An interview with visvim's Hiroki Nakamura
Since the inception of visvim, founder Hiroki Nakamura has worked diligently to define and maintain his vision and aesthetic. Even dating back to his time in Tokyo, the approach to visvim was never quite fully understood. But Hiroki’s perseverance and highly curated approach to fashion and design were the compass guiding visvim towards success.
One of Hiroki’s defining moments was moving to Alaska to pursue his love of snowboarding. This sense of adventure and curiosity are likewise woven into the brand’s overarching narrative. His efforts to create a meaningful product haven’t been lost in translation as visvim goes from strength-to-strength, making its mark across multiple continents.
Ahead of Slam Jam Milano’s 1st anniversary and visvim’s first-ever European pop-up space which will last till 15 October (exclusive products soon online too), Nakamura shared with us his early interests and inspirations in fashion. The appreciation of beautiful vintage materials runs strong in each visvim piece, and as you peel back the complex layers, a central concept begins to emerge: In a time when we’re constantly influenced with stimulus around us, we slowly lose the ability to independently define our actions. Are our thoughts our own? Is it truly what we want to do? Against the backdrop of a culture overrun with information, categorization becomes both a simplistic way to make sense of the world around us, but also a constraint for all of us.
For Hiroki Nakamura, his desires have always been simple.
SJ: How are you Hiroki-san? How long are you in Los Angeles for?
HN: I’m here in LA because my daughter goes to school here and I spend most of my time here. I’m back and forth between Japan every month or every other month. And this weekend, I’m off to Europe for a material show in Paris. We just started this season’s development and designing process.
SJ: How did you view fashion as a teenager? How did it cement your love for fashion?
HN: I was going out and exploring the world trying to figure out things I was interested in. When I was 13 or 14, I was looking at clothes to see what was cool and I could wear every day. As you know, after World War II, Japan took a lot of inspiration from America. When I grew up in the ’80s, American casual fashion was really big and you had this fundamental understanding of men’s style. A lot of my uncles and my father were already into that stuff. Also, in the ’80s was the rise of Japanese designers like COMME des GARÇONS.
SJ: Was it easy to educate yourself on fashion and menswear? Or was it a process of exploration?
HN: No, it was very natural and I had an older sister, and she was more into design while I was more into vintage American stuff like workwear. But I wanted to wear it differently. The ’80s also introduced a big denim movement in Japan so it was effortless to learn about this stuff. I loved taking in new knowledge and every weekend I’d head to vintage shops to look for vintage Levi’s and bombers jackets. There was a lot of movements going on in the ’80s including the outdoors and hip-hop. They were all phases and movements and I explored.
SJ: What effect did going to Alaska and the United States have on you?
HN: I was looking for a place to fit in. I went to Alaska because I was really into snowboarding with my friends and brother. We used to go every weekend and I knew it was something I wanted to do.
SJ: Would visvim have played out differently if you never spent time in the US?
HN: I would have gone to the United States anyways. I was always curious about American culture and Americana. I would have eventually traveled there.
SJ: Do you think that curiosity is the driving force behind visvim?
HN: I think everybody is free when they’re younger. But when you grow up, you start to think you need to design a certain way or think this way. I’m really focused on not being caught up with the ‘what should I design? How should I design? Or what should I make?
SJ: How is the brand different now that it’s bigger? Is it easier to decide what to create because more people understand your vision as opposed to when you were smaller and less known? Do you have more freedom now?
HN: I guess I have more freedom now, but also had a lot of freedom before. I have to be conscious about being free when I design. Of course when I started, the operations were so much smaller, and I didn’t have as much pressure to finish a timeline. If I wanted to work on a shoe design for a few more months, I’d simply work on it a few more months. Now I have a bit more restriction on timelines, but I also have access to new things, and in that sense, I’m a bit freer. I’m trying to balance it all.
“It’s always been challenging to find something exciting. New materials are what inspire me as well as old icons.”
SJ: In regards to that, what do you think are your biggest challenges now as a brand?
HN: It’s always been challenging to find something exciting. New materials are what inspire me as well as old icons. I’m still enjoying it, but it’s challenging because we’re losing (material) suppliers all the time. These little workshops no longer exist. Ten years ago, I had access to certain leather workshops that no longer exist. So, I have to find a way to compensate in what I design and find other ways to introduce beautiful elements beyond materials. Sometimes that means using new technology as well.
SJ: You’ve mentioned that you’re still very much excited about all things visvim. Is it difficult to continue finding things to get excited about? As children, we have a sense of freedom which is what you’ve alluded to. How has it changed as you get older and more experienced?
HN: I’m trying to push myself not to be caught up with something. You know, every day I often have to ask myself, “you really sure you want to make that choice?” It became too routine, and I needed to get out of it. Regarding excitement, when I was younger I would need a really big trip, like going to the North Pole, to be inspired. Now I explore things internally and how I feel about certain things. There are a lot of small things that bits of inspiration.
SJ: How does the stability of say, living in Los Angeles influence you now?
HN: You know, it’s funny. We had an office for almost 15 years. I had one previous staff member who was working with us in Tokyo and she moved back to LA and I suggested we set up an office. I rarely had a chance to spend time to discover the city. One time, my wife Kelsey and I missed a flight out to New Mexico. I suggested, why not stay the night and spend a day. And I realized how cool of a city it was. And the light is amazing!
SJ: Yeah LA is great once you find that one neighborhood that works for you and you don’t have to commute. The lack of tall buildings means the light seems to stretch forever.
HN: I started working with more natural colors and dyes, and I needed to see it under natural light. Seeing the true color is very important for me, and it’s really inspiring. When you take a photo here, everything looks so beautiful in the light.
SJ: When did you start seeing visvim as not just a Japanese brand, but an international one?
HN: When I first started visvim, people would say “your prices are really expensive.” The quantity however was really low. I’d be doing 21 or 30 pieces of one T-shirt and people didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. But one moment came up where I was thinking if I sell outside of just Tokyo or Japan, maybe there’s a whole world waiting for this product. There was a realization that I wanted to communicate globally and hopefully people could relate to this. This came really early, almost 16 years ago when I started with T-shirts.
SJ: Was there ever a moment over the course of visvim’s existence that made you realize that it had finally hit a certain level of success?
HN: I get stopped on the street and people tell me they really like my product and that feels good. But one time, I drove through Italy by the French border. It was the middle of nowhere and I stopped at a gas station. I went to the bathroom and the guy working at the gas station came to me and said, “I know your shoes.” That was six or seven years ago and I was so happy somebody in the middle of nowhere knew about us.
SJ: That’s really interesting. How did your relationship with Slam Jam develop?
HN: I was selling shoes in Europe with Michael Kopelman and Gimme Five. He was a good friend of Hiroshi Fujiwara, and we were introduced to one another that way. And then eventually Luca Benini (Founder of Slam Jam), who was a friend of Michael’s, came to Tokyo and he was interested in selling our shoes and asked me to do a show in Italy.
SJ: How has the brand been perceived in Europe and through the help of Slam Jam?
HN: When you look at fashion now, it’s so different. You get categorized based on what you do, especially in Europe. If you do a runway show, you’re a certain type of brand. If you release shoes, you’re only a shoe brand. We’ve been working together for a long time with Slam Jam, so there’s a lot of respect there. I wanted to create an installation that showcases my personal elements that go into a collection. The result was an inspiration board.
Do you think that’s kind of been one of your biggest challenges to have people understand visvim? Like you said, the fashion industry is trying to put you in a box while you’re trying to do your own thing?
HN: At the end of the day, I mean, they’re just clothes that you go out and wear and hopefully, you make yourself feel better. I just wanted to make something I wanted to wear. Sometimes the industry and journalists call me a street brand. That’s ok, but I don’t want to categorize myself. I just hope you like my product. I think people like Luca and Slam Jam, they’re trying to do a mix and they just bring their own angle and perspective in fashion. They’re mixing it just like music. They know what they like and think is cool and it doesn’t matter what other people say. I relate to that a lot.
How much of visvim’s success is down to talent versus luck?
HN: When I design something, I’m making every single choice. What kind of dye, what kind of thread, the color, the cotton…there are a thousand little decisions being made to make a product right. I consciously choose everything, and it’s not just a sense of “I’m lucky I came up with this.” It doesn’t work that way.
SJ: Looking back on your experiences with visvim, how would you sum it all up?
HN: In the beginning, I really wanted to make something I believed in. I wanted to make something I love. Now I know a lot more about designing and materials thanks to suppliers, previous employers, my team and my clients. But it’s still about making something I believe in, and I really take it seriously. I really focus on what’s exciting to me. Otherwise, I don’t know how I’d do it. I don’t expect a client or a friend to be excited if it’s not something I’m excited about it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.