By  on March 10, 2011

LOS ANGELES — In the history of trunk shows in this city, it’s likely few can boast persuading Eric Clapton to be among the first to arrive on a sunny Saturday morning.

But there the three-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee was last Saturday, promptly turning up at the 10 a.m. start time to Visvim’s trunk show in Chateau Marmont’s private Bungalow One, introducing himself as “Eric” as if the smattering of staff didn’t know who he was and checking out the fall collection of the Japanese streetwear brand established in 2000. Later, Mos Def would stop by.

It was clear from his famous fans that Visvim designer Hiroki Nakamura has reached his own sort of star status here by selectively distributing his label in the U.S. — to date, it’s only been available at Union in Los Angeles and The Webster in Miami — and sticking to a philosophy of mining techniques from the past to imbue clothes with originality and personality. He is loosening his grip a bit on the former — Bergdorf Goodman is expected to bring in Visvim pieces by August and a collaboration with Moncler launched last fall increased Visvim’s exposure — but is still intent on looking backward to move his designs forward.

Hand-dyed sweaters carefully folded and displayed on the windowsill during the trunk show typified Nakamura’s approach. From concept to execution, a Cowichan sweater priced at $7,392 took more than a year to complete because Nakamura had to nail down workable natural indigo dye that’s long been out of favor in mass manufacturing and an artisan to handle the dye properly. Nakamura then set out to conquer the difficult task of coloring leather shoes with natural dyes, including $2,500 boots tanned according to a Native American method using elk brains and browned with mud.

Nakamura explained his goal was to avoid the “flat” quality of mass-produced merchandise. “The point of going through the experimental project was figuring out how we can put great depth into the product,” he said. He added, “I like to use technology — I really appreciate it — but at the same time…I think we are kind of missing the hand-worn feeling as human beings.”

The fall collection was littered with historical references. Nakamura harkened back to traditional split-toe Japanese “tabi” styles in $800 rubber-sole shoes decorated with rows of cotton stitching that were customarily used to reinforce materials. He said old Japanese firefighter garb inspired a $2,534 wool jacket with a heavy box weave and World War II-era Swedish military coats inspired comparably lightweight $8,448 canvas outerwear.

Despite the occasionally esoteric antecedents, Chris Gibbs, owner of Union, a Los Angeles store in which Visvim is the number-one seller, lauded the brand’s pieces as being surprisingly accessible aesthetically. “If I told you, ‘Hey, we have a split-toe shoe,’ you would probably be like, ‘Uh, I don’t know,’ but I think that it is wearable and not so crazy,” he said.

Nakamura has built a worldwide audience for Visvim, which is now in nearly 20 countries outside of its native Japan. He believes Japan’s aging population makes it crucial for Japanese designers to reach beyond Japan in search of young consumers to grow their businesses. “From Day One, I’ve never felt I wanted to do only Japanese [customers],” said Nakamura, a globetrotter who was off to Italy and France after less than 24 hours in Los Angeles. “Mainly, my customers are traveling all over the world. [They are] very sophisticated, very creative people.”

Nakamura estimated that Visvim, which is under the umbrella of his company Cubism Inc., has generated around $30 million in annual sales. Although Visvim is entering Bergdorf Goodman later this year, he said it wouldn’t quickly spread into more U.S. stores because it “is not easy to sell” and requires skilled retailers to communicate its vision. “I would like to grow very organically because the growth of the business is not my purpose. My purpose is to keep making good products,” he said.


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