As celebrity endorsements go, the teaming-up of Pharrell Williams and the bootmakers at Palladium is a bit more involved than usual. Not only did the Billboard-topping producer and streetwear magnate wear the rugged, no-nonsense footwear for some photographs — he wore them in a bunch of gigantic tunnels underneath Tokyo that double as a flood guard against the type of tsunami that hit Japan’s northeast coast this spring. And then he filmed a flashy half-hour documentary, Tokyo Rising, which found him traveling to the city to chronicle the aftermath of “3/11” on its young creative types.
Williams refers to Tokyo as his “second home,” and with good reason: His Billionaires Boys Club line and Ice Cream sneakers are a collaboration with Japanese designer Nigo, of A Bathing Ape. But the dark utilitarianism of Palladium is a far cry from the neon brightness that streetwear aficionados have come to expect from this man of style. “It’s more rugged,” Williams acknowledged after a screening the other evening in New York. “But these days I’m wearing more grunge-y things.” These are, after all, grungy times, and with another disaster looming over this country all week, Pharrell stands defiant.
Esquire.com: Nice sweater. Who makes it?
Pharrell: I mean, this is Comme des Garçons, but this is all drab.
ESQ: How important is fashion to you as far as it relates to your creativity — to your everyday life?
PW: Very. If you can’t express yourself, you don’t know what to wear, don’t know what to say, you don’t know what music to make, you don’t know where to hang out. Musically, I’m super-charged right now because I’m seeing some of the industry machines locking up. And I like fixing things. Recently, I’ve been in the studio with everybody from Jay Sean to Jay-Z. There’s a storm coming. You’re gonna see me working in other musical mediums, too. Hip-hop? Yes. R&B? Yes. Pop? Yes. But watch. I just did a classical piece. It’s gonna be cool.
ESQ: What do you make of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the recent earthquake on the East Coast?
PW: I watch the Discovery Channel and they talk about how the earth’s axis changing will bring different geological conditions to the East Coast, like earthquakes; I talk to all of my friends to death about it and now I no longer look like Noah. Over in Japan, they’re used to the earthquakes, but still, it scares the shit out of you. So it’s culturally responsible for a company like Palladium to take a stab at something that’s so real and to highlight a culture that’s influenced not only me but everyone on this planet.
ESQ: Do you think natural disasters actually have a big effect on the arts?
PW: The collective conscious reacts to things in one way — it wants to express itself. Some of our best music was after the Vietnam War. Some of the best art occurs when people are oppressed. That’s just what we do as a species when something shakes us up.
ESQ: How would you compare the attitudes of Tokyo’s citizens after the tsunami to New Yorkers after 9/11?
PW: New Yorkers are a different type of creature to begin with. Shit happens here and you’re like, “Just a dead body,” and keep walking. Tokyo is like the New York of Asia. Although the people there are all basically from Japan, they celebrate what they like about various cultures. After Hiroshima, they were like, “We survived that, what can’t we survive?” New Yorkers just go hard. Like, when 9/11 happened, you were like, “You better clean this shit up.” When people in other states were panicking, you were getting up and going to work.
ESQ: So, did you leave Tokyo at all and go closer to the heaviest devastation from the tsunami?
PW: No. I wasn’t going anywhere near it.