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Interview with Hiroshi Fujiwara: Thunderbolt Project, Culture, and Design

There are few figures from Japan who carry as much global significance in mainstream culture as Hiroshi Fujiwara. Considered in some circles to be the godfather of ura-Harajuku culture, he has a long-storied history in the worldwide streetwear scene and is seen by many as an influencer in the most literal sense. From his work as a brand owner, independent designer, and even as a tastemaker in the fashion industry, his presence has been felt through collaborations with some of the biggest brands in the world including Louis Vuitton, Nike, and Levis.

Most recently he has teamed up with The Pokémon Company to bring the world “THUNDERBOLT PROJECT BY ◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️ & POKÉMON”, a collaboration of the highest caliber with one of the world’s most recognizable franchises. We were given the opportunity to sit down with him ahead of this weekend’s Hypefest event and chat, and as a longtime fan of his work I couldn’t help but jump at the opportunity. Continue reading below to see his thoughts about streetwear culture, the internet’s impact on the industry, and his upcoming collaboration.

OTAQUEST: Thank you for sitting down with us today, as a longtime fan of your work I appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation. To start things off, many of our readers in America who aren’t familiar with the Japanese streetwear scene may not be familiar with you or your body of work. How would you describe yourself and your design philosophy to someone who isn’t already familiar with your work?

Hiroshi Fujiwara: I’m not good at explaining myself, but I started DJing in the early 80’s and I was really inspired by punk music. I think many people don’t realize that punk and hip-hop have very strong connections, and I was really into that scene. It was the whole culture, music and fashion, which might not be as connected anymore but back then it was a really strong moment for both and I was growing up with it.

OTAQUEST: You started your career in fashion with your clothing brand, GOODENOUGH, and in the early 2000s you shifted from that to being very focused on collaborations with the founding of fragment design. What do you like about the creative process that occurs when collaborating with others?

Fujiwara: I wasn’t really trying to create a collaboration brand or anything, because there was a time where collaboration wasn’t really necessary. No one really cared. It was just based on my friendly relationships with different companies.

When I visited New York my first time in 1982 I went to the Tiffany store, because I liked the movie (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and there was nothing I wanted to buy but there was a Montblanc pen and Rolex Watches. I wondered to myself “Why are they selling these, they are not Tiffany products”, so I asked the staff and they told me that they recognized Rolex as the number one watch brand and Montblanc makes the number one pen so they decided to carry them. They included a Tiffany logo, and I thought that was a really great concept. It was one of the first collaborations like that which I saw.

Then when I was doing GOODENOUGH I always carried a PORTER bag at the time, so I called up their company and asked if I could make a bag. That was the start of collaborations for me. I continue to try to do the same kind of thing, if I like something then I’ll ask the company to either make something for us or if we can do a collaboration. If they say no then maybe I’ll just make something similar by myself. But basically, when I stopped doing GOODENOUGH I became really independent and decided I would rather just work with other people and companies to do that kind of collaboration product.

OTAQUEST: You’re known as a key player in bringing hip-hop culture and streetwear to japan. Being that you have been around that scene since the beginning how do you feel it’s different now? What are your thoughts on how the culture has evolved over the years?

Fujiwara: I think information technology changed so much. Now you don’t have to go anywhere, you don’t have to travel. That’s a really big thing. I think the mindset is still the same though, people want to be the first to get a new product and want to get things that are very rare. The mentality is all the same.

OTAQUEST: Do you think the design process or the type of work that comes out now has changed over the years?

Fujiwara: Maybe it became bigger, but not really changed.

OTAQUEST: So in relation to that, is there anyone or any company operating currently who’s work you enjoy right now in either music or fashion?

Fujiwara: I really enjoy everyone, UNDERCOVER, NEIGHBORHOOD, LOUIS VUITTON, etc. They all have their own mind and their own originality. So I’m really lucky to get to work with them, and maybe steal ideas sometimes *laughs*

 OTAQUEST: In the past you have said that you feel the internet has taken the experience out of shopping and searching for stuff, and you’re the type of person who has done some very creative pop-up stores like THE POOL and what you’re doing currently with THE CONVENI. Do you think that because of the way the internet has changed behavior that creating an experience is really important in your own work?

Fujiwara: Yeah, I think so. You have to go there or be there in person to really get the whole experience.

OTAQUEST: Do you think that changes the consumer mindset in doing so?

Fujiwara: I really hope so. But you kind of have to explain that you have to be there. People think “I saw it, so I was there” when in truth they only saw a small picture online. Like even The Louvre in Paris, if you go there are so many things to see. Even if you only see the Mona Lisa in person, it’s still different that just seeing it on the internet. I think you really have to go there and feel it.

OTAQUEST: Does that thought about the experience influence your work at all?

Fujiwara: Yeah, I don’t really know how to explain how but I really enjoy doing it. THE CONVENI for example is actually a difficult project, it’s really hard work because you have to keep thinking about what’s next. For example this is a new thing I’ve done *pulls a small coin out of his bag* It’s Bitcoin chocolate. Bitcoin melting in your mouth *laughs*. I had read that the Bitcoin design is public domain so I thought it would be cool to make. This kind of thing is really fun to do. I also don’t really think so much about when I’m working with a company on a collaboration about how I can make something bigger or sell a ton of product. I just want to give a different image to them, so it doesn’t have to be a huge project, just something different.

 OTAQUEST: You’ve said in the past that you don’t feel like revival culture or pop-culture really exists anymore thanks to the internet.

Fujiwara: Yeah pop-culture I think was really finished in the 90’s.

OTAQUEST: From my perspective I’ve noticed that as of late younger audiences have had a fascination with time periods that they never had a chance to experience themselves. One that I find to be really interesting is that Bubble Era & City Pop music has been really prominent in the west. A good example is Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love”. It wasn’t a huge hit when it first came out in Japan but right now it’s all over YouTube and has millions of plays, and it’s helped inspire a genre of music called “Future Funk” that’s been growing worldwide. Do you feel this kind of false nostalgia is creating a different kind of pop-culture then?

Fujiwara: Yeah I think so, it (revival culture) was always kind of like that. Before the internet it was harder to search for things but it was always like that. I’m glad to hear that something like Japanese city pop music is seeing a revival, because I never thought the concept of a true revival was ever going to come back again. It’s really good to know.

OTAQUEST: In the past you’ve talked about the idea of treasure hunting when it pertains to different cultures & experiences. Knowing now that City Pop has had a chance to flourish in another country, do you think that the internet has created a different kind of treasure hunt?

Fujiwara: Yeah, but maybe-not in the most positive way. You’re not really going somewhere to do the treasure hunting so maybe it’s lost the atmosphere and impacted the way people travel. But then again, it’s something else so it’s not actually positive or negative. When I was traveling around I would think “If I find something I want, and I have the money then I really have to buy it, because I might never see it again”. But now if you wait like 3 months you can find anything on eBay all the time, so it’s kind of losing the what made that buying experience special. In terms of distance, I think it’s like the distance between someone & eBay is no different than the distance between me and my closet. If I have a pair of Jordans in my closet it might take several hours to find them, and it’s a pain in the ass. But then there’s eBay, so if I want something again I can get it easily.

OTAQUEST: Do you think that concept of “nothing is really exclusive anymore” has changed the way that people consume fashion now, in the sense that a lot of brands will make things very limited to keep the demand high?

Fujiwara: Well, you say very limited but I don’t think it’s really like that. Maybe now Nike can make 10,000 pairs of sneakers and someone will still say it’s rare, but that’s not really the case is it?

OTAQUEST: That’s true. But there’s also a movement, and it’s always kind of existed but I think it’s probably more apparent now than it used to be, where people will buy collaboration items or rare streetwear items and they’ll keep them unused and display them. Almost like appreciating fine art. What do you think about that kind of mentality?

Fujiwara: I kind of understand, because I’ve always been like that. Maybe the tastes are different but I’ve always had that kind of otaku mind. I want to collect, or maybe not really collect, but keep things if I really like them. So I understand if people buy Supreme or something like that and just want to keep it.

OTAQUEST: Do you think that’s changed how designers create though? Like maybe some people are looking at their work in fashion as being more like art, rather than specifically fashion.

Fujiwara: I don’t know, I hope not. Personally, if I buy something I want to wear it or use it.

OTAQUEST: Considering things like THE CONVENI or your recent work with LOTTE’s Bikkuriman, you’ve collaborated on a lot of different products over the years, and of course you’re known for fashion. Is there any medium you haven’t had a chance to work in or a product that you haven’t designed that you want to have an opportunity to try your hand at?

Fujiwara: I would love to design something like one floor of a luxury hotel.

OTAQUEST: There’s been a trend in the west lately where a lot of Japanese properties have been used for collaboration recently. Supreme did Akira, Adidas is doing Dragonball. What do you think about that idea of using something born from Japan that might not be as well known to the mainstream for a collaboration, and do you think it’s a trend that will continue?

Fujiwara: It’s not like Japan is so “Far East” anymore. It’s really part of the international scene now so it’s bound to happen. It’s the same as us using Mickey Mouse or Snoopy, instead it’s Akira or Hayao Miyazaki. So I think the idea is very similar now.

 OTAQUEST: Moving onto some questions about the Pokémon collaboration, THUNDERBOLT PROJECT, how did the project come to be and what was the process to getting it all started?

Fujiwara: The Pokémon Company asked me if I was interested in doing a collaboration, and I wondered “What can I do for Pokémon?” I saw Pikachu and its theme is thunder or lightning. So I thought, I can use my logo for Fragment with things like the Pokémon tails, and then I got back to them and we talked about it.

OTAQUEST: Were you familiar with the franchise or played any of the games prior to them reaching out to you?

Fujiwara: Yeah, I had been playing Pokémon Go a bit.

OTAQUEST: Since you play Pokémon Go what do you think about the Augmented Reality experience it provides?

Fujiwara: I didn’t know much about Pokémon before I started playing it, but as a game Pokémon Go is amazing. Using the latest technology and incorporating it into a game that anyone can pick up and play, I think that’s amazing to be able to go anywhere and catch what you want.

OTAQUEST: Do you think there’s an application for AR in fashion?

Fujiwara: Yeah definitely, I’ve always wanted to do that kind of orientating thing. It never happened, but I wanted to something like that with Nike using all of the Nike stores around the world. Something that would have made you go to many locations and scan a QR code to see how many you could visit. It may be on a different scale, but it’s kind of the same thing with Pokémon Go. You really have to go all over the world to catch everything.

OTAQUEST: Is there something about the Pokémon franchise that you think lends itself to doing a streetwear or high fashion collaboration?

Fujiwara: I think there’s a lot of potential with it. I’ve been asked by a few luxury brands about using Pokémon characters, so I think it’s similar to Mickey Mouse or Snoopy in that way. I wasn’t really sure if I would use Pokémon for myself, I had never thought about wearing something with Pokémon, but once I did it I was happy with the result. I kind of surprised myself *laughs*

OTAQUEST: You’ve collaborated with so many really famous brands in the past but most of them were fashion or lifestyle oriented and Pokémon is more of a pop-culture icon in a different way. How does the experience in collaboration with a high end fashion property differ from working with something like Pokémon?

Fujiwara: I think of it more like hitting a balance, if you do something really high fashion then it’s good to do something like Bikkuriman or Pokémon. It didn’t really change how I approach the design, I just though it was something I needed to do. I really like so many different things.

OTAQUEST: You mentioned Pikachu earlier as an idea that inspired your designs but are there any other characters that you think have an interesting design?

Fujiwara: This project will keep going on for maybe like 2 years, so we have a lot more to come.

OTAQUEST: You’re on the board for Hypefest, and I thought it was really interesting that they reached out to represent the Japanese side of fashion especially since streetwear is so prominent in America and there are already so many brands to work with. What was the process like working with them to select who to include for the event?

Fujiwara: Kevin (Ma, founder of Hypebeast) had asked me to be a member of the board, along with Sarah (Andelman, of colette). I don’t quite think the idea was about being tired of the same things, but I think they just wanted to bring something else to the event. Maybe not everything at hypefest will be what real street kids want, it’s not specifically just sneakers or anything like that, it’s more about sharing fashion and culture.

OTAQUEST: So maybe it’s like the idea of forcing people to leave their comfort zone?

Fujiwara: Yeah, I think that education is really important and also interesting. To know what’s behind street culture, or really what’s going on right now in different places.

OTAQUEST: Talking about Hypefest in relation to THUNDERBOLT PROJECT, and about the idea of education and bringing things that people might not expect, was there a specific thought process behind using Hypefest as the place to debut your collaboration with Pokémon?

Fujiwara: It was really just the timing. When Pokémon had asked me to do it I had Hypefest going on as well so I asked them if we could debut it there. It was just perfect timing.

OTAQUEST: Do you have a hope for what the response will be for something like this at Hypefest?

Fujiwara: Surprise. I like to surprise people.

OTAQUEST: What can we look forward to seeing from you next? Or is there anything you’re working on that you’re excited about?

Fujiwara: I’ve been working with Moncler, that’s a two year project, so there are a few more collections I’m doing. I have a few projects with other luxury brands in progress. Steiff, the Teddy Bear, that’s really cool and coming out next month.

We’ll be following Hiroshi Fujiwara’s exploits down the line in full here on OTAQUEST, starting this weekend with the multiple activities he has going on at Hypefest in Brooklyn, New York. We’re beyond excited to see the more than 30 pieces being dropped at the event from his new collaboration, as well as THE COVENI popup and other collaborations he has going on during the weekend! Be sure to also enter our contest for your chance to win a Pokémon Let’s Go Nintendo Switch Bundle, complete with the exclusive pre-order bonuses from Pokémon Center Japan!

About THUNDERBOLT PROJECT BY ◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️ & POKÉMON

A joint project between Pokémon and Hiroshi Fujiwara called the THUNDERBOLT PROJECT has begun. This project will sell limited-edition items in a variety of regions, starting with an October release at the HYPEFEST event in New York. With this unprecedented collaboration, we will send a “Thunderbolt” throughout the world! This project is scheduled to continue into 2019 and beyond.

THUNDERBOLT PROJECT © 2018 Pokémon

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