When things turned upside down last year for GQ's Zach Baron—first he moved to a strange town; then his mom got sick; then America got sick, too—he noticed his personal style began to change. He started wondering: Could you fix yourself on the inside by shaking up what you wore on the outside? And was there anyone out there who could help him address his issues both sartorial and philosophical? Turns out, there was.
Last January, after a lifetime on the East Coast, my then fiancée, Amanda, and I moved from New York to Los Angeles and promptly fell to hapless pieces. Our reasons for moving had been sound. She'd been offered a good job out here, and she was tired of winter. We were about to get married—I'd already pledged to follow her wherever she went. Plus I liked the idea of trying something new. So I followed her to Los Angeles. We rented a house on the side of a hill above Hollywood and leased matching cars with sequential license plates. She worked on a studio lot a short drive away, and I worked from home, where I wandered around our house and marveled at the thick silence that had settled in around our lives.
One thing no one told us about Los Angeles is that it's one of the loneliest cities in the world. Everyone who lives here knows this, but we did not. Its flat constant beauty summons you outside, and then there you are: outside. You and the coyotes and the palm trees and the guys hoping to get work on How to Get Away with Murder. Neither of us had moved since we were embryos, basically. I kept getting stuck on elemental things, like what to wear. How do you dress when the weather requires absolutely nothing of you? New York was the place I grew up, and what I wore there was a blandly literal expression of the person I grew into: prideful but mostly anonymous, quiet but, hopefully, tasteful. In Los Angeles, a city that prizes none of those qualities, half my wardrobe—dark blue sweaters, scuffed-up sneakers, clothes that could go from a rainy sidewalk to a neon-lit subway car to a stylish office and back, in the New York way—seemed effectively useless. The other half made me feel like I still lived in New York but was somehow trapped here, visiting. It was a sensation I began to know well: that dislocated feeling, like being on a permanent vacation from the world I knew to be real.
And then I began to know it even better. Thirteen days after we left New York, I learned that my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was back in the city on a reporting trip when my father e-mailed my sister and me and told us we should find each other and expect a phone call. We sat around the phone in my sister's Brooklyn apartment while she wrote the facts down on a blue Post-it note. Metaplastic—a form of cancer so rare, my physician father told us, there was no established treatment. Her doctors had decided to treat it like its closest analogue, another form of breast cancer I'd never heard of: triple negative. It was a Friday night. My mother was about 90 miles away, at home in Philadelphia, her voice parabolic with fear. My sister and I went out and drank ourselves blind. The next morning, drenched in helplessness, I got on a plane back to Los Angeles.
It was Amanda who first intuited what I was doing. I was dealing with some things, she knew that, and she was trying to give me space—but had I noticed, perhaps when I looked in the mirror, that every day I was wearing something radically different from the last? As though the clothes I owned were a deck of cards and I was absentmindedly shuffling them. This would've been unremarkable given what I'd moved to Los Angeles with. But I'd been shopping. I'd been replacing the things I owned with... I guess I wasn't sure what these new things were.
It started in a clothing store in Culver City—I'd gone there with a close friend of mine, Sean, and our partners. Sean knew the co-founder, Josh Peskowitz, a little. Josh had gone into business with Levi's to make these jeans—they were 501s but cut wider, with extra panels of denim sewn into the legs, hemmed comically high, around the mid-calf. They were...clown pants. Sean wouldn't even come out of his dressing room with them on. I did and was rewarded with Amanda's disbelieving laughter. For whatever reason, I carried them to the register anyway. Maybe because they made me feel like someone other than myself. Or because I wanted to go on the offensive against what was happening to my family, and this was the dumb reptile way I chose to fight back. All I really know for sure is that I became their owner. And then I kept going.
Boxes from far-off places began to arrive at our house weekly, daily. The things I wore were broadening, going horizontal. At GQ, we pledge allegiance to tailoring, to fit. This was something different. This was a David Byrne suit—billboard-sized, rectangular—made out of cotton and denim. Some days I looked like two men standing side by side, or maybe one very overwhelmed boy. A just-landed paratrooper thrashing around in his own parachute. Hiding myself in fabric. I did laps around our living room, trying out new colors and shapes.
The silhouettes that emerged from these experiments were dopey and various. Amanda said she never knew who would come out of the bedroom at any given moment. To be honest, I didn't, either. I zigged, zagged, light to dark, pale to colorful. Dignified to, frankly, ridiculous. I bought a turtleneck that had the word CACTUS right on the neck, upside down, a garment that I lacked the confidence to wear 98 percent of the time—but man, those 2 percent days. I cherished a gray Tim Coppens sweatshirt covered in stiff, random blotches of color—the kind of garment so deliberately weird people had to acknowledge it when I wore it. After Donald Trump's election, I blacked out and came to on New Year's Eve wearing a turtleneck threaded with gold. Sean said I looked like a washed-up Italian film director attempting his 23rd film. It was not meant as a compliment.
Eventually it got to the point where I wanted to talk to someone about what I was wearing. Someone expert. I was on a journey without knowing where I was going, and I kept accidentally steering off the road. (Here I think of the pinstriped pants by Our Legacy, thin and diaphanous and accommodating, that Amanda refused to let me wear outside the home. Or inside the home.) Who could take my training wheels off, give me permission to go deeper? I needed someone to help me sort out my feelings about clothes—or the feelings that had led me to have feelings about clothes. Someone to teach me enough about style to get through this rough patch in my life in a deliberate and aesthetically pleasing way. I wasn't proud that this was what I had chosen to focus on at a tumultuous time in my life. But the idiot mind wants what it wants.
And I knew who I wanted to talk to. Assuming I could find him, anyway.
Hiroki Nakamura. Designer of the cult label Visvim. Famously elusive, but also famous in fashion circles for making clothes with the same emotional remainder, that lingering inchoate magic, that a museum-caliber work of art has. He resided in the zone I wanted to enter, where clothes were more than clothes. I'd admired his designs for years, while never being able to afford even a single item. The fringed moccasin sneakers he'd become known for; the denim jackets, hand-finished, heavy with aura; one-of-a-kind painted shirts; sturdy, ancient-looking pants. Hiroki's inspirations were old workwear, the turquoise and silver of the American Southwest, and the insane levels of artisanship he'd seen growing up in Japan—indigo dyers, silk-weavers, people who had been glazing porcelain for hundreds of years. He'd once worked at a snowboarding company, Burton, which gave him a technical savvy. But in 2001, at age 29, he'd left to start Visvim. His clothes are prohibitively expensive—flannels that cost $975, unstructured jackets that cost twice that—and coveted by the likes of John Mayer and Kanye West. Hiroki's pieces have the feel of artifacts—of rare materials meeting rare craftsmanship but coming together in familiar forms, like jeans or parkas. They look like they were hand-sculpted after being dug out of the earth in some faraway desert. They have power.
In the few interviews I could find, he was slightly...gnomic. A man of relatively few words. But the things he designed looked reassuring. Like they'd fought off demons and won. I thought maybe he'd have some advice on doing just that.
Shortly before Memorial Day, Amanda and I flew back to New York and drove north into the Catskills to get married. My mother wore a wig to approximate the hair she'd lost, and walked me down the aisle. By this point, she was hollowed out from chemotherapy, but her doctors were optimistic—the same drugs that were annihilating her were annihilating her cancer. She was going to live. For our wedding, she'd skipped her weekly chemo session so that she'd have the energy to dance. She danced! And for a moment, everything went calm and quiet.
Hiroki has an aversion to things that are too perfect: "Because everything is made by machine, everything is perfect—it's boring. It's uncomfortable, almost."
In June, she had surgery—they took her ovaries, both breasts. My father told me he dreaded the moment after the stitches came out, when the reality of what she'd lost would set in for her. After the surgery, I flew to Philadelphia, and we took walks around the block—once a day, and then twice, and then practically every hour. You cannot keep my mother on a couch. By the fall, she was nearly herself again. Her hair had begun to grow back; she got her first haircut in months. She had gone through hell and came out looking like Jean Seberg in Breathless. It was the most miraculous thing. On the phone, I told her how I'd been coping, and asked if she might mind if I went further, maybe even documented whatever weird quest I was on. She admitted that she'd noticed that my clothes had gotten increasingly...whimsical. If I wanted to write about that—about her—she was okay with that.
I reached out to Hiroki. It wasn't easy—he is, by design, difficult to find. He's always on an airplane, or on a road trip without his phone, or meeting with the planet's one armadillo-skin harvester in an undisclosed location. Finally, a few weeks after the election, I heard back. He was amenable to the idea of playing therapist, of attempting to dispense some emotional and/or sartorial advice. He asked if we might meet in January, in Paris.
Visvim, at its best, re-centers reality around its own peculiar values—it drapes you in magic. Behold, for instance, the jacket Hiroki was wearing when we first met. It was...tweedy. Reddish. It looked like a cape, but also a kimono. He said the garment was inspired by both shapes, and by the Ainu, the ancient indigenous people of Japan and Russia. He grinned, held up his right arm, shook his voluminous sleeve. The sound of keys hitting wallet hitting cell phone—the sound of a pocket!—rang out. He'd put the pocket in the sleeve. An actual magician's garment, full of magician's tricks.
We were in his Paris showroom on a Friday morning. It was men's Fashion Week there, and Inauguration Day back in America—every time I remembered this fact, I felt dread. We were surrounded by things he'd made. He showed me a brown shearling coat, its surface shiny with lacquer, and then a natural leather jacket in a vivid purple-red. The color, he explained, came from massaging persimmon jam into the leather. I want to say that again: He was rubbing jackets with jam.
Eventually we sat down in a side room, where he told me his story. He was born in 1971. Grew up in Kofu, Japan. His parents owned a factory. He was a teenager in Japan right as the craze for American workwear set in among the country's youth. "All of my friends were into Americana," he said. He started collecting vintage denim and shoes. "And I started having a realization: Some vintage boots I really like, and some I don't." Where was that feeling coming from in one piece and not in another? he asked himself. "What's the difference? It's the same company. Why do I like this more than this? I was always curious about that." He began making a list for each item of clothing, trying to figure out which qualities he was drawn to.
Hiroki likes to tell a story about a Tibetan robe he found in Nepal. Sort of Visvim's Rosetta stone, like my clown pants, the object that unlocks the whole story. The robe was sitting in the corner of an antiques shop. Hiroki found himself drawn to it. He said to himself: "That's so powerful, I don't know what that is." He saw the color first: "Reddish, deep, burgundy, really rich." Then he opened it. "Inside is all indigo." He had that feeling—that rush of discovery. "I put it on.... I am super cool." He could walk down the street and feel invincible. The robe put him in the world more; there was no doubting his presence with it on. It is a feeling he's been chasing ever since. "I have to ask myself: Why am I so excited about this? That's where my design process comes from."
He is fond of the word character, the way an object can express individuality, experience, life force. He has an aversion to things that are too perfect: "Because everything is made by machine, everything is perfect—it's boring. It's uncomfortable, almost. Even being in a new car, for me, I get carsick. Because it's sealed perfectly, there's no air movement. Just being in skyscrapers, for me, I feel like a little gecko put into a glass box or something, you know? I can't breathe anymore." He was trying, he realized, to make imperfect things you could breathe in.
He began seeking out artisans. Mud dyers, reindeer-hide shapers in Lapland, spinners of rare Sea Island cotton. He used pits in the ground full of live bacteria. Hand-dyed yarn. Ancient Frenchwomen who crochet. Industrial washers to shrink denim in precise 35 percent increments.
At first, Visvim was a cult thing—exotic, mysterious. I remember seeing it years ago, albeit rarely, in certain shops—a few embroidered shirts, weathered pants with quiet force, bearing price tags too substantial to reckon with, like postcards from some improbable, faraway place.
I'd heard Eric Clapton was a collector. I wrote him to ask what he saw in Visvim. It was a whim, basically; I did not expect a reply. To my surprise, he wrote back immediately:
I see Hiroki as an anthropologist, a folklorist who finds the thread that weaves all of our different cultures together, a perfectionist who understands the importance of pure design, form following function...
I have the honour to know him as a friend, and fellow traveller, we met through another pilgrim; Hiroshi Fujiwara, a great designer himself and the founder of Goodenough and Fragment...
Over the last seventeen years I have bought almost everything Hiroki has made, sometimes several times over. I humbly regard him as the first designer in the world today...
I have probably the largest collection of Visvim artefacts in the world, matched only perhaps by John Mayer, who continually beats me to the punch...
I literally cannot wear anything else (other than custom Loro Piana)...
We were strangers to each other but I quickly laid it out for Hiroki, the reason I'd come. The rootlessness, formlessness of Los Angeles. My mother on the mend, my family trying to make sense of the void we'd all just glimpsed. My new wife and I, trying to learn how to be good to each other. Our new president, hours away from the oath of office. The foreboding everyone I knew felt. The sense of powerlessness. How do we take care of ourselves when the world won't take care of us? You could already tell we were entering a year of psychic trauma, and I wanted to hear that there were things I could do to mitigate that, things I could wear to increase my resolve.
Hiroki said he understood. The way who you are seems to interact in some deeper way with what you wear, how one influences the other. He'd built an entire life around that idea. He and his wife and their daughter live in Los Angeles, too, for much of the year. They split their time between Japan and California, he said. They live not far from me, it turned out, and were relative newcomers as well, drawn to the "free feeling" of the place, as Hiroki put it.
Los Angeles was useful to his design process, he said: "I can face myself. I can focus on myself. Almost like you said—What am I? This really neutral space. Not so much heavy culture. More free space." It was an opportunity to look at yourself, like I'd been doing anxiously in the mirror most mornings. To contemplate who you were, at a moment when life had turned things over to a blank page, and who you might be.
I asked him about the Tibetan robe—it was a nice story, I said, but I didn't know anyone confident enough to identify an ancient robe in a vintage shop far from home and make it their own, bring it back to their own life. How do you become a person who can do that? "I just choose," he said. "That was my choice. I just said, 'Okay: I'm going to wear this.' You just want to wear something other people will think looks great? Or something you are excited by? I choose: I want to be excited!"
He had a piece of advice about this, how to wear the robe. He said that every time he got a new pair of shoes, the first thing he did was step on them—left foot on right, right foot on left. It was counter-intuitive, obviously. Imagine spending $800 on a new pair of Visvim shoes and then scuffing them up. But that was the entire point, he said—making them your own. "I think that's one of the joys and happiness that clothes can give us," he said. "My boots, I've been wearing probably two years?" He pointed down at his feet, to his beautifully aged Visvim shoes. They were precisely the right amount of destroyed. He said he watered his garden in them. Then showed up in Paris and wore the same pair in front of the editors and buyers of every major fashion institution on earth.
I mentioned the clown pants. How I was drawn to them—soothed by them—without necessarily feeling like I could justify it. I had no story to tell, just an internal feeling, an ache that got a little less acute when serviced. Talking to him had already clarified some things about that feeling. I explained how I didn't have much to say about how people reacted when I wore them around Los Angeles, because most of the time people didn't react. This itself was liberating. Clad in a ridiculous outfit, I offered myself up to the judgment of strangers, only to realize they weren't judging at all. It made you realize how self-directed a pursuit style was, or could be, when done correctly. It was a way of talking to yourself, of listening to your own grief and anxiety and desire, insecurity and dislocation and faith, and answering with an extra inch of width, an aggressive crop, a ridiculous color. With a pair of clown pants, even.
Hiroki grinned, hearing this—he has a great grin, wide and wolfish, totally unforced. "Exactly," he said. Permission granted. Clown pants? Why not clown pants? "Sometimes you're thinking too much," he said. "Like, 'Is it okay? This is maybe too much.' " But there's something about that feeling—the one that says Wow—that is worth following, he said. "You build up stuff in your head. When you were little, you just followed your heart all the time. Looking at our 11-year-old, she's following her heart. But I can see she's building up something in her head because of other things. When she was 3, she was much more free. Like, 'I want to wear this!' Now she's more like, 'I want to look like a movie character' or whatever. That's from here," he said, pointing to his head. "I think sometimes you need to intentionally listen to your heart."
He said even he got out of his body sometimes. That itchy anxiety I knew so well. Like you're looking down skeptically at yourself. "Sometimes I have to re-adjust myself," he said. "I start thinking with my head again." He has to tell himself: "No, no, no—come down, come down, come down."
He gestured one final time at his heart, where he wanted the mind to go. He said he hoped that helped.
We shook hands, the silver bracelets on his wrists ringing out in the showroom.
I walked back through Paris in quickening dread toward my hotel room and its television, where the broadcast of the inauguration would soon begin. From the Marais down to the Seine and across Île de la Cité to Pont Neuf, where six months ago Amanda and I had stood on the first day of our honeymoon, tears on her face. Notre Dame an elegant shadow to the east. All this that people are capable of. On television, Kellyanne Conway was wearing a Gucci coat in red, white, and blue, like a tiny, vicious doll.
That night in Los Angeles, in anticipation of the Women's March, my wife painted a sign that said: "Never Doubt That You Are Valuable and Powerful." I flew home not knowing what kind of world I'd land in.
In row 19, somewhere above the ocean, I inventoried what I owned, what I wore, what I wanted. Like Hiroki beholding some new object and making a list to divine the source of its power. Embracing the holes and the dents, as I'd been instructed to do—to understand that the imperfections in things were what belonged to me most. Trying to really love what I'd been given an opportunity to love. This is the Sid Mashburn suit I married my wife in. This is the pink short-sleeve shirt, broad and patterned, I wore to vote for Hillary Clinton. I bought this denim jacket in Portland with Sean. And this is the long-sleeve striped shirt so violently weird that during my mother's first trip out to Los Angeles after her recovery, she confessed that when she'd seen me wearing it in a photo she couldn't quite tell if it was a delusion brought on by the chemicals in her system. She'd looked at me and told herself, "I must be chemo'd out." But she saw clearly enough. We were both alive.
Zach Baron is GQ's staff writer.
This story originally appeared in the April 2017 issue with the title "Can You Change Your Life by Changing Your Pants?."