Vintage Clothing, Sandstorms in Mongolia, and Kapital's Free Tibet Collection with Eric Kvatek

Eric Kvatek
Eric Kvatek is a documentary and fashion photographer best known for shooting Kapital's lookbooks since 2005. We talked with him about his past selling vintage clothing, how he became a photographer, and his work with Kapital including their controversial Free Tibet lookbook.
Could you describe your trajectory from artist to vintage clothing dealer to documentary and fashion photographer?

I was always into art, wanted to be an artist, so most of my youth I was drawing or thinking about stories that I could turn into projects. My parents had a cheap camera, so I was familiar with taking photos. At sixteen, I bought my own 35mm film camera.

When I went to college, I studied drawing, I tried taking a photography class to gain access to the dark room, but the teacher was very discouraging. The first day of class, he basically said my photos sucked. So, I focused on drawing. Towards the end, I took some political science classes because I was starting to think about being a photojournalist.
Eric Kvatek
After college, I worked on motorcycles. I rebuilt a 1971 Plymouth Roadrunner. I worked in Alaska in the fishing industry and was a grunt for a construction crew in California. In 1993, I moved back to New Mexico and, as a side gig, I started thrift shopping to resell vintage clothing in Los Angeles. There was no guide, so I learned about clothing just by handling it, comparing the quality and labels. Eventually, I made connections with Japanese store owners, and vintage dealing became a full-time business.
Eric Kvatek
In 1997, there was an economic crash, so demand for vintage clothing in Japan halted. I moved to New York City. I didn’t really have a job, but I had some savings, so in 1999, I went to Indonesia and travelled around taking photos. Their economy had collapsed, and there were widespread student protests and riots, so there were no tourists. Towns were strangely empty. Lots of random things burning and smoke wafting down streets. It was a fairly dangerous time to be there, but with help from the students I survived. When I returned to NYC, I had a small portfolio of these photos. A good friend introduced me to the Japanese jeans brand 45rpm and urged me to show them these photos. They asked me if I could shoot fashion photos but in the style of my documentary street photography. Of course, I said yes but I didn’t know anything about being a professional photographer.
Kapital Designer Kiro Hirata
I understand you and Kapital designer Kiro Hirata are quite close. What is it like working with him?

Kiro and I were both on the 45rpm shoots, so we became accustomed to working together when we were fairly young. He was around my age and he spoke English, so we always ended up together. The great thing about Kiro is the incredibly high level of trust he has for me. For a typical Kapital shoot, I go to the location alone. I do all the location scouting, cast the models, shop for props before Kiro arrives. It’s not like he even asks me to send him photos. There’s no approval process or micromanaging. It emphasizes his confidence in me, but more so, it’s about his confidence as a designer to collaborate with me and the models. Trusting somebody that much is about being brave, and Kiro, above all else, is a brave designer.
Eric Kvatek Kapital
Do you have a favorite or most memorable Kapital shoot?

In 2015, maybe. We did the shoot in Mongolia. And Mongolia is intense. Everything is different. There’s all these amazing Russian trucks, weird bars, and the food is like horse and yak and goat brains. Just to get to the shoot area was a one-way five-hour drive in an off-road 4x4 van. I did two round trips: once for scouting and once for shooting. The van shook so badly I damaged my kidneys. At the location area, there were guys on horseback and dirt bikes. There were camels and eagles. We slept in Mongolian versions of yurts called gers. The models were all local kids I found in Ulaanbaatar and these nomadic locals that we literally had to hunt down because they moved with the animals. The first day of shooting, there was a sandstorm – basically a tornado made of rocks. We kept shooting until the models couldn’t stand.
Eric Kvatek Photography
The main older guy model, who was one of the nomads, helped us out a lot. At the end of the shoot, I had to go pay him. The scout and I drove to his camp just the two of us. This man, he really reminded me of my grandfather who was Native American. After this incredibly intense two weeks, I was sitting in his camp, and it occurred to me that I would never see this man ever again, and then being reminded of my grandfather and knowing I was leaving Mongolia soon, I became very sad. I said goodbye the best I could, and then the scout drove me away. Eventually, we pulled over by a river, and he let me sit there alone until I could regain my composure before rejoining the group.

The last night back in Ulaanbaatar we had a birthday party for Kiro. We went to a local bar with a DJ. One set of music was for dancing, then one set of music was strippers and so on. It was very strange but fun. Then some local Mongolian guys got in a fight so violent the security locked the foreigners inside the bathrooms until they could break it up. Thirty minutes later, we went back to drinking and dancing like nothing happened. After that shoot, most have seemed very sedate.
Eric Kvatek Kiro Hirata Kapital
What do you think critics don't see in the Free Tibet lookbook?

My guess as someone involved in the shoot but not an official representative of Kapital is that in Kiro’s mind, “Free Tibet” is part of a rock-&-roll lifestyle, the hippie protest movement, a bohemian counterculture, sticking-it-to-the-man attitude. I doubt he imagined that a world superpower would notice his little skateboard photoshoot and set their militarized troll farm on him. This is not about disgruntled Chinese customers. It’s about a foreign government with a building full of agents with thirty account names each being paid per comment to attack Kapital. Essentially, it’s a terrorist attack of shock and awe. I’m not trying to be dramatic. That’s what it is. I received a few comments from actual customers, real people that were thoughtful and articulate in expressing their disappointment. That’s fine, and I explained to them that I seriously doubt Kapital’s intention was to hurt their feelings. But as citizens of the world - as individual humans, there will be moments when we won’t agree on everything. And that’s okay. Or at least it used to be okay. Kapital is merely a clothing brand, and our photos are only fashion photos, but within that context we have always tried to promote freedom, rugged individuality but with a respect for the common struggle. I hope that actual and genuine customers have understood that, will realize that, and move forward.

All photos courtesy of Eric Kvatec