Mo’Collabs, No Problems – James Lavelle on celebrating 21 years of Mo’Wax
Words: Daniel Sandison Images: Nike
When told that I was to interview a music business legend with a penchant for oversize hats and sunglasses, about his latest collaboration with a leader in sports and leisurewear, I was understandably excited. It turned out not to be Pharrell Williams, but I was still pleased to find out that Mo’Wax founder James Lavelle was both articulate and engaging when discussing the 21st anniversary of his iconic label and its recent collaborations with a host of brands....
Collaborations in both sportswear and music of late have become somewhat of a death-knell for the artists and brands involved. Creativity has dried up, relevance is on the wain, so let’s borrow some credibility and try and save this sinking ship by mashing two brands together.
Mo’Wax, a record label synonymous with the collaborative process and partly responsible for the strong links that streetwear and the music industry forged in the nineties, has gone back to its roots to celebrate its 21st anniversary and James Lavelle was keen to set the record straight. This isn’t an exercise in simple nostalgia. “We’d always seen the Nike thing as part of this. What I wanted to do, with the 21st anniversary, was to collaborate with the main people that we had done projects with in the past” explains Lavelle from behind what appear to be Tommy Lee Jones’ original glasses from the Men In Black franchise, “there’s a collaboration with A Bathing Ape and Kazuki, who was the designer there when we first worked with them, there’s a new Medicom toy coming out and there is the Nike thing. It’s been an opportunity for me to work with people who I haven’t worked with for a very long time. To do other creative things that weren’t necessarily music-led and to show the other side of what we’ve always tried to do with Mo’Wax.”
With adidas’ affiliation with both Pharell Williams and Kanye West shifting huge numbers worldwide, Nike’s collaboration with Lavelle’s, in comparison, niche label may seem a strange choice for such a huge brand. How it came about was far more natural and organic a process than number-crunching however. “As a kid growing up surrounded by Hip-Hop and street culture, Nike was what you wore. I was particularly enamoured with Jordans and Air Max. In the late ‘90s they were coming out with some revolutionary designs, and I always liked to step out of the box a little bit, so that was my brand. The U.K. was kind of black and white, whilst America was Technicolor, everything I adored was coming from there” he elaborates, showing a genuine excitement for the brand, unaffected by working so closely with them. “It never really crossed my mind how ‘global’ or how big Nike are. It might be a slightly naïve approach but my relationship with the people there, and what I understand the brand to be dictated how we went about it. Nike is part of both Mo’Wax’s history and my own, so we never really thought about the size of the company or anything like that.”
Collaboration on a verbal level with huge conglomerates is one thing, but Lavelle has long been directly involved with the aesthetic of Mo’Wax. This was of key importance to him in going forward and, perhaps understandably, not a privilege that a lot of people get access to. “I love designing things and I’d always been involved throughout the design process with Mo’Wax. Whether it be labels, or a sticker to something we did with a brand. I’m very visually led. We all have different ways of being inspired, I was always been inspired visually and that heavily influences the music I make. The relationship between sound and visuals, for me, has always gone hand-in-hand, so to be able to do stuff like this has been brilliant. I try to approach it in the same way that I create a record.”
It’s difficult for even the most cynical of music writers, fashion creatives or people writing this in their back kitchen whilst some soup heats up, to not believe Lavelle when he says this. He seems conscious that Mo’Wax has always been multi-faceted, has always existed beyond the records that they put out and whether it be designing a shoe or a jacket for Nike, playing music live or working on a new album, his process seems genuine. Certainly not driven by desire for monetary gain, but for a better understanding of his own brand’s legacy perhaps.
“I think in the past people have criticised me and said ‘Oh, it’s easy to collaborate. You’ve just gone and got Thom Yorke’, but actually its much easier to be your own entity. It’s difficult to consistently work with different people, but I enjoy it. I’ve found a way to make it work for me. You have an artist like DJ Shadow who works really, really well on his own, but I don’t. I need to work with different people. It’s the way my creative approach works. I’m a bit of a sampler. I’m someone who could win the hundred metres at school, but there had to be a crowd. I’d never qualify otherwise.”
With that whimsical vision of a young James Lavelle, fedora’d and sunglasses’d up despite his P.E. kit, winning a race against DJ Shadow and Ian Brown, we leave James to attend the launch of yet another collaborative project at London’s Goodhood store, convinced that he’s not just doing it for the sake of it. He actually means it.