Nigo has been appointed the new designer for Kenzo. Really!
It was announced a short while ago that Japanese multi-hyphenate Nigo will join the LVMH-owned Kenzo as the brand’s new artistic director. This appointment is surprising as few had thought that the creative helm of Kenzo would be returned to the Japanese. Born Tomoaki Nagao, the founder of A Bathing Ape (the brand pulled out of our island in May this year) is often described as “the OG designer stalwart” of Japanese streetwear and the street culture that followed. The 50-year-old is no longer associated with the simian brand he created, but his links to streetwear is undiminished, not just in his homeland, but throughout much of the world, cemented by his friendship with Pharrell Williams and the like, even helping the Happy singer launch The Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream. The news of Mr Nagao’s appointment, released on Kenzo’s official Twitter account, was met with tremendous enthusiasm online. Twitter user and streetwear retailer @ChaseNCashe posted, “Sign me all the way up for the Nigo Kenzo wave”.
LVMH’s pick for Kenzo leaves no doubt as to which direction the luxury conglomerate wishes to point Kenzo to. The world’s largest luxury group has installed a streetwear designer to oversee the artistic direction of one of their brands before—most notably Virgil Abloh, a Nigo admirer, for Louis Vuitton’s menswear. Kenzo itself, in fact, went through the oscillation of aesthetic change when Carol Lim and Humberto Leo of Opening Ceremony joined the company in 2012 as co-creative directors. The brand took a decidedly street-bent turn and was, by many accounts, successful because of that. It found new, younger customers, but such a following came at the expense of design quality. With gaudy graphics and loud logos to keep the brand buoyant and customers spending, Ms Lim and Mr Leo turned out to be two of Kenzo’s longest-serving CDs—seven years in total—after Antonio Marras (also seven).
When the Opening Ceremony duo departed Kenzo in 2019, LVMH picked Lacoste’s designer, the Portuguese, Felipe Oliveira Baptista as their replacement. Kenzo Takada died a year later from complications due to COVID-19. We are fans of Mr Baptista’s output for Kenzo. He kept to the original spirit of the brand without traipsing too aggressively into the territory of streetwear, yet, at the same time, he was able to give the brand a renewed vigour that was decidedly modern. But, like his predecessors after Kenzo Takada’s withdrawal from the brand he built, such as Gilles Rosier and Mr Marras, both passionately retaining the “romance” of the label’s DNA, Mr Baptista was not able to make Kenzo the cash cow that other brands of the LVMH stable are.
Kenzo store at MBS
A corporate statement was posted on LVMH’s website. It quoted Mr Nagao saying, “I am proud to have been appointed Artistic Director of Kenzo. I was born in the year that Takada Kenzo san opened his first store in Paris. We both graduated from the same fashion school in Tokyo. In 1993, the year that Kenzo joined the LVMH Group, I started my career in Fashion. Kenzo san’s approach to creating originality was through his understanding of many different cultures. It is also the essence of my own philosophy of creativity. Inheriting the spirit of Kenzo san’s craftsmanship to create a new Kenzo is the greatest challenge of my 30-year career, which I intend to achieve together with the team.” Yes, we noted the capital F for fashion too.
When we mentioned Mr Nagao’s appointment to an SG designer who formerly worked in Tokyo, he merely said, “Aiyo”. It is debatable if A Bathing Ape is still what it was. No one could say for certain why the brand was sold to Hong Kong’s I.T Group in 2011. Mr Nagao left the brand two years later. He joined Uniqlo in 2014 as the creative director of the retailer’s sub-brand UT (a T-shirt line), after creating Human Made four years earlier. Despite his seemingly prolific output and unceasing global projects and collaborations, it is hard to determined if his brands are that successful or if he, as a designer, is that creative. To some, Mr Nagao is just a T-shirt designer. One successful item associated with Nigo is A Bathing Ape’s first footwear, the Bapesta sneaker, which, popularity aside (BBC’s Jonathan Ross describes it as the “epitome of collectable footwear”), is really based on another sneaker, Nike’s Air Force 1.
Tokyo is not only the capital of Japanese fashion, it is also the heart of Japanese streetwear. It is curious that in this throbbing hub, only Nigo stood out for LVMH. When we discussed this with a marketing consultant who keenly observes the Japanese fashion design scene, he said, “I can understand Kenzo preferring a Japanese designer, but if they need a streetwear fellow, why not Undercover’s Jun Takahashi, a contemporary of Nigo’s. Undercover is unjustly described by the Western press as a ‘streetwear brand’. While I can see the appeal to streetwear consumers, Jun Takahashi in my mind is a better, technically superior designer, who’s also good in womenswear. Kenzo needs someone with a more sophisticated sense of how to bridge the past and the present.”
Updated: 16 September 2021, 15:30
Illustration: Just So