own work.

 

Not designing “sensible dad clothes”...

I mean, you do see people who've taken an alternative view, “well, I'm getting older now. It's time for me to start making sensible dad clothes instead of something for the youth.” But that, I don't know. There's plenty of other people making sensible dad clothes, but I just think that we've been fortunate to not to have stopped doing what we’ve always been excited about. There's been no necessity to change. I've seen other people feeling this pressure and I sort of feel for them. I don't think people actually dress age-specific or appropriate anymore. I mean, I was a lawyer for a while. I used to wear a suit and tie every day!

 

Not designing “sensible dad clothes”...

I mean, you do see people who've taken an alternative view, “well, I'm getting older now. It's time for me to start making sensible dad clothes instead of something for the youth.” But that, I don't know. There's plenty of other people making sensible dad clothes, but I just think that we've been fortunate to not to have stopped doing what we’ve always been excited about. There's been no necessity to change. I've seen other people feeling this pressure and I sort of feel for them. I don't think people actually dress age-specific or appropriate anymore. I mean, I was a lawyer for a while. I used to wear a suit and tie every day!

 

The current landscape of consumerism…

The commercial world has got so good at selling stuff it's at peak saturation. Anything you want to buy, you know what brand. Any need that you have, you probably know a brand to fill it.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

An Interview with Cav Empt's Toby Feltwell

 

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