** Editor’s Note **
This article originally appears in intelligence Magazine issue 03. Due to a printing error on page 015, the opening questions for this story were re-printed, and therefore a section discussing the KAPITAL Bandana Museum is missing. The editorial team apologizes for this mistake, and we are offering the full interview in its entirety to view here.
The Okayama prefecture is located in the southwestern region of the main island of Honshu, Japan, within which lies the small seaside city called Kojima. Regarded today as the capital of denim production in Japan, the city of Kojima is internationally renowned for its proliferating industry of crafting, washing and the production of quality denim garments. It is here that we travelled to in order gain more insight into this industry. Leading this field is the pioneering family owned and operated business — KAPITAL.
Born on Goto Island near Nagasaki and raised in Kobe, father Toshikiyo Hirata (TH) devoted himself to Karate while studying in university. His interests soon led to an opportunity to teach in the United States, where he first discovered his love for American denim. Upon his return to Japan, he relocated to Kojima, Kurashiki where his involvement in the denim industry began. He devoted his free time to learning everything about denim and gave birth to his own factory in 1984 to pursue his passion of creating his own denim. Soon after, he opened his first denim and vintage store in Kojima in 1995, and a year later he released his first original denim, aptly named “TH.”
Having spent his entire youth in his hometown of Kojima, Kurashiki, Kiro left to Tokyo and abroad in America at the age of 18 to study art and further his education. He returned to Japan In 1995, where he started working for one of Japan’s most renowned labels as an apparel designer. In 2002, he returned to join the Capital family business and founded KAPITAL, expanding the brand internationally. Kiro’s passion lies not only in art, denim and apparel design but he’s also a prolific bandana collector — having published two books on vintage bandanas and established the Elephant Brand Bandana Museum at Capital’s headquarters in Kojima in 2014.
The father and son team have worked together for over a decade and their mutual trust and understanding for each other becomes apparent in the level of detail in their garments. In 2010, the pair established KOUNTRY, its fourth Capital denim production facility that specializes in dying and washing techniques. KAPITAL continues to garner international success while operating 17 stores in Japan. We spoke to son Kiro more in depth about his relationship with his father, his love for bandanas, as well as KAPITAL and KOUNTRY’s operations. Kiro’s father TH, is dressed in a traditional worker’s uniform and gives us a rare tour of the companies’ facilities in Kurashiki, Kojima.
You run KAPITAL along with your father. What are your roles and what has it been like to work so closely together?
We used to have completely separate tasks between us. My father was in charge of production and I was in charge of design and marketing. Recently, since we started our dyeing and washing factory (KOUNTRY) 5 years ago, our tasks have merged, bringing further change to the brand.
Working together for over a decade, we’ve learned how to work as a pair with mutual trust and understanding. It is like using chop sticks, once you’ve learned how to work together, you can do some pretty intricate things. Little by little and overtime, we’ve learned a lot from each other and have grown to respect each other. That, of course, has affected our work.
Kiro, you grew up surrounded by your father’s passions and work. Did you always know from a young age that you wanted to be involved in the industry in some form?
People in my father’s generation have great passion and have pride in their work. My father is also driven with courage to remain successful in the business as the founder of the company. I was exposed to his work ethic since a very early age. I am very proud of it, and I am proud to have adopted his work ethic into my own.
Your father learned the denim trade working in various factories reproducing popular American jean styles. What aspects, if any, have been carried forward as a result?
Whatever knowledge he did bring is part of our history and we treasure it. Still, it’s only part of what we do and we’re always trying to expand the horizon of what we can do with denim every day.
The aesthetic of KAPITAL differs significantly from when your father used to design with his team. Why did you feel the need to deviate from that?
My father mastered the reproduction of American work wear in his generation. In our new generation, our work is evolving from “work wear” to “power wear.”
Explain the significance of being based in Kojima, Okayama and how does it affect the outlook of the brand creatively and business wise?
Our headquarters is in Okayama, in the countryside of Western Japan. The roots of Japanese denim textile are grounded in this region. Okayama is not only the best location for denim production, but also the best location to express our identity in designing. Everything works well here in Okayama for us, creatively and business wise.
Century denim and the KOUNTRY range of the brand are considered the pinnacle of what KAPITAL puts forth. Can you explain their significance?
Century Denim, KOUNTRY, blue jeans, and any and all other items are equally important to the identity of our brand. You can’t have a complete dinner just by serving one dish. You need variety — staple dishes like rice, seasonal dishes like fish, and dessert — to tie everything together and make a full meal. Denim for us is the staple at our table. KOUNTRY is like the seasonal plate that changes with each meal.
Your lookbooks often take place in far-off places all around the world, with past collections being shot in Mongolia, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, the Rocky Mountains to name just a few. Why is this?
We’ve always used “journey” as a theme. It taught us new ideas and brought change. In my experience, I believe that journeys can be life changing.
You recently introduced runway shows? What did you hope to achieve with this?
We were not aiming to achieve something. We just wanted to face a new challenge. From the staging to the reception, we did everything ourselves and in our own way. Hiroshima is historically a very important place for the relationship between the U.S.A. and Japan. Denim also has historical and cultural ties between the U.S.A and Japan. Hiroshima was the perfect place for our new challenge. Showing KAPITAL on a runway in Hiroshima means a lot to us.
How does humour, satire and politics influence KAPITAL?
Ironically, new ideas, great inventions or inspired stories originate from sad histories or sad political decisions. Humour and/or satire often play great roles in terms of giving us different perspectives when looking at these histories. This sometimes leads us to new ideas. We can learn a lot from history and should look at the history from as many perspectives as there are.
“In my generation I want to put as much passion into bandanas as my father put into jeans for his generation.”
You are a collector of bandanas, which are also a hallmark of KAPITAL. Why is this?
For me personally, jeans and bandana are both essential items when talking about work wear. My father is one of the pioneers for the reproduction of American denim. In my generation I want to put as much passion into bandanas as my father put into jeans for his generation. Jeans and bandanas are equally important items for me.
Your Bandana museum opened a couple years ago, and displays a massive resource of vintage and modern pieces. What is your fascination with these items? And how does the Elephant brand of bandanas tie into the KAPITAL line?
Bandanas attract many people, as does denim. We can find many sources on or about denim, but there isn’t much out there about bandanas so I made it myself. Elephant brand is one of the great collections in the bandana museum. Elephant brand used the elephant as their brand mark because the elephant was meant as a symbol for India, the place where they imported their textile. We have our own Rat brand bandana collection. Rat comes from my Chinese zodiac sign. I have an immense amount of respect and admiration for the great Elephant brand. Still, the Rat also symbolizes my personal challenge to the Elephant brand.
KAPITAL is truly one-of-a-kind and defies any general categorization or labels. Was this always the goal?
Absolutely not. We became who we are unintentionally yet inevitably. It is a great miracle of happenstance! And, we believe that we’ll see more miracles as long as we stay faithful to our work.
What emotions do you hope KAPITAL items evoke in a customer or onlooker?
HAPPY, HAPPY! HAPPY!
We have 16 stores all over Japan, including our newest store in Ginza, Tokyo. In our stores, we call each floor a “stage.” Every customer plays a leading role on our stage. We want the stage ready for the leading roles to express the best in his or herself, and for every play to be wonderfully happy. In short, our ultimate goal is to make our customer happy!
Your flagship stores are unique to say the least. Who designs them? What do you want to communicate to your customers through them?
I am always very flexible when designing any of our stores. I respect the surrounding elements of the area, the people and culture of the region, and simply apply those elements to the design. Designing each KAPITAL store is almost like cooking. Find the regional ingredients and do the best with them that we can. KAPITAL items are spices to identify the dish. We just opened our newest store at GINZA, Tokyo on August 6th. 2016. It’s a triple spicy store!
How has the brand evolved over the past 3 decades?
We want to grow like a bamboo tree, where our experience establishes strong joints over time. Bamboo has a growth rate that is climate dependent. To grow taller, it needs a tough and limber stalk. To grow a tough and limber stalk, it needs strong joints. Our aim isn’t really to grow taller, but instead to maintain the kind of climate that will keep us tough and limber.
Why do you choose to work with natural and traditional dyes?
5 years ago, we started KOUNTRY dyeing and washing factory. We use all sorts of dyeing materials and techniques, not just traditional natural dyes but also synthetic dyes and newer techniques. As the KAPITAL brand, we respect the tradition very much, but we also have to enjoy challenging the norm. In our KOUNTRY factory, there are about 30 technicians in our development team who are challenged with the task of creating new traditions.
Do you see KAPITAL as distinctly “Japanese”?
My personal opinion is no. I am not constrained by being “Japanese.” But our product is all made in Japan, and our craftsmanship and attention to the details are found all over our product. No matter how audacious my designs can sometimes be, our production is always delicate and attentive. KAPITAL is my design and executed by a Japanese production team; if it is called distinctly “Japanese”, I am proud of it.
What are your goals for the future? Do you hope to expand further into the overseas market?
Market is not the highest priority for us. The most important thing for us is monozukuri (crafstmanship). Monozukuri first, market later.