The Objects of Discovery | At Home with Hiroki Nakamura
Words: Chais Mingo | Photography: Satomi Yamauchi
Dialogue | Issue 02 | p.034
When Hiroki Nakamura created visvim® in 2002 his mandate was not something new; to create something functional, durable, and long lasting. It was an outlook that harkened back to the past, to an old way of doing things, when products served a purpose and were built to stand the test of time. A time when cause and effect were much closer together, an outlook that was mostly lost by the late 20th century. This position is at odds with the modern fashion industry as a whole. As its name unabashedly states, fast fashion is fast- it’s meant to be chewed up and spit out. It will last you two or three seasons, but you will only want to wear it for one. The old guard of high fashion, however, has a long history of high quality; produced in some of the best factories in Italy, France and Japan with gorgeous fabrics and exquisite construction. The garments may last a lifetime but the fashion cycle ensures that they won’t be worn for long either. These luxury labels are merely the starting point to fast fashion where new trends render old ones obsolete and the cycle restarts.
With no grand scheme or manifesto Hiroki Nakamura simply made the clothes he wanted to wear every day, and in the process gained a cult following and changed at least some peoples minds about how clothing could be created and appreciated. visvim ignores trends and creates products that are refreshing and exciting, yet enduring in both style and quality. Of all the ethos the brand advocates perhaps the most central is patina- the process in which something gets better with age and use. visvim items are meant to be held onto, to become your own, to become more interesting and valued than they were the day you bought them. For Hiroki this mindset came with age and experience and a constant search for the things that sparked an interest inside of him. These objects came from around the world and would serve to both inform visvim and to help Hiroki better understand himself. Unsurprisingly they often had a story, history and patina of their own and proved that new isn’t always better and that fashionable clothing doesn’t have to be disposable. The search for these objects started in his youth with an interest in America and hasn’t stopped since.
A child of the '70s, Hiroki Nakamura’s fascination with American culture and clothing is not dissimilar to many Japanese youth of the era. Born in the countryside, within arms reach of Tokyo, the Nakamura family would travel regularly giving Hiroki insight into other cultures and ways of life at a young age. His father was an avid outdoorsmen, spending his free time fishing and hiking. This passion for nature undoubtedly rubbed off on Hiroki whom would listen as his dad would recall stories of his travels: "when he was young he also stayed in Alaska for several months for his business and always talked about how beautiful it was in the 1940’s. It was so raw." This would ultimately lead a young Hiroki to Alaska as well, chasing a fantasy of America and some of the world's best backcountry snowboarding. Hiroki fondly recalls his time spent in Alaska as a young man:
"I was really into mountaineering equipment when I grew up. When I was in Tokyo I had a fantasy, you know? I was into snowboarding. I was watching an extreme competition movie, the first extreme backcountry riding, and I thought to myself, ‘ah I need to go there!’ That was 1989 or 1990. I had plenty of time, and there’s not many nice ski resorts in Alaska, and I couldn't even afford a season pass. I ended up just hiking up the mountains with my friends- I had no idea how dangerous it was, but it was a really wonderful time."
Though they shared an admiration for the outdoors, Hiroki and his father did not share the same interest in clothing. The senior Nakamura was of an older and more traditional generation, unconcerned with material things and the allure of America. Hiroki’s uncle however was of a younger generation. Eschewing the austere traditional mindset of his elder brother, Hiroki’s uncle embraced the post-war economic boom and the flood of American influence throughout the country. Influenced by the rapid growth of the American collegiate inspired Ivy movement , and a follower of the increasing flow of men’s fashion magazines, Hiroki recalls his uncles obsession with Americana: “My uncle was into outdoor Americana gear and denim. He was driving an old Bronco- he looked like a cowboy.” Enamoured with his uncle’s unusual and unique image, Hiroki was naturally drawn to the rugged and masculine styles of American workwear, sportswear and military garments. A teen during the denim boom of the mid '80s Hiroki recalls his early discovery of clothing via vintage American denim: "I was 14 when a friend of mine introduced me and he would ask, ‘have you seen the Levis ‘big E?' So I started digging into my uncles and dads closet’s looking for vintage ‘big E’ Levi’s. That was right before the vintage denim movement around 1984 or so."
It was during this time that Harajuku became the epicenter of Tokyo’s fashion scene and Hiroki avidly recalls the excitement of the era and the adventure of hunting down new shops: "We would go to Harajuku and visit a vintage, denim or Americana shop. There were so many movements in Tokyo, like UK and punk, but I was more drawn to Americana stuff. It was fun to discover something new. Now it’s much easier to access information, but back then it was really fun to find new vintage stores in Harajuku or Ometesando. There was a lot happening."
As Hiroki grew up his sense of personal style and taste continued to grow as he gradually let himself be guided more and more by his intuition rather than his logic or other peoples valuations. As he explains he is not a collector in the traditional sense of the word. He does not wish to collect every model of Made in USA Levi’s 501 or every Edo period textile to mark off of a list as he goes: "I like all kinds of stuff, I like textiles, because that’s what I do. I like photographs with character, I like furniture with character, and it's hard to say one category- I like cars, I like motorcycles, I like bicycles. I like all kinds of stuff, but I always want something with character. In the beginning I was thinking in my head, Levi’s® vintage, it's not about the Big E, it’s about the product. That’s what moves me. As I see more things I realize, it's not about the vintage, there’s something about the object in front of me, that moves me or speaks to me." Not allowing himself to be over-influenced by the strict collector mindset, Hiroki let his travels guide him to find the things that spoke to him on a personal level: "I usually travel with three or four empty suitcases. I pick stuff up from flea markets, random stuff, sometimes it almost looks like trash. Customs officers always ask 'Why do you travel with this?' [laughs] Sometimes I travel with old can opener, or with little pieces of glass. 'What do you do?' I'd reply ‘this is very important to me [laughs].' It is really important because it’s a treasure for me to feel the excitement, and to know what moves me inside." Indeed it is apparent that Hiroki is searching for the why rather than the what. Why a certain item speaks to him, why anything from vintage textiles, to an Amish children’s doll or old hubcaps can inspire him. The act of hunting is that of self-discovery and it constantly informs his creative process.
Every season Hiroki explains his collection and inspiration through a heartfelt dissertation. This story sets the tone for the season and sheds light on what was going on in the designer’s head during the time of creation. The importance of story telling and history is key to visvim’s appeal yet even Hiroki questions the intrinsic value of an items story and his dissertation process. In an effort to explain this internal conundrum Hiroki relates a story about sushi: "I really enjoy sushi because it's like a piece of art, and I really appreciate the chefs' work. They work in really small spaces and they work hard to come up with something new. It's cooked and served in front of you and sometimes they explain how they came up with their new menu. I get so impressed sometimes having beautiful sushi. My favourite chef does similar stuff to what I do, he studies the Edo period of sushi from 100 years ago and he tweaked it in his own way. So he would explain 'in the Edo period it took the fish ten days to get to Tokyo, so I age the tuna the same way’ and he has a story for coming up with a new menu and his sushi is very good. My friend, wife and I decided to go to three or four of our favourite chefs to compare their skills. All of the chefs had different techniques and a different story they would explain. At the end of the trip we went to Kanazawa to this old chef, who was 82 or 83. I couldn’t sit in front of him, I could only see him from a distance, and I couldn't even talk to him. He’s been making sushi for over 60 years. The three of us agreed that after we had sushi from four different chefs, his was the best, and there was no explanation why. Why is this so good? No explanation, no story, but it was just the best. I think I still need to practice, I’m still at the stage where I’m trying to figure it out with my own logic. One day if I keep doing this without adding any story, without any logic, hopefully I can make something that moves people, and maybe that’s my goal, but I'm still practicing."
A visit to the Nakamura’s Tokyo home gives further insight into his inspirations. Hiroki and his wife Kelsi graciously let us take a closer look at the many textiles, and peculiar objects they have collected throughout their travels. Located on a quiet street in the Fukasawa neighbourhood in Setagaya-Ward of Tokyo, their home is a glimpse into the past. Over a century old, traditional homes like this are no longer common in Tokyo, and with its thatched roof and wooden construction it stands in stark contrast to the futuristic preconceptions and modernist realities of the city's architecture. The house seems to fit his personality, label, and outlook on life to a tee: "They don’t have this kind of old house nowadays. It is breathable and there are holes in the floor. It kind of goes along with my product- all natural. This inspires me; shoes, and clothes have to be natural and breathable- it’s comfortable. Sometimes when I stay at a hotel, completely sealed in with no air movement, it makes me uncomfortable, but here it is almost like being outside, which I like."
Hiroki’s passion for natural materials transcends his clothing label and is evident in his home. Almost everything looks decades old; well used and well loved. A collection of leather couches with a rich patina is found at the entrance. The tatami covered wooden floors creak under our feet and it’s impossible not to notice the thatched roof above us. I can’t help but ask about the upkeep of such an ancient construction technique. Hiroki explains: "It’s breathable and it was a common material back then. This whole area was all farmland. So this was a farmers house. I think when you wanted to change the roof, thatch was an easy material to get, and you could ask others to help you fix the roof. We have to fix it because you have to take care of old things. It’s kind of a different concept, that you have to keep maintaining everything. We had a problem with the wall, it came down, so we’re fixing that. The thatch roof has to be replaced every 15 to 20 years." The house has a museum quality. It feels precious, almost fragile and aside from a few modern conveniences like electricity, wifi, and space heaters, the home retains its historic aesthetic qualities.
Hiroki puts on one of his favourite records, a first press Led Zeppelin album. The vinyl sounds rich on his first generation JBL Paragon system as we sit down for tea and cake served on indigo painted plates and cups. Indigo is everywhere in the house. Indigo tablecloths, indigo fabric on the roof, I look down at the tatami and notice that it too has indigo. Hiroki tells me that he made them himself and that they are dyed using visvim’s natural indigo. Far from the first label to utilize it, visvim certainly helped indigo gain the popularity it holds today and it’s safe to say he helped breath new life into the age-old Japanese industry and perhaps help pass on the technique to a generation whom is continually moving away from traditional craftsmanship. Hiroki is humble and unromantic about his role but he seems satisfied with the changes that are occurring: "It’s a traditional industry but the young generation are into it. I think more and more younger people want to be in that industry or make something using that technique, and I think that’s great."
As we continue, Hiroki opens the slidingdoors to two large wooden closets, revealing stacks of fabrics wrapped in plastic. This is only a small sample of the hundreds that are split between his Tokyo and Los Angeles home and his design studio. As Hiroki explains storing these rare textiles provides their own set of unique challenges: "These are all my fabrics that I have collected. I use natural mothballs to avoid moths. Moths love it. See these holes, moths have eaten them. I hate them. They eat the most natural stuff first. They love Navajo stuff, they love old Japanese silk, and they love Tibetan yak wool because they are all natural." I can’t help but imagine a closet somewhere in the future, full of visvim clothing being devoured by hordes of thankful moths that found the natural fabric feast.
Not limited to clothing and textiles Hiroki’s inspiration can be found everywhere; I spot a large painted porcelain object, it looks antiquated and ornate but I am dumbfounded about what exact purpose it would serve, Hiroki clarifies: "It's a toilet, I think I found it maybe four or five years ago. I was at an antique show in Tokyo, and it was on a shelf, and I liked the blue colour. I like the passion of wanting to make a toilet look cool, it's something you don’t usually see and people just take it for granted. Someone wanted to take the energy to make it look good, and it looks funky too, it’s made of porcelain and I think it’s interesting." Next we walk outside to his garden. A serene space, full of greenery and objects that look as though they were present since the house was made. The centerpiece of the garden is a plum tree that Hiroki expects will bloom in the coming days. After taking some photographs of Hiroki and Kelsi, we head back inside, drink some more tea, and I take one final look around, ensuring I don’t miss anything before saying goodbye.
After 16 years, visvim has become a powerhouse in mens clothing and it has done so honestly. From it’s roots in streetwear, it continues to evolve and mature along with Hiroki. With a wife and young daughter, his life is constantly changing, and naturally his inspirations will continue to change as well: "I used to travel to many places and take big trips. Now I have a family, so I stay with them, and I have to be a father, but I can still discover things through a very simple life.
Find the printed version of this interview in issue 02 of intelligence Magazine, available now.
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