The designer brings a new kind of cool to Kenzo

There was a time, about six years ago, when Nigo realized he was feeling old.

It’s not a particularly unusual feeling for someone in their 40s, as it was then. But it was Nigo, one of the most influential figures in streetwear, who helped turn a subculture into a culture-culture, who practically pioneered the concept of selling $400 hoodies to lines of hungry, hungry hypebeasts.

Nigo had tapped into youth culture since 1993, when he founded A Bathing Ape (or Bape). Often seen wearing Bape’s signature camouflage pattern, as well as diamond-encrusted necklaces, the mononymous creator and music producer had become a cool guy, a hero-collaborator to men like Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and Virgil Abloh.

But as he approached middle age, Nigo found himself dressing more conservatively, he said. After 20 years at Bape, he had sold and left the brand, focusing instead on his other labels (like Human Made, founded in 2010) and other roles (like creative director of the Uniqlo UT collection, appointed in 2014). He started thinking, “Maybe it’s not my time anymore,” as he recalled in an interview, speaking through a Japanese translator.

Then Mr. Williams intervened.

“I was like, ‘What are you doing?'” said Mr 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 and do what you do best. You are one of the greatest taste preservers and purveyors next.”

(“Everything was just changing very quickly,” Mr. Williams said of Nigo’s mid-life crisis. “And Nigo is a Capricorn. Capricorn is an earth sign, so they’re in for certainty.”)

Nigo took the advice seriously, realizing that it was part of his job, he said, not to “succumb to these kinds of tendencies” of feeling old or disconnected.

Now, a few years away from his intervention, Mr Williams sees this moment in Nigo’s life as necessary, “so that he can make room for this” – this being Nigo’s new role as artistic director of Kenzo. On Sunday in Paris, the 51-year-old designer will present his first collection for the brand, owned by LVMH.

When Nigo’s appointment was announced in September, it was pointed out that he was the house’s first Japanese designer since founder Kenzo Takada. Mr. Takada left the brand in 1999, a few years after selling to LVMH for around $80 million. He died in 2020 at age 81 of complications from Covid-19.

Nigo never met Mr. Takada, he said, although Mr. Takada occasionally visited the campus of Nigo’s alma mater, Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, when Nigo was a student. Still, Kenzo’s early work had 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, dark, and cool use of color that dominated Japanese fashion at the time. Mr. Takada’s collections showcased Asian textiles, but also borrowed elements from European folk clothing, theatrical 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 debut Kenzo collection will largely be a tribute to Mr. Takada’s early work, particularly his designs from the 1980s.

These early collections included accents like kimono sleeves and oversized berets; the new Kenzo kimonos are imagined as overcoats, and its large berets are embroidered with the vintage “1970”. (It’s the year Nigo was born, but also the year Mr. Takada presented his first fashion show at Galerie Vivienne, which is the site of Nigo’s Sunday parade.)

There are a few tiger graphics in the new collection – a Kenzo pattern that enjoyed commercial success under Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Kenzo’s creative directors from 2011 to 2019 – but for the most part Nigo’s Kenzo is exceptionally floral. , incorporating poppies, cherry blossoms and other new, old or redesigned botanical prints from archival designs.

A paisley print shirt from the archives becomes a vibrant green shirt dress. A two-tone Harris tweed jacket – gray and dark gray in Mr Takada’s archive – is newly rendered in pink and dark grey. A white man’s suit is covered in original fashion sketches by Mr. Takada. Denim, an obsession of Nigo, is tailored like evening wear.

There’s very little skin or sex appeal, although that was never really Kenzo’s goal. Nigo will feature both men’s and women’s wear on Sunday, though both collections appear fairly unisex. (This is the first time he’s overseen a women’s collection.)

He called his new job “the biggest challenge of my 30-year career” (in the September announcement) and “huge pressure” (in his interview for this article), but Nigo said he had accepted the job almost immediately. He was first approached in 2020, after releasing his first Louis Vuitton collaboration with Virgil Abloh, the late male designer who considered Nigo a mentor.

For the fashion industry, Nigo’s appointment showed just how important street wear has become for luxury houses.

“When we met Nigo, he was already known as a pioneer of today’s new culture, even going beyond fashion,” said Sidney Toledano, Chairman and CEO of LVMH Fashion Group.

But how much hypebeast culture will come to Kenzo with Nigo? The focus will be on creating a sense of exclusivity, the house said, including through limited-edition drops, but Nigo is adamant that it’s “not really about limiting number of items”.

“It looks like some kind of trick,” he said. “It’s more about focusing on making things desired. The focus is more on how each single is presented and sold to the public.

Likewise, while Nigo is widely associated with collaborations – with Levi’s, with Adidas, with KAWS, with Kentucky Fried Chicken – they won’t be his focus at Kenzo just yet.

“The goal is to make the Kenzo brand inherently exciting,” he said. “We are always open to interesting collaborations, but they are only spice. It’s not the meal.

The hope seems to be that Nigo’s inherent coolness – and its closeness to coolness – will drive the brand in that direction, rather than any specific business model overhaul. Because Nigo is, by all accounts, and despite his moment of doubt six years ago, still cool.

“Everyone who does something cool has been influenced by Nigo,” said Steven Victor, whose Victor Victor Worldwide imprint at Universal Music Group releases Nigo’s new album on March 25.

It’s the first Nigo released under his name in nearly 20 years, and it will feature Mr. Williams, ASAP Rocky, Lil Uzi Vert, Pusha T and Tyler, the Creator.

But ask Nigo why he’s making an album now, after all these years, and he’ll bring it all back to Kenzo Takada.

“There is a very famous quote from Kenzo san,” Nigo said. “When asked, ‘What is fashion?’ he replied: “music”.

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