The Graphic Genius of Sk8thing
The Graphic Genius of Sk8thing
- Words Rocky Li
- Date September 5, 2017
Born and raised in Tokyo, Shinichiro Nakamura (better known as Sk8thing) has been a pivotal figure within the streetwear world for over two decades. While there’s multiple outlets for his design work, his portfolio includes stints alongside industry heavyweights like Nigo, and later Pharrell Williams. His prolific graphic design resume features work on some of the most iconic labels in streetwear and fashion—BAPE, WTAPS, Human Made and Undercover among them. Above all else, Sk8thing’s career has cemented him as a driving force in how streetwear looks today. Even though surprisingly little is known about the influential and enigmatic designer, we take a look at his graphic design to learn a little more about the man behind the mask.
Follow Rocky on Instagram here.
Sk8thing had no formal training as a graphic designer and learned the craft on his own.
Sk8thing’s early experiments with graphic design came on a Mac that was owned by his friend Hiroshi Fujiwara. Hiroshi taught him to use the computer and Sk8thing poured hours into the graphic design software on it. From those humble beginnings, Sk8thing quickly made a name for himself as a graphic designer for some of Tokyo’s finest streetwear brands. As the Harajuku streetwear scene grew, so did his involvement within it.
Sk8thing’s early work primarily came through A Bathing Ape, working directly with its founder Nigo. The two came up with the concept BAPE together after watching a five hour marathon of The Planet of the Apes films. While Nigo set the tone and direction for the brand as a whole, Sk8thing was responsible for much of the graphic design. Think of it like this: if Nigo was the ‘General’ then Sk8thing was one of this most trusted foot-soldiers. While not explicitiy confirmed, it’s likely that Sk8thing executed the vaunted Ape head logo and trademark camo pattern under Nigo’s watch. Since the outset, Sk8thing has added his own flair to countless BAPE designs denoted by his use of oversize prints, bright colors and references to American pop art and film culture. In 2013, an official 20 year anniversary video was released, showing some of the brand’s most iconic designs and moments. The video is a testament to Sk8thing’s productivity and influence at BAPE.
Considering his future endeavors, it’s important to note that Shin’s time at BAPE also led him to a friendship with Toby Feltwell. Feltwell was an A&R at James Lavelle’s Mo’Wax records before moving to Tokyo to work for BAPE in 2003. At the BAPE offices the two spent countless hours sharing design influences and bonding over music, art and film.
It was this relationship that led the two of them to work for Pharrell, helping to launch his label Billionaire Boys Club. After meeting Pharrell through Nigo, Feltwell suggested Sk8thing as a graphic designer for the brand. Most importantly, Sk8thing ended up creating the Billionaire Boys Club logo when he took on the position. In fact, almost all the graphics for the early seasons of the label were done by Sk8thing. The arrangement allowed Sk8thing to focus entirely on the graphics, while Feltwell acted as a liaison to Pharrell and his vision for what BBC would become. This would help set the foundation for what would ultimately become Cav Empt.
Feltwell and Nakamura’s role at BBC ultimately came to a close and they became interested in launching their own label. Founded in 2012, the pair would spearhead the start of Cav Empt (C.E. for short). Feltwell described the period leading up to Cav Empt’s origins in a 2015 interview with i-D.
“The challenge was to work out what we wanted to do without following someone else’s direction: we’d all spent most of our careers in the shadows—which is where we are most comfortable.”
Sk8thing and Feltwell teamed up with production expert Hishiyama (Hishi) Yutaka to bring the idea of Cav Empt to life. The brand’s unique name spawned from a ‘caveat emptor’ tatoo that a character in the Philip K. Dick book, Ubik, had. The latin term for ‘buyer beware’ was a perfect accompaniment to the subversive collection of streetwear to follow. With three intelligent, distinct voices in the mix, it was clear that the division of labor within C.E. needed to be established at the outset. Sk8thing was responsible for all the graphics, Hishi handled the production and Feltwell oversaw the business and product design.
Cav Empt was formed from a confluence of interests and inspirations, including a predilection for science fiction, philosophy, illustration and underground electronic club music. Sk8thing found ways to visually incorporate these elements directly into both the garments as well as the brand’s aesthetic presentation. The first collection was modeled by grime legend D Double E. Naturally—with Sk8thing and Feltwell’s history in and around the music industry—later seasons also had a musical connection, with videos featuring electronic music producers Actress and Zomby. Music and club culture has remained a huge part of the brand; Feltwell even shared a playlist of tracks that inspired the C.E. team with Hypebeast in 2016.
Personal Style & Secrecy
Sk8thing is incredibly elusive when it comes to his public identity and persona. While many designers and fashion industry insiders want to garner press and have their style documented, Sk8thing prefers to maintain a low profile. In fact, he’s rarely even been seen without a mask or some sort of facial disguise. An [interview for SHOWstudio]((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uARF8di7S8) with Lou Stoppard shows the lengths to which Sk8thing goes to keep his identity hidden; the video shows him wearing a screen-printed C.E. scarf over the bottom half of his face. Even more mysterious is how the whole video is presented through captions with his voice digitally altered.
In the early part of his career, Sk8thing would even turn down most requests for interviews as he preferred to speak through his work. While he was able to stay almost completely under the radar working for outsized, public-facing personalities like Nigo and Hiroshi Fujiwara, co-founding C.E. forced Sk8thing to embrace publicity a bit more.
From the few public photos of Sk8thing over the years, you can spot some of his influences in terms of personal style. Just as his images demand attention, his style is a mix of loud patterns, graphics and bright—sometimes obviously clashing—colors. Sk8thing has used popular culture as a major base for his style. He’s been seen incorporating sports jerseys, military equipment and even donned a Homer Simpson halloween mask for a 2012 Hypebeast interview.
Themes in Sk8thing designs
Certain patterns and themes appear once you look at Sk8thing’s body of work in its entirety. A large influence is his love for animation and illustration. In a 2010 feature in Interview Magazine, Sk8thing expressed his love for Hanna-Barbera cartoons. A similar cartoony art style is found in the logos that he has created for C.E. and BBC. Sk8thing has also been fond of bringing in other illustrators and artists to assist with graphics. To date Cav Empt has partnered with a handful of artists including Matt Demhave and Oliver Payne. These artists were chosen as they reference similar themes to Cav Empt. Demhave is known for his exploration of disconnection and alienation through technology and pop culture, Payne for his unlikely juxtapositions of ancient Greek statues with 16-bit video game graphics.
Another key theme in Sk8thing’s design over the years has been the incorporation of technology and computer-adjacent hardware. The most direct example of which may be the C.E. tag, which shows two computer monitors that resemble the Apple Mac Classic; likely the same computer that Sk8thing first learned to design on. Other technological devices that have appeared on Cav Empt garments include Blackberries, smartphones, telecom company logos, SIM cards and CDs. Looking back, even some of the Billionaire Boys Club graphics that Sk8thing worked on were in this vein—perhaps the most prominent example is the all-over [‘Beepers and Butts’ print]((https://www.grailed.com/listings/2807236-Icecream-Black-Red-Gray-Low-Top-Sneakers)) that covered the first edition Ice Cream sneakers.
This obsession with mining digital nostalgia is further evidenced by the usage of early (in many cases, pre-21st century) internet graphics. Sk8thing has sampled everything from classic Mac OS icons to video game textures and vintage internet browser windows. Before C.E., Sk8thing was already making homages to early digital design; an T-shirt for BAPE utilized a MS Paint-inspired graphic, and his 20th Anniversary BAPE shirt, re-crafted the iconic Ape Head logo in a retro-inspired, pixelated design.
Unconventional by Nature
Sk8thing’s approach to design could be best described as unconventional. It’s hard to imagine many other designers choosing to flip the Monster energy logo or incorporating quotes from French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. While his work at BAPE and BBC was restricted by those labels’ consistent, distinct aesthetics; Sk8thing has able to express himself fully after starting C.E.
While Sk8thing has his plate full with C.E., he somehow still finds time to collaborate with other labels. His collaborative Undercover leather “Zip Rider’s jacket released in 2014 is a good example of how he challenges men’s staples. The jacket is printed with racing style checkerboard graphics and hits of bright red and blue.
This year, Sk8thing was contracted by his friend Hiroshi Fujiwara to help in the creation of the Fragment Design x Louis Vuitton pop-up shop in Tokyo. The result featured a branded replica subway car placed right in the venue.
One of the most interesting recurring themes within the lore of Cav Empt is how the label has embedded critiques of consumer culture into some of their garments. While this was done subtly in the earlier collections, the Spring/Summer 2017 collection included a hat embroidered with the text “Silly fancy goods, designed to create the illusion of a full life”. The quote is from an obscure Marxist academic collective Krisis Group and its essay “Against Labor, Against Capital”. In the essay the collective argue that the elites keep the masses pacified with these “silly fancy goods.” It’s hard to imagine any other label would reference radical leftist theory in a collection—or, at the very least, do it in the same way that Sk8thing has (the cap’s connection to souvenir gear for tourists is yet another uncanny connection to Sk8thing’s own flair for the ironic).
Despite his secretive public profile and enigmatic personality, Sk8thing has made a name for
himself as one of the most influential designers in streetwear. He was a key contributor to the success of BAPE and BBC and has continued to push the boundaries of how streetwear can look with Cav Empt. Taking on his own label has given Sk8thing more freedom to share his far ranging influences from philosophy to underground club music. The breadth of his interests allows Sk8thing to tell compelling stories through graphics like no one else could. The conversation in streetwear has always revolved around dropping knowledge and Sk8thing still has plenty to say.