NEW YORK, NY.-
There was a moment, about six years ago, when Nigo realized he felt old.
This is not a particularly unusual feeling for someone in his mid-40s, as he was then. But this was Nigo, one of the most influential figures in streetwear, who helped turn a subculture into culture-culture, who practically pioneered the concept of selling $400 hoodies to lines of hungry, hungry hypebeasts.
Nigo had been tapping into youth culture since 1993, when he founded A Bathing Ape (or Bape). Often seen wearing Bapes signature camouflage pattern, along with diamond-encrusted necklaces, the mononymous designer and music producer had become a cool guys cool guy, a hero-collaborator to men such as Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and Virgil Abloh.
But as he approached middle age, Nigo found himself dressing more conservatively, he said. After 20 years with Bape, he had sold and left the brand, focusing instead on his other labels (such as Human Made, founded in 2010) and other roles (such as creative director of the Uniqlo UT collection, appointed in 2014). He began to think, Maybe its not my time anymore, as he recalled in an interview, speaking through a Japanese translator.
Then Williams intervened.
I was like, What are you doing? said Williams, a longtime friend and business partner through their Billionaire Boys Club label. Now is not the time for that. Now is the time for you to really hunker down, put your head down low and do what you do best. You are one of the greatest curators of taste and purveyors of whats next.
(Everything was just changing really rapidly, Williams said of Nigos quasi-midlife crisis. And Nigos a Capricorn. Capricorns an earth sign, so theyre into certainty.)
Nigo took the advice seriously, realizing it was part of his job, he said, to not succumb to those kinds of tendencies of feeling old or out of touch.
Now, a few years removed from his intervention, Williams sees this moment in Nigos life as necessary, so that he could make room for this this being Nigos newest role as artistic director of Kenzo. On Sunday in Paris, the 51-year-old designer will present his first collection for the brand, which is owned by LVMH.
When the announcement of Nigos appointment was made in September, it emphasized that he was the first Japanese designer of the house since Kenzo Takada, its founder. Takada left the brand in 1999, a few years after selling to LVMH for about $80 million. He died in 2020 at age 81 of complications from COVID-19.
Nigo never met Takada, he said, although Takada had occasionally visited the campus of Nigos alma mater, Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, while Nigo was a student. Still, Kenzos early work was a big influence on Nigo as a teenager.
The brand had a particularly interesting way of using powerful colors together, Nigo said, which differed from the dark, somber, cool use of color dominating Japanese fashion at the time. Takadas collections highlighted Asian textiles but also borrowed elements from European folk dress, theater costumes, military uniforms and more.
This absorption of eclectic influences is something Nigo sees reflected in his own work. He has long been inspired by (and has inspired) hip-hop culture. His work incorporates military themes, cartoonish animal illustrations and vintage American workwear silhouettes. Yet his first Kenzo collection will be largely an homage to Takadas early work, particularly his designs from the 1980s.
Those early collections included accents such as kimono sleeves and oversize berets; the new Kenzo kimonos are imagined as overcoats, and its large berets are embroidered with the year 1970. (Thats the year Nigo was born, but also the year Takada presented his first fashion show at Galerie Vivienne, which is the site of Nigos Sunday show.)
There are some tiger graphics in the new collection a Kenzo motif that was commercially successful under Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Kenzos creative directors from 2011-19 but for the most part, Nigos Kenzo is exceptionally floral, incorporating poppies, cherry blossoms and other botanical prints that are new, old or redrawn from archival patterns.
A paisley-print shirt from the archive becomes a vibrant green shirtdress. A two-tone Harris tweed jacket gray and dark gray in Takadas archive is newly rendered in yassified pink and dark gray. A white mens suit is covered in original fashion sketches by Takada. Denim, an obsession of Nigos, is tailored like formalwear.
There is very little skin or sex appeal, although that was never really the point of Kenzo. Nigo will be presenting both menswear and womenswear Sunday, although both collections come across as fairly unisex. (This is the first time he has overseen a womens collection.)
He has referred to his new job as the greatest challenge of my 30-year career (in Septembers announcement) and huge pressure (in his interview for this article), but Nigo said he accepted the position almost immediately. He was first approached in 2020, after the release of his first Louis Vuitton collaboration with Virgil Abloh, the late mens designer who considered Nigo a mentor.
To the fashion industry, Nigos appointment signaled just how important streetwear has become to luxury houses.
When we met Nigo, he was already known as a pioneer of todays new culture, going even beyond fashion, said Sidney Toledano, chair and CEO of LVMH Fashion Group.
But how much hypebeast culture will be coming to Kenzo along with Nigo? There will be a focus on creating a sense of exclusivity, the house has said, including through limited-edition drops, but Nigo is adamant that its not really just about kind of limiting the number of items.
That sort of just seems like a kind of a trick, he said. Its more about concentrating on making things desired. More of a focus on taking care of how each single is presented and sold to the audience.
Similarly, although Nigo is widely associated with collaborations with Levis, with Adidas, with KAWS, with Kentucky Fried Chicken they wont be his focus at Kenzo for now.
The focus is to make the Kenzo brand intrinsically exciting, he said. Were always open to doing interesting collaborations, but theyre just spice. Theyre not the meal.
The hope seems to be that Nigos inherent coolness and proximity to coolness will drive the brand in that direction, rather than any specific overhauls to the business model. Because Nigo is by all accounts, and despite his moment of doubt six years ago still cool.
Anyone thats doing anything cool, theyve been influenced by Nigo, said Steven Victor, whose Victor Victor Worldwide imprint at Universal Music Group is releasing Nigos new album on March 25.
Its the first Nigo has released under his name in nearly 20 years, and it will feature Williams, ASAP Rocky, Lil Uzi Vert, Pusha T and Tyler, the Creator.
But ask Nigo why he is doing an album now, after all these years, and hell bring it all back to Kenzo Takada.
Theres a very famous quote from Kenzo san, Nigo said. When he was asked, Whats fashion? he replied: Music.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times