‘I have been working in fashion my entire career, but this felt very different and new to me,’ Tomoaki Nagao, more commonly known as Nigo, tells me. Technically, it’s his long-time British collaborator Toby Feltwell telling me this, as Nigo does not speak English. But his considered choice of words is not lost in translation.
In truth, ‘different’ and ‘new’ have always been the 52-year-old’s raison d’etre. He’s a fashion designer who until recently had never staged a fashion show. An artist. A DJ. A producer. Rising to notoriety with cult Japanese streetwear label A Bathing Ape, which he founded out of his clothing store in Shibuya, Tokyo, in 1993, he has worked with the likes of Pharrell Williams (the pair head up menswear brand Billionaire Boys Club) Marc Jacobs and Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton. Music-wise, Nigo has joined forces with The Neptunes, Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky and Tyler, The Creator to name but a few.
The latest string to his bow came in September 2021, when it was announced he’d be taking the top job at Kenzo, making him the brand’s first Japanese artistic director since the late Kenzo Takada retired in 1999. ‘After two seasons there, I really feel like I’ve gotten into the groove,’ he says.
As an avid collector of vintage clothing, Nigo’s vision for Kenzo has thus far been largely inspired by pieces from this extensive archive. ‘It’s mostly American vintage,’ he says. ‘I have always worked by taking elements from different garments and changing things up to create new ideas. One of the fortunate things about working at Kenzo is that the brand has a fantastic archive. I have been following Kenzo as a brand since 1980, so it’s great to be able to discover things I wasn’t aware of from that time and beyond.’
Despite looking to the past, Nigo is keen to ensure Kenzo also appeals to a young generation, in keeping with his streetwear roots. With his first two collections for AW22 and SS23, this took the form of Kenzo’s iconic poppy and jungle motifs merging with double denim, chunky brightly coloured knitwear and relaxed silhouettes that were combined with elements of sportswear. Set to show for a third time over men’s fashion week in Paris this Friday, Nigo uses the analogy of The Beatles’ White Album to describe what’s in store. ‘It’s much like the album in that there’s a lot of variety and a lot of experimentation,’ he explains. ‘But also, having products out that people have been responding to has also been a key reflection in this collection. I want to make clothes that people really want to buy and wear, so I have expanded on what already exists, too.’
Paul Smith very kindly sent me a framed ‘good luck’ message before my first show
While speaking of The Beatles, Nigo begins to talk about his affinity with British culture. ‘London is probably my favourite city outside of Tokyo,’ he says. ‘I love English things in general.’ When in the capital he often stays in Mayfair to be near Savile Row, where he spends time putting in orders for bespoke clothing and going for fittings. Recently, he carved out time to visit Paul Smith at his offices. ‘Paul very kindly sent me a framed “good luck” message before my first show, which was very thoughtful.’
Nigo’s future at Kenzo is looking bright, although one gets the impression that his philosophy is very much ‘slow and steady wins the race’. ‘There won’t be any radical changes, but there are a few exciting things happening that I can’t talk about just yet…’ We end by talking of the benefits of a work/ life balance. ‘My schedule is very busy, but I’m trying to carry on studying pottery and the tea ceremony. It’s important to concentrate on something else that feeds into work in a positive way.’ A last-minute new year’s resolution? Take a leaf out of Nigo’s book.