We speak to the three founders about how a 2011 earthquake forced Tokyo into darkness, and in turn inspired their new beginning
In March 2011, a 9.0–9.1 magnitude earthquake struck the Pacific coast of Tōhoku. It was the most powerful earthquake to ever hit Japan, the fourth most powerful earthquake which has been recorded, and in turn triggered a tsunami that hit Tōhoku’s Iwate Prefecture, killing over 15,000 people, with a further 2,537 missing. In the weeks that followed, Japan was plunged repeatedly and regularly into darkness.
The earthquake destroyed almost a fifth of the country’s key nuclear reactors, causing the Japanese government to ration power throughout the country. The bright, neon lights of Tokyo were suddenly dimmed, cell-phone reception was wiped out in areas, and its inhabitants became isolated in the metropolis. The electrical rationing lasted weeks, rather than days. Most public transport was limited or cancelled altogether, petrol stations began to sell out of fuel, as people stocked on basic provisions. At the time, the BBC reported “a sense of quiet panic.”
It was in this moment that Cav Empt, the clandestine Tokyo-based streetwear brand, was formed. Launched by Toby Feltwell, the graphic designer Sk8thing) and Hishiyama (Hishi) Yutaka, it seems like an odd time to launch any venture, when everyone else is just worried about survival. “It was weirdly dark, (and) just a very strange time,” recalled Feltwell on a phone call from Milan earlier this year. “The city normally has a ridiculous overuse of light all over the place. It clearly felt to us that this was like the end of something, it’s time to work out what happens next.”
“The city normally has a ridiculous overuse of light all over the place. It clearly felt to us that this was like the end of something, it’s time to work out what happens next” – Toby Feltwell
Elaborating on this in a 2012 interview with The Heavy Mental – a website which, for a brand obsessed with digital hyperreality, has fittingly been lost to the internet – Feltwell explained the founding trio’s shared reference points: “The failure of all available models of modernity, the disappointing reality and ubiquity of the internet, the frustration that the reality of Tokyo is nowhere near as good as the trailer for Enter The Void, the practical impossibility of originality.” Citing the novel Ubik by Philip K. Dick, Feltwell described the brand as being a reaction a “dissatisfaction with the present state of things… refusing to believe that the reality we assumed we were experiencing was really real, and perhaps we could just find an alternative somehow.” The brand’s name was also taken from Ubik, and is short for caveat emptor, a legal term derived from Latin which means “buyer beware.”
“When we began, the idea that Philip K. Dick books were suddenly relevant again and had become a useful lens for looking at where society was heading seemed interesting, but I think it’s a pretty banal idea by now,” writes Sk8thing over email. Of the trio, he is perhaps best known. All of them worked together at A Bathing Ape, the Japanese streetwear goliath once helmed by Nigo, with Sk8thing responsible for much of the brand’s graphic oeuvre.
“I see stuff on the internet and I draw it... Sorry!” Sk8thing writes of his creative approach at Cav Empt, which like Bape has a rich visual language. But such a response somehow feels like an oversimplification. Since launching seven years ago, C.E. has proved to be one of the most enigmatic brands in fashion, its seemingly simple formula of streetwear with a futuristic-bent often underpinned by nods to dense theoretical texts, or compositions that border on cultural critique. Often the garments and graphics feel haunted by the past, a collision of outdated modes of technology, subverted corporate symbols – like the European Economic Area’s ubiquitous ‘CE’ safety marking – and archive film graphics. A cinematic reference they repeatedly return to is that of a woman clutching her head, which also recalls a late 60s Situationist poster, with a speech bubble that reads “My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.”
“When we began, the idea that Philip K. Dick books were suddenly relevant again and had become a useful lens for looking at where society was heading seemed interesting, but I think it’s a pretty banal idea by now” – Sk8thing
“We’ve entered this stage where it’s almost difficult to remember anything because you just know that you can immediately check on your phone and find out,” says Feltwell. The idea that chronology has collapsed in on itself is a theme which often seems present in the work of Cav Empt. The nods to what was once considered the future – technological tools for societal advancement – are also coupled with the modern-day viewer’s realisation that such optimism was misplaced. We were promised instant global connectivity, as democratic and affordable as it can be. But in the wider context of election hacking, Cambridge Analytica, and targeted ads of alarming specificity, it’s clear something has gone awry.
“There’s no way to build an idea of what the present is without using elements of the past: it’s all there is. We’re trying to fix an idea of the present and sometimes the best way to do that is by combining old things in new ways,” he continues, insisting the brand’s approach isn’t intended as a dogmatic appraisal of the system it exists in. “Technology works in an insidious way to make us forget it hasn’t always been there and it quickly becomes invisible, normal, boring. Looking at old technology can help bring the true nature of the present into focus.”
Feltwell himself is a former A&R at XL Recordings, and many of Cav Empt’s most interesting attempts at subverting or deviating from the norm have been through music. “The one ambition for setting up the brand is that we wanted D Double E to wear the clothes in the lookbook, and we hadn’t really looked beyond doing one collection of clothes and having D Double E wear it,” he laughs. Cult producer – and a figure who revels in anonymity even more than C.E’s aloof founders – Zomby also appeared in the brand’s SS13 video lookbook. With a rolling, videogame backdrop and the artist’s custom gold face-mask comprised of shimmering geometric shapes, it situated itself at a point where simulation meets the real world. Indeed, C.E. often seems most at home in the uncanny valley.
“The one ambition for setting up the brand is that we wanted D Double E to wear the clothes in the lookbook, and we hadn’t really looked beyond doing one collection of clothes and having D Double E wear it” – Toby Feltwell
More recently, to coincide with the launch of the brand’s AW18 collection, C.E. worked with London-based artist Oliver Payne to create a film entitled The Clothes Themselves. Debuted in Milan earlier this year, it explores philosophical ‘Spread Mind’ concept, which its creator, Riccardo Manzotti, explains on his website as being “a mind-object identity theory that states that one’s consciousness of an object is the object one is conscious of.”
“A new range of Cav Empt clothing has been designed and will become available to purchase. Before that statement were true, a new range of C.E. clothing did not exist and was not a reality. It was an imaginary object. An imaginary object is the reshuffling of past experience,” explains the film’s narrator. “As you look at the clothes, maybe you are considering them in relation to yourself. You might say you are creating a ‘mental image’ of how they might look on yourself. The image of yourself is a new imaginary object. You are only your experience. Experiences between your body and other objects.”
It took me roughly an hour of research to get a handle on this theory, drawing small diagrams and making notes as I went. There’s a simplified nine-step guide on Manzotti’s website, and even then it still seemed hazy. Often with Cav Empt’s work, it’s hard to tell whether it’s meant as a sincere exploration of the world around us, or intellectual obfuscation, further lending to the sense of a brand that you can’t quite work out. A cap released as part of last season’s collection was emblazoned with the slogan: ‘Silly fancy goods. Designed to create the illusion of a full life.’ It’s fair to question whether C.E. is merely trolling its audience at times.
But in a week when Carlyle Group-owned Supreme launched its AW18 collection with a front-page collaboration with Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, while including a pro-Obama t-shirt in its collection, C.E. takes a less didactic approach. It is a brand that makes you work for your answers, questions (or even mocks) your consumption. C.E. is a brand without a specific message, Feltwell later explains over email: “We’re making objects and how they are perceived is up to the observer. The possibility that something gets communicated is the exciting part of putting the objects out there. There’s quite a lot to the process... If we could just define in words some idea that we wanted people to receive there would be no point.”
In an age where you “can immediately check on your phone and find out,” I’m still none the wiser.