We've spoken to Darren Romanelli before, but it was a rushed conversation in Colette's basement, made doubly overwhelming by Jose Parla standing in the background. At the time, he was working on the "Band Aid" design for Converse
's (PRODUCT)RED rollout. So when we got the opportunity to get our Q&A on again, we jumped at the chance. Back then, Darren's DRx line was getting some serious coverage in the blogsphere, and allying himself with Lupe Fiasco for his second LP, his rep was growing bigger. Back before you could talk loudest on Twitter and pimp your WordPress to give yourself a bombastic title like "brand architect" Mr. Romanelli was in the brand-building business for real. He's methodical with the answers, and one of the few who seems to have given himself media training to represent himself as a brand. To speak to anyone so considered with the responses caught us offguard—we're used to collaborators, especially
designers, being a little monosyllabic when it comes to talking about their collaborative output. Not Darren.
It's Labor day Stateside, and the DRx and Converse duo of Chuck Taylor All Star Cups, does a fair job of channeling his re-appropriated, reworked apparel vision. The attention-to-detail is pretty extreme on both pieces. Whether or not they're to your tastes with regards to an everyday wear, if the overall intent is to embellish what both partners stand for, consider this a job well done. We love the Chuck Taylor. It's somehow interwined into any subculture you care to name, and certainly any movement that's close to our hearts. But we can deal with a spot of tinkering, because while it's an undisputed design classic, there can be issues with comfort. All Star 2000s were cool, but they got a little too futuristic for the daily wear, but just as we once saw a vulc influx, we're seeing a lot of our vulcanized favourites getting a cup sole, hence the introduction of the All Star Cup. Converted into a love letter to Americana with duck canvas, Stars and Stripes, eagle imagery and pea coat wool, we thought we'd get the patriotic lowdown on the genesis of this project. Having worked with the likes of Levi's, HUF, Real McCoys, Disney, and via Disney's acquisition of Jim Henson creations, a childhood favourite in shape of Fraggle Rock's denizens.
Collaborations lately have been treading a well-worn path, but via Darren's vast list of BlackBerry contacts, skills with the needle and ability to think differently, he regularly bucks the trend. This piece started as a News post but—as is our way—it spilt over into this section of the site. The Converse x DRx All Star Cup launches in Offspring on these shores on the 15th of September...
The last time we spoke to you, you were promoting the Converse (PRODUCT)RED "Band Aid" design as a part of 1HUND(RED) Artists—how has the relationship with Converse flourished since then?
It's definitely evolved. We’ve worked on a number of different projects together since that release. There is a mutual respect for one another’s brand. We have few upcoming releases in the pipe.
Are you picky when it comes to partners these days? Folk got a little collaboration heavy in past years, but you've taken some interesting paths.
Yes, I’m very selective about who I work with—especially on the collaboration front. So much energy goes into a successful collaboration. You can definitely tell when something’s been rushed versus a colab that's been nurtured and properly executed. I really do enjoy the process of collaborating. There is something inspiring about working with another company and or artist. There is a unique energy exchange that’s really hard to achieve when working on your own. It opens up an alternative perspective into your brand and more importantly the overall project process, adding different possibilities that may have been unseen or unnoticed.
Do you get nervous when you're playing with some "sacred cows" on a project? Levi's, Disney, and Fraggles (a personal favourite of ours) - how easygoing are the brands with your vision? How have Converse been with your ideas?
Not so much nervous as inspired when working with these “sacred cows.” I like it that you called them sacred cows. I still trip on how people stop driving in India when cows cross the street. I once sat in the car for over an hour outside of Agra waiting for a herd of cows to move along.
I guess there is some similarity where everything suddenly stops and or seems to makes sense when finding the perfect moment and or story to tell with these “sacred cows.” There is the idea of stopping time, revisiting a memory that once captured so much of my soul. Resurrecting that chapter and flipping it for an new audience. I’ve been lucky with brands being receptive of my vision. Especially Converse! They’ve been very open to my ideas—even the crazy ones.
The level of detail you bring to the table is pretty intense—do any ideas or details get lost to allow the shoe to make manufacture?
Good question. I’m always surprised how many variations of a design we’ll go through before delivering the final. That goes across the board for whatever it is I’m working on. Of course not every proposed detail makes it across the finish line with the shoe manufacturer. I’m pretty diligent about staying connected/true to the original design/details and Converse is very good about keeping it as close as they can to the original concept.
What's the overall theme of this project? Is it an ode to artists like Jasper Johns who've reinterpreted the stars and stripes before?
The overall theme of this project was USA and celebrating my love for Americana. There’s something special about the USA. I can’t analyse it and I can’t quantify it. I’m not good at discussing the ins and outs of politics. It’s something much, much more fundamental than that, a passion about the underlying identity of our country, about what put it together and what holds it together. Our country’s history is phenomenally important to me, all the people who died defending it and worked so hard to create it. That’s one of the reasons that I love the clothes from back when our tags actually had “Made in the USA” written on them.
For the shoes, we wanted to play with the image of the flag, with Americana, as well with the idea of flipping workwear. We also wanted to take inspiration from American art, Jasper Johns flag painting particularly (we loved the texture and depth he brought to his interpretation) and the idea of reworking an iconic image—in this case the flag—into something new.
During the creative process is this a PhotoShop mockup to set it off, or do you create a physical one-off?
In the beginning we lay out the shoe digitally, thinking of materials and colours. We make notations ,sometimes working with material swatches, researching photos of stitching styles etc. The whole campaign and shoe is designed at the same time in order to tell the complete story and build the world it will live in on the shelves and in print.
The eagle graphic here is strong—which artists in particular influenced your graphic work?
The great American cover artists like J.C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth. Great artists that painted great stories about American life.
The All Star Cup is tweaked from the offset—what's your take on that version of the shoe? We're pretty precious about the All Star, but it works...it seems more comfortable too. Does that alteration open the floodgates to get a little crazier with the Chuck?
Yes, the new Cup Sole design definitely opens up the playing field. In simplest terms its a modern spin on the classic. I actually really like the shoe. It’s a bit more comfortable on my foot and still captures the same classic energy I always loved with the Chucks.
We seem to be in the midst of a workwear and Americana revival—that's always been part of your work are we heading for overkill, or are iconic looks impervious to trends?
Workwear and Americana (rugged fashion) have been a constant source of inspiration for the Dr Romanelli brand. Both trends have been built around a niche audience for quite some time now. But now, more and more, we see it becoming a standard trend, built into a company’s basics, I guess that can be viewed as overkill. It’s just hitting a new wave right now. I’ve been calling it Rugged Contemporary. Americana contemporized for a tastemaker consumer. It’s already an important part of our culture, but it’s going to become an essential element of fashion moving forward into the next decade.
Have you worked with duck canvas on projects before? For some reason that fabric reps classic America as much as the Chuck Taylor does...
Besides a few reconstructed hunting jackets I flipped with HUF, I’ve never really worked with duck canvas in a collection capacity. This is a first.
Japan really seems to embrace your approach—Real McCoys and Anachronorm projects are really interesting—is that a mutual appreciation between obsessives?
Both Real McCoys and Anachronorm are amazing resurrection specialists of vintage military and Americana, but as much as it would seem natural for us to collaborate, it was actually a huge honour for me to work with them It’d be difficult to calculate how much enormous respect I have for both brands. Their quality of the craftsmanship and attention to detail is just incredible. I take a certain amount of pride in Dr Romanelli and the products we release. Maybe it's our unified obsession around recycling that brought our brands together.
While you've been associated with several musicians, we saw you and Lupe as likeminds—he's a lot more mysterious these days. Have you got more projects in the pipeline?
I haven’t worked with Lupe for quite sometime now. I’m sure we’ll reconnect at some point but for now, nothing in the immediate horizon.
What's next for the DRx brand? The very nature of you work seems to evade any pigeonholing or labeling...the LOST x Real McCoys project seem to come totally out of nowhere. We're hoping we'll see more controlled lunacy like that.
Controlled Lunacy = DRx.
My projects are getting bigger and more complicated. My brand is expanding. But as the projects get more complicated, they’re maturing, and now I really want to hone in on the idea of storytelling across multiple media. For me, it’s about sharing the story with the rest of the world, writing these prescriptions that hit the market and spread virally. My creative work has spread beyond just fashion; I’m launching a really unique sculpture project with Oliver Peoples this November at The Dr Romanelli Prescription Shoppe at Hostem in London.
Multiple projects in the comic book space, a couple of upcoming releases with Medicom, and a really amazing live puppet show with Fraggle Rock via our phase two is currently in the works, as well as a handful of Dr Romanelli fashion collections of course.