Tokyo Los Angeles: An Interview of Darren Romanelli On The Creative Alchemy of Sushi

Darren Romanelli on limited edition chairs, part of Richard Prince’s cannabis brand,Joan Katz and John Dogg, on view soon at MedMen in Los Angeles

Darren Romanelli on limited edition chairs, part of Richard Prince’s cannabis brand,Joan Katz and John Dogg, on view soon at MedMen in Los Angeles

interview by Emilien Crespo
photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

For the last twenty years, Darren Romanelli, or DRx, has been alchemizing his disparate interests through experiments with fashion and art, through his agency Street Virus, and through his brand Dr. Romanelli. It’s a laboratory of sorts where he has dreamed up collaborations with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Black Sabbath, Nike, Coca Cola, and artist Richard Prince. Art is the foundation of everything and art is everywhere in his agency’s office.  With the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Romanelli has been thinking a lot about Japanese culture and his countless visits there. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of his agency, Romanelli and Tortoise Agency will be hosting a unique one-night invitation-only Japanese street market called Darren San’s Sushi at LA’s premiere fish distributor, Art & Fish. Complete with sushi flown in fresh from Tokyo and a number of craft beer brands that are appearing in the US market for the first time, Darren San’s Sushi is an evolution of Romanelli’s community driven effort Pancake Epidemic, which he hosted at his mid-Wilshire office above IHOP and became a staple on many a creative’s social calendar in Los Angeles. We caught up with Romanelli at his office to discuss Space Jam, sushi and the power of community. 

EMILIEN CRESPO: Next Friday in Downtown LA, there’s this event called Darren San’s Sushi. Can you tell us what it is?

DARREN ROMANELLI: It’s the second Darren San’s Sushi event at Art & Fish, which is an incredible sushi hub run by my friend Taka. Taka provides sushi and distributes fresh fish to a lot of the most amazing establishments in Los Angeles. We decided to come together on this concept, which would give people an opportunity to experience the same electricity that I feel in Tokyo, specifically inspired by Tsukiji market. The relationship I developed with fish at Tsukiji market over the years and the ability to overnight that fish, have it arrive at LAX, and go all the way to Darren San’s Sushi, giving our guests a chance to see the fish come off the truck, select their fish in real time, and have it made in the kitchen. I think that’s one experience that we’re excited about refining with these experimental sushi gatherings, which are going to be periodic. And then, we decided to also create a Tokyo Cat Street vibe, which is the idea of cramming in a bunch of brands, whether it’s a noodle brand, a green tea brand, a curry brand, a Japanese stationary company. In Tokyo, real estate is a lot more sacred, so things are a lot smaller. We want to squeeze in authentic Japanese community, riding off the freezer. That’s what Darren San’s Sushi is—a little bit of Tokyo in Downtown LA.

CRESPO: Los Angeles has a lot of creative people, but one thing that I think has been a common thread through your career is collaboration and bringing people together. You had this practice, for instance, in this very office, the Pancake Epidemic that was so much in your DNA?

ROMANELLI: Our offices are above IHOP, and I love coffee, so I decided to combine these two things. The early days were literally pancakes from IHOP and Stumptown Coffee. We would have a barista on hand, a La Marzocco, and Stumptown would ship us beans from Oregon because they weren’t in California at the time. So, this was the only place for a couple of years where you could drink Stumptown Coffee, and I decided to create this Friday morning event where we would send out a bunch of emails to different creatives and invite them by to have pancakes and coffee. It became this staple of everybody’s week, but then I started to think about having something other than pancakes. So, we started bringing chefs in, and we’d theme the Friday mornings out, and I’d have new art in the office. The offices slowly became showrooms and then it became a full-scale think tank. We opened cafés in South Korea, we did a pop-up at the MOCA Geffen. We really used coffee, and our relationship to coffee as connective tissue with our clients, and potential future clients, and friends, artists, other creatives, curators. It really became a safe environment to break bread and exchange ideas. 

CRESPO: So you went from pancakes and coffee, to sushi from Tsukiji Market…

ROMANELLI: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about 2020. For me Tokyo 2020, the Olympics have always been something I look forward to. I moved to LA in 1984 from San Francisco. We moved to what I thought was Coca-Cola land, because they were the title sponsor for the Olympics. I started collecting Coke pins and Coke swag, and I did a project with Coke, five or six years ago and I got to celebrate those memories, bring those back, flip them a bit as I tend to do with Dr. Romanelli. At the same time that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are happening, the stadium’s opening in Downtown Inglewood, and my agency has been working on the retail development for the last few years. So, my job specifically is culturally curating the retail development. Thinking about how to bring in interesting anchors to differentiate the developments from other developments.

CRESPO: 2020 is also the twentieth anniversary of your fashion label and your agency.

ROMANELLI: There’s a lot coming together on this year, but I also feel like I’ve been a brand for twenty years so I’m more confident in what I can offer, how I can add value. These puzzle pieces seem to organically be connecting together, which is exciting because I’ve been going back to Japan for the first time in a while, and I just did an installation there, and I’m thinking about how I can create a larger bridge between Tokyo and LA. Tokyo is so great and I end up travelling there a few times a year, but it’s getting more difficult with kids now, so I want to bring an authentic Tokyo to LA, but I want it to come here with the right anchors, the right brands, and the right people. 

CRESPO: Your history with Japan started a long time ago, because I think that one of your first clients was Beams.

ROMANELLI: Yes of course, well, they saw my Nike jacket at Maxfield, they bought the jacket, and I did seven collections with Beams. At that time, streetwear was just really starting out, so early 2000s. There was definitely a movement, but it felt DIY.


Rams helmet by Sayre Gomez


CRESPO: What did you learn in Japan?

ROMANELLI: I learned the meticulous craftsmanship that goes into production out there is on a whole other level. I understood what it meant to be a brand, and this is before smartphones so everything was magazines, it was really important to go to Sawtelle, to go to the Japanese bookstore to buy the magazines, a lot of clippings, a lot of mood boards with magazines. But also thinking about how I could contribute to the movement in Tokyo, and I was lucky enough to have that relationship with Beams. Then I had a relationship with this store called Celux, which is a members-only boutique on top of Louis Vuitton Omotesando. I did a bunch of projects with them. Then I went to Loveless, and then tons of work with Poggy and United Arrows, and then of course different consultancies on a lot a of projects out there. I would always look at doing my best work for Tokyo because it meant the most for me, the consumer and the market is the most critical there on details, on quality control and hardware. I would always think about Tokyo first, and that’s how I’d set the bar.

 CRESPO: Back to your Los Angeles community, we talked about fashion, we talked about food, we talked about art and music, what is the common thread among your community?

ROMANELLI: I think the common thread we share as a community is that we all want to be inspired, we all want secret things. The same need and want to connect on imagery and distribute imagery. To share it creatively.

CRESPO: What do you want to bring to Los Angeles with your upcoming projects?

ROMANELLI: I think something that lacks here compared to other places is authentic community and being able to really connect with a group of people that share the same interests other than the gallery opening, or the institution opening, or the house party. But to really have a network of creatives that can share this common want of connecting is something that I think LA is lacking and has lacked.  

CRESPO: Is there any specific project you can talk about to bring the community together?

ROMANELLI: Yeah, well I’ve been working on a project as you guys know in Inglewood the last couple years. So, one dialogue that I’ve been paying attention to is how to create something unique that can pass the test of time. It needs to be relevant for the next decade. I’ve been experimenting over the last year or so at the Brixton market in London, which they’re calling Brixton Village now. We’re building a recording studio above the market, and we’ve been acquiring a bunch of great emerging contemporary works that we’ll house inside the studio. We have the ability to take those works and experiment in the market when the vendors are in between leases—sometimes these storefronts will go up for a month—and highjack those with the work that we have, and then it energizes the market and make a space feel more approachable.

CRESPO: I think one thing that’s always fascinating about your various projects is that it’s kind of always unexpected. You worked with Nike, you worked with Coke, with Mick Jagger, with Kanye West, with Disney, with Felix the Cat, there’s so many unexpected crazy things. Very few creatives in the world have touched so many different universes, and mixed and remixed them, even if you may not like the term remix, but I think I read in an interview that your dad also worked on Space Jam?

ROMANELLI: Yeah he started Warner Brothers consumer products in the 1980s. 

CRESPO: When you explained that he took you to Nike to meet Michael Jordan, I thought maybe that was part of the explanation. Because suddenly it was like a guy in a room said, “you know what? Bugs Bunny, Michael Jordan and Nike, let’s do it.” That’s kind of what you’ve been doing ever since in a way.

ROMANELLI: Yeah it’s interesting because that trip to Nike was super important in my deciding where I went to college, plus I saw the Grateful Dead at Autzen Stadium. I went to college in Oregon for four years because of that experience. Primarily that weekend of meeting Jordan and seeing Jerry at Autzen was like a dream. My obsession with the brand, with the swoosh really was over four years being at school in Eugene, Oregon, where Nike was born. And thrifting. I came back after four years with incredible vintage Nike. Not knowing what I was going to do with it—just collecting them. Growing up, I was always collecting. Whether it was Swatch watches, or Jordan shoes, Stussy shirts, whatever it was at the time, Coca-Cola gear, Polo gear…. Whatever I was collecting, I was just collecting it to have it. So, I didn’t know that I was going to be reconstructing these vintage Nike pieces.

CRESPO: To end on Darren San’s Sushi, this feels like a celebration of this community, of this energy, but it’s also almost like a teaser for what’s ahead. 

ROMANELLI: There’s definitely something unique happening now. It’s incredible, we did one on June 13th and it was really unique to feel authentic Japanese energy in Downtown. I know we have to perfect it, and this is the second one, but you’ll come experience it, hopefully some of the readers can come experience it. For me, more than anything similar to how the Epidemic events were back in the day, was more that authenticity, the organic connectivity between like-minded individuals exchanging ideas, and the power of that to me is ten-fold with this event because it’s coming with 2020. So I don’t know, come and see.