Hiroki Nakamura of Visvim is an anomaly in the fashion industry.
In an age of omnichannel retailing, hash-tags and celebrity culture, he hates gadgets with touch screens and doesn’t own a TV. He waited nine years after starting his company in 2000 to introduce a web site, which remains simple and sparse by today’s standards. He also limits Visvim’s social media activity to Facebook, leaving an anonymous fan to run an unsanctioned Instagram account that has attracted more than 66,000 followers.
Walking into the Sunset Tower Hotel on a recent afternoon, he was oblivious to the presence of Olivier Zahm, the oft-photographed editor of Purple Fashion, who was lounging a few tables away in his aviator shades.
Instead, Visvim’s 45-year-old chief executive officer and creative director prefers telling tales of the artisans he’s discovered through the years. For instance, in Japan, the owner of one dyehouse rubs natural indigo into the surface of leather jackets that were sewn in Italy, and another digs a pit on a rice farm and tosses clothes in the iron-rich mud to tint them. A Parisian atelier works with a group of grandmothers who crochet by hand. A craftsman based near the Alps makes felt on wooden machines, while his Tibetan counterparts press the hair from yak beards in their wool cloth.
Then there is the nomadic tribe from Uzbekistan that forces Nakamura to wait as long as two years before it delivers the woven tape that he uses as trim on shoes and hats.
“The old stuff — I like it because we make it by hand,” Nakamura said after a lunch of lobster tacos on the hotel’s patio in West Hollywood, Calif. “It’s important to preserve and see good product in the market made by people.”
On June 16, a much bigger audience will be able to catch a glimpse of Visvim’s accessories and apparel for men and women at the brand’s first runway show. Through Pitti Immagine Uomo’s Designer Project, Nakamura is abandoning his usual practice of hanging clothes on racks and displaying shoes on pedestals within a gallerylike setting. His only other exposure to a fashion catwalk thus far was when he was a friend’s plus-one at a Chanel runway show. “Oh, this is not for me,” he thought at the time.
Staying tight-lipped in order to build a sense of surprise for the upcoming show in Florence, he acknowledged the challenges in staging a performance that will include people who are passionate about their craft.
“To be honest, I’m nervous, but nervous is good,” Nakamura said, holding hands with his wife, Kelsi, who serves as his sounding board and designs Visvim’s three-year-old women’s line. “I think it’s opening a new door for me, pushing my creativity.”
Nakamura followed an untraditional route into the men’s fashion industry. His fondness for “the old stuff” started when he was a 14-year-old digging through vintage shops in Tokyo for Fifties-era denim and workwear. Before founding Visvim, he designed for Burton Snowboards, shuttling between Japan and the U.S. Swept up in the wave of independent labels shaking up the Japanese fashion industry in the late Nineties, “I wanted to make something I love. I had no experience actually,” he said.
Still, he harbored a fondness for travel as well as a penchant for mixing various cultural elements. Consider his reaction to a picture of a samurai from the Edo period, which ended the traditional government’s rule in 1867. “You see someone wearing the kimono with boots,” he said. “When I see this, I think, ‘Wow — this is interesting, that type of stuff is inspiring.’”
To be fair, fresh out of Burton, “he had a good background in tech,” explained Chris Gibbs, the owner of men’s specialty store Union in Los Angeles, who has carried Visvim from the beginning. “They did extremely technical pieces that didn’t look technical at all. In 2016, there are a ton of brands doing that. In 2003, no brands were doing it like that.”
Nakamura met his blonde, blue-eyed American wife in New York and the couple decided to move to Los Angeles from Tokyo with their daughter three years ago after they missed their flight to New Mexico and made the most of their 24-hour sojourn in the City of Angels. Residing in a hillside midcentury home here, Nakamura picks up his 11-year-old from school in a 1932 Ford Roadster. He especially likes the L.A. light. “You can see all the colors and details,” he said, pointing to the tiny polka dots on his wife’s red dress.
Visvim’s annual sales total more than $100 million. In addition to the namesake label, it also has F.I.L. Indigo Camping Trailer, an offshoot that incubates small projects, like a $1,500 down shirt jacket stitched together from a dozen American-made bandannas. With about 60 employees, the company has seven freestanding stores and five shops-in-shop in Japan and wholesales worldwide to 135 doors, including Bergdorf Goodman, Mr Porter and Isetan for the men’s business and La Garçonne and Browns for the women’s. Having closed a trio of stores in Hong Kong and Singapore, the company is pondering new retail outposts in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Europe.
“It’s still really preliminary,” said Richard Weston, Visvim’s regional managing director, who moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong two years ago for the purpose of scouting a store. “It depends on the character of the actual space. We don’t feel the need to be in a particular area.”
It’d be a lie to say that Visvim is immune to the influx of celebrities in the fashion world. Eric Clapton and Kanye West are prominent fans. So is John Mayer, who was decked out in Visvim — from the tan hat to the red bandanna shirt and distressed jeans to the chestnut brown boots — for the cover of his 2013 album “Paradise Valley.” All the boldfaced names shell out their own money for the duds since Nakamura doesn’t play the gifting game.
Despite lofty prices associated with special fabrics and quality craftsmanship — few pieces sell for less than $400 — Visvim’s customers don’t reside solely in the 1 percent income bracket. Since Union began stocking Visvim’s shoes in 2001, expanded with its apparel line a year later and hosted its first semiannual trunk show around eight years ago, the cult of clients devoted to the brand has grown to include a doctor, a TV producer and a female tattoo artist who snaps up the men’s pieces that are available in her size.
Sporting beaten-up jeans by Visvim with Birkenstock clogs and a gray T-shirt, Gibbs admits that a third of his own wardrobe was designed by Nakamura. Among the 50-something brands sold in the store, Visvim consistently has ranked in the top three, tallying year-over-year growth of 10 percent.
“The manifesto of our store is to try to offer witty clothing,” Gibbs said. “When I say ‘witty,’ it means you take things out of context. You take things that don’t go together and put them together.”
For example, in the $858 update of his signature FBT shoe, Nakamura fuses a brown suede moccasin, wrapped in an elk leather skirt, to a sneaker sole. Another instance of jazzy juxtaposition is a $1,001 coffee-colored cotton jacket, which marries the body of a traditional Japanese worker jacket that ties in the front to the sleeves of an American workshirt. Transitioning the cover-up from work to leisure are affirming phrases like “beautiful inside and out” and hand-drawn illustrations of a bikini-clad woman and a portrait of Nakamura wearing a wide-brim hat, leaning on a guitar.
“He’s a genius at doing these subtle things,” Gibbs said.
The spring collection Nakamura is set to unveil at Pitti Immagine Uomo continues the search for the little details. “I also like to let things have a meaning,” he said. “How can I design something that has a weight to it? Not just on the outside, designing the shape and color. It’s letting it have a meaning. I enjoy doing that.”
Nakamura’s different perspective on fashion influences others.
“I never said ‘depth’ before,” said Kelsi Nakamura. “Sometimes Hiroki talks about the depth of a fabric.”
Perhaps the word he upholds the highest is “free.”
“We just want to have free thinking to mix around traditional techniques, sometimes traditional styles,” he said. “That’s the exciting part — to find something new.”