Nigo of streetwear creates “true-to-wear” for Kenzo of LVMH

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Nigo photographed in Paris this week © Alex Cretey Systermans

Last September, the Japanese designer Nigo became the creative director of the Parisian brand Kenzo, owned by LVMH. It was a notable appointment, beyond just a change in creative direction: Nigo is the first Japanese designer to lead the company since its late founder Kenzo Takada retired in 1999. He also comes from the streetwear – a major category totaling $185 billion in sales and accounting for around 10% of the entire global apparel and footwear market according to a 2019 study by PwC’s Strategy& consultancy.

Through his brand A Bathing Ape (commonly known by the acronym BAPE), created in 1993, Nigo is one of the founding fathers of streetwear. BAPE clothing is loud and colorful – a multicolored camo print is a signature. As the label was initially self-funded, Nigo could only afford to produce limited runs, fueling the sense of topicality and rarity that is integral to streetwear and has influenced fashion marketing at all levels.

Eleven days before his second Kenzo show this Sunday, Nigo, 51, born Tomoaki Nagao, is speaking on Zoom from Kenzo’s headquarters in Paris. Located on rue Vivienne, they are a stone’s throw from a glass-walled shopping arcade where Takada opened its first store in 1970. The young label was then called “Jungle Jap” – changed to Kenzo in 1976, as Jap was considered a term pejorative on the very important American market. Today, the company is expected to achieve annual sales of around 300-400 million euros, according to trade publication WWD.

Nigo wears a white sweatshirt with “Kenzo” scrawled across the heart. Behind him is a selection of quilted bomber jackets and sheepskin-lined denims – streetwear-influenced styles that already mark his Kenzo revamp, moving away from the high-fashion stance taken by his predecessor Felipe Oliveira Baptista, who left after only two years. On the other hand, Nigo seems to want to bring Kenzo back to the streets. “The concept is real to wear,” says Nigo, through a translator. “As in, the clothes that I’m going to present on the catwalk, I want them to be really wearable.”

A model wears a white dress with a red poppy print

Nigo’s first Fall/Winter 2022 show for Kenzo included pieces influenced by the archives. . . © Monica Feudi

A model in a blue patterned dress, red socks and red gloves

. . . with the brand’s classic poppy print on tops and skirts © Monica Feudi

A model in a dark green jacket over a bright green dress

The influence of streetwear was visible in the high wearability of Nigo’s designs. . . © Monica Feudi

A male model in green pants and a green and white parka style jacket

. . . and in the way the collection was delivered to stores, using streetwear-influenced “drops” © Monica Feudi

Her first Kenzo Fall/Winter 2022 show in January took place at Galerie Vivienne, where models walked the mall’s mosaic floors in archival-influenced Kenzo pieces. There were poppy prints, denims, easy plaid suits – many of which have already been offered as streetwear-influenced “drops” and delivered quickly, pouring into the brand’s 95 stores globally in the spring. . “Everything is going faster in terms of production, content or what people are getting. The memory span is getting shorter and shorter,” says Nigo. “If someone sees something they want and can’t buy it in the same week, then it’s pretty hard for them to go back to that feeling of wanting it.”

Kenzo’s shakeup – which included the appointment of a new CEO, Sylvain Blanc – looks fast and furious. But Nigo’s ideas are actually deeply rooted in the brand’s past through prints and tailoring but also philosophy. Born in 1970 in Maebashi, not far from Tokyo, his first interaction with Kenzo was as a teenager in the mid-1980s. he said. Also known as “DC burando”, it was a fascination with the avant-garde style created by brands such as Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons, the wave of Japanese designers who followed Kenzo to parade at Paris.

“[Kenzo Takada] kind of paved a way for everyone,” says Nigo. But Takada’s clothes weren’t avant-garde – rather they were fun, playful, wearable, just like her fashion shows. “He was the first person to really bring music into fashion shows, for example, and a fashion show being a whole show and the culmination of fashion week. These things have become staples of what we accept to be the fashion world now, but they originated with Kenzo-san.

Nigo’s background encompasses music. Not only does he dress and work with musicians (he teamed up with Pharrell Williams to launch Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream shoes in 2003), he creates his own — he’s a member of Japanese hip-hop group Teriyaki Boyz. And though he left the BAPE in 2013, he’s still tied to the legacy of a brand that helped define the landscape of modern streetwear.

Many have walked away from that word, including the late Virgil Abloh, whom Nigo collaborated with on a series of capsule collections for Louis Vuitton and who said “streetwear is dead.” However, Nigo says: “I think it’s very interesting, almost shocking, that people like me and Virgil, for example, who were perceived to come from this streetwear background, can now be the creative directors of these houses. ” Matthew M Williams, creative director of Givenchy, is another example.

“I think streetwear has a sense of not being proper design . . . and traditionally quite looked down upon,” Nigo says. , and it can easily seem fake or soulless.”

Nigo says he has no distaste for the word streetwear – and indeed luxury can learn from how it works. “It’s based on understanding the brand from the customer’s perspective, like what they want and when they want it,” he says. “A very logical way of doing things in the present.”

It was the success of his Vuitton collaborations that marked Nigo Kenzo. “On the back of this I was approached by the band, first Michael [Burke] of LV, because I was closest to him, to see if I would be interested in doing more,” he says. It was. “Having spent so long working in the same kind of environment, in the world of street culture, I was definitely ready to see a new space.” However, Kenzo was not a precise destination. “If I had been offered an opportunity for another Parisian house of similar size, given this feeling. . . I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have said no.

However, Nigo has a real affection for the label, and its founder, whom he respectfully designates by the Japanese honorific “san” but whom he unfortunately did not meet before the latter’s death at the age of 81. in 2020, following complications related to Covid-19. 19.

Nigo wears a baseball cap, dark glasses, and a white t-shirt.  He doesn't smile.  He carries a package under one arm

Nigo in Paris: “What I want is to take Kenzo back, as if he were zero years old again” © Alex Cretey Systermans

The meeting of Paris and Japan is a major theme of Nigo’s upcoming spring-summer 2023 show, unveiled on Sunday. “During this DC boom in the 80s in Japan, the image of Paris was something extremely meaningful and attractive to the Japanese. It was a very desirable thing,” he says. “Everything in Paris was portable and chic. And so part of what I do is try to show the perception of Paris from Japan at that time. He was struck by the Japanese details on the clothes from the Kenzo archives: “Traditional prints or fabrics which come from an entirely different part of the world, but used with Japanese detail.He says the new show won’t be all that different from his debut – his style will be evolutionary rather than groundbreaking.

More than anything else, what Nigo wants is for people to get excited about Kenzo again – as they were in the 1970s with his spectacular shows while singing and dancing that helped affirm the creative importance of designer ready-to-wear compared to haute couture. . “What often happens to brands is that they can grow old with their customers,” he says. “What I want to do is take Kenzo back, like he’s zero years old again.” Nigo wears a mask, but looks like he’s smiling. “I want everyone to be able to buy from Kenzo.” This should also make Kenzo’s CEO smile.

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