Visvim Visions: The Brand Hiroki Nakamura Built
- Words Rocky Li
- Date October 10, 2017
The name Visvim has been synonymous with quality craftsmanship and time-honored tradition since launching in 2001. The Japanese label has pushed the envelope on what streetwear can be by merging time-honored techniques with welcome technical innovations. The unique approach that founder Hiroki Nakamura brings to the brand has captured the imagination of a devoted cult following, and in subsequent years Visvim has expanded into a full-fledged lifestyle brand, with dedicated retail spaces, worldwide distribution and even a womenswear line (WMV). Despite the growth, Visvim has never wavered from developing products with painstaking attention to detail.
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Hiroki’s Early Life & Career
To fully understand the world of Visvim, one must first examine the early inspirations that lead to its creation. Founder Hiroki Nakamura was born in Kofu, Japan and grew up in Tokyo. As a young student, Nakamura’s parents encouraged him to study outside of Japan, which led to a stint studying in Alaska. While there, Nakamura spent the majority of his free time exploring the outdoors; camping, whale-watching and snowboarding. As part of his travels in northwestern Alaska, Nakamura stayed with various indigenous groups, where he was able to immerse himself in both their culture and utilitarian way of life. Though Nakamura traces his interest in Native American culture to watching westerns with his family as a child, those first-hand experiences in Alaska cemented the fascination, with tribes throughout North America serving as reference points to this day. In an interview with Barney’s The Window, Hiroki elaborites on his fascination with Native American culture, saying he has “been collecting Native American moccasins for years, which led to [the discovery of] other Native American craft and jewelry that continue to inspire my work to this day,”.
More than simply attracted to indigenous cultures, Nakamura also strongly identifies with all things American, with his interest in vintage Americana bordering on obsession. When American workwear began to gain popularity in Tokyo in the early 1990’s Nakamura wanted to contribute. A lover of all things vintage, Nakamura had steadily collected a laundry list of items during his travels abroad, particularly vintage Levi’s denim and Red Wings boots from various trips to the states. Those experiences buying American vintage both helped inform Hiroki’s design perspective and fostered a desire to match the quality of those time-worn products in the modern day. Before pursuing his own vision, Nakamura spent eight years working as a designer for the Japanese division of Burton Snowboards. During that time he learned to design using technical materials with high performance in mind—experience that would prove useful in the near future.
The Beginnings of Visvim
Visvim was officially founded in 2001. The name “Visvim” does not have any specific meaning. Designer Hiroki Nakamura purportedly thought of the name browsing through a Latin dictionary, where he came came upon the words “vis” and “vim.” Fond of how the two words looked next to one another, not to mention his affinity for V-letter logos, the name seemed like a natural match
Enter the FBT
Before Visvim became the full-fledged line that we know today, it was a humble footwear manufacturer. Easily the label’s most popular shoe, and the model that catapulted the brand to success, is the signature moccasin/sneaker hybrid known as the FBT. Inspired by classic Native American moccasins, which originally featrued a removable fringe used as an extra layer of ankle warmth to combat harsh winter climates. The style was modernized by taking the silhouette and applying it to an EVA Phylon midsole—a synthetic footbed more commonly associated with sneakers that provided additional comfort—and the finishing touch, a TPU heel stabilizer that gives the silhouette another subtle athletic flourish. Both homage and something entirely new, the sneaker, rooted in thousands of years of tradition yet simultaneously fully modern, serves as a perfect analogy to the philosophy of Visvim: always looking to the past, yet never bound by it.
The name ‘FBT’ came from the English new wave pop band Fun Boy Trio. The cover of The Best of Fun Boy Three compilation album, band member Terry Hall wears a pair of dark brown suede moccasins, fitting anecdote for Nakamura’s vision of East meets West . While their success was far from guaranteed at launch, it was clear that the FBT had tapped into something new and exciting. The shoe quickly became one of Visvim’s most iconic and popular models.
In a 2014 dissertation, Nakamura illustrated his thought process behind the FBT. “The basic concept was fairly simple: to keep the raw appearance of Native American moccasins, but with the added functionality of being wearable in the city. The suede uppers on shoes like the FBT are inspired by old Native American one-piece leather moccasins. The upper is basically one piece of leather—there's no seam so it's very comfortable. The outsole is a running shoe outsole. Native Americans probably used a leather sole, but this is more comfortable on concrete—back then, people didn't have sidewalks. So I think that's what I'm trying introduce: Things for the modern world.”
After four years of successful footwear division, Visvim began making clothing in 2005. Drawing on his experience with technical design at Burton, Nakamura chose an aesthetic that kept performance in mind, while remaining true to his passion for aged Americana. His method is exemplified in the military jackets that he re-crafted in waterproof Gore-Tex. Called the “Bickle” after Robert De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver, Nakamura adapted his own version of a classic M-65, and while aesthetically it was almost indistinguishable from the sort you would get at an Army Surplus, the premium fabric, details, and fabrication where decidedly modern. Numerous other military parkas followed suit, such as the fishtail inspired “Townsend.”. The early collections also included utility-minded accessories such as the backpacks and bags constructed from Cordura ballistic nylon, that remain a core part of the brand.
Although today the brand seems be in its own category of fashion altogether, Visvim intiaially had a cleaned-up streetwear feel. The line was heavy on staples like the high-water cropped chinos, zip-up hoodies and button down oxford shirts. In an effort to expand their customer base, there was also a G-line that featured more prominent branding and incorporated streetwear tropes like camo patterns and patent leather. While it was available in Japan, the G-Line was also used to expand the brand’s distribution with the North American market in mind.
While the origins of Visvim were oriented to a youthful streetwear customer, the brand quickly matured to suit Nakamura’s (and his fans’) changing tastes. In the late 2000’s, the brand shift toward the concept of “future vintage.” The idea is to honor the past, while embracing the present. While Nakamura does pay the utmost respect to the garments he references, he is not shy to incorporate new technologies to maximize comfort and durability. Nakamura summed up the concept of “future vintage” in 2013 interview with GQ. “I prefer to have things I can use for a long time that last. Something like this experimental project [Visvim] is expensive because I'm trying to discover things like old techniques and handmade craftsmanship. So the retail price will be very expensive. But what I'm trying to do is the best in 2013 or 2014. I'm trying to do the best that I can, at hopefully a reasonable price. I'm also introducing the option that, maybe instead of buying five jackets, you can buy one that will last longer. I want to create things that can be vintage in the future. That's my goal: Future vintage.”
Perhaps the best example of Visvim’s design process is their approach to denim. Each pair of jeans make use of custom yarns as well as a rope-dyeing method that is both time-consuming and labor-intensive. To that end though, Nakamura has stated that he was not interested in simply reproducing 1930s-40s workwear denim. Rather, he wants to make a garment that fit in better with modern life—i.e. Is less rigid, more comfortable, while still sturdy. The result are the “Social Sculpture” denim products that feature custom hardware and carefully selected washes, offering the depth of true reproductions with the enhanced comfort and fit of modern jeans.
In 2008, Nakamura introduced the FOLK series, a line characterized by natural materials and minimal construction. The FOLK line was inspired by a trip Nakamura took to Finland’s Lapland region, where he discovered a pair of hay-stuffed reindeer hide boots made by a local Sami tribe’s woman. He found the shoes so comfortable and versatile that he replicated their construction techniques throughout the FOLK line. Nakamura chooses to wear all of his shoes au natural, and one of his objectives is to always make shoes that breathed so well that socks are an afterthought.
One of the definitive characteristics of any Visvim garment is the unique hue and fabric feel Nakamura manages to endow. The secret is their legendarily laborious dyeing processes. Nakamura favors natural dyes whenever possible, even in instances when they are incredibly time intensive. Alongside traditional indigo dyeing, Visvim also implements a wide range of natural dyes. Often extracted from vegetable matter and trees, Visvim utilizes a combination of cutting edge and centuries old methods in order to produce natural shades of red, yellow, and green. Mud, traditionally used to dye kimonos in Japan, is repurposed in order to provide a bomber jacket a specific effect. Visvim regularly goes to extreme lengths in order to produce such effects. In one instance, Nakamura sourced powdered cochineal beetles to create a specific dye.
Retail Presence and Brand Growth
When establishing boutiques, Nakamura came up with the concept of F.I.L (Free International Laboratory). Rather than simply a storefront, the designer wanted each store to feel like a working laboratory for an international brand. The first Visvim F.I.L. shop opened in Tokyo's Shibuya district in 2005. More akin to an art gallery than a traditional retail space, the boutique boasted loads of natural light and white space, with a minimal amount of product. A conscious decision was made that the store would not play any music at all. He offeres an explanation via the brand website. “I thought about creating a space where products would be showcased with a deliberate seriousness, an ambiance of subtle tension.” Nakamura felt that this sparse environment was ideal, as it allowed each individual item to receive requisite attention
Visvim quickly expanded from there on with F.I.L. stores opening in Sendai, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Kyoto and Nagoya. Intentionally tucked away in neighborhoods with limited foot traffic, each store purposefully designed as a destination, meant for shoppers in the know.
Entirely separate from their F.I.L. concept stores, Visvim opened their first ‘flagship’ store in Omotesando (an area in Shibuya) in 2014. The flagship stores serves as a more accessible entry point to the general public, and provided an opportunity to introduce Visvim to a more mainstream audience. While Visvim has always maintained an air of mystery, the brand made a decision to reach new customers unfamiliar with their products, a necessity for the company’s continued success. Items stocked at the flagship are generally different than those at F.I.L boutiques, and tend to focus on staples such as French button-down shirts and Italian leather outerwear, as well as natural dyed cut and sew pieces. The store was meant to stock items that may not necessarily fit the F.I.L. aesthetic, but are still highly representative of the current state of Visvim. Nakamura described it as a shop that his father-in-law might feel comfortable shopping in.
Outside of Japan, Visvim has gradually expanded courtesy of numerous wholesale accounts and retail partners. In addition, Visvim has played around with various retail concepts including the Indigo Camping Trailer—a small converted mobile home that is part traveling flea market, part trunk show, and uniquely Visvim. A traveling brand showcase, the Camping Trailer features on location exclusives, previews of upcoming seasons, and acts as a pop-up as well, introducing new clientele to Nakamura’s world.
Among the label’s most visible and fervent supporters abroad are a who’s who of celebrity endorsers. Two personalities that have the most comprehensive collections include rock stars Eric Clapton and John Mayer. To his credit, Mayer considers Nakamura a close friend, and supposedly has the largest Visvim collection on earth—some rumors even suggest that Visvim makes two of every sample, one for the showroom, the other for Mayer. Other celebrities who’ve been seen out in Visvim include, Frank Ocean, Drake, David Duchovny, and most famously Kanye, who helped the FBT become the defacto grail of any blog reader in the early 2010s.
Beyond their cult footwear and menswear collection, Visvim has continued to expand through the launch of its women’s line, WMV. Launched in 2013, the line is designed by Nakamura, alongside his wife, Kelsi. The idea arose organically from seeing customers come in with their girlfriends, who purchased clothes in the smallest possible sizes. Much like its male counterpart, WMV is not about trends but rather is built around key seasonal pieces. The WMV debut collection featured aged-leather flight jackets, chambray kimonos, high-waist twill trousers, and “hers” versions of FBTs and other sneakers. The line has since expanded in size and as of this summer has its very own American flagship store in Sante Fe, New Mexico.
History of Collaborations
While Visvim has been incredibly resourceful when it comes to independently developing products, they have not been shy about collaborating with outside forces. The collaborators are always carefully chosen and have resulted in some objectively amazing products. Below, we examine of some of their greatest collaborative work.
Visvim x Number Nine
In 2008 Hiroki teamed up with Number (N)ine designer Takahiro Miyashita for a limited release of three Gore-Tex jackets. The jackets were based on the “Nomad” silhouette and featured Gore-Tex printed with a custom fair-isle pattern designed by Number (N)ine. Released in three colorways, the jackets were exclusively available at F.I.L. and Number (N)ine stores in Japan. While these have become progressively harder to hunt down, these Nomad jackets remain some of the most memorable items ever produced by Visvim.
Visvim x Supreme
Visvim and Supreme was an unexpected pairing when it first released in the winter of 2009. The collaboration brought Visvim’s technical expertise and combined it with Supreme’s downtown New York attitude. The range of products was headlined by the Tradesman Jacket in 3-layer Gore-Tex, a water resistant shell reminiscent of Carhartt workwear jackets. Other items released including the Serra Ascent Hiking Boot, a cashmere knit beanie and screen printed logo Camp Cap.
Moncler V Line
Italian sportswear giant Moncler teamed up with Visvim on a capsule collection that incorporated elements of mountaineering and hiking style. The collection was a great balance between the vintage styling Visvim is known for and the technical expertise that Moncler brought to the table. The collection debuted for Fall/Winter 2010 and produced some fantastic outerwear pieces.
Visvim x CDG
As a part of series of special one-offs in celebration of Japanese department store Isetan’s 150th birthday, Visvim teamed up with Comme des Garcons on a custom FBT. Designed in collaboration with CDG’s design team, the result was three colorways of an all-over print FBT that read “Marketing Machine.” While the print isn’t exactly subtle, it’s the type of tongue in cheek subversion that Comme is best known for.
Visvim x AFFA
AFFA, aka “Anarchy Forever Forever Anarchy” is a brand created by two Japanese fashion heavyweights, Hiroshi Fujiwara and Jun Takahashi, that traces its roots back the the earliest days of Urahara. The duo linked up with Visvim to produce several pairs of boots and sneakers with a custom grid pattern over the span of a couple years. The capsule ranged from the Serra Alpine and hiker boots to the Vans-esque Keifer and Logan Mid sneakers.
Visvim is a rare example of a brand that has grown along with it’s audience. As the years have gone on, prices have gone up but the label has managed to maintain its core clientele. The product mix from season to season may vary but the thought process behind Visvim is secure in its relevancy. Few other designers would go to the lengths that Nakamura has to ensure product quality. While many companies would happily stay in one lane, Visvim has embraced such a wide swath of inspirations from military garments, to American vintage to the wardrobe of indigenous populations the world over. While Visvim was sort of a well-kept secret in its formative years, it is now a flourishing business that spans continents.
There’s a tad bit of irony that Visvim tailored their original F.I.L. stores after art galleries, given that they have shifted towards making items that would not look out of place in the history wing of a museum. As the brand continues to evolve, Nakamura still remains at the center of all things Visvim. His travels and personal experiences have always informed the direction of brand, and as he embarks on new adventures, he’ll be able to tell those stories through new products for many years to come.