Art & Design

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

Art & Design

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


In-process imagery behind Sam Rolfes’ fall ’16 Nicopanda prints

Behind every new collection is a full team of talented people, who’ve worked tirelessly to make the brand’s larger vision come to life. This behind-the-scenes involvement is no different at Nicopanda, a brand we immediately associate with founder Nicola Formichetti, despite the number of faceless, oftentimes nameless creatives supporting each season.

Chicago-based designer Sam Rolfes is an integral piece of Nicopanda’s Japanese-streetwear fusion, having created key prints for three seasons alongside Design Director Tyler Rose. Rolfes’ creative process isn’t as effortless as the final outcome, masked by countless all-nighters spent collaging 3D models until his work gets Rose’s approval and moves forth inside the Nicopanda machine.

After watching his prints come to life firsthand at Nicopanda’s fall ’16 presentation, we caught up with Rolfes to learn more about his design process and catering to this season’s ’80s Tokyo inspiration.

How long have you been working with Nicopanda? 

“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? 

“Because I’ve been splitting my life between throwing shows in Chicago and freelancing in NYC, much of my communication with them so far has been remote, through flurries of emails passing references and 3D drafts and renders back-and-forth between myself and their Design Director, Tyler Rose, which then once it’s cohesive enough to be considered, is 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. and then 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?

“Well, the initial direction to me was Japanese, ’80s-era Tokyo, and a mix of vintage-inspired references, but what really turned things on its side for me was the color story and abstract pattern elements thrown in there, which introduced references and color combos I hadn’t worked with prior, and 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 and then I painstakingly took those images and made 3D recreations of them, sculpting digital stitching designs and zippers coiling around its folds, which ended up comprising the print. 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?

“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, I feel like 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 eyecandy 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 then takes and integrates into their garment designs. It’s an exhausting but transformative process.”

Keep Reading: Japanese Street Style, Doused with Glitter at Nicopanda Fall ’16