What Are Kapital and Kapital Kountry?
What Are Kapital and Kapital Kountry?
- Words Gunner Park
- Date August 05, 2019
It’s no secret that Japan has a knack for re-defining Western fashion. One could argue this all began with one specific item: Levi's 501 jeans. In the aftermath of World War II, American G.I.s sold their used Levi’s on the black market—essentially introducing denim to the East. Once America’s occupation of Japan ended, Japan’s economy underwent a revitalization where young style conscious men found a myriad of opportunities to adopt and re-imagine the American styles they witnessed during Japan’s occupation. Today, there are a number of Japanese labels known for their creative takes on Western wardrobe staples. However, between brands that are rooted in tradition and those that appeal to the avant-garde, there are few that manage to embody both.
Father and son duo Toshikiyo and Kiro Hirata’s Kapital is the culmination of Japan’s dense history and culture. What started off as a label dedicated to manufacturing meticulous reproductions of American denim is now a trailblazer in defining contemporary Japanese fashion. Many Japanese labels are often consigned to a generalized aesthetic, but Kapital eschews any trends in favor of singularity.
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Before Kapital became the oddity it is known as today, it was a small operation dedicated to reproducing American denim. Like many of his predecessors, Toshikiyo had no background in design or manufacturing. Instead, while attending university in Kobe, Toshikiyo acquired an infatuation for karate. His interest soon led him to the United States where he happened upon American denim for the first time. After returning to Japan, Toshikiyo moved to Kojima, Kurashiki—often regarded as the denim capital of Japan, hence the name “Kapital”—to begin studying the intricacies of denim manufacturing. After studying the trade for several years, Toshikiyo opened his first factory in 1984 and, soon after, opened his first storefront for denim and vintage garments in 1995. It wasn’t until 1996 that Toshikiyo released his first original denim line, aptly titled “TH.”
The first step in Kapital’s transformation occurred when Kiro, Toshikiyo’s son decided to leave Kojima and study abroad in America. At 18 years old, Kiro traveled to America to study art and further his education. Upon returning to Japan in 1996, Kiro began working as an apparel designer at Americana-inspired brand. 45RPM (it was here that Kiro met Eric Kvatek, Kapital’s lookbook photographer who still works with the label today). Known for its immaculately constructed garments and beautiful dye jobs, 45RPM allowed Kiro to hone his skill set and become confident enough in his abilities to join his father’s label. In 2002, Kiro returned to the family business and founded the modern iteration of Kapital alongside his father Toshikiyo.
To this day, Kapital continues to be held in high regard—especially within the Japanese heritage scene (shoutout John Mayer). The label now has 17 brick-and-mortar stores across Japan with each possessing a unique concept that draws inspiration from the surrounding area and region where it was built. While indigo denim is still an essential element of Kapital’s offerings, the label now strives to offer unique twists to its classic wardrobe staples. Kapital’s Century Denim, for instance, is one of the label’s most-lauded products and helped the brand gain traction in the West. It is an unsanforized 12 ounce dyed denim with indigo dyed Sashiko stitching throughout. The Sashiko stitching breaks into the denim through successive wears, causing the fabric to fade in a unique way. Fades are at the very core of the product’s design; the name “Century Denim” comes from the fact that the brand has built them to be worn for 100 years.
Falling somewhere in between Japanese traditional and avant-garde, Kapital doesn’t adhere to one idea, but rather a collection of ideas that make up a general disdain towards the status quo. When writing about his shopping excavation to Tokyo, David Sedaris described Kapital’s clothing as, “The clothes they sell are new but appear to have been previously worn, perhaps by someone who was shot or stabbed and then thrown off a boat. Everything looks as if it had been pulled from the evidence rack at a murder trial. I don’t know how they do it. Most distressed clothing looks fake, but not theirs, for some reason.”
It’s in this marriage of tradition and experimentation that Kapital continues to excel. Kapital’s Kountry line furthers this notion. Established in 2010, Kountry specializes in dying and washing techniques. Furthermore, the Kountry line takes existing Kapital pieces and re-works them to imbue a one-of-a-kind sense of authenticity. Between embroidered smiley faces, Boro patchwork and unfastened stitching, Kountry embodies the next generation of Kapital.
Perhaps the biggest change to the label’s offerings can be seen in Kapital’s frequent use of vintage bandanas. Stemming from Kiro’s fascination with the age-old accessory, bandanas are a hallmark of the Kapital brand. Besides its role in creating the Elephant Brand (itself a longstanding American bandana producer) Bandana Museum, bandanas are now commonplace in Kapital’s vast archive. In addition to using vintage bandanas as textiles for new garments, Kiro also produces his own. Dubbed the Rat brand bandana collection, Kiro uses the rat (his Chinese zodiac sign) to symbolize his personal challenge to the Elephant brand. “In my generation, I want to put as much passion into bandanas as my father put into his jeans for his generation,” Kiro remarked in an interview with Haven. “My father mastered the reproduction of American workwear in his generation. In our new generation, our work is evolving from ‘workwear’ to ‘powerwear.’”
Unbeknownst to many, a great deal of Kapital’s ethos is rooted in acknowledging the complex relationship between Japan and America. This intertwined history between the two nations, well-documented, especially when it comes to menswear—provides insight that allows Kiro to design from a multitude of differing perspectives. For instance, when staging Kapital’s first runway show, Kiro held the reception in Hiroshima to honor the city’s historical and cultural ties between Japan and America. It’s in pieces like Kapital’s signature Ring Jacket and Mountain Parka that this balancing act manifests itself in the clothes. Part noragi and part U.S. Army M-65 field jacket—these pieces fuse the traditions of Japanese detail and fit with the functionality of American military gear. While many Japanese brands aim to strictly reproduce a classic item for the modern man, leave it to Kapital to recreate and reinvent at the same time.
The idea of the “journey” inspires Kapital in more ways than one. Each season, Kiro looks to a different area, region or culture to inspire his latest lookbook. Kapital’s seasonal lookbooks are celebrated as some of the most peculiar and eye-catching in the industry. Shot by Eric Kvatek, the brand’s longstanding photographer, Kapital’s lookbooks have almost become a product onto themselves. With titles and themes that include “Surf Cowboys”, “Bad Opera”, and “Peace Pilgrim”, each presentation is just as diverse as the clothing it displays. Past lookbooks have been shot everywhere from Berlin, South Africa, Iceland, Jamaica and even Mongolia. “Some of the shoots are more successful than others,” remarked Kvatek in an interview with Gear Patrol. “If all we did was copy ourselves, maybe the photos would actually be better. But because we do take some chances, there’s the possibility of greatness and the risk of just sucking.”
While the perspective on the brand’s lookbooks may vary from season to season, Kvatek’s approach is fairly bohemian—fitting given Kapital’s equally hippie-inspired designs. While Kapital has made a name for itself in delivering on Japanese standards like Shisiko and Boro denim, it’s the way it recontextualizes those distinctly “Japnese” techniques that make Kapital a consistent favorite. Kapital’s Okabilly denim for example, reworking swapping the faded indigo patches of traditional Boro denim and replacing them with colorful, printed patches, is itself a form of counterculture if you stop and think on it.
Even as it plays with Japanese traditions, neither Kiro nor Toshikiyo considers Kapital to be distinctly “Japanese.” While garments are designed and manufactured in Japan, Kiro believes the label’s commitment to craftsmanship, attention and individuality is not inherently Japanese. Rather than honoring the various aspects of Japanese society, Kapital emphasizes the relationships between Japan and its neighboring regions. It seeks to traverse the vast landscape—both through geography and cultural history—to provide a commentary on how we dress ourselves. Using innovative Japanese production methods is what makes this dream a reality. While the label often epitomizes the relationship between Japan and America, it also reassess it and offers an entirely new perspective. David Sedaris puts it best, “These are clothes that refuse to flatter you, that go out of their way to insult you.” It’s almost a wonder how a label bent on critiquing Japan’s history—one that offers garments that are at times unwearable—became a cult favorite of modern Japanese fashion in the West.