On Vacation with Otto Milo

Words: Need Supply Co. Editorial
Images Care of: Maggie Shannon for Vice and Emily Coates

April 27 2017

It seems to be the curse of the traveler to never stop thinking about your next destination. The nagging wanderlust becomes especially cruel in the cold months of winter, when the sun is a distant memory before you’ve even left the office. It was inevitable, then, that the travel bug would seep into our daydreams, conversations, and ultimately, collections. Which is exactly how the collaboration with our friend and longtime co-conspirator, artist Otto Milo, came about.

As co-founder of the creative studio PlayLab in New York City, Archie Lee Coates IV has built pie shops in Alabama and jungles for Bruno Mars, as well been a part of the Need Supply Co. family for nearly a decade. So when we began designing our collection of escape-ready pieces, we knew our pal Archie’s wild imagination would be the perfect source of inspiration to lead the way. Ahead of his trip to Japan to celebrate the launch of the NEED Vacation Collection—a five piece capsule featuring custom floral embellishment and embroidery—with our team, we sat down with our friend Archie, aka Otto Milo, to talk about the balance between creativity and work, FaceTiming from the future, and the enduring influence of uncle Jerry.

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Need Supply Co. : First of all, should we be addressing you as Archie or Otto?

Archie Lee Coates: They’re both true. Archie feels right.

Where did this alter ego come from?

When Jeff and I started PlayLab we were super young, didn’t really have much experience, and certainly not in running a studio. We had this thought that we could do anything and everything, and that PlayLab could be that place. No rules or categories or boundaries, just doing. That first year, I started painting at night, and it felt so weird and opposite of being at the studio designing things all day. I made up Otto Milo as a way to separate the two ambitions. I wasn’t confident about painting, so I hid it for a long time. A few years into it, and a lot of paintings later, my friend Alex Tschan gave me two pieces of advice: “Eventually you’ve got to hang a painting on the wall” and “PlayLab and Otto Milo are the same thing.” That hit me hard. PlayLab is the place where disciplines are blurred.

Everyone at PlayLab makes things outside of the studio, and both inside and outside affect each other. Jeff builds worlds through drawings and the production of merch for trips through nature called Race Car Mountain Club with his wife Jenny. Luiza makes a publication with her friend Josh called Computer Duo. Anya is a nonstop drawer, inspiring illustrations of life scenes. Ryan collaborates with his wife Mercedes on zines, and makes these beautiful, abstract, geometric drawings. I still make paintings at night, everyday, probably more aggressively than ever, but now the border between Milo and PlayLab is moving, as it should. And Vacation is the first evidence of that.

You’re a man of many titles, Artist being one of them. I’m wondering if you can tell us about your early experiences with art and painting.

It all kinda started with my uncle Jerry. He’s a painter. He had a studio in downtown Norfolk, Virginia when I was in elementary school. Called D’art Center. One day he picked me up, we listened to Nirvana’s “Nevermind” in his truck, and drove to the studio. He gave me a canvas and some paints, and told me to go for it. We painted a lot together, sometimes in the back yard of my grandparent’s house. He gave me the autobiography of Keith Haring soon after, and those two things literally changed the course of my life. I just became obsessed with the idea of what was possible, and the more I read or experienced, the more that idea changed. When I met Jeff, he had a similar experience growing up, and our brains clicked.

The playful spirit of your work as Otto Milo feels like a cousin to the work you do at PlayLab – can you speak a bit to maintaining this energy in different facets of your work?

Hell yeah. It’s a direct byproduct of PlayLab. The conversations we have in the studio are endless, and so are the things we want to try and do and make. We’re making a water-filtering floating pool for fuck’s sake with our friends at Family NY. We made a pie shop in Alabama. We made a traveling jungle for Bruno Mars. We’re doing some weird shit now we can’t even talk about. It can be exhausting, but you wake up everyday and get to go to this rad studio in Chinatown and get to make things up with people you care about and take phone calls on the roof and tell people about your dreams and eat dumplings. It’s crazy. Energy is a real thing. Everyone at PlayLab does more than PlayLab, and at the same time, everything is PlayLab because it’s where all these experiences collect and grow. And in the case of NEED, they turned into flowers with our friend Gabriel, naturally.

So – you’ve worked with Need Supply Co. in many capacities, but this is the first time your work is turning into clothing – what was different about this process?

Working with Gabriel (editor’s note: Gabriel is the Need Supply Co. Creative Director) is just a giant conversation about what could be possible. It’s magic, and it never stops. Hasn’t for 10 years. He’s always thinking bigger and bigger, which is why we all get along, I think. As a result, 95% of what’s discussed doesn’t get brought to life, which I think is a sign of a healthy creative process. You don’t want to think about one thing, or it’s the only thing you’ve got. You want to think about millions, and once they’re all on the wall, you can see how they fit together, morph, and become something else. This is what PlayLab does, so it’s a perfect fit. A good collaboration takes a shit ton of faith and trust, and I’ve just always had that with Gabriel. He wants to see what’s possible, and has a lot of faith in his friends. When I first saw the drawings embroidered and printed on the clothing, he texted it to me. Super nonchalant. It felt like fantasy. It was our conversation made real. That’s a solid relationship. And one worth wearing.

You’re heading to Japan in a couple days to launch the collection at our Tokyo showroom, have you been to Japan before? What are you most excited about?

Never been. I know nothing. I’m excited about meeting new friends, Chris Green (Director of Mens Merchandise at Need Supply Co.) finding the best food of course, not knowing a language, seeing what my Richmond friends Joel and Andy tell me to see, to make drawings, to Facetime with the studio but it’ll be nearly a whole day in the future, to see these drawings on clothes in a surreal environment, but mostly just excited to meet my friend Gabriel in Tokyo.