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 street wear, 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 Bapeâ€™s signature camouflage pattern, along with diamond-encrusted necklaces, the mononymous designer and music producer had become a cool guysâ€™ 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 with 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 began to think, â€œMaybe itâ€™s not my time anymore,â€ as he recalled in an interview, speaking through a Japanese translator.
Then Mr. Williams intervened.
â€œI was like, â€˜What are you doing?â€™â€ said Mr. Williams, a longtime friend and business partner through their Billionaire Boys Club label. â€œNow 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 whatâ€™s next.â€
(â€œEverything was just changing really rapidly,â€ Mr. Williams said of Nigoâ€™s quasi-midlife crisis. â€œAnd Nigoâ€™s a Capricorn. Capricornâ€™s an earth sign, so theyâ€™re into certainty.â€)
Nigo took the advice seriously, realizing it was part of his job, he said, to not â€œsuccumb to those kinds of tendenciesâ€ of feeling old or out of touch.
Now, a few years removed from his intervention, Mr. Williams sees this moment in Nigoâ€™s life as necessary, â€œso that he could make room for thisâ€ â€” this being Nigoâ€™s 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 Nigoâ€™s appointment was made in September, it emphasized that he was the first Japanese designer of the house since Kenzo Takada, its founder. Mr. 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 Mr. Takada, he said, although Mr. Takada had occasionally visited the campus of their shared alma mater, Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, while Nigo was a student. Still, Kenzoâ€™s early work was a big influence on Nigo as a teenager.
The brand â€œhad a particularly interesting way of using powerful colors together,â€ Nigo said, which differed from the dark, somber, cool use of color dominating Japanese fashion at the time. Mr. Takadaâ€™s 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 work wear silhouettes. Yet his first Kenzo collection will be largely a homage to Mr. Takadaâ€™s early work, particularly his designs from the 1980s.
Those early collections included accents like kimono sleeves and oversize berets; the new Kenzo kimonos are imagined as overcoats, and its large berets are embroidered with the year â€œ1970.â€ (Thatâ€™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 Nigoâ€™s Sunday show.)
There are some tiger graphics in the new collection â€” a Kenzo motif that was commercially successful under Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Kenzoâ€™s creative directors from 2011 to 2019 â€” but for the most part, Nigoâ€™s 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 shirt dress. A two-tone Harris tweed jacket â€” gray and dark gray in Mr. Takadaâ€™s archive â€” is newly rendered in yassified pink and dark gray. A white menâ€™s suit is covered in original fashion sketches by Mr. Takada. Denim, an obsession of Nigoâ€™s, is tailored like formal wear.
There is very little skin or sex appeal, though that was never really the point of Kenzo. Nigo will be presenting both menâ€™s and womenâ€™s wear on Sunday, though both collections come across as fairly unisex. (This is the first time he has overseen a womenâ€™s collection.)
He has referred to his new job as â€œthe greatest challenge of my 30-year careerâ€ (in Septemberâ€™s announcement) and â€œhuge pressureâ€ (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 menâ€™s designer who considered Nigo a mentor.
To the fashion industry, Nigoâ€™s appointment signaled just how important street wear has become to luxury houses.
â€œWhen we met Nigo, he was already known as a pioneer of todayâ€™s new culture, going even beyond fashion,â€ said Sidney Toledano, the chairman and chief executive 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 itâ€™s â€œnot really just about kind of limiting the number of items.â€
â€œThat sort of just seems like a kind of a trick,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s 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.â€
Similarly, while Nigo is widely associated with collaborations â€” with Leviâ€™s, with Adidas, with KAWS, with Kentucky Fried Chicken â€” they wonâ€™t be his focus at Kenzo for now.
â€œThe focus is to make the Kenzo brand intrinsically exciting,â€ he said. â€œWeâ€™re always open to doing interesting collaborations, but theyâ€™re just spice. Theyâ€™re not the meal.â€
The hope seems to be that Nigoâ€™s inherent coolness â€” and proximity to coolness â€” 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.
â€œAnyone thatâ€™s doing anything cool, theyâ€™ve been influenced by Nigo,â€ said Steven Victor, of Victor Victor Worldwide, who is releasing Nigoâ€™s new album on March 25 through Universal Music Group.
Itâ€™s the first Nigo has 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 heâ€™s doing an album now, after all these years, and heâ€™ll bring it all back to Kenzo Takada.
â€œThereâ€™s a very famous quote from Kenzo san,â€ Nigo said. â€œWhen he was asked, â€˜Whatâ€™s fashion?â€™ he replied: â€˜music.â€™â€