From Issue Five of Gear Patrol Magazine.
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In the high desert of New Mexico, steep mountains rise from plains covered in sagebrush and pinyon pines. The terrain is captivating and unique, a muse of countless artists and creatives over the last century. It’s this distinct region — and its people and culture — that have inspired Hiroki Nakamura, the creative force behind Visvim, a Japanese clothing brand with a luxury price point and a cult following. The brand is an amalgamation of Nakamura’s interests, blending elements of Americana and traditional workwear with heritage textiles and Japanese garments.
Visvim’s products are meticulously crafted and hard to come by in the United States. They exhibit a unique point of view, and as such, Nakamura’s influences — old cars, vintage Levi’s, the American Southwest — have received extensive reportage over the last decade. But his interest in Americana also has a contemporary, albeit lesser-known, underpinning: One of Nakamura’s close friends is a fifth-generation trading post owner in New Mexico. Jed Foutz, whose family ran over 30 trading posts on the Navajo reservation since the 1870s, now owns a gallery in the state’s capital called Shiprock Santa Fe. Located on the main plaza, the gallery showcases vintage jewelry, pottery and rugs from Native American tribes of the Southwest — wares similar to those once sold at his family’s former trading posts — as well as contemporary works from Native American artists. Back in July, Nakamura teamed up with Foutz to open Visvim’s first American store, in a small house on a quiet street two blocks from the Santa Fe Plaza — the city’s commercial center since 1610.
Nakamura’s goal is to produce things that are timeless and will age beautifully like the vintage pieces he adored growing up.
A small block-print lamp emblazoned with the Visvim name is affixed to the entryway, and noren — traditional Japanese indigo fabric dividers — hang near the door. Each of the three small rooms within is a thoughtful balance of products old and new. In the main room, a Nakashima table resting atop a large gray-and-black Navajo rug displays antiques — Edo-period pottery, century-old Navajo necklaces — alongside a mix of modern footwear, like Visvim’s signature moccasin-upper athletic shoe, the FBT (named in reference to the ’80s new wave pop band Fun Boy Three). In an adjacent room, two racks of curated clothing line one wall while a brush-dyed Visvim kimono and an antique koinobori — or carp windsock — hang on another. And in the last room, a large painted shoji screen stands centerstage. A blend of historic and modern, these pieces tell the diverse story of the brand and its products.
Nakamura, born a few hours from Tokyo in Kofu, became intrigued by Americana at an early age. In his twenties, he landed a job with Burton in Vermont, where he worked as a designer for eight years. He founded Visvim in 2001, producing clothing and footwear that were a reaction against the homogenization of fashion in the late-20th century.
Nakamura’s goal is to produce things that are timeless and will age beautifully like the vintage pieces he adored growing up. Natural dyes like indigo, cochineal and mud give certain pieces irregular hues that fade with time. He balances artisanal idiosyncrasy with the positive aspects of modern manufacturing, such as increased output and lower prices; many of Visvim’s t-shirts, for example, are embellished by hand. The company, which has numerous stores across Japan, produces both a men’s line and a women’s line, the latter of which is co-designed with his wife, Kelsi.
The choice of location for Visvim’s first American store was quite deliberate, and thanks mainly to Nakamura’s relationship with Foutz. Over the better part of a decade, Foutz has exposed Nakamura to some of the last Native American artisans making traditional moccasins, textiles and tepees — all things that have worked their way, in some form or another, into different Visvim collections over the years.
Though the worlds of Nakamura and Foutz appear, on the surface, very different, the men share similar ideals and aesthetics that run deeper than any one culture or experience. Whether deliberately or not, Visvim and Shiprock Santa Fe have developed an identical mission: to preserve culture and craft in an increasingly mass-market, consumer-driven world. On a Friday afternoon before the Santa Fe store’s grand opening, we sat down with Nakamura and Foutz to discuss their unconventional friendship, the Southwest, and the future of Americana in menswear.
Q: How did you first meet?
Nakamura: I was in New York, and was introduced to Jed by a good friend of mine who’s also in the antique and vintage business. I was talking about how I was collecting [Native American] moccasins and he’s like, “You have to meet my friend.”
Foutz: It literally was one second. We met and he asked me a few questions but I knew instantly I had met a long lost brother, in a way.
Q: How did your relationship grow from there?
Nakamura: I said, “I’m really interested in Native American culture.” At that time, I was traveling constantly. He said, “If you’re interested, come over to New Mexico.” I was like, “Okay, I’ll come.”
Foutz: I thought he was just being nice saying, “Sure, I’ll come visit.” I thought, “Probably, but maybe never.” And I don’t think it was that long…
Nakamura: Two weeks later, I was in New Mexico. It was like, “Jed, I’m at the airport.” And you picked me up, right?
Foutz: Yes. I think that first trip was the Arizona trip, because you were interested in moccasins and we went to visit one of the last [traditional] moccasin makers.
Nakamura: Jed was like, “Okay. You are interested in moccasins? I know someone.” And he drove me around, showing me this area.
Foutz: It was a big road trip from the start.
Nakamura: It was like seven hours, and seven hours, and seven hours, and seven hours…
Foutz: …a lot of visiting!
Q: So what did you experience on that trip?
Nakamura: Well, I’m fascinated by American culture. Growing up, I kind of fantasized about it, Native American culture and cowboys. The depth of the culture here still exists. It was a very inspiring trip.
Foutz: I’ll go down any road Hiroki wants to go down. It’s never been a bad road with Hiroki — which I truly mean. Before the first trip to the moccasin maker in Tucson, I told Hiroki, “I did business with the moccasin maker, my father did business with him, he’s one of the last moccasin makers of this style in the United States.
When I told the moccasin maker that I was going to bring a Japanese designer, he was like, “You’re going to bring a Japanese guy and you want me to show him how I make everything?” I was like, “Yeah, exactly.” And he goes, “Uh . . . “ By the time we left, he was giving Hiroki lasts. He showed him everything, and Hiroki placed an order. It just kind of fell into place.
Q:Hiroki, does the depth of culture here inform the work that you do with Visvim?
Nakamura: Yes. I’m so inspired by Navajo — especially old Navajo — artisan work like blankets. The sense of beauty they have, it just reminds me of the things made in the Edo period in Japan. It just gives me so much inspiration. I’m just like, “Why is this stuff so beautiful?” Jed showed me a first-phase chief blanket, and I was like, “Wow, this is so good.”
Q: How are the worlds of Shiprock and Visvim connected?
Foutz: I think our connection was on those first Tuscon reservation trips. The reservation is home to me. I was blessed to grow up with this culture that I thought was the most beautiful people and culture I’ve ever encountered in the world. Some people would come visit me and just see dust and dirt and my trading post and say, “What are you doing out here?”
Hiroki came from this entirely different place and somehow made me see things in different way from what I’d grown up with and what my family had done for generations. But all of a sudden, Hiroki’s eyes seeing my world made me see it in a different, very beautiful way that I hadn’t even realized. There was something in his recognition of the people and the culture and the beauty of it all that that shows through in the art that they make. Not a lot of people can connect all those dots and process what’s behind it. It spoke right to him immediately, which made it very easy for me. But that, in many ways, for me, is how our worlds have always connected.
Q: Was there ever a point, even early on, where your points of view collided?
Foutz: There are just certain connections in this world that don’t need that many words. Quite literally, the first time we went on a road trip, that was probably a good thirty-six to forty-five hours — the two of us driving in a car across the desert, maybe even more than that by the end of the trip. There’s been many great trips since, but I must say we’ve never been short for words and conversation. The minute I met him, I knew, basically, that I’d met one of those people in my life.
Q: Any other stories from the road?
Nakamura: I wanted to make a tepee, and so I asked him, “Would you please introduce me to someone to make a tepee?” So we drove up to… was it Montana?
Foutz: I picked you up in Salt Lake, and we drove to Montana in the snow. And again, there are only two people that I know of left in the United States making buffalo-hide tepees. We found one who would actually show us and let us stitch.
Nakamura: Yeah, he gave us Hot Hands and everything.
Foutz: Yes, because it was stitched in his garage.
Nakamura: [He showed us] how to make a tepee and we got a bunch of sinew. I brought it back to Kelsi and was like, “Kelsi, I got sinew. Let’s sew a tepee.” At that time we traveled all the time, so we would sew the tepee in airplanes, in hotels. A hotel in Hong Kong, a hotel in London, a hotel in Paris.
Foutz: We set one up that they made. We put it in our front room [at Shiprock Santa Fe] and it’s still, to this day, one of our favorite front rooms we did. So three quarters of the front room was a buffalo-hide tepee that went up to the ceiling. It was beautiful.
Nakamura: Oh yeah, we used a natural indigo mixed with soy milk and then made a giant dot. An indigo dot.
Q: How did this new store in Santa Fe come about?
Nakamura: Five years ago, I decided to do a women’s collection because Kelsi has always helped my design process. So we have seven retail stores in Japan, right? But we don’t have a women’s-only retail store. And Jed said, “I found a really cute house in Santa Fe, a couple blocks away from my gallery. Would you be interested in it?” I said, “Yeah, I want to see the space.” And I asked Kelsi, “Do you want to do a women’s store?” She said, “Yeah, I can try if it’s with men’s too. Let’s just do it together.”
Q: What kind of experience do you think this store will offer customers that they wouldn’t get somewhere else?
Nakamura: I just want to do something different, something that excites me. So I told Kelsi, “Let’s do something unique and creative that we can enjoy.” So we decided to just find some antiques and crafts from Japan, something we could relate to and related to our product. That’s very unique, something totally different than our other retail shops.
Q: How does this fit into the culture of Santa Fe?
Nakamura: There’s a client here who understands, or is interested in, art and craft. We thought that those people would relate to what we do. And so I just wanted this store to be really hands on.
Q: Americana has been a constant thread running through your collections. Where do you see Americana fitting in the cultural space of men’s style?
Nakamura: Since I was a teenager, I’ve been into vintage denim. And I’m always fascinated with American workwear and leisure clothes, outdoor things, Native American things . . . For sure, in this culture, it’s always like there’s enough space to come up with new things. I think that’s the most exciting part of Americana. I think that [Visvim] gets at it in a new way, and to me, that’s new Americana. It’s always changing, but that dynamic to me is very cool. I love old stuff, I love vintage stuff, but I like new things. That’s what I do.
Q: In a world where so many things are mass produced, Visvim still emphasizes craft and quality. How do you balance the two?
Nakamura: I like to preserve old techniques or artisan work, but at the same time, it has to be true; otherwise, I’m just preserving old stuff. And that doesn’t really work. I don’t deny manufacturing because that’s part of reality now. But the question is, can we still make something nice, or something beautiful, or real? It has to be true to us. I always talk to Kelsi. She asks me, “Would you wear this?” I have to make sure people want to wear this in real life. That’s my job as a designer, and that is real.