We were able to sit down with the man most people commonly know as Papa Nui, John Tesoriero and ask him some questions about himself, his brand and what inspires him.
So firstly could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about yourself?
I'm John Tesoriero and I live on the Gold Coast in Queensland. I have an affinity with the water and love being at the beach. I grew up in Sydney and have always been incredibly active and my name most usually is associated with pioneering skateboarding in Australia. I'm also passionate about history and will constantly reference the past but I'm never bound by it and I'm continuously moving forward to explore new things. I also make caps. Papa Nui is my brand but it's also a persona, a place and a state of mind.
How did Papa Nui Start and what is the aim of the brand?
Papa Nui began as an outward expression of myself and my struggle to find the things I like. I spend a lot of time in the sun at the beach. The sun here is ferocious and I really wanted a cap that would protect me from the elements, so I created the Corsairs Cap, my first style which I researched from a WWII aviators cap making some adjustments to the visor shape and using Marine Corp Frog Skin camouflage for the fabric. My love of military things permeates all that I do so it made sense that I would take a basic idea and overlay it with the very thing that inspires me. I do this with everything, my clothes, my surfboards, my bicycle. Was there an aim to the brand? Yes! It was a reaction to the homogenization of all things, it was my way of saying this is what I do, it's my take on things and it's not following your path. I'm all for individuality and insist that you never completely own something until you've customised it or made it over into your own image. You have to take ownership of your stuff. This is what differentiates you from the masses. It constantly irks me that there is as much follow fashion monkey at the top of the consumer triangle as there is in mass consumer trends. You need to break free of that stuff and pick and choose elements that talk about who you are and not to any preconceived notions of some million dollar funded fashion brand or house. This is as relevant to the denim market as it is to runway Paris. One of the great things about being here on the Gold Coast or of being in Australia actually is the isolation. It allows you an opportunity to pause and to think and not to be caught up in the machinations of who is doing what, sometimes the quiet can be an advantage. That is why I always reference the Atoll, it's a metaphor for the way I see Australia.
Obviously, your father's service in the South Pacific arena in WW2 is a major influence on you and your designs. Where else do you draw inspiration from?
My father is definitely my main source of inspiration. I grew up with his stories of the war in the Pacific but it wasn't till much later in my life did I fully understand the impact that had made on the way I viewed things. The moment I had that revelation Papa Nui was on its way, it had direction and clarity. I draw inspiration from a deep appreciation of history. I'm only ever attracted to brands and labels that have a sense of that. It can be a heritage brand or a new one, it makes no difference so long as it's honest and true to its ideals. My process usually starts with something that catches my attention, surfing for instance. I surfed pretty much all my life and I loved and cherished the deep connection I found with its origins but I'm also fascinated by and drew inspiration from the many crazy episodes in its timeline such as on the eve of the 'possible invasion of Japan in 1945 the US Navy was building war boards and training men to paddle these into Oriental waters as a precursor to the landings. Alternate histories and what could have been I find an endless source of new ideas.
Why choose Japan for your manufacturing?
Doing production in Japan was my saving grace. There was a point when Papa Nui was a fledgeling idea and I was trying to have some hats made with a Chinese manufacturer. I worked really hard to perfect a quality I was happy with but the samples failed time and time again. Unbeknownst to me every time I requested a new sample the manufacturer was making a hundred of them and putting them up on eBay. They're still on there and still just as shit as when I said no to them. Then I was talking to long time friend John Lofgren in Sendai Japan telling him about my experience and he suggested I move my manufacturing to Tokyo and to use his connections there. He helped me get a leg up and to ensure the quality of my product was second to none. Now I share production space next to the 'big' Japanese boys, often at the end of the queue mind you but still up there and mixing with the best!
You spent some time living and working in Japan. That must have been an exciting and educational time for you. Can you tell us a bit about that period of your life?
I first went to Japan in 1983. I had been living and working on the Kings Road in London and had met lots of Japanese kids so when it was time to come home to Australia I went via Tokyo. It was a trip! There weren't many foreigners there then, perhaps your crew cut American language teacher with short sleeve shirt and tie, but certainly no young people into vintage clothing and denim. People stopped you in the street constantly, took you places, paid for you, it was amazing! I did quite a few trips in the subsequent years for other fashion brands that I was working for but years later after a long stint in retail and design, I scored a job with Levi Strauss Australia as their men's designer. During my first week there I met a visiting representative from the Tokyo office and we had lunch. After talking he become an advocate for moving me up to Japan. After this, I was on my way! I become a senior designer for Levi's Asia Pacific, living and working in Tokyo where I stayed for three years. I got to work on some amazing projects and to be involved in some predecessor concepts that led to LVC, but the really great thing was just access every day to everything that was going on in the city. I was an early devotee of many of the great brands, I had good friends in The Real McCoys and so I was there on a weekly basis when they had a hole in the wall store just before the brand exploded, I loved the original Elvis before the Euro-rot set in and especially liked Pherrows, Buzz Rickson, Warehouse and 45rpm and the dozens of other minuscule labels that seem to be in every back street and laneway. It's kind of funny now to see the place as the Mecca that it is when I knew it as my backyard with very little foreigners around. I lived in a traditional Japanese neighbourhood and my children went to the local schools. It certainly was an experience I cherish now as it's been almost 20 years since my last visit but perhaps one day I'll make a triumphal return to Japan and launch Papa Nui at a Clutch show or something!
What keeps you motivated and feeling creative? Is there certain music, art or activities that inspire you?
I'm motivated by images mainly, sometimes books or a documentary. I see a photograph of something and for me, it just sets off a whole momentum in my head. I create a vision and it just builds from there. Papa Nui drew a huge source of inspiration from James A Michener's novel South Pacific. The characters and stories served me endlessly when I was scripting the background of my brand so it's different things to different people.
You must have seen the popularity of vintage and denim clothing rise and fall here in Australia over the years. Any thoughts on that?
Vintage for me was about alternate clothing that had a sense of history, honesty and integrity. It was about the quality of the cloth and the manufacture but largely it was the way the older styling spoke to who I was, that and the fact that it was cheap! In Sydney in the mid 80's there was so many great vintage clothing stores, Retro, Rancho de Luxe and Route 66. You could buy a 40's Aloha shirt for $45, old Levi's, hunting coats, embroidered western shirts etc, everything you could imagine and it was very accessible because very few other people had the sense to pick up on what was happening. One day down at Stollier Bros, the old Jewish disposal store at the bottom of George Street I got a dead stock pair of Levi's 501 #66 Redlines which I later took to Tokyo and sold to Jumping Jack in Harajuku for $1000. I had so much vintage that when times were tough I sold it off to cover my mortgage for almost 10 years.
Today, however, things are very different and prices have soared through the roof. I understand why to an extent, especially around denim, workwear or Hawaiiana, things have a collectable value that's true but there also a whole bunch of stuff out there that just isn't worth what people think it is. Being in Australia as well means that you can't actually go thrifting for the good stuff and find it cheap unless you travel you're bound to the internet and at the mercy of whatever the going rate is. This is where the replica companies come into play, the decision to buy a garment that in essence has all the ingredients of the original but can be worn flat out with little regard to whether it's going fall apart or not isn't a bad option!
Any last words?
The world now has changed very much from when I first started out when they was no internet and everything was word of mouth and making connections so it's always interesting to see the proliferation of self-proclaimed experts that build denim or collecting into a huge hype. It's good to remember that you're not the first. Even for me 30 years or so ago I had mentors of another older generation of collectors, strong and stylish individuals who traded with the US Navy when they came into Sydney harbor in late 40's and early 50's, looking for Levi's and Jazz records or others that began thrifting in the 60's and 70's when you could buy a Victorian Hussars jackets like it was a cowboy shirt. I did my time under their tutorage. There is a legacy that we are all apart of and it's great to be able to connect with like-minded people around the world.
Shop the new range of Papa Nui here