Over the course of the past 24 hours, I’ve become transfixed by a T-shirt. It’s a simple, oversized, one-size-fits-all cut with an unraveling American flag embroidered on the chest, contrast stitching and a skeleton design printed on the back. The front and back sides are different colors (one iteration pairs faded black with eggplant), both of which highlight the quality of the fabric and the dye itself. Kapital, the Okayama-based brand that makes it, offers the shirt through its Kountryline, which focuses on handmade goods and builds on a few key ideas, such as tie-dye, smiley face patches, bandana prints and the aforementioned skeleton motif. The company’s whimsical nature, backed by the arguably unmatched quality of its product and the recognizability of its perennial styles, has contributed to its cult-like status in the menswear sphere. The shirt itself communicates something that I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it reckons with the hollowed out husk of Americana, a design aesthetic and an iconography steeped in mid-century propagandic nostalgia and a certain ambitious naivete. Or maybe it just looks good. Regardless of why it speaks to me, it fits neatly in the space that Kapital has burrowed out for itself — a space that plenty of labels go out of their way to imitate.
Kapital’s “secret sauce,” so to speak, is not that they were the first label to screen print a smiley face or a pile of bones on a T-shirt, nor is it the consistent output of quality craftsmanship (though it surely doesn’t hurt the cause). There’s a whole smattering of things that they do right, but chief among them is a strong brand identity. The company has spent decades articulating its philosophy and will continue to reap the benefits of that labor. To develop a self-referential oeuvre over a lifespan that people come back to without flashy marketing tactics, without trying each season is no small feat. It takes a community of creatives that know who they are and what they do, and it contributes to what people refer to as “authenticity.”
Authenticity is a fraught concept. Sounding it out it in my head as I type is like hearing a plastic spoon scrape the bottom of a styrofoam cup for the last pinch of soft-serve. It reminds me of Amazon ambassadors and corporate Twitter accounts trying to recreate viral memes. The behind-the-scenes: we’re all just people who could maybe be friends, and the big-brother-loves-you-basket of marketing strategies is inescapable from any viewpoint. To reject it and chase whatever lies at the opposite end of that spectrum is a tricky game too, though, because that grass can only get so green. It’s one of the reasons that brands with cult followings like Kapital can feel more like beacons than companies that operate in the same systems as everyone else. It’s almost like there’s a special crop of organizations that manage to fly above the closed loop of identity-based trade. Maybe it’s because some of them built themselves up before the internet boom (Kapital was established in 1985), or because some companies are so entrenched in their perspective that newer modes of communication don’t erode their self-presentation. The question remains, however, especially in fashion: Given that there’s no such thing as an original idea, only new ways of reinterpreting existing ones, what is it that gives a brand authenticity or a sense of truth?
It’s a stereotypical question and a highly subjective one, but it lingers. It’s unanswerable, at least not empirically. It’s one of those things that just is and there’s no accounting for it in any tangible way. It’s one of those things that disappears if you pursue it, and the mere awareness of it creates a delicate and problematic game of intentions. The same can be said for good style, good taste and artistic talent. It pays to be gifted and naive. To put effort into one’s craft is honorable, but to put effort into being good, to being genuine or “real,” is to submit to the Euthanasia Coasterof public opinion, invalidating oneself in the process. Je ne sais quois is a condition doomed to permanent change.
Kapital and brands held in a similar regard aren’t blithely unaware of what it means to produce for a prospective consumer, of course. There are certain stipulations that come with seeking to survive, but adherence to trends and shifting with stylistic demands of the market doesn’t seem to be a part of their lexicon. Rather, ensuring that seasonal offerings both meet a wide range of needs and fit in the evolution of their own tried and true patterns is paramount.
The fashion industry can be exhausting to deal with. After spending my formative years wading through trend reports and wondering how designers seem to show the same styles and color palettes without hosting secret council meetings, or how cultural significance can be achieved without really bringing anything new to the table, finding companies with a strong sense of self is a rare and rewarding experience. They remind me of what I stand for. They also act as something to look to, even if those qualities can’t be attained in myself. As individuals, we hoard things we’re attracted to and cultivate an identity around them. There’s a constant question of how much of oneself is innate and how much is determined by experience, simply adapting to different environments and relationships like designers do to consumer demand. It’s hardly a question worth spending time on, as there are few things more transparent than striving to be unique. We can’t forge ourselves out of thin air or self-actualize in a vacuum, but we can take our personal experiences, our own little product formula and push forward.