In the nearly five decades since his first exhibition with graffiti collective The Soul Artists in 1974, New York-born-and-based Eric Haze has played a pivotal role in merging the worlds of street art, fine art, and graphic design. After a successful early career that saw him transition from subway graffiti to gallery exhibitions, Haze moved into the world of graphic design, launching his own design studio in 1986 and quickly becoming the go-to designer for the booming hip-hop movement.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Haze created the iconic logos for Tommy Boy Records and EPMD, album covers for Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys, as well as an eponymous fashion brand HAZE, which held three flagship stores in Japan. Over the past 30 years, Haze has also become a pioneer of art x brand collaborations, working with Nike, G-Shock, HUF, Heineken, Kiehl’s, and dozens of others.
Jing Daily recently caught up with Haze to discuss brand collaborations, lessons learned from his 30-plus years working in the Asian market, his growing presence in China, and upcoming projects. (Interview edited for content and length.)
Jing Daily: I wanted to start with the brand collaboration side. You’ve collaborated with everyone from Nike to Casio and so many others, and I was curious to hear a little bit about how you approach collaborations. What’s the process?
Eric Haze (EH): Well, for me personally, I originally ran — and still do run — a design studio. So my role as a designer is very interactive in terms of helping other people establish or redesign their identity. Then fast forward a little bit when I started my own brand, there was a period where I transitioned from the design studio into the clothing brand that was just focused on what I call turning the mirror back on myself. And then we get this interesting, sweet spot at the end of the ‘90s where major brands started to understand the power of crossing over with street level indie brands. So, you know, I welcomed that. Collaboration allows me to sort of combine the roles of an art director, a designer, and a brand manager.
I think the trend or the market for collaborations, when it started in the late 90s, wasn’t as collaborative as it is now. What started as sort of just holding hands has grown into a really, truly collaborative spirit. Where I’m not just functioning as a designer, but the brands sort of stand together in a new life because of the collaboration. You know, the essence of it is that we each bring something unique to the table. So when the collaboration is right, each partner is receiving some new energy and identity from the other.
Jing Daily: What makes you turn down a collaboration, in that sense? Because there’s going to be a lot that you don’t do.
EH: Yes, absolutely. I mean, increasingly over time we have the luxury of saying no. It’s like the saying, freedom is the greatest success. And saying no is freedom. An interesting collaboration culture has grown so much, so there’s lots of brands playing just as a marketing exercise, as a promotional exercise. So for me, the first thing is, is it a comfortable natural fit? And the second thing would be, are we really going to elevate each other by working together? The acid test for me is if you ask me questions about a collaboration, are all the answers natural? Is it a natural fit? Do I believe in the collaboration? Do I believe in the brand?
Jing Daily: I’m curious to hear a little bit about the recent collaboration with Sacai in Japan. A little bit about that collection, how that came about and how it’s been received.
EH: Phenomenal. And I couldn’t be happier with it and proud of how they’ve released and shaped the collaboration. In fact, it’s an uncomplicated collaboration to begin with. I’d say I have fairly deep roots and history in Japan, both as a brand and as a designer. But it’s a different world and a different environment than the one I started in 35 years ago. One of the fundamental shifts for me is in the past as a graphic artist and someone who came from hip hop and graffiti, I was very focused on expressing that history and that culture through my design.
Fast forward decades later, and I’m 60 years old this year. I sort of walked away from fine art to embrace commercialism over 30 years ago, but have shifted that balance again over the last 10 years to embrace fine art again. And to really dedicate myself personally and professionally to putting fingerprints on everything again, so that in a world that’s increasingly technically driven, you know, I’m one of the old school guys who does everything by hand.
So I realized after all these years of working on computers that I was more interested in expressing my newfound passion for painting and drawing and doing things the old fashioned way.
You know, I wasn’t going to wake up one day and just be a different person, a different brand, it’s sort of an organic shift. And Sacai actually represents a big road sign along the way of this shift where I feel like I want the brand to be aspirational, I want the brand to be grown up, I want the brand to be sort of casual in a way that it wasn’t in the past. Sacai gave us a really nice platform to put out some nice, simple organic hand style graphics. Working with another brand and another group of people who I knew understood the essence I just described who would also take my work in an elevated direction instead of use it in a predictable way. These days I’m much more interested in the present and the future than I am in the past.
Jing Daily: The Japanese market has been huge for you and you’ve been really involved with it for a long, long time. What have you picked up along the way from the Japanese market in relation to your work? How does it differ from other markets, like China in particular?
EH: Historically, Japan has a tendency to reshape import culture in their own image, which they have done successfully through streetwear and contemporary fashion, whether it’s A Bathing Ape, Sacai, or other homegrown fashion brands. What I can say 30 years later is that I think different places on the map have their moments in the birth of streetwear, following New York and Los Angeles.
Now China is having its moment in a similar fashion, introducing and synthesizing Western culture for their market, their mentality. You look and it has roots of its own. Especially for someone like me, the walls, conceptuality, between what’s considered a product and what’s considered art have sort of melted away.
Jing Daily: How are you conceptualizing the Chinese market in relation to the Japanese market, in terms of specific projects you may have planned for China? Right now streetwear and hip hop are having a moment there, as are artists like KAWS and Daniel Arsham, driven by a cultural consumer base.
EH: We’ve absolutely had our eye on the prize and China for quite some time now. It’s been sort of commonly understood for many, many years now that China was sort of going to have its moment, led by people like [Daniel] Arsham and others. I have been to Beijing and I’ve worked in China before and I have been to Asia 30, 40 times from Singapore to Hong Kong. But right now, we have probably half a dozen projects in the works that are specifically targeted for China. Some of them are actually launching out of China first. And I would say that in everything we do these days, we have a conscious eye on Asia in general and China specifically.
It’s a little premature to release info, but I have a project that is very much in the luxury high-end fashion space that will be by far the highest-end and highest price-point fashion collaboration I’ve ever done. I’m very excited about that. And it’s very much rooted in the Chinese market, involving partners from Japan, Europe, and America. So it’s really got an international spirit. Then I have another major project in the professional sports space, which will ultimately relate to the Olympics in Beijing. We’re also developing a product line and clothing capsule for a major China-only retailer.
Then finally, the third iteration of Beyond the Streets is coming to Shanghai. It was originally scheduled to release in Shanghai in September but due to travel uncertainty that show was pushed back to next year to give us a longer runway. So I would say the work we’re doing in the next six to nine months is probably more focused on China and the Asian market as much as anywhere else.
Jing Daily: Just to put a finer point on that, when you’re working on a new project for a specific market, how do you tweak it for the market or do you tweak it?
EH: You know, rarely do I sort of over-focus on sort of bringing sand to the beach, if you will. If there’s one word that encapsulates my target for anything I do, it’s universal. If it’s really solid [work], it’ll resonate in any culture, in any language, but that’s probably a little idealistic in the marketing realities. I’m an artist and I’m a graphic designer, a brand director. But I’m also a trained art director. It’s in my DNA to consider all those external factors — is there something special for China that we need to consider? Is there something that’s got a friendly feeling in America that just doesn’t translate in Asia?
One thing I learned over many years is that in order to be intelligent working in Japan, I need Japanese partners, because I can’t pretend that a 60-year-old American guy from New York understands everything about what’s going on 6,000 miles away. It’s essential to have boots and eyes and hands on the ground too. So we’ve been proceeding with the same mindset [in China]. This is sort of a symbol of the greater network and greater connectivity that we are intentionally developing around the world.
I learned over time that once I had built my own brand that it could turn into an island in a way I didn’t want it to be if I wasn’t careful. At a certain point, you sort of realize once you build your own island as a brand, that you want people to visit your island and you want to be invited to other people’s islands. Success, or whatever you want to call it, is no fun if you can’t share it.
Jing Daily: You mentioned a few upcoming projects you’re working on and have a lot in the pipeline. Is there anything that you can tell us about that you’ve got coming up?
EH: The big one is really the Beyond the Streets show coming to Shanghai early next year. And it’s in a phenomenally big space. I think it should be bigger than it was in America. And I think that’s going to be a really important, exciting sort of cultural display for the uninitiated in China.
We’re also developing the 40th anniversary of the logo and packaging for G-Shock. We were brought in as a design studio to design the 25th anniversary logo and packaging and then the 30th and the 35th. And this is sort of the ideal. We’re commissioned as a design studio to create an identity in packaging, and I’m brought in as a brand to collaborate on some interesting products, and then they value my participation enough that I’ve been a keynote speaker at launches and major events. There is trust and understanding at this point, after 20 something years, G-Shock says, we just want you to make it look like you did it, which is the ultimate gift as a designer, to have clients and collaborators say, we love what you do, do what you do, just be you.