Interview: Eric Kvatek

Earlier this month Stylesight had the pleasure of interviewing the accomplished photographer Eric Kvatek on his stunning imagery, most notably his collaborations with Kapital, as well as his passion for denim.

While fashion lookbooks are an essential part of brands seasonal marketing material, rarely (especially within denim) do they ever reach a cult status. However, the collaboration between denim connoisseurs Kapital and photographer Erik Kvatek’s incredible vision has resulted in an anthology of catalogs that have been habitually collected by fanatics the world over. Known for their stunning locations and unconventional models, Kapital and Kvatek together take the readers on a visual journey into the obscure world of Kapital. His work for these Japanese legends, along with other notable brands like PRPS, Free People and 45RPM has taken him all over the globe, and his personal blog Dispatches and Instagram are also evidence of his captivating vision and adventurous career. It’s also worth mentioning his vast collection of Japanese textiles, such is it that he hosted his own exhibition in New York in June 2012.

Now nearly a decade into his alliance with Kapital, we get Eric to talk us through a retrospective of the most iconic images, his storied career, inspirations and love for workwear and denim.

– We read that you used to be a vintage dealer back in the ’90s before you were a full time photographer. What type of product/era were you buying and selling back then? Was denim a big part of your business?

I was a full time vintage dealer from 1993 to 2000, roughly. My love of vintage denim prompted me to hunt for jeans while living in New Mexico. As I became more and more obsessed, it was easy to just make it my occupation. Inevitably, you end up finding jeans that are not the right size. Eventually my “wrong size” jeans pile was overtaking my house and my girlfriend at the time demanded I get rid of them. So I became a vintage dealer. First and foremost I wanted to find Levis 501 from the ’40s and ’50s, even back then it was difficult, but they did turn up on a regular basis. I also was always hoping to find horsehide leather jackets and engineer boots. At first I sold to stores in California, but I met a Japanese dealer one day at a thrift store. He pointed at everything I was wearing and said, “I want to buy this kind of stuff. I’ll be back in 3 months.”


– As you obviously have an eye for this, what are your favorite vintage dealers and markets?

In NYC I like stopping by Stock Vintage. Whenever I can, I try to shop at Strongarm Clothing & Supply but it’s by appointment only these days. I actually love shopping at vintage clothing stores in Tokyo, because there’s so much amazing stuff to see, even if it’s too expensive to buy. I like going to Berberjin and Jantiques. But really so many of the stores there have great stuff, and sometimes I get lucky. But now, shopping at thrift stores, flea markets just bums me out. I compare it to the glory days and it’s just so different now. Walking out empty-handed is just so sad.


– You grew up in Ohio in the Midwest. Were you wearing denim and workwear back then and did this influence your attraction towards the vintage market and brands like Kapital?

When I was five years old, maybe even younger, I was obsessed with Johnny Cash and Elvis. So I wanted to dress like them. Also, my family had a small farm where I worked part time, so we just naturally wore jeans. We got one pair of jeans and one pair of sneakers and it had to last for a year. If we grew too much, my mother would add fabric to the pant legs. So by the end of the summer I looked like I was wearing Kapital, but it was the 1970s. By the time I was in high school, I could fit in my cousins’ hand-me-down Levis and some of my father’s Air Force gear. So that’s just what I wore. When I began shopping for vintage, I wasn’t trying to be cool. I was just shopping for what I was familiar with, and it was cheap. A pair of 1950s Levis were .25 cents at the thrift store and already broken in, compared to a brand new pair of 501’s at the K-mart were like $14.99, so it was an easy decision to look for vintage. 


– How did you first encounter Kapital – were you aware of the brand before you were approached by Kiro?

I started shooting for 45rpm in 2001, I think. So I went to Tokyo, we went to a sushi restaurant and they instructed this young designer guy to sit next to me because he could speak English. And then he was sent on the photo shoots to style the clothing. Well that was Kiro Hirata. So we just naturally got along and became friends. Eventually Kiro left 45rpm and started designing for his father’s brand, Kapital. So eventually, he asked me to be the photographer. When I first saw the Kapital clothing, it was almost all denim back then. I just loved it! I guess it reminded me of my tattered stuff from childhood.


– Kapital are known for their unconventional collection themes (Sailor Ninja, Surf Cowboys, Colorado Hippies, etc.) how do you and Kiro approach these quirky themes?

The themes just evolve out of what inspires Kiro. Sometimes the name doesn’t materialize until after we’ve already shot the photos. Kiro usually names the book himself. I think I named the one, “Sailor Hooligans”. But the general theme is just a combination of the overall vibe. Kiro likes combining seemingly disparate concepts. It’s like a challenge, to make it work out. One thing I really fear, is copying myself. There’s already enough people copying what we do, and the last thing I want is to be guilty of that. So it’s good to challenge ourselves and each other. We kind of talk about that in the Kapital World Documentary.  


– What was the first photo shoot you did for the brand and where was it?

The first photo shoot I did for Kapital was early summer of 2005. We shot it in my neighborhood, the Lower East Side, and upstate New York at my friend’s property. All of the models were just my friends and bartenders that I knew. The extra props were just stuff from my apartment or stuff laying around upstate. 

(Image from Kapital Denim Monsters, Fall/Winter 2005/06)


– Whats been your most memorable shoot to date and why?

It’s always difficult to say what my favorite one is. Usually my favorite is the most recent one I shot. I don’t spend a lot of time looking at my old photos. But I would say the one we shot in Iceland was particularly successful. Kiro named it “Innocent World“. I’m not sure how he came up with that, but it really sums up what I was trying to create in the photos. The people we found were really some of the best ever. It was Iceland, so we had like 22 hours of daylight to play with. So we could really take our time and set up crazy shots. Usually on a shoot it’s like racing the clock to get everything done before sunset.

(Image from Kapital Innocent World, Fall/Winter 2009)

There’s another one that stands out, Aloha Brigade from 2006. We shot in Maui with some of my Hawaiian friends. There was a Native American theme. Kiro let me include photos of my Native American grandfather Tom Griffin, and I wrote a story based on my memories of him. It’s in the catalog, so it’s one of books I return to once in a while to read the story I wrote. It’s another instance of the Kapital clothing, the people, the location and props really coming together.

(Image from Kapital Aloha Brigade, September 2006)


– Do you wear a lot of Kapital yourself and, if so, what is your favorite piece?

I wear Kapital all the time. I love the denim Western shirts. Every once in a while Kiro makes a special one for me. I’ve actually worn a few of them out to the point of being rags. I love the Kapital boots and there’s some outerwear that’s really amazing, obviously. Lately I’ve been inseparable from my Kapital camo western shirts. My favorite Kapital jeans are the Cactus boot cut jeans. I need to get a new pair actually, so next time in Japan that’s my target.

(Kapital Kountry Boro first edition jacket)

(Kapital Rain Camo Western shirt)


– You have a very recognizable photography style. How did you carve it out and who were your inspirations?

Something else that I mention in the Kapital World documentary is that I didn’t train to be a photographer. I bought a camera in high school and learned by trial and error. I had no idea what the buttons did. I found out only after developing the film. After high school, I went to art school in Albuquerque for drawing. But towards the end I took a photo critique class because the instructor was highly respected, Patrick Nagatani. He was just very encouraging and inspiring in general. He wasn’t teaching us how to take photos, more like how to think like an artist. I still think about advice he gave me back then.

Being a vintage dealer allowed me to buy better cameras and to afford to travel out of the country. It was because of these trips that I decided to be a documentary photographer. In 1999 I went to a conflict area, and I just started taking photos. People were being shot and the Indonesian army was doing some crazy stuff. I met a reporter from the Jakarta newspaper and he helped me hook up with some interesting characters. I knew then it was what I wanted to do.

I always liked the photos of Dorthea Lange. Larry Burrows’ Vietnam photos are just incredible. Avedon of course, In the American West. And honestly, when I was in high school I found a box of photos that my other grandfather Ed Kvatek had taken in combat in World War II. I studied his photos as if it were a how-to manual. I still look at those photos for inspiration.


– You’ve also worked with a number of other brands like Free People and PRPS. How does your aesthetic fit with these brands?

I think when other brands contact me to shoot, they already kind of know what I’m about, so it almost always works out. For example, when I shot for Replay, I flew to Italy and met with their team and it was very easy. We had the same inspirations. We went to dinner, drank wine and got along really well. It felt like we had known each other a long time.

(Image from Replay lookbook)

Like I said, even with Kapital I don’t want to just copy myself. So it’s always exciting to work with a new team and do something that satisfies them and at the same time maybe challenge myself a little. Free People and PRPS are also great brands and their teams were very easy to join. There’s stuff I would do on a Kapital shoot that I would not do for PRPS, let’s say. But there’s stuff I’ll do for PRPS that I wouldn’t do on a Kapital shoot. It’s like having different friends, and just relating to each friend in different ways. It’s always nice to have more than one friend!

(Image from PRPS lookbook Spring/Summer 2012)


– The Kapital World Documentary is about to launch, which reveals a unseen before look into the brand. What was the idea behind this?

So Kiro and Hsiang Chin Moe, the filmmaker, were talking and originally Hsiang Chin had the idea to do a 10 minute behind the scenes video in France. Kiro said it would be better to be like 2 hours, I guess the compromise was what we have, the 60 minute long final version. Further more, Kiro granted Hsiang Chin full access to everything and gave her total control over the final cut. I tried to reject some content but was unsuccessful, so what you end up seeing is really her uncompromised vision.

People had requested to do something like this in the past and I always refused. I knew it would interfere with the actual shoot. And I knew they would make something that was too formal. Hsiang Chin was already familiar with us, so she was able to infiltrate the shoot without distracting us. If you see the movie, it’s obvious we were very comfortable being around her. It never occurred to us to pretend to be cool or behave ourselves. So really, you get to see what it’s genuinely like to be there. 

KAPITAL WORLD Trailer from Eric Kvatek on Vimeo.

Head over to Erik’s website to discover and explore more of his amazing photography.


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