Military Redefined: The Strict Philosophy of WTAPS
Military Redefined: The Strict Philosophy of WTAPS
- Words Rocky Li
- Date November 27, 2017
A spacious studio in the Tokyo neighborhood of Shibuya serves as WTAPS HQ. Strewn across the atelier is a massive display of collectables, many of them belonging to WTAPS founder Testsu Nishiyama—aka “TET." Among the items displayed are countless CDs, movies, magazines and books that serve as design references. Behind the racks of clothing samples, there is even a custom-tuned vintage motorcycle parked inside the studio. The contents of the workshop are a testament to the fanatical detail WTAPS embeds into each and every design.
As one of the leading labels to emerge from the Harajuku streetwear scene of the 1990s, WTAPS has evolved into one of the most recognized streetwear brands in Japan, boasting worldwide distribution, a slew of highly regarded collaborations and an impressive retail flagship. Known primarily for their carefully crafted takes on military garments, the label has built a cult following that embraces the lifestyle that Tetsu Nishiyama has created. There are few labels today that readily embrace the full range of military garb in such creative, consistent fashion, drawing from the history of military culture and combining it with authentic vintage production techniques.
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Tetsu Nishiyama’s design ambitions began with his first endeavor FPAR (Forty Percent Against Rights). At FPAR, the designs were initially modified bootlegs of pre-existing items. The name is an allusion to a quote Nishiyama once read, stating if an original artwork was modified at least 40%, the rights to that particular artwork no longer exist. Launched in 1993, the label operated under the mission statement “to sabotage the fabricated information regulated by mass media using immediately effective forms of expression.” Inspired by the guerrilla media tactics employed by anarchists and rebel movements the world over, FPAR garments were designed to go against the grain in regards to anything mainstream. While FPAR still exists today, its nascent popularity was quickly overshadowed by the fledgling WTAPS label Nishiyama founded just three years later. While FPAR was more of a lifestyle brand, with WTAPS, Nishiyama focused almost exclusively on designing clothes.
Founded in 1996, the name WTAPS is itself derived from a military term. Pronounced “double taps”—the “W” shorthand for double—the term, first popularized in the 1930s, references a shooting technique wherein two shots are fired in rapid succession at the same target. A fitting name, considering the label has remained focused on the military throughout its twenty plus year history. While military clothing is the basis for so many modern staples, most menswear designers try to obscure these origins. WTAPS, however, takes the opposite approach, pushing designs to the point where they seemingly radiate war. Always a fan of military garb, Nishiyama began WTAPS due to a running fascination with all aspects of soldiers clothing: practicality, production process and materials.
Early seasons of WTAPS in particular were a very literal take on military aesthetic, with many lookbooks and editorials showcasing head-to-toe BDU camo. Japanese magazine Asayan expertly chronicled the early years of the label, with pages of product images remiscent of vintage Army catalogues. From day one, the core WTAPS offering was aesthetically not so different from what you might find at an Army surplus store—boonie hats, field jackets, BDUS, cargos and duffel bags. Many of the pieces utilized different army camouflage patterns, with a particular focus on what the US military actually utilized in the field. The first collections were very literal in their execution, however there was some room in the details to add creative flare. Take the inside tags, for instance, which proclaim WTAPS as the label “Behind the Balaclava.”
The Philosophy of WTAPS
While WTAPS has grown tremendously since its inception, it has always followed a set of core beliefs and philosophies. Shared on both the product labels and the garments themselves, these ideals act as a direct link to Nishiyama’s singular vision, most notably: “placing things where they should be.”
In an 2013 interview with Highsnobiety , Nishiyama broke dean the meaning behind his slogan:
[It] really is from my intuition. To me, “placing things where they should be” is the basis and the foundation of design. That’s why I use it as a slogan. As I did fashion, I got a bit exhausted with the repetition every season. Things could be the same, the same and the same… I needed quite some motivation to keep going. And … whenever I think of the motivation I return back to the origin, to the foundation … “placing things where they should be." This is my starting point when it concerns fashion.
Apart from the brand slogan, two other design principles have guided Nishiyama’s work. The first, the Japanese term “miya-daiku.” A historic name for professional carpenters in Japan famous for being able to use every single piece of wood, the term now is a catch-all for resourceful artisans. Nishiyama explained the personal appeal of their work to him.
These master artisans understood that trees can be imperfect. It can be curved, but the way it is curved does have the power, the origin, the beauty and the aesthetics to it too. Even if a tree is bent, it has certain aesthetics in it. I do not see it as a defect, but rather understand and make the full use of its potential and reflect it in my design.
The second principle is Taoism. While Nishiyama claims himself an atheist, he has adopted certain aspects of Taoism over the years. In a 2013 video by Obscura Magazine, Nishiyama spoke on embracing Taoism. This relationship was brought centerstage with the release of his Fall/Winter 2013 “Lifist” collection. Denoting one who draws no distinction between work, play and education, this sort of totally immersive lifestyle is what WTAPS has strived to provide with every subsequent collection—one that is consistent with Taoist teachings and philosophy.
Collaborations and Retail Presence
A thoughtful, calculated approach to retail—both in Japan and beyond—was key in expanding the label’s audience. For many years the de-facto flagship store, Blackflag, was located in Aoyama. The shop’s concept was to “raise a black flag”—to start something revolutionary. Shinsuke Takizawa, the CEO of NEIGHBORHOOD, who came up with the boutique’s name, was an early supporter, and has remained a close friend and business associate since. WTAPS items are also stocked at the Neighborhood run HOODS boutiques throughout Japan, Hong Kong and Beijing.
In 2011 WTAPS opened their first official flagship store in Shibuya. Named GIP, (Guerrilla: The Incubation Period), the store is a spiritual successor to Black Flag. Beside the full WTAPS range, the store also carries FPAR. The GIP store is the most robust expression of what WTAPS represents, with a carefully decorated space that pays homage to the military history that serves as a constant source of inspiration. Today, WTAPS flagship is one of a handful of retailers throughout the country that believe in Nishiyama’s vision. Not only well distributed throughout Japan, but in the past few years the brand has additionally been picked up by some of the best streetwear boutiques around the world, including HAVEN and END. Clothing, among many others.
Like many contemporaries, WTAPS has been able to reach a broader audience through a long history of collaboration with like-minded brands. Through these partnerships, the brand has been able to present their take on military gear to unprecedented audiences.
WTAPS x Supreme
WTAPS have collaborated twice with New York’s premiere streetwear brand. The first partnership came about in 2007, when the two worked on—to no surprise—a military themed collection. The initial capsule included a co-branded camo M-65, a BDU short, and cargo pants & shorts, all manufactured by WTAPS. Supreme took care of T-shirt production, designing a slew of co-branded graphic tees. As a sidenote, Nishiyama additionally designed two t-shirts for Supreme that same year, however these items were not an official collab.
In the Winter of 2009, WTAPS teamed up with Supreme once again, this time focusing on baseball rather than WTAPS typical military fare. The collection featured a reversible melton wool varsity jacket in two colorways, three graphic t-shirts and a wool pillow in two colors. Inspired by a fictional baseball team dubbed “Metal Militia,” the graphics referenced the Eastern versus Western conference, serving as a reminder of passion Japan and the USA share for the sport.
WTAPS x Porter
For serious WTAPS enthusiasts the Porter collabs are one of the most memorable. While Porter have released a large range of WTAPS designed bags and accessories over the years, the “Readypack” line is perhaps the most sought after. Several of these bags reference A.L.I.C.E. (all-purpose lightweight individual carrying equipment)—an equipment attachment system and accessory set officially adopted by the U.S military in 1973 that rivals the more established MOLLE system. Referencing these designs, the WTAPS x Porter bags feature durable heavyweight ballistic nylon and a ton of actual functionality. Immortalized in early WTAPS lookbooks, these collaborative items show the depth to which early WTAPS attempted to reference and even innovate classic US military design.
WTAPS x Vans
This ongoing collaboration between WTAPS and skate giant Vans is one of the longest partnerships the brands history. Beyond producing amazing products, the series of releases has been instrumental in introducing WTAPS to audiences abroad. The first collaboration between the labels dates back to 2006. The initial collection flipped the WTAPS crossbones motif into an all-over print applied to the upper of the classic Sk8-Hi. Next up came Authentics covered with the WTAPS wing logo graphic with matching printed laces.
A year later, the two dropped a murdered out all-black version of the chukka with the same crossbones print, as well as the “Devil” pack utilizing the Era silhouette. Then in 2013, the two came together once again to release a series inspired by the army and navy under the Vans Vault imprint. Utilizing the two branches respective navy and olive color palettes, the sneakers included a WTAPS clothing tag stitched to the tongue of the Sk8-His. The collection additionally included a set of Chukkas.
Fall/Winter 2015 saw the return of the classic OG Style 36. Constructed in three monochromatic colorways picked by the WTAPS team, each sneaker featured premium suede and a production that replicated the look and feel of the original Style 36 silhouette. Also included were three colors of the OG Era LX, coming with heavy white canvas uppers, paired with classic vulcanized soles in blue, green and red.
The popularity, longevity, and limited nature of the collaboration has made the regularly scheduled drops a favorite of WTAPS fans and Vans collectors alike. Last year saw everything come full circle as the two companies celebrated their storied partnership, releasing a number of shoes in the ever-popular bones motif as a part of Vans' 50th Anniversary celebration.
The bones logo was brought back on four models—the Vans’s OG Sk8-Hi LX, OG Chukka Boot LX and OG Authentic LX all available in both black and olive. Along with the shoes, WTAPS released a small collection of apparel, including a highly coveted military jacket. Wrapped with the all over bones print and featuring “Vans #1 Waffle Lovers Club” embroidered on the back, collectors still lust after the limited release jacket.
WTAPS x Carhartt WIP
WTAPS went straight to the source for this workwear influenced collection. Underscoring the brands mutual admiration for utilitarian clothing, the two teamed up in the winter of 2015 to release a high-end take on the prototypical Carhartt Detroit jacket and Dearborn vest. Available in navy and tan, the jackets and vest received co-branded badges as well as a specialized weather resistant treatment to elevate the Carhartt classics.
Long Live WTAPS
The journey of WTAPS is closely tied to that of its creator, Tetsu Nishiyama. As Nishiyama has matured and re-envisioned his life approach, WTAPS has evolved alongside him. The label has expanded beyond its’ military focus and embraced other sources of inspiration—from 90’s street style to prep and trad influences. As a part of this evolution, Nishiyama launched the DESCENDANT line in 2015. Based around the concept of clothing for the whole family, DESCENDANT produces men’s, women’s and children’s wear in tandem. The idea of a family wardrobe is only amplified by the brand’s minimal, pared down designs. The launch of DESCENDANT is evidence of how Nishiyama grew beyond his military obsession, and has since grown into a designer who aims to create for a wider audience, without sacrificing the quality of the product.
WTAPS stands as a testament to how a streetwear brand can retain its’ DNA without alienating its’ original customer base. After two successful decades, Nishiyama is now looking back at his legacy, commemorating twenty years of WTAPS via an upcoming book release. Five years in the making, the book is currently in production. with assistance courtesy of Tokyo design firm and publisher mo’design. A release date is pegged for later this year.
Limited to only 2,000 copies, WTAPS 01 will showcase the brand’s immense archive from its launch in 1996 until today. Featuring over 300 carefully curated products, the book will provide an in-depth chronology in order to give a sense of the brand’s history. Featuring unique specifications and commentary for each and every item, the book serves as a reminder that at the heart of WTAPS success is the ability to make incredibly compelling product.
While many brands reference military style, WTAPS has always gone above and beyond. To the trained eye, it’s easy to spot a WTAPS piece from afar, a testament to the committed aesthetic they’ve maintained over the past two decades. The world of streetwear is often a volatile one, with many brands having a quick moment before falling to the wayside. WTAPS, though, has never chased trends. Instead, they’ve restricted their efforts into creating products that fit within their philosophy and worldview—an approach that has kept their cult following intact while picking up new generations of devotees along the way. Perhaps WTAPS has already said it best through one of their designs: Long Live WTAPS