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  • Cal D.

The Legacy of Kapital: The Philosophy & Cultural Depth Behind the Cult Japanese Brand

When looking at the unique world of Japanese fashion culture both past and present, it is almost impossible to overlook Kapital. They have maintained a true sense of authenticity and individuality in both their creative direction and products, and with each season seem to be even more self-assured than their last. Kiro Hirata is the main architect of the brand and it’s creative direction, though it was Kiro’s father, Toshikiyo Hirata, who had initially started the company in Kojima Japan in 1985. Kojima was actually the source of the name itself as well, as it is often referred to as “the capital of denim”.

When most people think of Kapital, they think of a couple of mainstay themes: Boro denim, Century denim, and the catalogs, all things they continue to produce. The yearly lookbooks that they release are, to me, most pertinent to understanding the unique way Kapital approaches the world - acting as a visual language of the philosophy of Kapital. They produce these with full creative control with often little change to the core team, adhering to guidelines set only by themselves with seemingly no limitation. This in itself seems to defy the way we collectively approach the fashion process, to remain true and unique at all costs. They have and continue to participate in eccentric defiance.

The garments they produce all seem to exist underneath the same unique umbrella of experimentation. They will often create confusing proportions and cuts that fit on the body in a challenging way, best described by David Sedaris, saying “These are clothes that absolutely refuse to flatter you, that go out of their way to insult you, really,” though going on to say that he still cannot get enough of them. And that’s speaking only of the proportions, let alone the distinctive choice of fabrics and how they choose to distress their clothing (often to an extreme extent). I say none of these things disparagingly. Kapital seems to do all of these things not just for the sake of being strange or unique, but to pose genuine questions about the concept of novelty in clothing production: leaving no convention or cultural influence unturned.

This can all be said for a lot of Kapital clothing, but they also produce some items that look to replicate traditional cuts and processes, such as their famous Boro denim (see some examples below). This famous way of making denim uses traditional Japanese sashiko stitching that dates as far back as the early Edo Period of Japan’s history, appearing in the early to mid 1600s. It was originally used as a fabric mending technique to repair hard-wearing garments, and is really a genius process. It increases durability, can be used to easily mend multiple fabrics together, and is often decorative and beautiful (though the beauty in the process was only recognized after the fact). Kapital recognized this and made Boro denim a mainstay, prompting lots of creators in recent years to develop unique boro styles of their own.

I mentioned earlier that Kapital’s core team has remained consistent, and the two people on board with the most creative control are Kiro Hirata and Eric Kvatek. Kiro himself described their joint process as “small ideas that come together, little by little, in a big puzzle” when creating the direction for each new catalog. Kiro leads creative direction of the garments themselves while Eric handles artistic direction for the photos of each lookbook. Because of this, the two have been able to develop a strong dialog throughout the years and have seemingly learned to better play into each other’s strengths and weaknesses. With that strong foundation, the Kapital team is able to create a completely unique experience with every lookbook they produce - all in alignment with Kapital’s broader philosophy and outlook.

The books themselves explore modes of being: across culture and across time. Every year, the team submerges themselves into the setting or culture they are looking to explore, and evoke images and clothing that ties directly to it (with more publications for each season produced per year, post 2007). The way they express these modes will vary widely, ranging from meticulous recreation to theatrical exaggeration. They manage to cover an impressively broad range of cultures and lives in doing so. In the “Denim Monster” series along with the 2016 “Fukkin Kountry” lookbook they explore New York City motorcycle culture and counterculture broadly, providing a unique look into the hard and fast lifestyle of the people involved, in an extreme and dramatic sense.

This is contrasted with works like the 2005 “The Tide is High” lookbook, which provides a more intimate and personal look into the work, lifestyle and spirituality of native Jamaican people, in a more representational sense. I mention both of these because they exist on opposite ends of the timeline of the catalogs, and demonstrate Kiro and Eric’s abilities to portray topics in a multitude of ways, from homage to fanatical reenactment. Throughout these books Kapital is able to produce garments that assimilate perfectly into the lives of the people being portrayed, looking as though they have been worn for years on end in the very environments in which they are being portrayed.

Even as the popularity and success of Kapital grows, they maintain a very D.I.Y process when creating their catalogs. Since as recent as 2013 (the creation and release of KAPITAL WORLD by Hsiang Chin Moe, a fantastic look into the process of Kiro and Eric), the team was seen working with a small crew of photographers and models, using charity shop belts and shoes, and exploring environments on their own. This is not often how major fashion labels go about their campaigns, in that they typically have a huge budget and production team. Because of this D.I.Y process, the photos made thereafter often have a very raw, unproduced kind of feel. This is most apparent in Kapital’s early catalogs, where the team seemed to best tap into this feeling. That’s not to say anything negative about their later work, but there was a notable uptick in production quality and setup (which is a positive in its own way).

Compelling storytelling through fashion photography is not easy either. Kapital, unsurprisingly, has managed to do it multiple times in a very captivating way. One of the best examples of this type of storytelling came from the 2006 catalog, Aloha Brigade. Amidst the typical display of portraits, landscapes, and clothing for that season's theme, there were 6 pages that had small portions of a hand written story through sections of fragmented text. The story is written through the perspective of a 12 year old boy who follows his grandfather on horseback and details stories of his grandfather’s past, his own dreams.

Another great example of storytelling in their lookbooks came from the Spring 2008 catalog “Sea Gypsies”. In this case, the team still used handwritten messages over select photographs, though in a less structured and more sporadic nature than their previous examples. Though less direct, these fragments of text helped to contextualize the visual story being spun by the clothes and photographs: to evoke relationships, beliefs, and memories.

Looking at older works of art through new lenses of analysis or perspectives is always important. That’s why it’s important to talk about cultural appropriation when looking at Kapital’s work broadly, as their catalogs largely center on the depiction of a broad set of diverse cultures and geographies. I would also like to preface that I, personally, do not belong to many of the subcultures covered in Kapital’s catalog, and am speaking purely from outsider observation contextualized against much of the current discourse.

A lot of the current discussions surrounding the usage of cultural and religious themes/imagery is around making the distinction between appropriation and appreciation. Which is a very worthwhile conversation to have, because historically, many of the perspectives and cultures being depicted in these works have often been marginalized, being left out of the broader artistic conversation and subjected to othering or exoticism (A 2014 interview with Kerry James Marshall did a good job of explaining this phenomenon in art history - link at the bottom). And that is solely within the context of artistic depiction, many of these communities continue to face hardship directly as a result of long-standing, systemically racist and prejudicial structures. The fashion system is no stranger to that, as the broader set of standards continue to be informed by Eurocentric perspectives. All this to say that the appropriation discussion is important, and is very important to view older work through this lens.

This is by no means to say that Kapital deliberately participates or participated in cultural appropriation, but reflecting on their work through that perspective can be informative. The usage of traditional Japanese garment techniques and imagery can be read, to me, as an act of appreciation, given the label's Japanese heritage and tight relationship to the traditional denim processing techniques of the region they come from, Kojima Japan. This is a bit of a more difficult distinction to make for some of the other catalogs though. We can examine this, again, in the 2006 “Aloha Brigade” catalog, which explores imagery and themes surrounding the lives and culture of indigenous Cherokee people.

On the one hand, I would argue that the meticulous recreation of traditional garments for creations’ sake is appreciative, as the team would have to come to understand the intricacies of the garments themselves and what goes into creating them - a deliberate act of learning. On the other hand, Kapital’s commonplace usage of (appearingly) ethnically European models to portray some of these cultural garments can be read as theatrical - seemingly removed from the point of exploring the culture and most importantly, the people in it (especially knowing that compelling portraiture is a big part of Eric’s work). The idea of entirely using components of these cultures for financial benefit (the active sale of their clothing in alignment with that given catalog) could be seen as appropriative.

Ultimately, this is not always an easy distinction to make, though intention is one of the biggest factors in outlining that distinction in a given work. And this is also only examining one particular catalog and one particular subculture, of which I personally do not belong. Additionally, seeing that these catalogs pre-date much of the current discourse around culture appropriation, it’s not surprising that we may see some things as questionable within the current lens. But we should take the time to interrogate any important work of art that way, to keep up with more informative and more inclusive perspectives.

In keeping with the conversation about usage of visual themes from other cultures, I would argue that in recent years, Kapital has pushed in an interesting direction. They have continued to pursue an eccentric and unique approach to their styling, but are seemingly shifting their focus from one individual culture per lookbook to an all encompassing approach, using styling and patterns from all sorts of global sources. This is an interesting approach, and can be read as using their clothing as a means of curation and appreciation of multiple cultures and stylings into a cohesive piece of work. And to do this all in keeping with their usage of traditional Japanese fabrics and garment making processes as well! By and large it is an interesting approach and not something you often see. The way I feel about them now is how I always have: utmost respect for committing to eccentricity.

All in all, looking into the work of Kapital is no easy task, and writing a digestible or all encompassing piece on their philosophy is harder than it looked to be at the outset. Their team has managed to cover so many themes and in doing so develop a truly unique visual language for themselves, both in their garments and in their photography. That, in itself, could be the philosophy: maintaining individuality and authenticity by any means necessary. Regardless of how you feel about the clothes themselves, you cannot argue with Kapital’s cultural potency, and the lasting impact they've continued to have on other labels and young creatives alike. And I think that influence will be lasting, given the recent appreciation of new and archive Japanese fashion - my (and many others) introduction to the world of Kapital. I am happy to have been introduced and we encourage you to browse through a selection of works hosted exclusively on ARCHIVE.pdf!

Further Viewings:

Writer: Cal D.

Visual Content Sourcing: Felix R.


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