What's a $15k shirt "worth"?

Collector-Brain-Worm Mindset: A Profound Spyplane Exploration

During our open call for questions on IG the other day, a reader named Alex B. wrote in “to get your perspective on Visvim“ as it relates to the principle of “buy less, buy better” — i.e., the argument / fantasy that if you spend more $ on something that’s well made, it’ll pay “long-term dividends” by satisfying you so deeply and aging so durably that you wind up copping fewer wacker things…

Visvim — a Japanese brand from designer Hiroki Nakamura — has a cult following that can seduce, mystify and annoy people who look at a pair of $3,450 fatigues or a $15,000 camp shirt (more on that later) and wonder, “Why does that cost that?” When U do a search for “visvim” the top suggested question is, “Why is Visvim so expensive?” (Part of the answer is import duties, ‘cause their clothes can cost ~40% less in Japan.)

We’ve received Visvim reader Qs before: @benarthurrr asked about the “best relatively inexpensive Visvim pieces” and @m_schuerman asked, “what are the building blocks of a Visvim collection?” …

That use of the word collection got me thinking about a particular jawns-copping mentality that Visvim and other cult brands can seem built to inspire in people: call it “collector-brain-worm” mindset.

So I mainlined some Omega 3 to get the FRONTAL LOBE BUSSIN’ and spun up a classic “unbeatably profound” Spyplane rumination...

This is a reader-supported “masterpiece sletter.” Have fun and treat yrself to a perk-stuffed Spyplane classified-tier subscription.

A constant refrain among jawns enthusiasts is “what’s a jawn really worth?”… This isn’t a question with a concrete answer so much as it’s an invitation to debate, but that doesn’t stop ppl from trying to muster concrete answers anyway, doing things like calculating “cost-per-wear” (“these jeans break down to just 14 cents a day!”)…

That’s one (dubious) way to figure out worth. There’s also the secondary market, where clothing tends to follow “new car”-style depreciation, dropping dramatically in value the moment you “drive it off the lot.” If its luster fades and u toss it up for sale — even if you let ppl know the s**t is “NWT” and “very rare” — u gotta brace yrself for offloading it at a LOSS like a CHUMP😜!!

There are exceptional cases, though: Certain limited-edition drops carry outlandish price-tags that can get even higher at resale (see the contemporary sneaker comedyhellscape)… The fact that Etsy just paid $1.6b to acquire Depop parallels and reflects the fact that ‘90s and Y2K-era graphic tees have gone $upernova … And, as the moodboard-driven market for ‘90s-era Raf / Yohji / Issey / Phoebe-Philo-era Chloé and Céline / etc. demonstrates, so have certain “archive” designer gems…

What these jawns have in common is they all activate COLLECTOR BRAIN WORMS a highly potent, mostly irrational, sometimes stupid, sometimes delightful variant of consumer desire where the value (to the worm host) of a coveted jawn goes $trato$pheric thanks to a complex interaction of time, scarcity, “insider knowledge” and “community echo-chamber effects” (a.k.a. hype).

Collector communities are extreme “if you know, you know” niches, where “rarefied knowledge” confers cachet onto somebody, and confers wild value onto a jawn, precisely to the degree that it’s unintelligible / uninteresting to 99.9999% of people beyond the immediate in-group of fellow collector-brain-wormed MFs — a.k.a. obsessive jawnoisseurs.

Some natural-dyed Visvim joints come “editioned,” with tags hand-numbered in pencil… It’s embarrassing how appealing I find this, and these aren’t even the crazy-rare ones where Hiroki Nakamura signs the d*mn label

I’m not just talking about jawn-collecting in the familiar sense — an archetypal sneakerhead amassing Jordan OGs, a gorp scholar hunting vintage Chouinard Equipment rugbys — but also about pieces that aren’t as intuitively collectible, e.g. an African indigo-cloth Bode shirt with a bunch of hand-mending, which might come to function in a jawns-copper’s imagination much like an old baseball card with a cherished printing error, or a watch with coveted “tropical dial” sun damage or an antique stamp with a property I can’t name because I don’t know anything about “baller stamps” …

Collector brain worms can be symbiotic — encouraging us to learn about an object’s history and see things we wouldn’t see otherwise — and they can be parasitic. Some collector-a** MFs regard a garment as a pure “investment” that they buy expressly to flip, which is such a deadened way of relating to jawns—emptied of all love and weirdness—that Blackbird Spyplane will not reckon with it outside of this sentence!!

I’ve been susceptible to collector brain worms, beneficial and parasitic alike, my whole life — shout out to 12-year-old Spyplane getting heavy into comics, or 32-year-old Spyplane getting heavy into Criterion Blu-rays etc., etc.… One way this manifests with clothes is I’ll get fixated on a single label and cop from them quasi-compulsively. So when L.A.’s Band of Outsiders (RIP) spent the mid-’00s selling dozens of iterations of the same (very nice) button down — keeping the pattern unchanged but swapping in different materials, colors, and prints — they stoked a Pokémon-a$$ “gotta cop ‘em all” frenzy in a bunch of people, including yrs truly…

Before they took on too much investment capital and went belly up, Band of Outsiders made the same shirt season in, season out, over and over — and “collector-brain-wormed” ppl like yrs truly copped it… season in, season out

There are tons of other, more recent examples of these kinds of beloved “repeating template” jawns, like 18 East’s Gorecki pants or Our Legacy’s shawl zip shirts or something more mass, like Nike retros. You can see the appeal here from the brand’s end of things: Rather than developing and gambling on new silhouettes each season, you post up in a sweet spot & tweak a successful staple piece = “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

What’s the appeal for the jawnoisseur? To a degree, I wonder if my tendency to amass multiples stems from the same part of my brain that enjoys listening to Steve Reich or Terry Riley or Mobb Deep: music where a melodic / rhythmic figure just drones, over and over, with gradual variation … Repetition has its magic.

But that’s me trying to cast a flattering light on what is also some ~DaRk aNd tWiStEd~ brain-worm behavior, because there’s plainly a pathology here, too: Buying the same jawn on repeat has an “insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results” element to it… The nature of jawns-desire is that we can’t ever satisfy it, never “fill the void,” so the moment we smash the cop on a garment, the ghost (pictured below) slips out of our grasp and floats off to find a new jawn to haunt us from. Copping multiples can be an especially manic way of chasing that ghost. (If you are on some Steve Jobs 300-identical-mocknecks s**t, i.e. locking in a uniform, that’s something else.)

Relatedly I’ve noticed that when I’m feeling healthy and happy — like when I’m deep into a great book or at the end of a stokey bike ride or lost in conversation with homies — my interest in copping s**t that I don’t need plummets to non-pathological levels

It doesn’t plummet to zero, though, don’t get it twisted, this is still the no. 1 source across all media for “unbeatable recon” on dope under-the-radar joints baby!!

Which brings us back to Visvim, a label that makes a bunch of stuff I love, and whose appeal epitomizes the collector-brain-worm dynamic… Re: the reader questions about a “relatively inexpensive” “building block Visvim piece,” my pick is probably the Iris liner jacket (above), which is versatile (outer layer, midlayer); reversible (2 jawns in 1!); pops up at resellers a lot in both rare and “basic” versions; and is highly tempting to amass in multiple on some financially ill-advised s**t…

So what’s an Iris, or any Visvim piece, “really worth?”

I put this question to a SpyFriend with some knowledge of the production end of Japanese jawnsmithing… They did a quick back-of-the-napkin estimate of Visvim’s fabrication costs across a few pieces and concluded that the brand’s U.S. retail mark-up was an astronomical ~9x in cases. (Is this off the mark?? Visvim, holler at us & set the record straight!)

I said something like, “They do develop their own crazy fabrics…” & the knowledgeable SpyFriend replied that this was true, but so do other Japanese makers (like OrSlow and Cottle), and their prices, while high, are nowhere near Visvim’s…

Big markups are common at buzzy / luxury brands, where U pay extra for “aura,” but what Visvim also explicitly engineers in its diehards, which isn’t true of every such label, is turbo-mode collector-brain-worm mindset. Not only do they drop constant reiterations of the Christo sandal and FBT sneaker (the two Vis joints that infiltrated hypebeast culture most and FWIW leave me cold), but they also release clothing in literal hand-numbered “editions” (see the hang-tags above) that can be as small as 1000, 46, or even 5 pieces.

The promise here isn’t just that the jawn is rare but that its creation involves painstaking artisan techniques, refined over centuries, that can’t be “scaled,” whether it’s dorozuke mud-dyeing and other natural-dye treatments, gara-bou yarn spinning (above), ikat-style kasuri weaving and on and on…

If a brand can help you convince yourself that you are not merely “copping a jawn” but “collecting artifacts” — collecting ART, even — then it’s coaxed you into a low-gravity realm where the tether between market value and “intrinsic” value gets wildly elastic. With Visvim, though, the tether doesn’t break. I met up with Hiroki Nakamura for a chat at the Visvim Kanazawa shop a couple years ago, and he emphasized his interest in finding contemporary expressions for old garment-making techniques so labor- and time-intensive they risk extinction — Visvim as luxury “historical preservation” effort…

(As a counter-example, take Demna-era Balenciaga, much of which follows a cynical “post-sincerity” troll logic, where sometimes the brand’s winking “point” seems to be demonstrating how much people will pay for ugly, cheap-looking clothes…)

Visvim tests the upper limits of “price point,” but from the other direction. Above is a hand-printed silk “Hyakunin-Isshu” Visvim camp shirt that made the rounds when it dropped back in SS19 because it cost $15,000. The printing involved carving paper stencils by hand, then “gradually ‘rubbing’ layers of color” through them “with a technique known as katazurizome — a Japanese method of dyeing fabrics using a resist paste.” Meanwhile the silk is “Tango chirimen (crepe) that features uneven grains created by untwisting normal crepe-twist yarn.”

Wow — the price is preposterous, but I would like to touch this shirt !

It’s tempting to use tactile appeal — physical qualities like drape, finish, and feel — as a kind of “gold standard” for value, which separates expensive clothes from, say, expensive paintings, which, unlike things you wear, have no utilitarian function or “affordable mass-market equivalent” that you can refer to in trying to calibrate “what they should cost.”

But I also just love stories of how ingenious things are made and, as ingenious-jawn-storytellers go, Visvim are unparalleled, joining a long tradition of staggeringly involved (and fetishized) Japanese craftsmanship that includes, for instance, $4,000 artisan-grown mangoes. (They’re called Taiyo no Tamago, look it up!)

That’s ultimately where I land on collector-brain-worm mindset: Special, ingenious, impractical things deserve to be celebrated and, among other things, that’s what collector communities do. It’s just that the line between ingenious impracticality and obscene decadence is tough to pinpoint, and celebration can easily become psychosis!!

Case in point… now I’ve got Mach 3+ mangos on the brain… who wants to go in on a BOX and calculate the “cost per bite” ?? 🥭🐛❤️

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Every “Blackbird Spyplane Interview,” with such luminaries of the arts & jawn sciences as Jerry Seinfeld, André 3000, Emily Bode, Lorde, Online Ceramics, Nathan Fielder, Sandy Liang, Phoebe Bridgers, Andrew Kuo, Rashida Jones, John Wilson, Ezra Koenig, Romeo Okwara and more, is *HERE*.