21st-Century Man: More Than a Cult Designer: Hiroki Nakamura Goes Big

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21st-Century Man: More Than a Cult Designer: Hiroki Nakamura Goes Big

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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 men’s wear trade fair Pitti Uomo made their way through tunnels of clipped greenery at the Renaissance Boboli Gardens to a fashion show mounted by the Japanese designer Hiroki Nakamura.

Stopping first at a kiosk just inside the Porta Romana gate, they donned chevron-patterned kimono jackets that Mr. Nakamura, 45, had ordered from a traditional Kyoto craftsman. Thus attired, they moved as a group toward 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, it was just buyers and press and other personnel from the extended fashion posse. And yet, fashion without storytelling is just sewing. It is his shrewd understanding of this precept that has helped vault Mr. Nakamura’s label, Visvim, from the status of Tokyo indie to a business with a reported $100 million in sales.

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

The musician represents the upper tier of Mr. 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 realized what I wanted was to create products that made me happy,” Mr. Nakamura once told this reporter. “I also wanted to build a brand that was timeless and borderless.”

He was determined to do so in a resolutely anachronistic manner, through word of mouth. Visvim does no advertising, and Mr. Nakamura maintains only modest social media profiles.

News of his label’s latest products tends to travel along a kind of moccasin telegraph, with consumers notifying one another on Instagram accounts like the semisecret one Mr. Mayer devotes to his Visvim collection of stuff like the FBT — a moccasin-sneaker hybrid that sells for $750.

That is, if you can get them. Even Kanye West was put on a waiting list.

Mr. Nakamura had traveled to Florence with his American wife, Kelsi, from Los Angeles, where the pair spends half the year with Riko, Mr. Nakamura’s 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 Mr. 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 beginning when I was 14,” Mr. Nakamura said. “And I’m still collecting.”

He had driven in that morning from Narita airport in his navy blue 1964 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III, having zigzagged over the past week from Tokyo to London, and from there to Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Florence and then home.

Looking no worse for the global slog, Mr. Nakamura — tall, scruffy, handsome, dressed in a lumberjack shirt, jeans and a T-shirt riddled with holes — padded barefoot around the floors of his Edo-period dwelling, choosing from a large collection of first-press vinyl James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and placing it on the turntable connected to a huge, pristine 1970s JBL Paragon D44000 speaker unit.

What might have seemed contrived and stagy — the hippie ballads; the vintage sound system; the harmonious, though drafty, old structure — was instead organic to Mr. Nakamura’s way of seeing, and consistent with the concept of wabi-sabi, the Zen-based aesthetic philosophy that finds beauty in imperfection.

Mr. Nakamura 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 inside Ziploc bags to protect them from the depredations of mold and insects.

“My inspiration mostly comes from old textiles, beautifully made stuff from the past,” said Mr. Nakamura, who, beginning as a teenager, scavenged thrift shops for World War II surplus items, 1950s denim work wear 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 don’t, Mr. Nakamura grinned and shrugged.

The answer may rest, again, in traditional Japanese philosophy. The takumi, or “craft,” 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.

Mr. Nakamura likes to tell a story about a robe he acquired in Nepal. The color was of the deepest carmine. “It had a lot of power, but I wasn’t sure where the power was coming from,” he said. “So I was talking to my team about how to recreate that powerful rag.”

The “rag,” as it happened, had been dyed with a substance extracted from the cochineal insect, a cactus parasite native to the Americas. Mr. Nakamura was far from the first to have been seduced by a colorant whose production dates to the first millennium, a substance described in ancient Aztec codices, and one that, in the centuries before chemical dyeing became commonplace, was, after silver, the largest export from colonial Mexico.

The beauty of cochineal-dyed fabrics derives from how, like stuff colored with madder or indigo or mud, they are mutable over time.

“Machine-made goods are perfect beyond the original goal,” Mr. 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’s 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 industrialized 21st-century sensibilities and a hard-wired cultural sense of aesthetics comes into play.

For Gianluca Cantaro, the editor in chief of l’Officiel Hommes Italia, it is precisely that dichotomy that has made Mr. Nakamura’s once-obscure label a success.

“They are an island, and will always be an island,” Mr. Cantaro 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 U.S. is never the U.S. exactly. It’s not a quotation. It’s not a translation.”

Mr. 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 out 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.

Spinning their gals or twirling mops, they danced to old swing and early rock of the sort you can hear for a quarter on the jukebox in any Johnny Rockets.

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 the Children’s Day holiday.

Almost none of the fabrics, crafts or techniques that went into creating a Visvim image of the United States were actually made in that country, one whose own manufacturing traditions are now largely a thing of the past. Neither pastiche nor homage nor facile sendup, the Visvim show turned out to be something more complex and haunting. It was a traveler’s depiction of a place he may have seen once or never seen at all and merely imagined: America, the mirage.

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