NIGO’s influence on hype culture timeline

NIGO’s influence on hype culture timeline

There is no greater influence on hype culture than Japanese designer NIGO. Through A Bathing Ape, his prescient clothing line launched in 1993, NIGO established so much of what would become our modern understanding of style. By pioneering collaboration between brands; keeping the product tight and exclusive to create scarcity and create intrigue; aligned with rappers and DJs at a time when luxury companies were still leery of any association with hip-hop; establish clear, concise iconography that was immediately recognisable; bringing together the worlds of youth fashion and high-end luxury, he became the blueprint for desire – so much so that none other than Virgil Abloh once said that “there is no one like Nigo. He helped us understand how luxury can be related to a new generation.”

Now something of a streetwear elder – a Star Wars fanatic, he recently half-jokingly referred to himself as Yoda – Nigo, born Tomoaki Nagao, has moved on to focus on a quieter brand, the unpretentiously named Human Made, as well serving as artistic director for Kenzo, the major French fashion house. The days of BapeSta mania are long gone, as a new colorway of his signature shoe – a Pop Art patent leather take on the shape and feel of the classic Nike Air Force 1, with versions created in collaboration with Kanye West, SpongeBob, and DC Comics – would send kids into fevers just to get their hands on a pair, an early warning of the ridiculously long lines that now snake out of the Supreme store with every new drop of the clothing. While NIGO has previously had a preference for tropes that are a little aggressive – military camouflage and illustrations of gorillas – the Human Made logo is encased in a sweet red heart, and the most recurring print at Kenzo is a joyful motif of a poppy. flower.

If he was once the master of hype, NIGO now seems content to create in his small – but still celebrated – corner of the world. When he sold a majority stake in BAPE in 2011 before leaving the brand for good in 2013, he was dismayed by how big it had become. “I look back on the BAPE era as a lost battle. But it taught me a lot, he says. NIGO had what some would describe as a mid-life crisis after he left, and even began to wonder if his time in streetwear had passed, until his longtime friend and collaborator Pharrell Williams encouraged him to get back in the game. Now he says the end of that life helped him figure out his future. “In the end, I spent so much time looking after management that I wasn’t really able to design,” he explained to WWD at the time.

Turning away from trends to focus more on quiet quality, Human Made has been a humble rearrangement of priorities, allowing him to take control and stay focused, a streamlined collection of classics such as warm, cozy hoodies and varsity jackets, embellished with ducks, valentine hearts and bunny rabbits, it’s more of a cottage industry than a massive mainstream effort. “He has a completely vertical fashion brand,” the late Abloh said in 2020. “In one building he designs, photographs and produces. I was blown away by that.”

The line is filled with a variety of cute little home and decor products with a playful appeal: a papier-mâché sunglass stand in the shape of a bulldog head, enamel mugs and plates for camping, a sake bottle, a banana hanger for the kitchen (complete with two replica bananas), a paper weight in the form of a melting ice cream, and a wind chime covered in polar bears and tigers. It’s silly ideas that feel special, collectible, unique, tailor-made for the weirdest among us. “I wanted to do something that was the antithesis of the way fashion has gone, where everything is fast fashion, disposable: buy, wear them, throw them away,” he said in 2012. “I wanted to make something that had a certain weight and value for that – the materials used in the construction method. This is more about the personal connection to the clothes.”

NIGO likes to make clothes even with his friends, a tight-knit, tough crew of loyal like-minded misfits that he’s gathered over the years, including Pharrell (they co-founded cult clothing line Billionaire Boys Club in 2003), Kanye, Pusha T, Tyler, creator, A$AP Rocky, Lil Uzi Vert, Abloh and Kid Cudi, who wore a NIGO-designed blue Kenzo cape and tuxedo at the recent Met Gala. Abloh, who once referred to NIGO as a mentor, brought him in to collaborate on collections for Louis Vuitton. Cudi, who actually worked as a retailer at the BAPE store in New York, gets starry eyed even when talking about NIGO. “I’m always in awe when I’m around him, in his office and his studio,” the artist told me earlier this year as he prepared for the annual fashion event. “I’ve never seen anyone have a world designed quite like Nigo’s.”

Not teaching is a path to the most valuable learning.”

He’s been given the time and space to indulge in more off-center creative projects, like a restaurant called Curry Up he’s opened in Tokyo and I Know NIGO, an album he released earlier this year. On it, he’s the maestro, making beats with Pharrell, Kanye and Tyler, and calling in guest verses from Uzi, Gunna, Clipse and Rocky. Rolling Stone described it as “a collaborative testament to the genuine admiration NIGO has earned for himself in the world of hip-hop.” If fashion is his day job, then music – and especially hip-hop – has always been his source, the place where he finds inspiration and energy. In turn, he’s been embraced by rappers in a way few designers have, practically defining 2000s hip-hop style, as important to the culture as Baby Phat or Sean Jean; it was Lil Wayne’s constant wearing of NIGO’s clothing (especially his iconic full-zip hoodie) that really made the designer a household name, and he’s been referenced since in lyrics by everyone from Soulja Boy to Drake. “Nigo is as important and important to hip-hop as Pharrell, or Slick Rick, or Kanye,” Rocky once said.

But then again, Nigo has really always been a music geek and culture lover. Born in 1970, he grew up in the medium-sized city of Maebashi, the capital of Gunma Prefecture, but used to sneak off to Tokyo to check out the Vivienne Westwood store and buy records from his favorite store, Cisco. First, he became obsessed with the rockabilly style of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly from the 1950s before turning his eyes and ears to hip-hop, dressing increasingly like his idols LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. “My first encounter with hip-hop was Raising Hell by Run-DMC. I was 16 years old. It wasn’t just the music, but the look – I’d never seen anything like it: Adidas Superstars worn without laces. It was shocking, he tells me. “Up until that point, I dressed in a style we refer to as ‘American casual’ in Japan: Levis 501s, white Hanes t-shirts, black-rimmed glasses. After I saw Run-DMC, my whole approach to style changed.”

He moved to the big city to attend Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, wrote for a fashion magazine, modeled a bit and fell in with Hiroshi Fujiwara, a Japanese design legend whom some have called the godfather of streetwear because of his then-progressive approach to fashion. NIGO actually got his nickname—which translates to “number 2″—as a reference to his place in the pecking order of the older, wiser Fujiwara, though he admits their bond wasn’t exactly a strict teacher-student relationship. was just a chance to see how things worked and take that knowledge into the world. “Master Hiroshi didn’t really teach me anything – I learned by watching him during the time we spent together,” he says. “Not teaching is a path to the most valuable learning.”

“I don’t see myself as influential, but I’m grateful that I can continue to fill a role.”

Eventually, NIGO opened Nowhere in the then-burgeoning Harajuku neighborhood, spurring him to create his own clothes to fill the store’s racks. A Bathing Ape was soon born, a name that came to NIGO after seeing the original Planet of the Apes. NIGO would produce T-shirts – home-spun tees featuring the BAPE monkey – in runs of 30 or so, giving away around half of them to friends, and the brand eventually caught fire in the trendier corners of Tokyo before heading to America. “It’s like a generational change. When I started out, there was really no respect for those things, and even to a level where there were actually dress codes: for example, you can’t come in here wearing jeans and a t-shirt. That kind of has really disappeared from the world, he told me in an interview back in 2013. “So, I guess for a younger generation of people who have grown up in a world where that wasn’t the case, it’s not the case. a big deal for them, it’s not even a factor.”

Now there is something of the fundamental spirit of imagination in his work again. In the decade since we last spoke, NIGO has tried his hand at working with Uniqlo, where he served as creative director of their UT line, creating graphic tees to appeal to the Japanese company’s giant global audience, to create more sophisticated work at Kenzo and Human Made, which feels special, small, strange and, most importantly for any modern designer, cool. He has turned his interests to more peaceful pursuits. “Recently, I am deep into Japanese Chanoyu [tea-ceremony] culture, he says. “Maybe that will be reflected in what I make in the future.” When asked how he stays in touch with what’s happening in youth culture, he says it’s just a matter of keeping your eyes open, paying attention and putting the more chaotic modern distractions – the kind he might have loved as an avant-garde upstart – aside. “I see the city through my car window when I’m traveling,” he says resolutely, “not through my iPhone.”

As for the culture of hype that he helped hone—the one that has sent sneaker prices skyrocketing, made certain sought-after products nearly impossible to buy except at insanely high prices, and created a frenzy for fresh products so massive that it almost has gone mad – he himself is cool and practical about it all. “You can make an analogy with any other environment,” he says. “There are good and bad aspects depending on where you are in it.”

And of course, he’s humble about his influence on the streetwear world, instead focused on what he’s creating now, and just happy to still be in the game—a game he helped establish the rules for—after all these years. “I don’t see myself as influential,” he says, “but I’m grateful that I can continue to fill a role.” So are we.

HYPEBEAST Magazine Issue 30: The Frontiers Issue is now available on HBX.

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