From obscurity to indie hit

Hiroki Nakamura (left) says inspiration for his designs (above) mostly comes from old textiles and beautifully made items from the past.
Hiroki Nakamura (above) says inspiration for his designs mostly comes from old textiles and beautifully made items from the past. PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES, SURRENDER AT RAFFLES HOTEL ARCADE
Hiroki Nakamura (left) says inspiration for his designs (above) mostly comes from old textiles and beautifully made items from the past.
Hiroki Nakamura says inspiration for his designs (above) mostly comes from old textiles and beautifully made items from the past.
Hiroki Nakamura says inspiration for his designs (above) mostly comes from old textiles and beautifully made items from the past.
Hiroki Nakamura says inspiration for his designs (above) mostly comes from old textiles and beautifully made items from the past.

Cult designer Hiroki Nakamura's once-obscure label Visvim is now sold across the world

The moment was primed for kitsch or magic; it could have gone either way. On a warm summer morning in Florence, Italy - the air narcotic with the scent of blooming camellia - guests of the menswear trade fair Pitti Uomo made their way through tunnels of clipped greenery at the Renaissance Boboli Gardens to a fashion show mounted by Japanese designer Hiroki Nakamura.

Stopping first at a kiosk just inside the Porta Romana gate, they donned chevron-patterned kimono jackets that Nakamura, 45, had ordered from a traditional Kyoto craftsman. Thus attired, they moved as a group towards a Zanobi del Rosso 18th-century Lemon House, looking like nothing so much as members of a diplomatic legation to the Medici court in a woodblock print by Hiroshige.

In reality, they were just buyers, press and other personnel from the extended fashion posse. And yet, fashion without storytelling is just sewing. It is Nakamura's shrewd understanding of this precept that has helped vault his label, Visvim, from the status of Tokyo indie to a business with a reported US$100 million (S$135.1 million) in sales.

"Part of what makes Visvim so powerful is that it evokes something in you," said musician John Mayer, who wears Nakamura's designs in his everyday life and onstage. "My whole road case is Visvim. I'm taking all the checkered madras."

Mayer represents the upper tier of Nakamura's fan base, a stratum he shares with Pharrell Williams, Eric Clapton and ASAP Rocky. Though still largely unfamiliar to the average Joe, this particular insider's secret has grown in just over 15 years to include seven free-standing stores in Japan and 135 retailers internationally.

"When I started the business, I asked myself what I wanted out of this and I realised what I wanted was to create products that made me happy," Nakamura once told this reporter. "I also wanted to build a brand that is timeless and borderless."

Nakamura had travelled to Florence with his American wife Kelsi from Los Angeles, where the pair spend half the year with Riko, his 11-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. The other half is spent in Tokyo, in a centuries-old wooden house set in a lush, walled garden.

It was there that I visited Nakamura some weeks before Pitti Uomo, the better to understand the creations of a man who is in certain ways as much curator as designer, a student of everything from tribal textiles to rockabilly haircuts to classic automobiles.

"I started collecting when I was 14," Nakamura said. "And I'm still collecting."

He opened the door to a tansu (a storage cabinet). Stacked inside were scores of folded textiles - kantha cloth from Kolkata, India; Teec Nos Pos weavings from a Navajo reservation; silk embroidery fragments from Herat province in Afghanistan; lengths of cochineal dyed wool from Nepal - sealed in Ziploc bags to protect them from the depredations of mould and insects.

"My inspiration mostly comes from old textiles, beautifully made stuff from the past," said Nakamura who, beginning as a teenager, scavenged thrift shops for World War II surplus items, 1950s denim workwear and Buddhist pilgrims' coats.

"I always wanted to make things that, as much as the vintage stuff I am drawn to, have strong energy."

Asked why certain old things possess "energy" while others do not, he grinned and shrugged.

The answer may rest, again, in traditional Japanese philosophy. The takumi, or "craft", that masters of certain disciplines are said to have come to them as a result of skills honed over a lifetime.

Perfecting those skills, or waza - much as a samurai polishes a sword - is less an end in itself than a practice informing all dimensions of a well-rounded life. Every beautiful object is thus an inducement to consider the hand behind its creation.

"Machine-made goods are perfect beyond the original goal," Nakamura said. "In the modern world, goods are flat, flat, flat. And that, to me, is boring. I'm drawn to natural stuff and unevenness and to the humanity of things made by hand."

If it is not always clear how that approach jibes with the grim dystopian sprawl of modern Tokyo, it is still possible to see how a certain dichotomy between industrialised 21st-century sensibilities and a hard-wired cultural sense of aesthetics comes into play.

For Mr Gianluca Cantaro, editorin-chief of L'Officiel Hommes Italia, it is precisely that dichotomy that has made Nakamura's onceobscure label a success.

"They are an island and will always be an island," he said. "Whatever influences they take from outside - and they are super-inspired by the United States and California life and the imagery involved with that - their vision of the US is never the US exactly. It's not a quotation. It's not a translation."

Nakamura may have cut his teeth designing for that most American of brands, Burton Snowboards (he picked up his skills with high-tech materials working there), in Vermont. He may drive a 1979 Jeep Wagoneer in Los Angeles and ride his 1948 Indian Chief motorbike into the Californian deserts. He may bedeck himself in old Navajo silver and hang a tattered American flag on a wall of his Tokyo house.

Yet, like so many of his compatriots who have assimilated traditional American styles - so-called Ametora - he remains, as Mr Cantaro said, "completely Japanese". That, anyway, was the consensus of a somewhat flummoxed crowd in Florence. Having dressed in kimonos to enter a French Baroque-style building, they found themselves watching a performance by a group of dancers dressed as gobs in middies and American sailors' caps.

The runway show continued a theme of what seemed like American archetypes: ranchers and cowboys, pump jockeys in boiler suits, retro denim and blanket plaid, early Marlon Brando and James Dean.

On second glance, though, the jackets had kimono closings and were adorned with images created by a traditional Kyoto artisan who makes the fish pennants flown on Children's Day in Japan.

Almost none of the fabrics, crafts or techniques that went into creating a Visvim image of the US was actually made in that country, one whose own manufacturing traditions are now largely a thing of the past.

Neither pastiche nor homage nor facile send-up, the Visvim show turned out to be something more complex and haunting. It was a traveller's depiction of a place he may have seen once or never seen at all and merely imagined: America, the mirage.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'From obscurity to indie hit'. Print Edition | Subscribe