James Lavelle on his Mo’Wax x Nike collab

There are certain brands that define a time and place, they become signifiers of a cultural moment. And it’s not just fashion labels but also “music brands,” such as artists and record labels. A bit like fashion conglomerates – think LVMH and Kering – record labels can be creative motherships, places where artists unite. Although they have different sounds and visions they share a fundamental idea of who they are and what they are doing. If you lived in London in the mid/late ’90s, early ’00s and were into hip hop and street culture, that record label was Mo’ Wax and the man in charge was James Lavelle. Having started Mo’ Wax at age 18 in 1992, Lavelle went on to release music from DJ Shadow, Money Mark, Blackalicious and NIGO, among others, and start his own band, UNKLE.

Mo’ Wax’s history, over the course of five studio albums and countless mix CDs and remixes, is lined with collaborations. Arguably more than any other artist and label, Lavelle understood the power of pooled creativity. He brought in musicians, artists and designers from all over the world to help create and curate the Mo’ Wax universe. The list of guest musicians is impressive but so are the artistic contributions from the likes of Stash, Futura, Nigo’s A Bathing Ape and Nike. In Fraser Cooke, a former flatmate of Lavelle, Mo’ Wax found a longterm friend and collaborator who now, as the Nike Global Energy Marketing Director, is co-sponsoring Lavelle’s latest sartorial partnership.

Returning to the Nike shelves, after a 12 year break, Lavelle’s NikeLab collaboration include two colorways of the Nike Blazer trainer and a MA1 Destroyer jacket crafted from a classic collegiate leather-and-wool combination remixed with flight jacket-style details. Graffiti-like embroidery and removable twill patches add a slight military look, while the signature reverse script of Mo’Wax collaborator Gio Estevez, such as “Your future is our past” and “Headz,” brings the collaboration full circle.

When did your relationship with Nike start?

I started working with Nike around 2002. Our collaboration was part of the wave of the first non-sportswear partnerships that Nike worked on. It was with people like Eric Haze, the artist who designed the Def Jam logo, Futura, Stash and Mo’ Wax. Before that it was only film stars and athletes, i.e. Jordan. It was purely seen as a sports brand at the time, it wasn’t marketed to fashion at all. In the mid-’90s, with the birth of Bathing Ape, Supreme, Maharishi etc, all that changed.

What did that first collab look like?

It was based on the artwork from my 2002 album, Never, Never, Land. I wanted it to be a bit like a collage, quiet loud. We juxtaposed colours like pink black and white on a high top Dunk… It was called the Dunkle. And then there was a a low top in green camo. Back then we just did trainers, Nike didn’t collaborate on apparel at the time. I remember it launched at Michael Koppelman’s original Footpatrol store.

For you, what was the Nike appeal?

I was a massive sneaker collector at the time, especially Nike Dunks. I was into Nike as a result of growing up with hip-hop and street culture. I remember seeing bands like Run-D.M.C… The first trainers I was into was actually the adidas Shell Toe ones they wore. One of the first pair of trainers I bought, as a pre-teenager, was the Nike Air Max when they came out. Me and Fraser [Cooke, works for Nike], who I lived with at the time, we used to go to New York and hunt rare Nikes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Later on we also shared an office, when he set up Pervert clothing and worked with Stash and Futura, while I was setting up Mo’ Wax.

The fact that Nike was American, did that help?

Yeah, at that time Britain was black and white while America was Technicolor. They had rare trainers and decent Levi’s jeans. There wasn’t much around her at all. We grew up reading about it in i-D and The Face.

Were you born in London?

No, I grew up in Oxford but used to come in to London all the time to do martial arts. I was into Kung-Fu and an obsessive hip-hop fan – I used to go Four Star General on Carnaby Street and Soul 2 Soul in Camden for my clothes and music.

What’s the relationship between music and fashion?

They’ve always been close, it’s tribal – you’re defined by what you wear and listen to. Sure, we wear clothes for practicality but it’s also about identity. Music might be about sound but it’s all very visual – we look at the musicians in magazines and in music videos.

Has it changed today?

It is different and it isn’t. It’s still tribal but it’s difficult to recognize what that tribe is. A lot of kids look the same and they might be wearing fashion but they don’t know what it is or where it came from. Someone will be in a Joy Division T-shirt but they won’t have heard the band, etc.

Can you quickly explain the purpose and USP of the collab?

For me it’s about the creative experience, it’s a celebration of Mo’ Wax and past collaborations with Nike. It has a strong attention to detail through a considered design process.

How did you pick the pieces?

The concept was more about the aesthetic of Mo’ Wax rather than its visual identity. I didn’t just want to use a load of old imagery that had existed in the past… It’s sample and counter culture: we make clothes in similar way we make records. We take things and make a new a product. I didn’t want it to feel like record company merchandise so the text gives it narrative. For those who know and recognise it, it makes sense… But if you don’t then it’s just a nice product and that’s fine.

Is it odd to communicate Mo’ Wax, a record label, through clothing?

Not really, we always worked through different mediums.

Can you explain the “Build and Destroy” theme?

It’s about the architectural idea of building and destroying something to then rebuild it. It was also an elitist joke between me and DJ Shadow, the idea that as soon as someone was on your shit you had to move on.There’s a few repetitive phrases that’s been popping up throughout Mo’ Wax’s history, and I like that in a Pop Art kind of way. It’s subtle themes running through Mo’ Wax – a sample that runs on two records, a slogan that’s repeated by two artists etc, and you can see that in this Nike collaboration as well.