The Designer Bringing a New Kind of Cool to Kenzo

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 Bape’s 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 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, “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 low and do what you do best. You are one of the greatest curators of taste and purveyors of what’s next.”

(“Everything was just changing really rapidly,” Mr. Williams said of Nigo’s quasi-midlife crisis. “And Nigo’s a Capricorn. Capricorn’s an earth sign, so they’re 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, Mr. Williams sees this moment in Nigo’s life as necessary, “so that he could make room for this” — this being Nigo’s newest role as artistic director of Kenzo. On Sunday in Paris, the 51-year-old designer presented his first collection for the brand, which is owned by LVMH.

It was the kind of runway show that attracts as much attention for its V.I.P. guests as it does for its clothes; Nigo sat between Mr. Williams and Julia Fox, the celebrity gossip sensation du jour, who was swaddled in a Kenzo blanket given to each guest. To Ms. Fox’s right: her new beau Kanye West, then Tyler, the Creator and then Pusha T. Outside, fans shrieked, photographers jostled and black cars honked at one another, almost drowning out the quieter significance — both culturally and personally, for Nigo — of what was happening inside.

When the announcement of Nigo’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, Kenzo’s 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. Mr. Takada’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 was largely a homage to Mr. Takada’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 “1970.” (That’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 show.)

There are some tiger graphics in the new collection — a Kenzo motif that was commercially successful 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 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 — gray and dark gray in Mr. Takada’s archive — is newly rendered in yassified pink and dark gray. A white men’s suit is covered in original fashion sketches by Mr. Takada. Denim, an obsession of Nigo’s, is tailored like formal wear.

There is very little skin or sex appeal, though that was never really the point of Kenzo. Nigo presented both men’s and women’s wear on Sunday, though both collections come across as fairly unisex. (This was the first time he has overseen a women’s collection.)

He has referred to his new job as “the greatest challenge of my 30-year career” (in September’s 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 men’s designer who considered Nigo a mentor.

To the fashion industry, Nigo’s appointment signaled just how important street wear has become to luxury houses.

“When we met Nigo, he was already known as a pioneer of today’s new culture, going even beyond fashion,” 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 it’s “not really just about kind of limiting the number of items.”

“That sort of just seems like a kind of a trick,” he said. “It’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.”

Similarly, 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 for now.

“The focus is to make the Kenzo brand intrinsically exciting,” he said. “We’re always open to doing interesting collaborations, but they’re just spice. They’re not the meal.”

The hope seems to be that Nigo’s 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 that’s doing anything cool, they’ve been influenced by Nigo,” said Steven Victor, of Victor Victor Worldwide, who is releasing Nigo’s new album on March 25 through Universal Music Group. It’s the first Nigo has released under his name in nearly 20 years, and it will feature his runway seatmates (Mr. Williams, Pusha T and Tyler), plus ASAP Rocky, Lil Uzi Vert and more.

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

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

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