Atmos and the Art of Collaboration
Atmos and the Art of Collaboration
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date June 21, 2018
Before KITH’s Ronnie Fieg or Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia—two extraordinarily proficient collaborators—there was Hommyo Hidefumi. Hommyo, as he is colloquially and respectfully referred to, has been cited by Jeff Staple as one of the most important people in streetwear. On an even greater scale, he may be one of the most influential and important people in fashion as a whole, especially when it comes to his pioneering and tireless approach to collaboration. See, Hommyo Hidefumi is the man behind legendary Tokyo-based sneaker boutique atmos—though he would kindly remind you that atmos has now expanded to sell its own clothing, in addition to sneakers.
Let’s put it this way: If you have heard of atmos, you’re undoubtedly familiar with at least one of the store’s myriad collaborations. If you have not heard of atmos...well, you’re undoubtedly familiar with at least one of the store’s myriad collaborations.
Like other legendary sneaker tales, Hommyo’s begins with a trip to the American East Coast in the early-‘90s. As a student in Philadelphia, Hommyo found some of the most popular sneakers in his native Japan being sold at comparably cut-rate prices. Air Force 1s were a dime a dozen and there wasn’t yet a vintage market in the United States; instead, you could pick up what would now be called “pre-loved” sneakers for less than a meal.
After graduating from Temple University, Hommyo headed home to Japan, with countless pairs of kicks in tow. Back in Tokyo, Hommyo languished at a textile trading company, where he was tasked with producing T-shirts. This was the case until 1993 when, using a bank loan, a loan from his wife and a loan from his mother he launched a flea market enterprise. In 1996, it would morph into Chapter, a vintage clothing and sneaker emporium based out of a junk yard in Harajuku. Using the success of Chapter, Hommyo proceeded to launch atmos in 2000. The seeds of collaboration at atmos were apparently sewn early on, as Hommyo credits Hiroshi Fujiwara—of Fragment Design—with devising the store’s name.
Known thanks to the success of Chapter, equipped with a deep rolodex and wielding the buying power that comes from stocking hundreds of models simultaneously, it didn’t take Hommyo and atmos long to draw interest from Nike. Within a year, Hommyo was commissioning SMUs from the Portland-based sportswear company to give atmos something exclusive to offer its legions of customers. While not official, co-branded collaborations, 2001’s grey and navy SB Dunk Low and Air Force 1 Low are today revered as iconic collaborations. Perhaps it’s revisionist history—bestowing greater meaning and significance to the shoes knowing what came after them—but both are still highly sought-after by collectors and have been used as the jumping-off point for recent releases.
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In 2002, the dynamic would shift dramatically when atmos partnered with Nike to release the first-ever Air Max 1 collaboration. Unlike the 2001 SB Dunk and Air Force 1, it was an official collaboration as an unofficial celebration of the silhouette’s 15-year anniversary. Drawing inspiration from the equally iconic Air Safari—also designed by Tinker Hatfield and Nike’s first-ever lifestyle sneaker—atmos created the Air Max 1 “Safari”. It was a juxtaposition of the Air Safari’s colourful and unique colorway on the Air Max 1’s flawless silhouette.
The release of the Nike x atmos Air Max 1 Safari came at a time of prosperity for the Japanese sneaker market. Nike’s CO.JP program was in full-swing and die-hard North American sneakerheads would make pilgrimages to Tokyo to scoop up Japanese exclusives in the pre-Internet era. The timing, uniqueness, limited nature and quality of the atmos-designed Air Max 1 Safari made it an instant grail; it consistently ranks among the most coveted and celebrated Air Max 1s of all time, if not sneakers writ large.
Most retailers would probably be content with having one of the most legendary collaborations ever—it’s just that most retailers… well, they’re not atmos. If this was any other boutique, we’d likely be able to give you a thorough rundown of each of their collaborations over the years. But, for atmos, the Air Max 1 Safari opened the collaborative floodgates, paving the way for a decade and a half of co-branded projects with almost every imaginable partner. In 2013, Hommyo told Sole Collector that the shop releases at least one collaborative endeavor every month, so it’s nearly impossible to give an exhaustive overview of each atmos-designed release.
That being said, Nike has remained atmos’ collaborator of choice, with Hommyo admitting to SHOES MASTER that “Nike is his [personal] favorite” due to the longstanding relationship between the brand and his store. 2003 saw Hommyo release three more Air Maxes in collaboration with Nike. The Viotech pack saw another Air Max 1, as well as an Air Max 95, that featured gold stitching and an instantly recognizable violet accent. Alongside the Air Max 1 Safari, the Viotech pack is considered to be among the greatest Air Max releases of all time, collaboration or not. In November of that same year, atmos returned with the Air Max 1 B Curry, which, despite not being an official collaboration, was an atmos-exclusive SMU product.
The Air Max family has figured prominently in atmos’ portfolio of collaborations and the pair have tended to releases them en masse every few years. Late 2006 and early 2007, for example, saw a handful of releases. This includes the Animal Pack—Air Max 1 and 95—and Premium Beast Air Max 1, which boasted print-heavy and richly textured uppers. Above all else, though, 2007 was a notable chapter in atmos’ history of collaboration thanks to the Air Max 1 “Elephant”. The turquoise Swoosh may be what makes the atmos-designed Elephant recognizable, but it was the elephant print—immortalized on the Air Jordan 3—that made this shoe special. It was the first time that the elephant print appeared on the Air Max 1 and all 2000 pairs produced were appropriately scooped up in no time. Along with the Safari and Viotech, the Elephant completes the atmos Air Max 1 trifecta of perfection.
While the Air Max family once again found itself at the center of attention in 2012 (with the release of the Animal Camo Pack and Premium Camo Pack), the Tokyo-based boutique has shown an ability—a willingness, even—to work with silhouettes other than Nike’s most popular. As mentioned above, atmos got its start with an SB Dunk Low, and the store has consistently revisited both the Dunk Low and Hi over the years. Even the Court Force, far from a commercial hit, has received the animal print treatment from Hommyo and his design team, with the silhouette featuring alongside the Premium Beast Air Max 1 and Elephant Air Max 1 releases of 2007.
Elsewhere, niche models like the Free Woven, Footscape Woven Chukka, and Free Powerlines have been on the receiving end of atmos’ magical touch. Instead of animal prints, though, they were dipped in light-hearted and effervescent colorways that showcased precisely why atmos collaborations have enjoyed such success: Hommyo has shown a willingness to take risks with his collaborations. After all, these are projects that Nike wouldn’t undertake alone, so why give customers something conservative? The animal prints, colorful uppers and playful details are also a nod to atmos’ home neighborhood: eclectic Harajuku.
But what about those collaborations with partners other than Nike? Following the success of the Nike collaborations in the early-‘00s, brands like adidas, New Balance, Puma and Asics came knocking on atmos’ door in Harajuku. Hommyo didn’t hesitate to answer. He was young and energetic thanks to the success atmos was enjoying. “Back then I was crazy,” he told Sole Collector, “so I was like ‘yeah let's do it!’”
Reebok has arguably served as second fiddle to Nike in the atmos universe, with the InstaPump Fury a foil to the Air Max 1. The retailer’s designs have ranged from the simple (like this crisp white pair for the 20th anniversary of the InstaPump Fury), to the playful (as seen in a furry blue and pink pair created with Packer Shoes to celebrate Japanese anime icon Doraemon). Other models have referenced Bounty Hunter, with eye-catching shark teeth detailing, while others have explored digicamo and pixelation.
The Tokyo-based retailer’s offerings from the Three Stripes have been relatively limited, historically speaking, but they have definitely represented atmos’ collaborative approach. A handful of glow-in-the-dark snakeskin Superstars, from 2010, 2012 and 2014, and a recurring use of the cultish ZX8000—including another glow-in-the-dark offering from 2013—have helped to cultivate atmos’ unique aesthetic.
Meanwhile, atmos’ ASICS offerings have fluctuated from the relatively tame to the quintessentially atmos. The tiger camo Gel-Lyte III released in 2017 was quite the contrast to the crisp, triple-white model released in 2015. The duo also partnered up to release black-and-gold Gel-Lyte III and V models in 2011 and 2015, respectively. Perhaps it’s this respect for its own history, and willingness to return to concepts that worked—black-and-gold in this case, animal prints in others—that has allowed atmos’ collaborations to thrive over the years. If anything, the carrying over of concepts and aesthetics from brand to brand outlines details that have become something like atmos signatures.
In 2008, the retailer famously teamed up with Puma to release the Endangered Species pack, which saw a handful of models inspired by endangered animals, including the fleece-lined North Pole Clyde, Panda Mid and Macaroni Penguin Mid. The retailer has also shown a knack for working with Puma’s Disc Blaze model; The store released an astronomy-inspired “The Sun and the Moon” and “Venus” colorways in 2015, the “Night Jungle" in 2016, and the “Desert Dusk” in 2017—a triple-label collaboration with Swiss-based outpost Titolo.
One of atmos’ most recent collaborations brought another third-party collaborator to the fore: Three Tides Tattoo. The Tokyo-based tattoo artist Hide Ichibay designed a Clyde upper inspired by the iconic ukiyo-e artwork “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. It was the second collaboration between atmos and Three Tides Tattoo within a year, with a pair of ukiyo-e-inspired uppers created for a DC Shoes x atmos release in Fall/Winter 2015 predating the 2016 release of the Clyde. Yes, that DC Shoes; the brand has tapped atmos repeatedly over the years, most notably to help relaunch the Manteca model in 2015.
For atmos, collaborations aren’t always about making quick profit—they’re about exposing customers to the history of a brand or model. Take atmos’ partnerships with Clarks. A leopard print Tawyer chukka from 2012, equipped with blue suede accents and a leather toe box, is probably the most memorable offering from the pair’s collaborations together. However, the retailer also released Harris Tweed-clad Wallabees in 2009, Weaver Boots in 2010, and a rippled-sole Tawyer in 2012. Clarks may have ties to more preppy menswear, but it is also a label intricately woven into streetwear and sneaker culture, particularly with the Wallabee and Tawyer. These wackier reworks of the traditionally ‘buttoned-up’ suede Clarks gives a nod to the brand’s connection to streetwear.
As the years have worn on, atmos has expanded its collaborative efforts to include projects with smaller, less mainstream brands like Brooks, PONY and Ewing. Like DC Shoes and Clarks, many of these projects have been attempts to (re)energize the brands involved. While some might balk at that strategy, remember that atmos’ relationship with Nike started in the same way: Hommyo was looking to offer something unique for his customers to boost their rapport with both atmos and Nike.
For atmos, collaboration has evolved from simply being a bonus to being at the center of the retailer’s business model. Expansion to the US came in 2005, and more outposts have sprouted up in Tokyo, something possible thanks to the notoriety the retailer gained through collaboration. As stated at the outset, anybody remotely interested in streetwear has likely heard of atmos’ collaborations at some point. A second store concept, Sports Lab by atmos, was largely funded by Nike, under the pretext that the store would mainly house Swoosh-branded products.
Kinetics, meanwhile, is another atmos-backed retail project that is geared towards a more mainstream customer. Hommyo has released collaborations with Coca-Cola, Fila, Keith Haring, Columbia, DC, Timberland, and Gravis under the Kinetics banner.
While atmos continued to release its fair share of collaborations in recent years, Hommyo seems to have shifted into warp speed in 2018, with the retailer unveiling an unprecedented spate of high-profile partnerships. A remake of the 2007 “Beast Pack” Air Max 1 and Air Max 95 released in March 2018 to commemorate Nike’s Air Max Day. Almost as soon as the “Beast Pack” sold out, a SHOES MASTER cover surfaced teasing a never-before-seen Air Max 90; an Air Max 1 surfaced, as well as two Air Max 95s. All four models were covered in a collage of Nike shoe boxes. Together, they made up the Nike x atmos “We Love Nike” pack.
As if that weren’t enough, images have surfaced of an update of the Nike x atmos Air Max 1 Curry, from 2003, with the addition of “Red Curry” and “Green Curry” takes on the silhouette in the coming months, serving perhaps as a 15 year anniversary celebration.
Collaborations with Asics (a pair of simple, but luxurious Gel-Inst.360s), adidas (an EQT ADV commemorating the opening of an adidas-exclusive floor in atmos’ flagship) and Reebok (a black and neon take on the massively under-appreciated Run DMX 10) have also helped atmos set a historic pace. Of course, amid the retailer’s bid to grow into more than a sneaker store, the collaborations have been accompanied by clothing and a series of limited edition Medicom Be@rbricks paying homage to Nike colorways.
With the countless projects atmos has pumped out, sometimes it’s easy to forget about the Japanese retailer’s illustrious history. atmos was built on collaboration, but it also built collaboration. At the moment, two brands intersecting to create hyped-up product is a constant occurrence in modern fashion. It’s only appropriate that Hommyo, streetwear’s de facto ‘collaborator in chief,’ continues to show the world how it’s done.