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WTAPS: Tapping Into Tetsu Nishiyama’s Subversive Label

WTAPS has been at the forefront of Japanese streetwear for over twenty years. Since emerging from the brimming Harajuku streetwear scene of the 1990s, WTAPS  has pushed the boundaries of the streetwear clothing genre with charming apparel that compounds influences from historic military garb, outdoor clothing, and contemporary sub-cultures like punk and skateboarding.

Created by Tetsu Nishiyama, an illustrious designer held in similar regard to NEIGHBORHOOD’s Shinsuke Takizawa and Visvim’s Hiroki Nakamura, WTAPS has earned perennial presence in the world of streetwear. We’re taking a moment to shine a light on the brand’s rich history and philosophy.

WTAPS History & Philosophy

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Tetsu Nishiyama via Grailed

WTAPS was founded in 1996 by Tetsu Nishiyama, a.k.a TET. Born and raised in Tokyo, Tetsu began his fashion career in 1993 with his first label, FPAR (Forty Percents Against Rights). Originally started as a graphic bootleg label, Tetsu launched FPAR with the mission statement “to sabotage the fabricated information regulated by mass media using immediately effective forms of expression”. Tetsu used FPAR to express his views through rebellious, alternative silk-screen prints inspired by the guerrilla media tactics employed by anarchists and rebel movements.

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Image via Grailed

Deciding to pursue a more fashion-orientated label, Tetsu established WTAPS in 1996. Pronounced “double taps”—the “W” being shorthand for double—the term references a military shooting technique whereby two shots are fired in rapid succession at the same target. The name was befitting of Tetsu’s new venture which was fuelled by his love affair with military garb. Early WTAPS collections were drenched with all things military—large functional backpacks, boonie hats, cargos, and field jackets—all presented in a spectrum of olive drab, camouflage, and ripstop.

To the untrained, the earliest WTAPS collections wouldn’t have looked out of place in an army surplus store, but Tetsu’s flair was always evident in the creative details of his garments. Subtle branding was added to zip-pulls and size labels, and jackets were adorned with embroidered military-style patches that read “WTAPS”, “ROGUE SQUAD”, and “MOUT”, an abbreviation “Military Operation on Urban Terrain” and name of the artists’ exhibition led by A Bathing Ape and WTAPS.

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Scans from Asayan Magazine via Eye_C Mag

While Tetsu had certainly earned a name for himself with FPAR, WTAPS was quick to overshadow his freshman label. By 1998, WTAPS had balanced its utilitarian collections with more streetwear orientated designs like screen printed t-shirts and hoodies. The late nineties brought collaborations with the already established Porter Yoshida, A Bathing Ape, and Supreme, all of which gave rise to a western presence for WTAPS. Perhaps the most instrumental collaboration for WTAPS’ global success was with Vans. In 2006, the first WTAPS x Vans collection was released, a collection of Vans shoes with WTAPS’ crossbones motif applied all over the canvas panels of the upper and across the mid-sole. The collaboration helped to introduce WTAPS to audiences who may not have Japanese streetwear on their everyday radar, and the two brands have continued to work together since.

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Various WTAPS Catalogue shots, with the center image depicting the 2006 WTAPS x Vans collaborative Vans Sk8- Hi, and the bottom-middle imafe depicting a wool varsity made in collaboration with Supreme. Image via Grailed

As the years rolled by, WTAPS gained more and more recognition and Tetsu showed no sign of slowing down. Tetsu’s started filtering more influences into his WTAPS collection like traditional workwear and ivy league style. Tetsu has also allowed his love of punk music to shine through in some of his collections, referencing bands like The Germs, JFA (Jodie Foster’s Army), and even making a t-shirt that simply stated ‘I <3 Punks’.

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WTAPS BUDS LS Shirt with “Media Blitz” military patches, referencing a song by punk band The Germs. Tetsu Nishiyama has also used this reference on garments for his FPAR brand. Image via Sigil Secondhand.

While the brand continued to grow, Tetsu ensured that WTAPS always followed its original philosophy of “placing things where they should be”. In a 2013 interview with Highsnobiety, Tetsu broke down the meaning behind this 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, Tetsu’s creative process is also informed by the Japanese term “miya-daiku”, a  name for unique Japanese carpenters who are famous for being able to use every single piece of wood from a tree. This concept is not too dissimilar from the Wabi-Sabi philosophy instilled by many other Japanese designers who find beauty in imperfection. Tetsu reflects on this in the aforementioned Highsnobiety interview:

“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.”

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Wtaps Cell LS via Grailed

The above shirt is a great example of how WTAPS cleverly marries multiple sartorial influences into one charming product. From 2005, the WTAPS Cell Longsleeve shirt is made up of pre-washed and distressed chambray and features typical American work-shirt details like snap buttons; triple stitching; pen holders in the chest pockets; and even a reinforced shoulder. But what makes this garment so unique is the olive drab patches applied to both sides of the chest. Taking this military-style feature from WTAPS’ archetypal BUDS shirts and M-65s and applying them to this chambray nods to the WTAPS’ military influences but also gives this shirt the aesthetic of a mid-century prison-issue work shirt, hence the name ‘Cell Longsleeve’.

WTAPS Today

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Image via Grailed

WTAPS remains a globally distributed label headed by Tetsu Nishiyama. In 2011, Tetsu opened the GIP (Gorilla: The Incubation Period) Store in Shibuya, Tokyo. The GIP Store is WTAPS’ official flagship store and also stocks Tetsu Nishiyama’s other brand, Forty Percents Against Rights (FPAR). Curated by Tetsu himself, the GIP store is the most robust expression of what WTAPS represents, a thoughtfully decorated space that acts as the perfect backdrop for WTAPS products. WTAPS is available from streetwear boutiques like HAVEN and END.

WTAPS has continued to collaborate with other labels, including Carhartt W.I.P and ongoing collaborations with Vans. Over the past few years, WTAPS products have certainly swayed towards the streetwear side of things. Recent collections have featured swaths of graphic t-shirts and a host of outerwear influenced by sportswear of the 1980s and 1990s. That said, WTAPS’ perennial love for military garb is, and always has been very visible and each collection is peppered with olive drab and khaki. The brand also still uses the NATO Phonetic alphabet to describe a garment size, i.e. Lima for Large and Sierra for Small.

Iconic Products

WTAPS Buds Shirt

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Image via END.

Currently Unavailable 

WTAPS Jungle LS

WTAPS-History,-Philosophy,-Iconic-Products-Available-for-$393-for-HAVEN.

Image via Haven.

Available for $393 at HAVEN.

WTAPS Hoodie

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Image via END.

Available for $239 at END.