An Interview with Photographer Eric Kvatek

Road-Tripping Route 66 with the Cult Japanese Brand Kapital


Style By Photo by Eric Kvatek
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Known for experimentation and creativity, Japanese clothing brand Kapital pushes the limits with both the clothing it produces and the way it presents them. The brand’s garments draw influence from across the world and showcase a range of idiosyncratic details like sashiko-inspired stitching, mismatched buttons and intricate patchwork repairs. Needless to say, the clothing has a lot of personality. To showcase each season’s pieces, Kapital shoots a lookbook featuring unconventional models in far-flung locales; past locations have included Mongolia, Lappland and Thailand. The results, both spontaneous and beautiful, stem from a decade-long relationship between Kapital and Brooklyn-based photographer Eric Kvatek.

For Kapital’s upcoming Fall/Winter 2017 collection, Kvatek shot photographs along one of America’s most quintessential strips of pavement: Route 66. The images showcase models riding longhorns, hanging out at truck stops and relaxing on the beach. As with any road trip, there are diversions into small towns like Bandera, Texas, as well as tourist centers like Las Vegas. The American Southwest, with its rugged vistas and quirky cities, is the perfect foil for Kapital’s latest collection, which blends hippie, cowboy and ‘80s rock-climber aesthetics. As the clothing hits stores in Japan, Kvatek shares some of his favorite photos from the 2,300-mile drive with us and reflects on how this unique trip came together.

Q:
With Kapital, you’ve shot across the U.S. and all over the world. What was the inspiration for this road trip shoot?
A:
The designer, Kiro Hirata, has wanted to do this for several years. The logistics and additional time required made me avoid agreeing to it. But finally, his request was more firm and the timing seemed right. This collection is very American, so a Route 66 road trip photo shoot came about.

Q:
What made this shoot different from others you’ve done with Kapital?
A:
We have done shoots with multiple cities, and even multiple countries before, and driven plenty, but it’s always fit into a four- or five-day schedule. This shoot, we drove and shot for seven days. There were main locations built into the plan, but in theory, anywhere along the way was a location. When we saw something cool or the light was amazing, we pulled over and shot. So at least one or two people had to be dressed and ready to model at any given time.

The other unique thing was scouting and casting. I had to drive the expected route in reverse, from Los Angeles to Bandera, and figure out the local people and locations along the way. So when everybody arrived, we just started shooting and headed back west. All in all, I personally drove 6,000 miles and shot 12,000 photos.

Q:
How did the garments and models benefit from the setting?
A:
The clothing was a mix of hippie, cowboy and ‘80s rock climber, so the American Southwest was a perfect locale for the photos. I lived in New Mexico and California in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so it was a very familiar setting for me. But it’s such an amazing and unique part of the States. Even the crew who were experiencing it for the first time really took to it, and within a day or two, everybody looked like locals. My boots and cowboy hats got raided almost immediately. It was cool to see everybody so thrilled to be there.

Q:
Was there a theme to this collection? How was it explored through these shots?
A:
It is a winter collection, so the obvious road trip would have been farther north, through the mountains. But I feared each state would just blend together as mountains: “Oh look, more pine trees!” And Route 66 is kind of the ultimate idealized American adventure. But kind of as a joke, the main vehicle we used in the shots is an old tandem bicycle. So, in a way, the theme is kind of “playfulness.” Just not taking yourself too seriously. Part of adventure and exploring is allowing yourself to wander, to have fun or even be scared or in danger. In my mind, being too serious prevents one from learning or growing. Kapital designs from season to season are consistently fun and surprising.

Q:
Did you work with familiar models, or cast new ones?
A:
One bad apple can really fuck up the esprit du coeur. A lot of thought went into who looked right, and who I wanted to drive 3,000 miles with. My solution was to cast my three favorite bartenders in Brooklyn for the girls. I spend more time with them than almost anyone I know, so it was a pretty safe bet. Also, Emmelie from Australia has been our main girl ever since I found her serving coffee in Perth, and I truly love shooting her, so of course I asked her to join us.

The obvious guy to bring along was my nearly lifelong buddy Kyle, who has been in numerous Kapital shoots since the beginning, twelve years ago. For a new guy face, I called upon my friend Ken, better known as Rugged Boss on Instagram. He has a kind of cool Geronimo-Pancho Villa look. Despite his ruggedness, he’s very calm and extremely humble — two qualities I really value. I managed to find cool local guys in several locations along the way. So there’s some new faces and, I think, some new friends also.

Q:
Any crazy stories from the road?
A:
The first day on the road while scouting, I got pulled over twice by law enforcement. Luckily I got let off both times. Once was for doing seventy-five in a fifty-five, which is an almost three-hundred-dollar fine in California. The other time, I was cruising around the Salton Sea and had to do a U-turn in the middle of an intersection to look at something, and a county sheriff pulled me over. But after talking for a while, he started giving me advice on cool locations for the shoot.

In Las Vegas, I found this Elvis tribute performer to join our shoot. I didn’t tell anybody, including Kiro, so there we were shooting, and an Elvis in full ’70s sequined jumpsuit strolls up and just starts modeling with us. Of course, everyone is freaking out. But Shane was in character and just spent the day with us, being Elvis, who was my hero as a kid. I remember I was at football practice when Elvis died, and after practice, my mother told me. So when I said goodbye to Shane, the Elvis performer, we shook hands, but then I said, “I’m sorry, I have to hug you.” In that moment, it felt like I was saying goodbye to the real Elvis, and I was nine years old.

Q:
How did the trip end?

The final destination and shooting location was Venice Beach. So there we were, essentially working, and I think all of us had this sense of accomplishment, but at the same, time a sadness that it was over because we all just spent this time and distance bonding, and all that’s left is the departures. Part of the magic of a successful photo shoot, for me, is this kind of camaraderie. It doesn’t feel like a job to me. There’s a sudden and temporary intimacy that transcends the fact that it’s work. It was a hazy evening and we all just became quiet as the sun set. I think we were all thinking the same thing. All of us happy, but then dreading the end.

Q:
The whole world has closely watched the U.S.’s political climate over the last year. Did this have any influence on deciding to shoot an American road trip, or was it coincidental?
A:
I think it was just happenstance. But I did impose a rule for the crew: no political conversations within my earshot. So I was mindful of the diverse political opinions out there right now.

What I did experience was a general sense of ennui and a tragic feeling of change. I particularly noticed this in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as I’ve spent the most time there. I moved to Albuquerque in 1988 and I found there almost a fantasyland that time forgot. Cowboys drove around in old pickup trucks wearing sidearms. Vietnam vet drifters lingered on street corners, strapped with Bowie knives. One of my girlfriends and I trotted around downtown Albuquerque on horseback, mixed in with automobile traffic, and occasionally we were chased by packs of wild dogs. There were very few chain stores or fast food restaurants at the time. So, seeing the 2017 version — so many of the old local businesses gone, the avenue widened, the cast of characters absent — was disheartening. Beforehand, I had imagined that Route 66 through Albuquerque would be like some kind of crescendo of the shoot. In reality, whatever rakish charm I remembered it having was gone. As it turned out, Albuquerque was a city we briefly passed through and forgot about, eager to reach Gallup instead.

And then there’s Las Vegas. After the horrible event, I messaged our Elvis, Shane, and this is how he replied: “Thank you so much for your concern, Eric. It was real fun working with you, and, although we didn’t exactly hit too many of the town’s garden spots, it was a much more positive aspect of this city and of this country. Hopefully, in the end, that will win out. Thanks again…”

Q:
What were your favorite shots from the trip?
A:
At the beginning, I was convinced that our first day shooting with Russell from Cross T Ranch and his longhorn steers in Bandera would be nearly impossible to beat… and it was. Compared to the longhorns, I guess other highlights are more subtle. What comes to mind is Ken and Indira frolicking just after sunset. The giant dreamcatcher. Summer wearing a pig mask. Dusk at Venice Beach. In general, what I like about these photos is that it’s not models pretending to have fun; it’s my real life friends actually having a good time.




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