Meet Sam Rolfes, the Chicago Designer Behind Nicopanda’s Insane Prints

The man makes the clothes.

Behind every innovative fashion collection is a full team of talented people who’ve worked tirelessly to make the brand’s vision come to life. This behind-the-scenes involvement is particularly deep at Nicopanda, a brand immediately associated with founder Nicola Formichetti, despite the tireless crew of creatives supporting each season.

Chicago-based designer Sam Rolfes is an integral piece of Nicopanda’s Japanese-streetwear fusion. Rolfes has created key prints for three seasons alongside Design Director Tyler Rose—which makes the two of them essential cogs in the Nicopanda machine.

We watched Rolfes's prints come to life firsthand at Nicopanda’s fall ’16 presentation, and caught up with the designer to learn more about how his creative process catered to this season’s ’80s Tokyo inspiration.

How long have you been working with Nicopanda?

Sam Rolfes: This’ll be the third season I’ve collaborated with them since we started with the reflective rose print in their spring ’16 collection, and this time around has the most wide use of my prints so far. I didn’t actually realize how much of my imagery was worked into this collection until I saw them in person at the presentation, which was super cool to see.

The relationship with Nicopanda actually all started with winning an Arts Grant from Nicopanda’s creative agency, Two Hustlers. Whenever I was in town, I made a point to stop by, say hi, and show them the projects I’d been working on since last I saw them—in no small part because they’ve been some of the most warm and kind people to welcome me back to the city. They then introduced me to the Nicopanda team and we hit it off.

What’s communication like between you and Nicopanda’s design team?

Sam Rolfes: Because I’ve been splitting my life between throwing shows in Chicago and freelancing in New York City, much of my communication with them so far has been remote, through flurries of emails and 3D drafts and renders back-and-forth between myself and their design director, Tyler Rose. Once it’s cohesive enough to be considered, it's passed to Nicola who guides it from there to where it needs to be. The relationship has been growing with each season as we understand each other more and more.

It’s been a different process each time, but generally I’m presented with a constellation of inspiration imagery, a color story, assorted ideas about how things might be executed, etc. I’ll absorb it all and begin churning out visual elements in the various 3D platforms I use to make imagery, throwing packs of frenetic digital sketches and renders their way with increasing complexity in each phase of development.

What was the creative direction this season?

Sam Rolfes:  Well, the initial direction to me was Japanese, ’80s-era Tokyo, and a mix of vintage-inspired references. What really turned things on its side was the color story and abstract pattern elements thrown in there, which introduced references and color combos I hadn’t worked with prior. It gave a lot of life to the visual meditations on warped stripe patterns and bomber jacket collages I did.

The bomber jacket collage source images were photographed by Zak Krevitt. I painstakingly took those images and made 3D recreations of them, sculpting digital stitching designs and zippers coiling around its folds. For these prints, and really every other collab we’ve done, it’s been a function of passing their concepts through the distorted, slightly perverse lens of my process and then honing it down to fit with the collection as a whole.

What’s your design process?

Sam Rolfes: Oftentimes it’s a pretty intense process of birthing dozens and dozens of 3D models, textures and vignettes from the imagery they send me, then smashing them together over and over until I’ve arrived at something nuanced enough that it doesn’t feel like just an on-the-nose digital recreation of the inspiration material. If you’re working in the kind of surreal 3D illustration I do right now, you really have to bust ass to get the work into something more timeless, rather than just following net art trends of the week and relying on glossy eye candy and factory plugins to do all the heavy-lifting for you.

Generally for each stage of each image, it takes several all-nighter work marathons of warping, fracturing, collaging, melting, and flaying the 3D models and textures, collaging a dozen or so variations, and then narrowing them down to the best handful that the Nicopanda team takes and integrates into their garment designs. It’s an exhausting but transformative process.

This post was originally written by Justin Moran for Bullett Media.