Here I am at the former Kapital “Blue Hands” store in Kojima, Okayama; while a freak typhoon-like storm is raging across Japan. Finally sitting down with the two people I have been anxious to meet since their last interview together in 2007. One of the major reasons I started to push myself to study Japanese was to read that interview and someday meet these two incredible people. Once again I am grateful I was given this opportunity.
“What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and often I found in the son the unveiled secret of the father.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
The two people are Toshikiyo (TH) and Kazuhiro (Kiro) Hirata the father and son duo who are the main force behind Kapital. TH is the current company president and founder of Kapital. Kiro his son, is the current head designer behind the clothing lines. The dedication to their craft is undeniable. Their personalities, work ethic, and values are so much a part of what they have created. I hope readers can sense all of this from the interview, I have tried to keep their words as true as blue jeans. So with no further ado…
BA: How did Kapital get its start? What are its roots?
TH: “Around 1975 I started working for a jeans company. I worked for that company for 9 years. The trigger for me starting my own company was when I went to America to teach karate (to beat Americans). The jeans company I was working for only made copies of American jeans. I got sick of making copies of American jeans and I just started thinking that I wanted to make jeans that are better than Levi’s. That is the start of Kapital.”
Therefore, I could see the designers he dealt with, I saw his failures and success, before I even started working. Now we work together, and we can take risks together.
BA: What is it like to work side by side as father and son?
TH: “Kiro and I have a something in common towards making goods, but because of the generation gap our methods and styles differ.”
Kiro: “Kapital is a family company so we can share our thoughts smoothly. You usually can’t do this without a lot of trust first. My father was making jeans since I was born so, I had the chance to use a sewing machine and stuff like that and I consider myself lucky to have those experiences. Therefore, I could see the designers he dealt with, I saw his failures and success, before I even started working. Now we work together, and we can take risks together.”
BA: What does the blue hands logo symbolize?
TH: “It is a symbol trying to express the Craftsman’s hands. The blue is denim. When making denim your hands get blue from the indigo dye, just like the jeans.” (laughter)
Kiro: “The original logo had stripes on the hands, 25 lines I think… that is the 25 steps of how we make jeans. There is one star and that means jeans. The craftsman, the indigo blue hands, jeans, and the 25 steps are what it symbolizes.”
BA: Where does the inspiration come from?
TH: “When I made the TH jeans, like I said before I wanted to make better jeans than Levi’s. Wrangler, Lee etc. Levi’s all have an arcuate stitch, so I didn’t put that stitch on the TH on purpose. I wanted people to know that the jeans were Kapital by not adding the stitching.”
I don’t know if this is the cool thing to say, but I think everything we make has a heart.
BA: In your opinion, what sets Kapital apart from other clothing companies?
TH: “Our products are not perfect, but we never half-ass anything. We always go 100% on everything we make. I don’t know if this is the cool thing to say, but I think everything we make has a heart. Sometimes I want to cut corners here and there but Kiro never allows me to do it. So sometimes we have conflict, but I don’t think either of us is wrong. I look at things as a businessman and Kiro views things as a designer.”
BA: Why does Kapital do almost all their denim in one-wash?
TH: “Denim or jeans are made from cotton. If you wash for example silk or rayon it doesn’t change that much. Denim (cotton) on the other hand, shrinks and changes. So I think one-wash is better because it gives the jeans more character. So almost all of the cotton products we produce are “one-wash”. If I say ‘washing’ there are so many methods, such as drying with tumbler, hang drying, and depending on that, the character changes. I am interested in the washing process. I think Kiro sees things differently though.”
Kiro: “I have a different opinion about this. Like for century denim I think raw is better. When we make products we focus on men’s clothing. We have a lot of women’s clothing, but for example we choose oxford (cloth) for a shirt, which most other companies would use a light-ounce fabric. We prefer to use men’s fabric for women’s clothing. I really like raw denim. Not one-wash or stone-wash, because I want to wear it and add my own personality to it. I want to be the thing that makes my clothing special from the others. The raw denim market isn’t so strong, but we tried with ‘Century Jeans‘. So this is our own promotion for raw denim, ‘Century Jeans‘.”
BA: You have expanded business overseas, how exciting is it to see people around the world whom embrace your products?
TH: “Did we? (laughter) I am not sure how to answer that…”
Kiro: “I am so happy” (laughs)
Cotton is really biddable, so sometimes cotton laughs, cries, and shrinks so we can do a lot of exciting things with it.
BA: What has been the most exciting project you have done?
TH: “When Kapital started out it was an OEM business because of a lack of funds. As an OEM business, when we finished production we submit the products to the customer. Whatever b-class items we happen to ship, get returned by the client. They say ‘there is some flaw’ even though it isn’t our fault because the materials were provided by the clients. However they insist it is our responsibility, because we are cutting and sewing the goods for them. We began to accumulate b-class stock because of all the returns, and of course we don’t get paid for those b-class item returns. For example if it costs ¥1500 but the profit is 15% of that which is about ¥200. So let’s say we make 100 and they return 10 as a b-class product. That means there is no profit. I wanted to sell these returned products because they are something we made from scratch, we gave birth to it, and it is like our child. At that time I was shocked to hear my products my “children” called ‘b-class’. We wanted to sell these higher than the original price, so here is where we started to do stone-washing and remaking products. We started do something the other apparel companies couldn’t do, and I realized there is a market for this kind of business. That is when I got really excited doing this work. Cotton is really biddable, so sometimes cotton laughs, cries, and shrinks so we can do a lot of exciting things with it. I am really having a good time doing Kountry products now too.”
Kiro: “Now. Always whatever is happening and whatever we are making now. For example right now I am excited about this year’s Spring/Summer collection.”
BA: What in your opinion makes good design?
TH: “I have no idea… If you are comfortable with whatever you wear, that is good design.”
Kiro: “Simple. Function, and durability. This applies to everything I think. Super-functional and simple. That is very difficult to get right.”
BA: What do you think makes Kapital a special brand? Where do you see room for improvement?
TH: “Before Kiro started working at Kapital, I was hiring designers myself for 5 years. There was a lot based on trial and error in those days. So I was in a strong position, and I pressured them to sell everything we made. I pressed sales a lot, but I don’t think Kiro focuses so much on making products to sell easily. When Kiro first started working at Kapital he set out for demolition to start from scratch. And now we are rebuilding everything he destroyed. As a creator you have to break something you have in order to make something better. Improving… Because we have so many staff members now we have to make a company that can pay them more, and that is the responsibility of an employer, but that isn’t responsibility of a designer.”
Kiro: “My father and I. Okayama. That history makes this company special.”
BA: The new summer catalog is out, what is the story behind the line?
Kiro: “I always have a meeting with Kvatek before shooting and we decide the location then. For this summer I made a theme title called “New Navajo”. A new Native American style. After we met and finished the shoot we changed the title to ‘Indigo Indio’.”
BA: Kiro you must do a lot of traveling, how much do the people you meet and the places you go inspire your designs?
Kiro: “The history… if I know the history… also the environment. These inspire my designs when I travel”
BA: If there is something you can change about the fashion industry, what do you want to change?
Kiro: “I don’t have anything I want to change but I want to protect the importance of jeans. That’s it. Everybody is changing but I think protecting is more difficult that changing. Currently the price of jeans is inexpensive. If people want to make them cheaper I don’t care. I understand that people prefer cheaper jeans, but I want to protect the good aspects of jeans.”
BA: Is there another book in the works?
Kiro: “I have a plan for another Kottoichi.”
BA: What do you collect?
Kiro: “Bandannas, and snow globes. I collect old Japanese textiles but that is mostly for work.”
BA: What is your drink of choice?
TH: “I don’t drink much alcohol, but I really like coffee.”
Kiro: “I like Nihonshu…”
We always try to lead customers into the world that we create in each book.
BA: What is your personal favorite Kapital catalog and why?
Kiro: “I like “Indigo Indio” and I will probably like the next one too. My favorite catalog is the newest one. I look forward to the reactions, especially the negative ones. We always try to lead customers into the world that we create in each book.”
BA: Where does Kapital see itself in 5 to 10 years?
Kiro: “We are a small team with big plans. We are always looking for new and creative ideas.”
BA: Do you have any words or greetings you would like to say to your English speaking fans around the world?
TH: “I am making stuff to make customers happy, so I will try hard. I like to take 40% and give 60% to my customers.”
Kiro: “I have worked at Kapital for 10 years as a designer, like my father mentioned earlier I demolished his “Kapital” so now we are in the process of rebuilding. We built a new factory called “Kountry factory”. There we do sewing, washing, and design. We have a 20 year history of our OEM business plus the 10 years of my father’s factories and my designs, so I want to show a lot of people our new denim created by this history. I also want to show people that Kojima and Kurashiki are evolving. That this is where Kapital is headed. Other companies are looking in different directions, but we stay here and evolve. So please cheer for us.”
This post is dedicated to my father James C. Lukacek (1949~2008) who without his encouragement of “chasing your dreams” and hard work I would have never considered this project. Also dedicated to fathers and sons who work side by side through the highs and the lows. Also I have to thank my wife Shiho for helping with the translation work, without her this would have been impossible.