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A First Look at Nigo’s Kenzo, Where the Clothing is the Star of the Show

Vibrant, experimental knitwear is a staple of Kenzo-san and Nigo’s work. Photo: Acielle / StyleDuMonde

Fashion history is quietly being rewritten in a clean, white atelier in Paris’s second arrondissement. Unlike the fashion scenes often shown on film, with haywire antics and chaos, the Kenzo atelier is remarkably calm. No cross talk, no giant cups of coffee, not even music playing in the background. Thank Nigo, the brand’s 51-year old creative director who is preparing his debut men’s and women’s collection, for the positive, at-ease vibes. When we speak over Zoom on Thursday, he wears a denim trucker jacket, his signature cap, two face masks, and a large silver ring, speaking pointedly and intensely though his translator and smiling—which I can tell only by the occasional glint in his eyes. Even with the language and technological barriers between us, his certainty resonates. This is a guy who knows he’s making the right moves.

Nigo’s appointment at Kenzo, the brand founded by Kenzo Takada in 1970, makes him the first Japanese designer to helm the brand since Kenzo-san, and one of only two Asian creative directors at European luxury maisons. (The other is Filipino-American Rhuigi Villaseñor, installed at Bally just days ago.) The obvious parallel between Takada and Nigo is their shared heritage—they both grew up in Japan, attended Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, and took a global view of fashion—but the real similarity is more nuanced. At their core, they are both disruptors of fashion’s status quo.

The tiger is a brand signature that has been adapted many ways over the years. Nigo adds it to the back of a velvet cropped jacket in a ’70s silhouette. Photo: Acielle / StyleDuMonde

When Takada established his brand in Paris in 1970, the year Nigo was born, he brought to the West a vibrant new way of dress that married Eastern aesthetics, colors, and textures with Western sartorial tradition. Nigo has upended the fashion system similarly—and without ever staging a fashion show. His brand A Bathing Ape, founded in 1993, was one of the first truly global streetwear imprints, bringing its camo prints and shooting star sneakers from Tokyo to New York, Paris, Los Angeles, and beyond. He was on the front lines of hypebeast culture, but his reach extends beyond the street. Pharrell Williams is one of his closest confidants, and today’s fashion legends like Virgil Abloh worshipped Nigo, following in his wake.

“The fact that somebody like me with my background can now be in this role is kind of surprising,” says Nigo through his translator. “It shows, in a way, that things continue to change rapidly—and fashion has changed a lot in very recent times. It’s not enough now for a fashion designer to just design good clothes. There’s a need for them to have a deeper level of communication with their audience. So just as this reinvigoration of the Paris traditional fashion world happened in the ’70s with people like Kenzo-san coming from outside of the center and moving into the center, now that everything is globally connected, there is still space for people to bring new ideas and new ways of working that change the whole business.”

The only collaboration you’ll see on the Kenzo fall 2022 runway? The holistic one between Nigo and his team. Photo: Acielle / StyleDuMonde

His approach at Kenzo is a radical rethink of luxury, fashion, and streetwear—and maybe radically different from what you’d expect from a streetwear icon. When asked about the difference between street and luxury, he gives his longest and most complicated response. “From my perspective, streetwear started out as a rebellion against proper fashion or luxury. It was actually counterculture, like an underground movement,” he says. “I think people have forgotten that because it’s just become so ubiquitous that it’s the norm now, and streetwear, at least to the world of proper fashion, appears to be like non-design. [They see it as] a way of making clothes that doesn’t require the skills of a designer.”

He continues, “There are quite a lot of brands doing things that I consider to be streetwear-esque, but not authentically streetwear. I am conflicted about whether it’s more interesting for luxury brands to concentrate on their expertise and develop luxury or whether it’s the fusion of those things—which is something that you could also say that I’ve done from the opposite direction—that continues to be an interesting avenue to explore. I feel conflicted between wanting luxury brands to concentrate on remaining authentic to luxury, and street brands being represented by people that really understand that culture, and actually being in a position to fuse the two and enjoying it.”

Nigo and his team fit a men’s look for the fall 2022 show. Photo: Acielle / StyleDuMonde

And so instead of creating a collection that is markedly street or singularly luxurious, Nigo is taking a different path. He’s starting at the beginning of the Kenzo story. “Seeing the complete Kenzo archive, especially the early pieces from the ’70s, has kind of changed my perception about the entirety of the brand,” he says. “Previously my perception of it was based very much in the 1980s designer fashion boom that I experienced when I was young in Japan.” In the brand’s archive, he found pieces he had never seen—which is rare for someone as versed in fashion history and vintage as Nigo.

“There were flower patterns that I had never seen before. Great stuff that just didn’t get repeated as the brand moved into its bigger, let’s say more successful phase. A lot of the early shapes were very experimental in a way that wasn’t happening so much in the brand in the ’80s,” he says. “I found some of those ideas to be interesting too.”

For his fall 2022 debut, flower prints and some of Takada’s own sketches from the 1970s are recreated on garments and accessories. Other ideas from the Kenzo archive, like Harris tweed tailoring and shawl-meets-snood collars, are re-introduced, while Nigo’s own obsessions like Ivy League style and Aka-e pottery appear as motifs. The silhouette is incredibly layered, not only literally, but with references that bridge East-West cultures. Several pieces reference the structure of a kimono. “The stylist had tied it up in a kind of logical way to tie together two straps, but to me, it just felt totally wrong. In showing everybody how to do this thing that comes from traditional Japanese clothing at that moment, I was just like, ‘Yeah okay, I’m really Japanese,’” he says with a smile. “I think that there are not so many people who understand what Kenzo means in terms of clothing—that’s what I want to focus on and bring people’s attention to during my time at the label.”

Nigo in front of Kenzo’s ateliers in Paris’s second arrondissement. Photo: Acielle / StyleDuMonde

Here he touches on something that, even if some of the intonation was lost in translation, feels like a barb to the way the fashion system, and especially its marketing arm, works now. “The goal for me at Kenzo—but I think in principle it should be the goal for everyone in fashion—is for the main collection that I’m putting most of my creative energy into to be the thing that is, even in commercial terms, the core driver of the business and the thing that people are most interested in,” he says. Not collaborations. Not drops. Not the fanfare or the celebrities or hype. “We are entering a period when the main collection is some kind of background,” he continues, “and it’s only the collaborations that generate any interest or sell, which, to me, feels like very much the wrong approach.” This from the man who effectively pioneered the collaboration in fashion, bringing KAWS and Futura into the fashion world and extending his own reach into product design and cafés in Japan.

So when the first model hits what he calls “a very traditional runway” it will be a celebration of capital-F fashion. “I want the message to be quite simply a focus on the clothes,” says Nigo. The show is taking place in the Galerie Vivienne, where Takada held his first show over 50 years ago and set up his first shop. Models will walk to a soundtrack created by Nigo and some of his musician friends like Pharrell, Lil Uzi Vert, A$AP Rocky, and Tyler, the Creator, that will be released as the I Know Nigo album on Victor Victor Worldwide next month. “It’ll be all new music and all new clothing presented very simply in a location that makes sense to the history of the brand,” he continues, putting forth an equation of how he thinks about Kenzo’s impact: “Fashion plus music equals culture.”

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