Ryohei Kawanishi Hates Logos, but Has Love for His Landlord
A Visit to the Atelier of the Designer Behind the New Label Called Landlord
- Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
- Photography: Alessandro Simonetti
Ryohei Kawanishi accepts the idea that there will always be a disconnect between designers and the worlds they borrow from. “For me, so much of menswear is about fantasy, you know? Everything is fake,” he laughs. Hailing from Tottori, a rural prefecture in Japan, Kawanishi began making clothing first as an art practice. “I wasn’t thinking about ‘the business’ or menswear and womenswear until I had a daughter to support.”
Now operating out of a factory in Brooklyn that contracts for the U.S. Army, the designer has established Landlord, a label that is far from militant— Carolina blue furs, high-visibility orange chinos, and sweaters with the words “Jerk Chicken” knit into them. Workwear silhouettes serve as the foundation for measured experimentation. “Ryo and I really are weirdos when it comes to how we view concepts and clothing,” says stylist and frequent collaborator Akeem Smith. “Trying to present normalcy is more of a challenge for us.”
Photographer Alessandro Simonetti paid a visit to the studio of Ryohei Kawanishi, who spoke with Zoma Crum-Tesfa about the boundaries between style and cynicism.
What was it like growing up in the countryside of Japan?
You cannot imagine how remote and rural my hometown is. My father did construction work and my mother was a social worker, but almost everyone in Tottori is a rice farmer. There was no import of foreign culture, but sometimes after school I would go to the bookshop, which sold magazines about what was happening in Tokyo and other bigger cities. Streetwear was huge for my peers in the city. To understand the references, I began to get more into American hip hop and skate culture. Then I moved to London.
How did this interest in streetwear take you to London first and not the U.S.?
I was really interested in the fetish culture in England! You have it in Japan too, but in Britain it was stronger. Sex and drug shops are more mainstream now, but before punk culture, fetish culture was big. I remember I saw a huge torture garden in a magazine—that was my first, “How crazy is this world?!” moment.
Why do you think the aesthetics of subcultures are so evocative?
In Japan, the practice of borrowing aspects from established subcultures has a lot to do with the history of military occupation in Japan post-WWII. Japan’s urban component was totally wiped out by the war, and the first shops that opened were in Harajuku, the neighborhood where the American soldiers lived. These soldiers had with them things from home, like t-shirts and jeans, which were new to Japanese people. All of the shapes—like souvenir jackets—were made by American armies, but all of the embroideries were created using Japanese techniques. That’s why people started studying Harajuku—it’s still tied to this history of streetwear. It’s like the maker of streetwear.
Does this heritage influence your work today?
It’s hard to say. 80% of the development of Landlord is happening organically. I met my business partner at a party while I was still in grad school. He asked me to come to his studio, and we talked about what we could do together. Because my studio is now in a factory that made contract garments for the U.S. Army, we have all these great patterns for reference, and that bleeds into our practice. My partner also happens to be the landlord of the studio, so there’s the name. But what we do borrows more from workwear—heavy-duty workwear, rather than military.
“In Japan, the practice of borrowing aspects from established subcultures has a lot to do with the history of military occupation post-WWII.”
How often do you feel that one borrows various elements from the past that they do not identify with ideologically?
I interpret culture as a combination of passion, and the reactions of many individuals to forces that are external. People somewhere are being subjected to some kind of pressure by society or the government, and out of that comes reggae or punk, for instance. Now in fashion you have a relationship to the readymade. People borrow practices from many places and turn them into visual communication to be used as style. Fashion has become too quick, so there’s been no time for consideration or concept anymore. It’s just people concentrating on what can sell. This can be really cynical, wearing this or that just because it looks cool, and there being no essential meaning there. I’m not going to try and accept or reject those ideas, because I’ve realized this is just the dominant culture. Fashion is a mirror of society, and new fashion is always close to the youth culture. So, my main concept with garments is to be a mirror and to think about what’s going on with a new generation of people.
What is it about workwear that makes so much sense to you as a designer?
Menswear is so much about fantasy. From the design side, what the designer is basing a garment or collection on is often very far away from themselves, so there’s no real experience behind much of the work that is released. If I want to design a suit, but I’ve never worked on Wall Street, how do I go about that? What kind of function is important for the wearer? Very rarely is there consideration for the functionality of the garment. For example, when a new iPhone comes out, designers may increase the size of a pocket, but that’s about as technical as it gets. With workwear, all the garments are very precise and made for the body that wears it.
I’ve noticed that there aren’t many logos in your work—
I hate logos!
—other than a crest for Ganja University.
Ganja universities actually exist in this world! In India, there’s a city called Ganja and there’s a university there. They made the original t-shirt that Bob Marley wore in the 80s and I found the vintage ones in a store in Europe. But doing streetwear without logos is really challenging.
Yeah, streetwear and skateboarding normally revolve around heavily branded items. How do you reconcile that?
To be honest, now I’ve been getting a lot of pressure to make logos. Personally, I don’t like the logo, because it flattens what you are doing. You read graphics much more quickly than you can decipher a silhouette, and sometimes I feel that’s not good for the clothing. When you see the logo, you don’t see the product anymore. Logos are something that other brands default to because they’re easy. They get the message out about what you are.
I was looking at the Spring/Summer 2018 collection, which seems super graphic with patterns and use of color.
Yeah, I made that knitwear, it’s not print. I used a graphic, but it’s incorporated into the garment. I graduated from knitwear so I have an appreciation for what I can bring to knitwear.
“When you see the logo, you don’t see the product anymore.”
You’ve mentioned before that you’re inspired by the idea of the readymade. How do you carry that into your work?
I keep saying Landlord is streetwear, but it’s actually not really streetwear. It’s more that my process is tied to that of streetwear design, which to me is this readymade concept. People rip off the original idea—you change the word, change the graphic, change the symbol a little bit, and then you’re selling the product. I play with that context, which is a readymade concept. The development of what most designers are doing is collecting archive pieces, tracing down the pattern, changing the silhouette, fabric, and the construction a little bit, and then selling it as a new garment. That’s what’s going on in the fashion world, and not many people talk about it. It’s just like how artists can pick something up on the street and display it on a white cube as their own work. What’s happening is a readymade. I’m very devoted to this style of working because I don’t do pattern-cutting, and I don’t draw. For me, so much of the design happens during the research stage.
Do you find that approach to be particular to menswear?
People see menswear as just being style—that there’s no real meaning behind it anymore. Let’s say my father is a construction worker and he shops at a specialized store for workwear, he’s always wearing it when he’s at home because he’s really comfortable in that garment. But if people bring workwear garments into fashion, it means it’s just an aesthetic because designers have likely never worked as construction workers. I’ve never worked in the military, but I’m still working with a military uniform base. High fashion doesn’t have time to do research anymore—what the designer bases things on is too far away and isn’t derived from real experience. Everything is fake. It’s one of the most cynical and interesting things about menswear for me. It’s really a contradiction.
How do you avoid being cynical when you borrow things?
That’s my biggest motivation as I develop the concept of Landlord, and as I try to make a meaning of what Landlord is.
If design in general is the progression of forms into “better” ones, what is the purview of fashion?
I think putting what the consumer wants at the center can create really strong ideas. With menswear, I’m always negotiating with myself about how much of my ego I should push. If I fall into the entertainment side of fashion, it’s better to make crazy shapes. But in terms of what people actually want to wear on the street, nobody wants that. So as a designer, I’m always budgeting my own ego. I think a lot about how much I should push myself. Because no ego leads to better design.
- Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
- Photography: Alessandro Simonetti