Visvim opened a flagship store in Omotesando seventeen years ago, about four years after the brand was founded. They named their first shop ‘F.I.L.TOKYO’, which originated from ‘FreeInternationalLaboratory’. As the name shows, it became the brand’s first laboratory open to public. Having started its path with shoe making, Visvim then also created apparel items including home wear in small lots.
“I was seeking what is a meaningful creation or what is a good product. Since I was attracted by design, not in terms of its visuality or form but in terms of its fundamental process, I wanted to define a meaning or a purpose of manufacturing a product. I also wanted to create fashion. But I thought manufacturing a utility product would be closer to reaching the goal. Then I found shoe making would be the closest product to answer to my quest”, said the designer Hiroki Nakamura, going back to the days, from the brand’s launch to the first period of management.
Nakamura, who was born in 1971, considers himself from ‘a generation who grew up with military and work wear, mountain gear, and heavy duty utility clothes’. Having clothes as a utilitarian product, what fascinated Nakamura the most was inconsistent yet characteristic products which were produced in the previous era before industrialization made mass production possible.
“Products made by craftsmen, industrial products which are manufactured by a combination of hand and machine, or natural dye products. Ever since I was young, I always liked things that have a human touch or characteristics. I felt attracted towards crooked rather than straight lines. I prefer a drafty window rather than one that is perfectly closed”.
From Chusen dying and mud dye to Amish patchwork and Kimonos from the Edo era, the reason Visvim occasionally used traditional crafts and indigenous dying techniques from around the world was because of Nakamura’s notion of his product. There are many manufacturers who apply the same production techniques. They tend to introduce their production style as a promotional tool. However, Visvim has neither stated it publicly nor brought it up as the key theme in order to protect and preserve the traditional method.
“I create a product, and business functions to manufacture a product. I don’t want to mix up purpose and process. It is also a little strange if I focus on giving priority to preserving the technique. My principle is to create something good and offer it to our customers. A craftsman is somebody who dedicates themselves and improves in one field. There are many craftsmen who produce wonderful products. Our role is to become a bridge between them and the marketplace”.
One example is floss silk, a traditional handwork which has recently featured. It is an old material and technique that has been used in Japan since olden times. The fine filaments collected from the internal covering of a silkworm cocoon can be used as insertion for extra softness, natural drapes, and smooth and crisp texture to a garment. In contrary to down or wadding which creates air layers for heat-retention, floss silk complements warmth with protein consisting of filaments to retain human body heat produced by friction.
“For example, even if we make kimonos from floss silk, they won’t become popular in the modern day. My job is to present something as a ‘cool’ item and inspire people to wear it in their daily lives. I picked floss silk not because it is ‘in’, but simply because I really like it and found it very functional. As a result, the production region might revive their economy and be supported, but my purpose is to create something good and make people happy. I am just sticking with it faithfully”.
Nakamura hinted at his respect for production sites in his conversations. “We are supported by workshops, craftsmanship, and the site of production. Without them, we cannot create our products”, he asserted. On the other hand, craftsmen must also understand and place trust in Visvim, because Nakamura’s continuous quest for techniques and knowledge of craftsmen is not for brief interest or a news hook, but out of pure necessity for manufacturing their product. Otherwise, they won’t try to meet any unreasonable demands that Nakamura sometimes makes. By the way, Nakamura often mentioned ‘good product’ in his conversations. The word sounds abstract to us but when I asked him what it is, the definition is very clear and even simple.
“Whether it’ll move us. While working on the brand, there is an idea that occurs in the mind while there is another idea that is felt in the heart. The former often ends up with clothes that we would stop wearing. When I am excited by new ideas, I could fail to judge correctly what is the right choice and I may still make a wrong choice. But the important thing is to feel something in the heart, and not to think with the head. I value that very much”.
It is a little off track, Nakamura was in his home in LA when we did this interview online, with him being logged in from his new atelier, an old spacious warehouse, which was renovated two months ago. I could see an extensive room in the background where Japanese staff members who temporarily transferred from Japan were working hard on an upcoming project. As the final question, I asked him if he has seen any improvement in accuracy in manufacturing over the course of the 21 years since the company’s launch.
“Well, we still make many mistakes, though we have become more accurate…. guys?”, Nakamura was talking to his staff members behind him. Even in the rough streaming quality, I could see that they stopped what they were doing and were nodding and smiling. “They say, it’s improved”, said Nakamura smiling. They are making progress but are still only halfway there. Visvim’s experimentation with the interaction between human and product will continue further.
“Actually, I love singing chanson. They say I have quite a good sense”, said Akie Yanai smiling mischievously. She is a well-established knitter with a career of over fifty years. A nationally pre-eminent mistress. When you hear her title, you cannot help imagining a bigoted and reticent artisan. However, she is very cheerful like a young girl even though she is over seventy years old! Yanai has been collaborating with major designer brands in Japan and has been producing knitted items for them over many years. One of the items includes the Cowichan sweater, so it’s been a while now since she started to collaborate with Visvim for its knitwear. As Nakamura mentioned earlier, there are not so many knitters who would look into archives and try to realize the unique ideas that Visvim suggest. Despite this reality, Yanai has always responded with reliable quality.
“I rarely decline an offer. When somebody asks, ‘Could you make this kind of thing?’, there are quite a few people who say “No, I cannot do that”. But I spend a great deal of time figuring out exactly how I can realize the idea. Then, eventually the solution will spring to mind. I went to a knitting school when I was young, but there was actually little that I learned there. I developed my skills and techniques over the course of my actual working life. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘let’s do something about it!’ I think I am a yes-man, haha”.
A subtle yet intricate touch and patterns that are beyond the capability of a machine, her knitting quality can be recognized even by a beginner. However, the most difficult part of knitting, apparently, is to ‘make the exact size that was requested’. The repetitive work tends to lead to a certain mannerism of the knitter, therefore the size initially calculated could become different while continuing to knit.
“I’ve never thought of becoming a designer. I’d much prefer to realize what a designer wishes to create”. The time when she stepped into the world of knitting dates back to her elementary school years, which was a lot earlier than when she entered a vocational school of knitting. Back in those days, department stores would often give customers who bought wool some tips on knitting or sewing as an additional service. A wool vender would come to visit her home, a confectionery shop, and her first encounter with knitting was when the vender showed her the basics of knitting. After that, she sewed herself tank tops or overall skirts before she graduated from elementary school. This convinces us that Yanai was very much into knitting from an early age. I imagined a girl from the sweet old Showa era who is nonchalant and loves literature. But Yanai insisted “I have loved math and science, since I was young. My math exam was always good!” She also added that knitting requires a very mathematical process.
“From the top to the bottom, you count the number of rows. The number of stitches at the hem, chest, and neck are all different. So, you have to do calculations. Furthermore, you have to think of the best way to make the decreasing/increasing quantity of stitches look natural and smooth”. The patterns and specifications she showed me had a bunch of numbers that were written on them, and they looked like blueprints for precision instruments! As a layperson, you wouldn’t recognize these patterns as documents for knitting production. But she can almost visualize the finished product just by looking at them. Logical and mathematical imagination as well as amazing hand techniques to precisely realize the original idea are what is required, and the natural-born knitter has both qualities of a high standard. However, she says that these are not the most important attributes that are required to be a great knitter.
“The most important thing is whether you have a good eye. I’m always telling people that you cannot get to the top if you don’t have an eye for distinguishing whether something is beautiful or not. My students would make something strange if they didn’t ask me any questions. But if they don’t notice the stitching is not good, they wouldn’t ask my advice, would they? If they have an eye for recognizing it by themselves, they can notice it and correct it. Of course, I don’t know if my excellence always applies to the excellence of others. But for me, questioning what is perfect will solve an issue so that I can create something I think is beautiful. Whenever I felt satisfied, I can say that I could recover from fatigue”. Currently, she runs knitting classes for professionals and non-professionals to teach knitting skills. Her quest is to see how long she can actively work as a top artisan, and whether she can hand on what she has cultivated to the next generation before she retires. When Yanai started pursuing knitting as a career, her indomitable mother said “You don’t need to do anything. Just knit twice as much as the others”. Fifty years on, she fulfilled her promise. Has she ever thought about quitting?
“Almost never! Only once, I was too busy, and I didn’t want to knit anymore. So, I gave myself a break. I thought, ‘why should I have to work so hard!?’ After a week of not knitting, I became bored, haha. I feel grateful to have a job”, while saying so, Yanai was knitting the buttonholes of a Cowichan sweater, one after another. According to her, it will take seven days to finish one Cowichan piece. “If it is in just one colour, I can finish it in half the normal time”, she laughs. Without doubt, if you have to mass-produce a product that requires so many days to finish, it is impossible to deliver the order by yourself. From Hokkaido to Shikoku and Kyushu, she works closely with reliable knitters across the country to deliver products whilst ensuring a consistently high quality.
“As every knitter has their own knitting style, I always take charge of the finishing. I prefer to focus on a more directorial role, but when it becomes busy, I must also do some knitting besides directing. If it goes on too long, I become panicked, haha”.
Still, she never gets things done in a hurry, insists Yanai. Regardless of how close the deadline is, she unties stiches that don’t satisfy her and redoes them- that’s Yanai’s way. Perhaps because of the help from her artisanal network, there is no sense of stagnation in the production sites, as people might imagine. Future artisans are growing in numbers in various regions.
“There is always a certain number of people who love knitting and like to work as knitters, and we don’t see this number decreasing. But when they want to earn money as a knitter, they cannot live on a knitting job alone. That’s the problem. The items are beautiful and many want one, but they cannot afford a hand-knitted product due to its high production cost. But many customers of Cubism (the company name of Visvim) will understand the value, and I think this is very noteworthy. It is difficult to see the value in an expensive product if you know you can buy the same machine-knitted product for a much cheaper price. Yet, I believe you can wear a hand-knitted wool item forever. You can also feel a sense of attachment and take good care of it. Even if it develops a hole, you can repair it, or if you patch pieces together, it will have unique character. Whenever I knit, I always wish it to be like that”.
Yanai always takes care of her colleagues and the production site. “I would like to say, that even if you design something nice, if you don’t have a manufacturer, a product cannot be produced. Even if the same design drawing is used, the result will be like chalk and cheese depending on who realizes it into a product. But unfortunately, I’ve heard that you cannot find any other place in the world except Japan where the wage of craftsmen isn’t raised at all. I always wonder who is the evil one? Is it the government’s fault? They are all thinking about money, aren’t they? Will anybody voluntarily work as a prime minister? To make Japan a good country should be worth the work, I believe”.
Challenges and obstacles always come her way. Still, the reason she is able to continue her career is simple: she loves knitting.
“If you are devoted to something, you can overcome the difficulties and setbacks. I have experienced a lot of hardship but everybody helped me. Actually, people will help you. If you try to be supportive, people will also support you when you need it”.
To wear a handknitted piece means to touch a warm human affiliation. Certainly, it is just one of many aspects, but it is enough as a starting point to experience a product.
“Knitting is the only strength I have and nobody can beat me at it. It needs a lot of time, but anything is possible in knitting, I truly believe”. Yanai’s voice was slowly lost becoming drowned out by the sound of radio. She looked down and started to move her hands with the sticks sedulously. I wonder who the future owner of this lovely knitted piece will be.
|Interview & Text Rui Konno||Edit Takayasu Yamada Yutaro Okamoto|
Silver N°13 Autumn 2021Buy on Amazon