A Camping Trip With Visvim’s Mr Hiroki Nakamura
How Yosemite National Park became the inspiration for the brand’s exclusive capsule collection.
“Every time I go to a national park, I think, ‘Why am I so charmed by this?’” Mr Hiroki Nakamura says. The owner-designer of Los Angeles- and Tokyo-based brand visvim is describing his experience of the lodges and carved wooden signs of Yosemite National Park in California, specifically, but also, by association, the exclusive 28-piece capsule collection he’s just created for MR PORTER. “[Yosemite was] protected by President Roosevelt [in 1906], who made it a national park, a park for the people,” he says. “And I’m just like, ‘OK, it’s really just honest.’ It’s very substantial. You can feel the richness of the country, it’s just gorgeous. The nature is amazing. And it’s not commercial at all. And then I begin breaking it down, why I’m really drawn to it.”
His eyes and smile gleam with amusement, his hands held wide as he describes his method of reverse engineering the recipe of design, decoration, patina, ambience and the rest resulting in the atmosphere that gave him such ineffable joy. “When I design clothes, I’m building up those elements, that formula that I believe excited me. I use the formula to design clothes. So then, hopefully, the clothes will be as honest as a national park.”
We’re not now in Yosemite, but about 100 or so miles due south through the Sierra National Forest, at the Sequoia National Park – specifically, on the trail of 100 giants, an asphalt path wending its way through a grove of towering burnt-umber titans, some of them older than any Mesoamerican pyramid, and three times as tall. Everywhere here, the trees, and the white granite walls of nearby promontories, dwarf us. Distance and dimension are flattened so that every landscape, in every direction, looks like the Kodachrome vistas of an old Life magazine – idealised images, often of happy families car-camping through the parks of the West with abundant mid-century optimism. This is a happy place and those are happy associations for Mr Nakamura, whose fascination with garments and textiles was born out of his collecting of vintage denim and workwear from the mid-20th century, and who brims with the kind of Crest-white optimism of the day-trippers in old editions of Holiday magazine. “So,” he says, “when MR PORTER approached me to design a capsule collection inspired by the national parks, it made perfect sense. Because we come here a lot.”
Mr Nakamura loves the open road, adventure in search of the pieces and experiences which fuel his enthusiasms. “My job,” he says, “is to find something exciting.” And so, he and his wife, Kelsi, the designer of visvim’s line for women, WMV, whom he met in New York, vintage-shopping, regularly go on hunting expeditions, travelling the world or the Ventura flea market for special finds. It made sense then, to celebrate the launch of the MR PORTER capsule, that we should head out on a trip, to give the collection a road-test, so to speak. And, of course, that Kelsi would come too, along with Mr Nakamura’s daughter, Riko and some of his friends: visvim vice-president Mr Richard Weston, head of Japanese PR, Mr Yu Watanabe. (In true national park style, they also brought their Jeep Wagoneers – a 1979 vintage, and a 1987 one.)
As we head out, Mr Nakamura tells me about his life and work, which basically amounts to seeking out things that excite him – “it could be a national park or it could be a car, a motorcycle, a conversation, a textile,” he says – and then repurposing their energy, their special something-ness into the construction of a garment or a collection. “This process, it’s funny,” he says. “When I was young, a teenager, I was into vintage clothes. I was buying vintage boots and denim and stuff when I was 14, 15. And I was like, ‘How come the same brand, one denim, one vintage denim, I’m so into it? The other, I’m not – that one I’m happy to let it go, give it to my friend. I’m sure there’s a reason.’ So I start coming up with reasons and then when I designed denim I started with, ‘OK, maybe it was because of this, maybe because of this, maybe this – let’s try make something like [the one I loved].’ Same with a vintage car.” Mr Nakamura has an incredible collection of cars – a collection which has included a 1964 navy blue Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III, a Lotus Elan he raced in the UK, a 1968 Austin Racing Mini Cooper he’s raced on the Tsukuba Circuit in Japan, a G-Class Mercedes SUV, a 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle, and the immaculately preserved 1935 Ford Deluxe Roadster he drives around LA. “Why am I so attracted to this vintage car, but not this one?” he wonders. “And then I’ll find out: because the paint is original, worn by natural weather, aged really evenly, so it's very natural... it’s not intentionally painted this way, or patinaed this way. It’s so authentic. So, by now, because I’ve been doing this for quite a while, I know I’m attracted to something very authentic, something very honest, naturally aged, naturally balanced – that stuff really excites me. The formula, I have it. But every day I’m looking for a new formula, a new reason that excites me.”
The elements that excite him are everywhere in evidence in this collection: the vintage bandana inside the cuff of the forest green flannel shirt; the Navajo-style blanket across the shoulders of the dark denim jacket. The quilted vest is entirely composed of vintage fabrics visvim has collected and recreated over the years in a patchwork melange. And the logos on the hoodies – of Mount Fuji in the Yamanashi Prefecture, where Mr Nakamura grew up, a couple hours southwest of Tokyo – are hand drawn by Mr Nakamura and then transferred onto felt. Mr Nakamura describes his childhood in Yamanashi in the 1970s as somewhat bucolic, hunting and fishing with his father, an importer of premium seafood, and I start to wonder aloud if there are similarities with the woods and lakes around us, but he’d much rather talk about his adopted home of Los Angeles. “A neutral place,” he calls it, where he can bring back his treasure hunt finds to study them free from interruption.
“I like history and traditional things and cultures,” he says, “but my job is creating something new. In LA, you can isolate yourself from anything. Because of the nature of the place, and so much space, there is a kind of a free feeling. I’m from Japan and I love Japanese culture and stuff, but also there’s a very strong cultural bias – which created a lot of old, beautiful stuff. For me, as a creator, I want to bring my own perspective. It’s easier for me to do it somewhere neutral, like a white canvas, you know?”
In his early adulthood, Mr Nakamura travelled to the ultimate white of Alaska, to snowboard, and camp, and then slowly crept down the coast, to Seattle, and ultimately to LA. He created visvim – two adjacent words in the Latin dictionary which appealed to him visually as much as anything else – in 2001, first as a footwear company. In the years since, it has grown with his passions, following him into denim, outerwear, womenswear and beyond.
Among the sequoias, Mr Nakamura pulls on the buff-coloured kimono-style puffer coat and leads his friends and family into the forest, a kind of gleeful pied piper. “This is really the best time,” he says, getting to see the clothes in situ like this. “This is Christmas,” Ms Nakamura says. And, here, in their natural habit, as it were, the clothes begin to draw affinities with their surroundings. The brilliant Dodger blue of the puffer coat and cardigan, for example, are the precise hue of the sky here. The dusty taupe and mustard of the kimonos exactly match the shades of the high-desert cassia plant. And, seen in this way, Mr Nakamura’s California flag-style bear on the back of the cardigans suggests itself as a logo for as as yet undefined national park – visvim State Park, perhaps.
In that park, craftsmanship would be king, and shokunin the saints. As we start playing with the garments, they display a depth of subtleties it is difficult to describe. The cardigans, for example, are garment dyed, shibori-style – which is to say, bunched together, whole, and pressed into a kind of cage, dipped, untied, re-bunched, harnessed and dipped in progressively darker dyes, to create a rich but gentle tie-dye effect. The quilted puffer coats are hand finished with a rub of persimmon jam which gives the nylon a half-matte sheen, and an almost “crispy” hand, as Ms Nakamura describes it.
Around midday, Mr Nakamura and I wander off to sit by a little lake. Ducks babble about and intermittently there comes the heavy, rocking sound of woodpeckers at their work. Mr Nakamura describes the routine he must maintain to keep his channels clear of any noise so that the signal he’s after can come through clean. “I try not to take in too much information,” he says. For instance: “I don’t have a TV, don’t like that kind of stuff. I haven’t seen a movie for a long, long time. If I get too much [stimulus], I can’t find the subtlety. And that’s what I’m trying to find. And when I do, I’m very happy. I’m just like a kid.”
In search of the subtlety, Mr Nakamura has been around the world a million times, and he has all of the bits to prove it: the neon indigenous bust he picked up from a roadside motel on the old Route 66; ins at all the best sushi spots in the world; wristfuls of Navajo silver cuffs; a great store of furniture designed by Mr George Nakashima; a 250-year-old home outside of Tokyo; and slightly newer 1951 Mr Richard Neutra-designed Schaarman house off Mulholland (which film fans will remember as the setting of 2001’s The Anniversary Party) that he is presently remodelling. “I used to really travel a lot,” he says. “I thought I had to go do extreme stuff – I went to Tibet, to Nepal, to Everest base camp, to Cuba... every season I made a big trip to find inspiration. And now, since I have family, I’m waking up at 5.00am, making up some lunch box for Riko, like most dads, I find inspiration in those little moments,” he says. Ms Nakamura and Riko join us, bringing coffee, a banana, water. “So it’s important to have antenna all the time,” he says. “Where’s our inspiration? Where’s the excitement?”
For a while, we sit, chatting contentedly, appreciating our time in the woods. In a few moments Mr Nakamura and Kelsi and Riko will run off together, giggling, racing to a rope swing hanging in one of the trees, and, giggling harder still, take turns pushing one another. But, before he goes, seeing him here en famille, in the national parks, with all of their optimism about the US and nature, I realise that Mr Nakamura is as much a part of the place as are his clothes. And he tends to agree. “People ask me why I am always smiling,” he says. “Well, because I want to have a good time.” This comes out somewhat shyly, but then he really sputters to life, even unto a kind of revelation. “If, in my work, I am looking for something honest, something that excites, I have to be honest. If I want to make something charming, then that’s what I have to be,” he says. “I want to be that charming person.”