For nearly two decades, Visvim has been known as much for its astonishing product as its mysterious existence. Now, with a growing presence in Los Angeles, the brand has stepped into the light.
David Kenji Chang spent time there with elusive designer Hiroki Nakamura and learned about his creative process, the limits of what Visvim can (and cannot) afford, and the true scope of his uncompromising vision.
*Editor’s note: Quotes in this article have been edited for clarity
It’s just after 2:00 PM in Los Angeles, when the city’s clockwork sun is at its hottest. I’m not sure how long I’ll be waiting in this heat, so pants were a bad choice, but this garage is a lifesaver.
The garage is attached to Japanese label Visvim’s new Los Angeles offices and is where I’m scheduled to meet the brand’s elusive creative director Hiroki Nakamura for a photoshoot with one of his vintage cars.
I already interviewed Hiroki a week ago—we’ll get to that—and this shoot was offered at the last minute with little detail of exactly what we’d be doing. He might drive us somewhere and I’d probably get to interview him again. Still, it sounded amazing, an offer too incredible to pass up.
Now I just have wait.
Though, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Hiroki is making me wait because nobody seemed to know what time he was supposed to arrive to begin with. Just that he would come. This is normal. Hiroki is notoriously hard to pin down. He’s frequently somewhere unexpected, off the physical and mental grid, extremely busy doing uniquely Hiroki things.
Indeed, part of the fantasy of Visvim is the fantasy of Hiroki, a solitary Odyssean figure, doing it all. Dip-dyeing jeans in a vat of indigo in the Shikoku countryside. On his hands and knees digging jackets out of the mud in a rice paddy. Mushing a dog sled across the Arctic Circle in search of reindeer pelts. So I’m not surprised by the wait.
Suddenly an engine roars, and Hiroki barrels up the driveway and into the garage on a 1946 Indian Chief motorcycle. Its hefty body is rusted and peeling.
Against the backdrop of the plastic, palm tree-lined, manicured sprawl of LA, Hiroki looks more like he took a wrong turn off the set of a movie about a train robbery, or even exploded out of an interdimensional portal, than just exited the 10 Freeway.
Hiroki has a peculiar capacity for making you feel this way. He has the rugged, rakish handsomeness of peak Toshiro Mifune, and he is always surrounded by very old, very perfectly imperfect things.
It’s a true testament to the totality of his stylistic force that Hiroki, a real person alive right now, would visually be more at home in practically any other period of human history—racing a muscle car through Eisenhower’s America, ensconced in plush robes in a Heian court, astride a viking ship in sick outerwear—than ours.
He stomps the bike’s kickstand with his distressed suede boot and unlatches his scratched, yellowing motorcycle helmet. His hair, a wiry tangle of black and gray, is pulled back in a tight ponytail.
Somehow, there isn’t a bead of sweat on his brow even though he’s wearing a knee-length coat—of course he’s wearing a coat—with a tote bag slung over his shoulder. His wrists are each stacked with enough silver cuffs to fill a jewelry store display.
The scene is quintessentially Visvim and, almost immediately, he politely asks that we don’t photograph it. “I’m not finished working on this one yet,” he tells us, pointing to the motorcycle.
He’d like us to stick to the car in the garage that he’ll be driving, a dilapidated 1957 Porsche 356a. To be clear, there is nothing that indicates this car is more “finished” than the motorcycle. The grey exterior is dull, stripped, and pock-marked. The cracked leather seats look like a collection of old catcher’s mitts. And after Hiroki and his staff put the Porsche in neutral and carefully guide it out into the sun, it refuses to start.
Hiroki peels off his coat to reveal a worn, white t-shirt tucked into a pair of khaki trousers with suspenders—while the rest of the fashion world is re-orienting around belted waistlines and exaggerated shapes, Hiroki has been really into suspenders—and tries, with unfazed persistence, to get the engine to turnover.
Ben Bertucci, an automotive documentarian Hiroki asked to help shoot the car, had just affixed a camera rig to the car. He dismantles it. Hiroki goes around to the back and pops the hood. He studies the rear-mount engine like a surgeon. He tinkers.
He puts on a chambray button-down with a light Southwestern motif. He climbs back in the car and, with one leg out the driver’s side door, calls out instructions while the car sputters. His team, playing makeshift pit-crew, takes a drinking straw’s worth of gas from the old Indian Chief and tries dripping it into the carburetor to near catastrophe.
Finally, after thirty minutes, almost reluctantly, Hiroki turns to jumper cables. The engine finally rumbles to life.
The staff scurries to straighten up. Ben hastily reclamps the cameras to the car.
Hiroki leans out, smiles, and shouts over the growl of the engine.
“Okay, should we go get coffee?”
Hiroki closes the door, does a three-point turn, and takes off. We scramble to follow.
If it isn’t obvious, Hiroki Nakamura does things his way. On his own peculiar terms, on his own painstaking schedule. The man is pathologically himself, even in the tiniest moments.
To wit, a week earlier: I meet Hiroki at the brand’s ambitious downtown LA flagship Visvim Exposition. There is no defined schedule that day. He and his wife Kelsi, who designs Visvim’s WMV women’s collection, arrive in a green military utility vehicle that Hiroki parks directly across the street. I wait to greet them at the front door; instead, after some ten odd minutes pass, they stride in through the back.
Hiroki is wearing a kimono that is a coat, a green button-down shirt painted like a shoji screen, and those suspenders. He looks effortlessly, singularly amazing. Naturally, he immediately disappears to change.
While he’s gone I ask to use the bathroom, but I’m told I probably shouldn’t because, though it functions fine, it’s not ready to be seen yet. It’s the most a bathroom and motorcycle have ever had in common.
This sort of indefatigable, exacting method of existence means that when Hiroki says things like, “When you have a vision in the beginning, you just need to stick with it,”—almost certainly meaningless, pseudo-philosophical babble from most people’s lips—you know he’s dead serious. It’s his guiding principle.
Stretching back two decades to when it first emerged from the Tokyo Ura-Hara scene, Visvim has always been the needle for mainlining Hiroki’s intoxicating visions. At its most magnetic, Visvim’s product is at once familiar and foreign, the reclusive occupant of an uncanny valley where the common—cotton, a dye, an insole, a zipper—achieve uncommon heights.
It can possess a hand-made, wabi-sabi magic; sometimes it needs to be touched; sometimes it needs to be seen; sometimes it needs to be worn every day for seven years.
Hiroki claims he pays no attention to contemporary fashion, and the brand has always cruised its own trend-agnostic lane—not streetwear, not luxury, not performance gear, not vintage, but also all of those things.
When Visvim does collide with the hype cycle, it is with reluctance: Hiroki has twice pulled his iconic FBT moccasin sneaker from the market when its popularity was surging.
“Visvim always beats to its own drum. You can be sure that it’s always beating to its own drum,” Josh Peskowitz, long-time friend of the brand and owner-proprietor of the store Magasin, tells me by phone. “I have some pieces from Visvim that don’t look like anything else in my wardrobe, but go with anything in my wardrobe.”
“When you have a vision in the beginning, you just need to stick with it.”
— Hiroki Nakamura
“I want to use computer technology to make a thing beautiful, not to just try to make it more easily.”