The North Face is easily one of the most reputable outdoor apparel brands to ever exist, and in recent years has reached unfathomed new heights of popularity. In the past, they were exclusively associated with hiking and other extreme outdoor activities. Nowadays, The North Face is still outdoors, but ‘outside’ doesn’t just mean the Southern Alps anymore. Over the last decade, highlight-reel moments such as Drake’s sporting of the Nuptse puffer in the iconic “The Motto” music video, and their ongoing collaborations with Supreme have helped elevate the brand’s offerings into streetwear must-haves.

Perhaps having an ear to the streets would be unexpected for a brand of The North Face’s style and calibre—but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Their latest collaboration alongside JD Sports and an up-and-coming Zimbabwean designer from the Central Coast, Tanaka Bibi, shows exactly why the brand faces little to no competition on the streets.

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At just 20-years-old Tanaka’s brand ART ON FABRIX has gained traction across Australia in the last few years, and he’s accumulated what he calls a “cult following”. His story is a modern-day fashion romance—from being inspired by Virgil, bleaching thrifted jeans to resell, teaching himself how to sew, and starting his own brand—to now, customising his very own Nuptse jacket and being the star of latest JD Sports x The North Face campaign alongside artists, Gold Fang and Shanae.

Speaking to Complex AU, Tanaka talks his upbringing, how he got into fashion, and the message he hopes to share with the world.

Let’s take it right back to the beginning. Where are you from and what was your childhood like growing up?

I was born in Zimbabwe. At two [my family] moved to Albany, New York and lived there for about eight years, then we moved to Dallas, Texas for a year or two. Then we came to Australia. I actually live on the Central Coast. I grew up and went to school here.

I started getting into fashion at the age of 16 when Virgil Abloh came to Sydney and had the whole Nike ‘10’ collab. When I saw him it really inspired me, and it made me want to start a brand myself. I saw all the hype behind it and was like, “Oh, damn, there’s an actual community around this,” and I got really excited.

Tanaka bibi for the north face
Tanaka Bibi for JD Sports’ latest campaign. Shop the latest North Face drop here. Image via JD Sports

After that I started going to The Salvation Army and copping $4 jeans. I started throwing bleach on them and stuff. At the time I thought it was the craziest idea. I’d resell the jeans for like $80-$90 and people would purchase them. It made me think, “Damn, I can actually start something with this.” Then I started getting into sewing. I copped my first sewing machine at Spotlight. The way I taught myself to sew was by unpicking garments that I liked the silhouette of, and then I’d use those as patterns.

My sewing got better and better and I started sewing proper jackets and stuff, pieces that were quality. Then I’d re-flip those pieces for like… I think the most I’ve sold a piece for was like $850?  So I was like “Damn!”

The whole bleaching jeans thing and looking up to Virgil goes hand-in-hand—Virgil was all about the deconstruction of clothes. Was that the moment you knew you wanted to be involved in fashion? Or did you know earlier than that?

I think bleaching jeans was the moment I realised I didn’t want to do anything else. Even though it was quite simple—I didn’t know how to sew at the time, and it was quite messy—it was the starting point. Even to this day, I don’t enjoy doing anything else but making clothes. It was a pivotal point, I knew I’d be doing this for the rest of my life. I don’t see myself doing anything else. Especially in school, I really felt I was terrible at everything. Bleaching jeans gave me a piece of security. This is what I enjoy. If you saw me in school, I didn’t enjoy anything. I just hated school.

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Even though you don’t feel you excelled in school, you’re obviously smart. Was it more so that you had an attitude of “If I really wanted to do this school stuff, I could do it,” but it was hard to put your mind to something you didn’t want to do?

I felt like there was more to life than just the typical ‘go to school and get a 9-5’. I wanted to create something, I didn’t want to follow the same path that most people take in life. School isn’t structured to teach you to be independent, it teaches you to follow the rules. But that’s why I really liked creating. I felt like I had that sense of independence. I can structure things myself, I can make what I want, I can sell what I want, and most importantly, I can build a community that likes the pieces that I like. I remember in school kids would always compete when it came to grades. I didn’t get good grades whatsoever, so I always felt really behind—it just makes you feel like you’re worthless. But there’s many people that are good at different things.

Fast forward from bleaching jeans and deconstructing t-shirts—you’ve now got your own brand, ART ON FABRIX. What’s the story behind it?

I started the brand started 5 years ago. That’s when I started, but I began taking it seriously—upping the quality of the products and dealing with overseas manufacturers—about two years ago. 

Shanae and Gold Fang for the North Face
Shanae and Gold Fang for JD Sports’ latest campaign. Shop the latest North Face drop here. Image via JD Sports

Onto your collaboration with JD Sports and The North Face. That’s huge, congratulations. How did this come about?

Thank you, thank you, thank you. My creative agency contacted me via email and told me they wanted me in this campaign, they also asked me to send my logo to them. The gravity of it didn’t really hit me until I was told that they were going to put my logo on the jacket and have it be a part of their next campaign. It still hasn’t really hit, but I’m very excited and I’m very thankful. Not too many brands get this opportunity. It’s quite powerful.

I’ve always wanted things like this to occur and I always saw it coming. Now when the great opportunities come, it’s more about being thankful that the opportunities are here rather than being so surprised. If I was surprised, you might think I didn’t believe something like this could occur.

You were already established before this collab and had a lot of community support, but it must be reassuring to know that other people, including bigger brands, believe in you and want to work with you?

It’s insane. You can work away at something for years and nothing happens, but it just takes one person to see your piece for everything to change. Along the way lot of people will instil their fear into you. Like, if somebody feels like they can’t accomplish something, they’re going to tell you that you can’t either. Don’t let other people’s fear dictate your opinions. 

Shanae and Gold Fang for the North Face
Tanaka Bibi for JD Sports’ latest campaign. Shop the latest North Face drop here. Image via JD Sports

The mantra for the North Face and JD Sports campaign is “Exploring never stops”. How does that reflect your story?

Exploring doesn’t ever stop. Being born in Zimbabwe, moving to New York, moving to Texas, coming to the Central Coast, travelling to Sydney and networking—I’ve always been exploring. When you explore and venture out into the world, you learn new things and meet new people. It’s a part of growing: exploring the unseen.

Do you have any advice for any up-and-coming creatives or designers in Australia? It’s a completely different landscape here compared to anywhere else.

I’ve always tried to push myself—I’d say push yourself. There’s going to be times when no one believes in you—you’ll have to believe in yourself and push yourself. There’s going to be times when you won’t know what to do or have the funds to produce. But, if you have faith in yourself, and you believe that your pieces are powerful and unique, you can really accomplish anything with time. Patience is important as well because nothing comes overnight. Just have faith.

Shop the latest from The North Face at JD Sports, including JD exclusive styles and colours, here