It’s interesting to take a step back and see how this business and culture has evolved independently on all angles of the globe over the years. One pioneer who’se been out doing his thing since ’95 is Raph, whose Melbourne-based label BLANK has been a stalwart of the local scene. BLANK has recently been making some steady inroads into the US, becoming the first Oz label to get picked up by Digital Gravel and having put out a recent collab with Huf. A musical artist to boot, Raph also published the book ‘Behind the Beat’ a few years back which took you inside the the home studios of some of the hip-hop’s biggest names. The book’s poignantly intimate photos of Dilla received particular attention in the wake of his sad passing.
We caught up with Raph to find out a bit about his life and to take a global perspective of the scene and see how it looks from outside the key US and Japanese markets.
Hey Raph, let’s begin with what you do and why you do it.
Well I run a couple of independent companies, first is my menswear line named BLANK TM and second is my record label named CROOKNECK. I pretty much do both for the same reason, ‘to get mine and my friends ideas out ‘. I mess around with some photography as well.. everything pretty much rolls into one and each project supports the next..
What got you into this game? You’ve been making tees and prints since you were a kid, right? When did you get the idea that this could be more than a hobby?
Yeah when my parents asked me what I wanted for my 17 bday , I asked for a screen to print tees , it was kinda crazy cause I hadn’t really thought about it that much , but I had been intrigued as to how the print got on the tee. When I found out that you didn’t need any crazy technology or chemicals and you could do it in your bedroom , I was with it . I messed around with some designs for a few years till I hooked up with a guy named Danny who had a bunch of designs he had been working on , we both didn’t have jobs , so our hobby was just full time .
People sometimes talk about ‘streetwear’ and street culture like it’s four years old. You’ve been pushing BLANK around since the early to mid 90’s. What was it like starting up a streetwear brand a decade ago? The market has obviously exploded, but do you think the way people consume and relate to the product has changed much deep down?
I guess when we started in ’95 there wasn’t really much else, It was an advantage, and in a lot of ways a disadvantage. I mean people were really into it, the only problem was the retail base wasn’t strong. So we really went into the first 5 years kinda blind , seeing what would work and what wouldn’t, but all the while still doing what we liked. I mean we couldnt really ‘ design for a market ’cause it didn’t really exist .. As far as people responding to product I think it’s pretty much the same then as it is now , if it looks good people will get with it ..
What brands were you looking up to back when you began, and what brands do you look up to now? Have your tastes and style changed much?
Here’s a quick break of the years:
Early 90’s I was into Sergio Tacchini , Champion , Lecoste .
Mid 90’s – Xlarge,
Late 90’s – Supreme
Early 2000’s – Pringle , PAM
2007’s – w)taps, Rittenhouse
Hmm , I am not sure what this says about my tastes?
Coming from Australia you’ve had to deal with a unique set of challenges to make BLANK viable. You’re close to PAM, who’ve also managed to start a label here and take it to a global level. What do you think is the secret behind a successful international brand?
Well I guess you need to consider a lot of things , including climate , exchange rates , population , shipping etc.. but probably the most important is having an original line. In most parts of the world now there are popular labels, and a bunch of other labels that look really similar , so why would a store import something from Australia if they can get something similar around the corner..
You get to look at both Japan and the US as an outsider. What things have you noticed about how creative currents flow between those two markets. Which do you look to first for trends and inspiration?
Japan nowadays is probably my first point for inspiration, just going there and appreciating the Japanese way of life is crazy. I think when Japan started to develop their own brand of hip hop in the mid 90s and gave people an alternative to US imports it really started to take off. Imports started to drop and their own labels started to flourish in both music and fashion. USA also has a good level of quality when it comes to manufacturing but the advances that Japan has made with its textiles and printing etc.. are just too good.
You took a step back from BLNK in the late 90’s. Why were you sick of it, and what made you come back?
Yeah I took a backseat for about 2 years , it wasn’t a conscious holiday or anything , I just started to loose focus . A lot had changed in the market place , Australia went from having no street labels to being flooded with a bunch – the thing that bugged me the most was none of the labels were Australian .. they were all licensed product..(for those who don’t know , this is when businessmen decided to sell clothes. As they don’t have any means to create a label , they will reproduce an existing label for a market place). To me clothing needs to stand for something , or it’s just pop/disposable. At this point in time I couldnt see any need for a label , I was loosing rack space mainly due to pricepoint .. this was around 01/02 ..I was working on my book and travelling to Japan a lot at this time and I remember by summer 03 deciding to close about 90% off my retail base .
I was tired of the uphill battle I was experiencing with them , the following 2 years ’04 and ’05 were extremely difficult. I had closed the accounts I was selling to but I had only really opened a couple of new ones. Financially it wasn’t viable but I was enjoying it immensely. I know that must sound weird but I was determined to change the whole thing around. Slowly more like-minded stores opened and I was able to re establish a new retail base. I guess one of the main reasons I decided to re-establish the brand was the fact that we had never sold out , we remain 100% independent company and a lot of artist and family had stuck by when the times where tough.
Music is also a huge part of your life. You put out the book ‘Behind the Beat’ a few years back where you went behind the scenes and photographed the home recording studios of some of the game’s biggest hitters: Dilla, Shadow, Premier, Dan the Automator to name just a few. How did that project come together? What were some of the most memorable things about the whole experience? Did you pick up any patterns in the way each producer approached their craft and organised their creative workspace?
Yeah doing the book was really fun , it was really just an idea that I had one day. I was into photography a bit , but I wasn’t ever really that excited with my photos on 35mm.. A friend of mine showed me his Hasselblad and after shooting off a roll I was sold. the square format of the Hasselblad really appealed to me , and I just started to shoot some of my friends’ studios. I slowly started to make connections with producers around the world, I didn’t really have a goal in mind of how many I wanted to photograph or anything , I just kept shooting till I felt I had done enough to represent a wide variety of home studios. My most memorable point would have to be photographing J Dilla, its crazy how it came about too. Jeff Jank from Stonesthrow had just mentioned to me that Dilla would be down to be in the book but due to Dilla’s health issues he would be hard to coordinate a time with. I thought about it for about 10 minutes then got online a booked a ticket to LA not knowing whether it would happen or not , I figured I had to be there to make it happen .
sure enough as soon as I landed Egon from Stonesthrow called and said Dilla was at home and I could come by whenever. Whilst I shot the photos he made a beat, to my knowledge he didn’t really make beats in front of people much, I was blown away! Meeting and photographing Dilla and all the circumstances around it was a real life changing experience.
You’ve had a recent collab with Huf. How did that come about and what does the end product represent to you?
Yeah I met HUF whilst he was in Australia skateboarding years ago, we just connected and when I would go to SF I would stay at his place . He sells our line so it was just something I thought would be a cool thing to do. I love the shirt and its designed by my wife Beci Orpin. Collaborations for me need to be about 1 thing , and that is they need to evolve naturally .
You and your partner also run a women’s label ‘Princess Tina’. What’s the women’s market like right now? Do you see streetwear becoming increasingly female orientated? Or do you think it will always be a guy thing (albeit based on a traditionally female fetishisation of fashion)?
Well Princess Tina exist in another crazy little pocket of its own , so different to menswear. Too hard to explain !
Any famous last words? Shout outs?
Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it …
Peace out to Beci , Tyke and Ari , Rex, Ransom , Huf , digital gravel ,PAM , Leah , Fleur , Ghost , Tristain , Brendan , Danny , Andrius , Todd , Midds and all the Fam and stores that stock !