In Paris With Design Genius Nigo
In early December of last year, about 10 weeks after taking over as artistic director at the French luxury brand Kenzo, the Japanese fashion designer Nigo flew by private jet from Paris to New York, where he headed straight for the Midtown Manhattan town house of upscale jeweler Jacob & Co. It was a familiar pilgrimage for the streetwear icon, whose appetite for custom chains with diamond–encrusted pendants has made Jacob “The Jeweler” Arabo his informal biographer. This chronicle of Nigo’s career began with necklaces with fist-size ape heads inspired by A Bathing Ape, the culture–shifting streetwear brand Nigo founded in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood in 1993. Then came the bejeweled dollar signs commemorating the Billionaire Boys Club brand he cofounded with superstar producer Pharrell Williams a decade later. In celebration of Human Made, the subdued, hypebeast-casual clothing line he launched in 2010, Jacob crafted an assortment of polar bears, ducks, and other cartoonish characters cast in diamonds and white gold.
As Nigo strolled the length of Jacob & Co’s tunnel-like showroom, bathed in lighting powerful enough to reveal the flaws in any gem, it was clear why LVMH, Kenzo’s parent company, had such confidence in the youth appeal of a 50-year-old designer. Dressed in jeans, a white hoodie, and a denim jacket, Nigo had arrived to find Lil Uzi Vert waiting for him. A$AP Rocky soon followed. Then came the record label executive Steven Victor, who summoned a film crew for an impromptu music video shoot to promote the album I Know Nigo, a pandemic project that would blossom into one of the more interesting hip-hop records of 2022. The album features 11 songs, all curated by Nigo, with new music by Pusha T; Kid Cudi; Tyler, the Creator; and several other rappers whose association with the streetwear icon became a kind of hip-hop flex. The ultimate flex, though, belonged to Nigo, who demonstrated real clout by using the occasion of his new album to reunite, for the first time since 2009, Clipse and the Neptunes—a defunct rap duo and a seldom active production team, brought together again by their favorite fashion designer.
“Nigo is the master curator and tastemaker,” Pusha T told me in an email. “His ability to be so influential for so long is unprecedented and speaks to his appreciation and love for the culture.”
Balancing music video shoots with his work for Kenzo brought back a familiar sensation—one that first struck Nigo two decades ago, when A Bathing Ape exploded in America. It was instantly embraced by hip-hop luminaries like Jay-Z, Pharrell, Busta Rhymes, and Kanye West, who, in turn, sought out the designer when visiting Tokyo. “I thought, Oh, here we go again,” Nigo said.
Of course, the Kenzo role presents a novel challenge. For the first time in his long career, the brand that would rise or fall on his creative decisions was not one that he built himself. Instead, the designer traded pure invention for reinvention at the helm of an iconic Paris fashion house that is older than him by several months. Kenzo Takada, the brand’s founder, remains a guiding light at 18 rue Vivienne, despite retiring from the company in 1999. Takada’s recent death, in October 2020, has made Nigo especially mindful of the need to balance his own creative vision with a degree of fealty to his late countryman.
“It is legitimate to say that Nigo is the first streetwear designer that’s taken on this kind of brand,” said Toby Feltwell, a cofounder and creative director at streetwear label Cav Empt, who worked with Nigo at both Bape and Billionaire Boys Club. (“I would say that Virgil was a kind of post-streetwear designer,” he added, not to diminish Virgil Abloh’s historic turn at Louis Vuitton, but to correct a common misapprehension about streetwear’s current relationship with runway fashion.)
A month after the shoot at Jacob & Co, Nigo would return to the international stage to present his debut Kenzo collection—the fall 2022 line, which is in stores now. It was a parade of colorful workwear, suits, and knits, replete with archival prints, styled with berets and letterman jackets, all crafted from the simple fabrics (denim, cotton, wool) Nigo knows best.
The show was a reminder of Nigo’s talent for outsourcing showmanship—Ye sat with Julia Fox at the unveiling of the Kenzo collection inside Paris’s Galerie Vivienne, flanked by Pharrell; Pusha T; and Tyler, the Creator. Asked by a journalist why he was there, Ye uttered just two syllables before walking away: “Nigo.”
When I arrived at Kenzo’s Paris headquarters in early June, Nigo was busy working on the follow-up to his first collection in a large sun-drenched office situated at the back of the stately compound at 18 rue Vivienne—a building that could easily pass as the headquarters of a European bank. Nigo’s outfit was similarly understated: Dressed in a simple gray sweatshirt and jeans, without the sunglasses and hat that so often serve as his uniform, he looked like a poster boy for Japan’s late-20th-century obsession with American casual clothing.
Nigo’s office is as spare as the empty courtyard beneath it. In the center of the room, photographs of the collection in progress sat in neat piles on the long table Nigo uses instead of a desk. To the right of that table were a row of cabinets, an espresso machine, and a small refrigerator, and to its left, floor-to-ceiling windows facing the quiet courtyard. Behind it was a foldable partition that serves as a makeshift changing room, with a single hook for hanging Nigo’s ubiquitous denim jacket.
“I’m here for about a week each month,” Nigo told me. During these sojourns from his home in Tokyo, he rises with the sun to keep up with business back in Japan, which includes overseeing operations at Human Made. Later on in the morning, as Paris comes alive, he goes about the business of creating his latest collection for Kenzo, which involves a lot more collaboration than Nigo is accustomed to—or at least a lot more people than he’s used to collaborating with.
“My way of working is not like a top-down dictator, but like a director,” Nigo told me. “Rather than very defined instructions, I bring the team images and reference pieces that I hope will inspire them.” Initially, this meant using specific references from his own personal collection, feeling that “it was essential to look at actual garments in order to avoid producing something that seems artificial, which is always a danger in streetwear, especially in Europe.” For spring 2023, he was able to make better use of references from Kenzo’s own extensive archives, which fueled his appetite for “compiling, editing, and trusting that the things I want to connect together will be right.” In early June, with just over three weeks left before showtime, his focus was on achieving “a degree of consistency” by connecting his first Kenzo collection to his second.
“I’m not into the idea of a brand moving faster than the customers,” Nigo said, describing the current system by which most fashion brands work, a system that he does not intend to fall in line with: “You do a show to get people excited by the clothes, and then by the time those clothes are in the store you’ve already moved on to something completely different.”
On the table between us sat a vintage Japanese fashion magazine, which he opened to reveal several pages filled with black-and-white photos of Kenzo Takada, who’s become an object of intense study for Nigo. Flipping through the magazine, his Buddha-like detachment dissolved into giddy fascination.
“My work for Kenzo reflects my personal connection to the brand, so I place the emphasis on where it was in the ’80s, because that’s when I was first becoming interested in fashion,” Nigo told me.
In most of the magazine photos, Takada wore distinctly European coats and double–breasted suits over turtlenecks. But in a few he seemed taken with the same American casual clothing that would later fascinate Nigo—jeans with thick leather belts, plaid dress shirts, and sweaters draped over the shoulders like some sort of Ivy League cosplay. “I always thought Western things were so much cooler,” Nigo said. “To the extent that I started hating Japanese culture.” This hatred has faded, but Nigo’s genuine affinity for Kenzo’s founder does seem to be rooted in their shared fascination with the sartorial mythologies of the West.
Nigo’s fascination with Amerikaji, or American casual, started with a popular Japanese boy band from the 1980s called the Checkers. “They dressed like 1950s rockers, which I really loved,” Nigo told me. “I started wearing Levi’s 501 jeans and Adidas T-shirts and a bomber jacket I got at a store specializing in American casualwear.” Next came Run-DMC, who helped connect Nigo’s Amerikaji obsession to American culture, just as it was becoming increasingly synonymous with hip-hop culture. But Nigo’s success would depend as much on his emerging sense of taste as on his studies at a top Tokyo fashion institute called Bunka Fukuso¯ Gakuin, where he graduated from a program for aspiring magazine editors in 1991. His inspiration was Hiroshi Fujiwara, founder of the seminal Japanese streetwear brand Goodenough, who was touted as Japan’s original street-culture seer.
In those days, he wasn’t yet known as Nigo, but went still by his given name, Tomoaki Nagao. He bore such a close resemblance to Hiroshi Fujiwara, though, that friends began referring to him as Hiroshi Fujiwara Nigo, meaning Hiroshi Fujiwara number two. A stint as Fujiwara’s personal assistant cemented the nickname, which was soon shortened to Nigo. That proximity to Fujiwara also put him at the center of the burgeoning Harajuku streetwear scene. He landed a job at the taste-making menswear magazine Popeye—with the slogan “magazine for city boys”—and in 1993, Nigo and his Bunka Fukuso¯ Gakuin schoolmate Jun Takahashi opened a small shop called Nowhere, located in what were then the quiet back streets of Harajuku. Takahashi sold clothing under his own label, Undercover, while Nigo dealt in streetwear brands imported from America. (Fujiwara had long been the de facto Stüssy representative in Japan.) Before the year was over, Nigo began making his own limited edition T-shirts and jackets, adorned with simian imagery cribbed from Planet of the Apes. The brand’s ape logo was designed by Shinichiro Nakamura, an artist better known as Sk8thing, who also gave Nigo’s clothing line its oddly poetic name: A Bathing Ape in Lukewarm Water. This nod to the aimless, tolerably comfortable lives of Nigo’s generation, who entered adulthood amid Japan’s first postwar economic downturn, was shortened to A Bathing Ape, and, eventually, Bape.
Over the course of the next decade, Bape exploded, first in Japan, then abroad. Its stunning success was partly due to the strategy of boosting demand by keeping supply low, a notion that was already working for Stüssy in Japan. That brand’s founder, Shawn Stussy, had initially made clothes for surfers, but they caught on with skateboarders as well. “Shawn was focused on the people he made the clothes for,” Fujiwara told me. “His priorities didn’t change overnight when Stüssy became popular with people who weren’t surfers.” That focus made an impression on Fujiwara, who deployed a similar strategy with Goodenough. Nigo then followed the Goodenough example and limited production and restricted sales to his own stores, which cultivated an aura of exclusivity around Bape T-shirts and jackets made with ordinary, inexpensive materials.
His connections at important magazines like Popeye and Hot Dog, and his insider understanding of Japan’s fashion press, meanwhile, assured the kind of coverage that helped spotlight the cult clothing brand. Scenes foretelling streetwear’s global future unfolded outside the tiny shop, where rabid fans lined up by the hundreds for a chance to buy one of 50 new Bape T-shirts. This went on for several years before Nigo finally embraced the key difference between himself and his mentor: Unlike Fujiwara, who never wanted a big company with an army of employees, Nigo craved more. In 1998, he opened several new shops across Japan, each designed to project a sense of luxury, and he started making enough T-shirts to sell to everyone. Bape soon transcended exclusivity and became, arguably, the world’s first streetwear label capable of masquerading as a luxury brand.
Nigo’s profile went global around 2003, when he became friends with Pharrell. They met through Jacob, who, Pharrell told me, “was talking about this guy who would come in with posters of me and the jewelry I was making with Jacob, saying he would want jewelry made just like it. So Jacob would make it for him, but if I got it in yellow gold, Nigo would get it in yellow gold and white gold and rose gold.” Eventually, they met in Tokyo, where Nigo invited Pharrell to use his recording studio while he was in town for a concert. “And when I worked at his studio, I realized it was a whole world,” Pharrell told me. “One floor was a studio, another was a showroom for apparel, the next was a showroom for footwear, and the next floor was a photography studio where he shot all his campaigns.”
In the years that followed, Nigo and Pharrell became like Vivienne Westwood and the Sex Pistols—and because Pharrell was synonymous with hip-hop, so too was Nigo. This evolution is most evident in Nigo’s own music, which he produces by conceptualizing songs, samples, and beats that are then realized through a broad array of collaborators: His genre-bending debut album, Ape Sounds, released on the British Mo’ Wax label in 2000, blended psychedelic pop and trip-hop and featured Money Mark and Cornelius. Five years later, with his Japanese hip-hop group Teriyaki Boyz, Nigo’s producers included DJ Premier, Just Blaze, the Neptunes, Ad Rock from the Beastie Boys, and Mark Ronson. What happened in the interim was explained to me by Feltwell, who was studying law and working as an A&R representative for Mo’ Wax when Nigo hired him to come work at Bape.
“We recognized that there was a big shift coming in global popular culture, and that we kind of fitted into that in a symbiotic kind of way,” Feltwell told me. “We could see it coming, and we could see that there needed to be a new look that fit with that cultural movement.”
With Feltwell acting as his interpreter, Nigo spent more time in New York, where both men grew increasingly convinced that American hip-hop would become the dominant cultural force in the decade to come. Japan’s rising cultural relevance in America, meanwhile, was evident by the turn of the century—Hayao Miyazaki won an Oscar for Spirited Away, Takashi Murakami became a Pop art sensation, and sales of Hello Kitty merchandise presaged what would later happen with Pokémon. By 2003, American pop culture was awash in visions of Japan through Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, which was filmed on location in Tokyo for a budget of $4 million and earned $118 million at the box office. (Hiroshi Fujiwara had a cameo.) A year later, with her song “Harajuku Girls,” Gwen Stefani paid tribute to the neighborhood that Fujiwara and Nigo helped build. All of this was in Nigo’s favor, as was his broad curiosity about America and his malleable sense of what American culture was supposed to look like. Then, of course, there was his fortuitous friendship with the hip-hop world’s favorite jeweler.
In time, Nigo’s penchant for collecting ostentatious jewelry, modern art, and vintage furniture led him to buy a reportedly $30-million home with its own warehouse in central Tokyo. “It got pretty out of hand, which is part of why I decided to sell some of my collection a few years ago,” Nigo told me. He did this through a 2014 Sotheby’s auction, which was presented as an estate sale. It included artwork by Andy Warhol, KAWS, and Hajime Sorayama; furniture by Jean Prouvé and Charles and Ray Eames; and luxury goods ranging from Richard Mille watches to trunks from Maison Goyard, Louis Vuitton, and Fendi. Auctioning off part of his collection, he told me, was an opportunity to witness something like his own funeral—the auction was called Nigo Only Lives Twice. That desire spoke to the profoundly object–oriented world-view he has adopted; one that is in tension with his belief that “the real joy of collecting things is knowing that your collection will never be complete.”
At the time of the auction, three years had passed since Nigo had sold Bape’s parent company, Nowhere Co. Ltd, for just a little more than $2 million—a sum that reflected the company’s sizable debts rather than its revenue, which remained above $60 million annually. Aside from its mounting debt, the sale seemed to be partly motivated by Nigo’s desire to move on creatively, rather than staying tethered to the same hoodies and Bapesta sneakers that kept his simian colossus going from one season to the next. “In some ways I felt limited by the success of Bape, because it forced me to spend a lot of time making things I didn’t necessarily want to make,” Nigo said. “Every season had to have its own shark hoodies or camouflage pieces—the parts of the brand that were most successful just ended up weighing me down.”
Human Made, which Nigo founded in 2010, was an attempt at reconnecting with his fashion roots, and for years its smaller profile has been a kind of refuge for the designer, who reveled in his post-Bape freedom to indulge in Amerikaji understatement and the freedom to focus on making “something real,” as he put it. “Things right now are so shocking and so loud. My approach is to make something so grounded in reality that it contrasts with the insanity of all these clothes that you can’t really imagine anyone actually wearing.”
Freedom can be its own kind of trap, though, even if this didn’t occur to Nigo until he was asked to take over at Kenzo. “I realized I’d done pretty much everything you can do in the world of streetwear,” he said. “I realized I needed a new challenge.”
With three weeks left to prepare his sophomore collection, Nigo joined me for lunch at a favorite Italian restaurant in Paris’s 2nd arrondissement. Over white wine and an antipasti of creamy burrata, he told me he’d never imagined his work schedule might one day revolve around runway shows. “I don’t see that part of the fashion business as especially romantic,” he said. “But having spent my career in another part of the fashion world, taking this job at Kenzo was attractive in part because it gives me the chance to experience what might be considered mainstream fashion.”
The learning curve was steep. While building his debut collection, Nigo had to adapt to an entirely different work culture. His staff was on edge, at first, because it’s not uncommon for new creative directors to bring their own people with them. “I think a lot of them expected to be fired,” he told me. The arrival of CEO Sylvain Blanc eased the transition, but it took weeks for residual tensions to pass. “The group doesn’t change the CEO and the designer of a brand at the same time because things have been going fantastically well,” Feltwell said. “There was a reason that there had to be changes.”
Other challenges proved more attractive. For the first collection, Nigo embraced the opportunity to design a line of womenswear, which was well received. He also dialed back the streetwear aesthetic that the brand had spent part of the previous decade leaning into, offering up colorful suits, overcoats, and simple workwear in place of graphic hoodies and bold logos.
Now in sync with the staff at Kenzo, Nigo found that his challenge, as a veteran tastemaker, was to look further into the future than the streetwear business requires. At Human Made, a small on-site factory makes it possible to swiftly transform ideas into prototypes and prototypes into products.
“Creating that sense of desire, that feeling that you have to have something for yourself,” Nigo told me, requires not only an ability to “see ahead of everybody else, but also match their feelings.” One of the challenges presented by his work for Kenzo, then, is imagining how people might feel about a piece of clothing in several months, rather than several weeks. “Coming from a background where things aren’t built around shows, or presenting the clothes to the media months in advance, I’m grateful for the chance to study and learn what that world is all about,” Nigo said. “But for me, the real event is when the clothes arrive in the store.”
One way of managing this disconnect was to release a handful of Kenzo pieces ready for order ahead of the spring-summer 2023 collection: A “drop” of sorts, built around a painting of a Japanese boke flower blossoming on crewneck sweaters, carpenter pants, and coach jackets; a simple, fully realized capsule of stylish clothing that suggested evolution as much as interpretation. Then there’s the instant gratification of his work for Human Made. In late March, when Victor Victor Worldwide launched the I Know Nigo album with a pop-up store in Lower Manhattan, the line stretching down the street and around the block brought to mind a variation on Matthew McConaughey’s most famous line from the film Dazed and Confused: Nigo keeps getting older, but his customers stay the same age. Three months later, however, the launch of his funky Ivy League–themed spring-summer 2023 collection for Kenzo served as a reminder that Nigo can, at least for now, have it both ways. In the front row, Justin Timberlake sat next to Jaden Smith; backstage, David and Cruz Beckham each posed for their own separate photos with the designer.
Nigo’s debut Kenzo collection, fall-winter 2022, is part biography, part autobiography. Jungle flower prints recalled both iconic Bape pieces and Kenzo’s fall-winter collection from 1976. Berets marked “1970” commemorated the year of Nigo’s birth as well as Kenzo Takada’s inaugural fashion show at Galerie Vivienne. And, in what may be his most personal statement, Nigo named one print after his master ceramics instructor, Shuji Fujimura.
About four years ago, Nigo added a ceramics studio to his compound in Tokyo, where he spends his free time crafting ceremonial tea bowls. “My tea ceremony master lives in the countryside and I don’t get to visit often, and I’ve found that my ability declines quickly without regular practice,” Nigo told me. His aim, he said, is to achieve the elevated sense of hospitality that comes from “serving tea to my guests in a bowl that I’ve made myself.” And yet its hold on him, he conceded, is probably “tied to his feeling for objects and acquisitiveness.”
When we met for the last time in his office at Kenzo’s Paris headquarters, I asked Nigo whether he felt he could keep his hobby separate from his career. Could it remain a sanctuary, untouched by the entrepreneurial urges that have defined his life and dominated our culture? Or will he continue evolving Harajuku, the neighborhood that reshaped global streetwear, by opening up his own ceramics shop? Several weeks later, on a sweltering afternoon in Tokyo, I thought of his answer while walking the streets of Harajuku, where I passed boutiques for Bape, Human Made, and Billionaire Boys Club as I headed for lunch at one of the two curry restaurants Nigo owns.
“You know me too well,” he said.
Joshua Hunt is a writer in Brooklyn and a former Tokyo-based correspondent for Reuters.
A version of this story originally appearred in the October 2022 issue of GQ with the title “The Luminary”
Happy Tuesday! Today, I am going to return to an old discussion…can every day mature woman become elegant women.…