Why NIGO for Kenzo Is a Perfect Pairing

On a solemn day in October 2020, to a chorus of lamentation from the fashion world and friends well beyond, Japanese designer Kenzo Takada died at the age of eighty-one from complications relating to COVID-19. Across social media and the pages of high-end fashion magazines, eulogies were numerous and heartfelt. And rightly so: Takada, along with the likes of Yohji Yamamoto, opened the door for Japanese designers to stake their well-deserved claim on mainstream Western fashion. More importantly, though, Takada held that door open and ushered others to follow him through. Others that no doubt include his newly-appointed successor: the BAPE founder and Teriyaki Boy, Nigo, now having been officially announced to replace former Lacoste creative director Felipe Oliveira Baptista as the brand’s solo design honcho.

I mention Takada’s passing here not to be maudlin but because, of course, his is a name and a legacy that is always worthy of mention. And also for another reason: because it was probably the last time you heard KENZO mentioned at all until Nigo’s hiring as artistic director became public knowledge on Wednesday. Before that? Maybe 2016’s H&M collection.

Honestly though, who knows?

It’s an appointment, then, that makes – in many ways – perfect sense. Not because he’s also Japanese and Takada was some great sartorial nationalist – far from it, in fact; KENZO, after all, has long been headquartered in Paris and has consistently embraced designers from across the world. No, it makes sense because Nigo is exactly what the KENZO brand needs right now.

One not entirely incorrect (but nevertheless slightly uncharitable) view is that KENZO is simply following in the footsteps of its other LVMH-owned peers: having seen Louis Vuitton and Givenchy appeal to new audiences and generate substantial – if not always favorable – press by appointing streetwear designers to directorial positions, it stands to reason that KENZO could use some of the same. Bringing in Nigo certainly fits the same mold as hiring a Virgil Abloh or a Matthew M. Williams.

But there are notable differences: Firstly, that A BATHING APE – a brand now fully ingrained in the counter-cultural collective consciousness – is almost double the combined age of Abloh’s Off-White™ and Williams’ 1017 Alyx 9SM. Second, that Nigo founded Billionaire Boys Club in 2003 with Pharrell Williams and Human Made in 2010 alongside sk8thing, making huge successes of both labels. And thirdly, the fact that all of this, really, is a way to say that – now at fifty – Nigo has an almost incomparable, near-thirty-year CV of game-changing design, brand building, and ground-up hustle.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that pointing to any cynicism on KENZO’s part here also completely dismisses the brand’s history as a quiet, constant maverick – of always making the choices that felt right for the house over the choices which current convention might otherwise dictate: beyond, perhaps, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony fame, none of Nigo’s predecessors – Giles Rosier, Antonio Moras, or the outgoing Baptista – were appointed to grab headlines or to “reinvent” the label. Rather, they were brought in to continue with and build on Takada’s incredible body of work.

Such skeptical analyses, too, ignore something else: namely, the possibility of streetwear fatigue in the fashion arena. Beyond those already mentioned, there is – amongst countless others – Demna Gvsalia at Balenciaga and Heron Preston working at Calvin Klein. And, with this in mind, there is every chance that high fashion’s appetite for the relevance that comes with streetwear clout will diminish – either having now been satiated and exploited to its limits or because the industry is not yet ready for what that means in terms of accessibility, democracy, and diversity.

The fact is that Nigo is not a novelty hire of any kind. Yes, he has the clout – he has the relevance to an audience which now spans generations of streetwear enthusiasts – but he also has the authenticity and the proven ability to create, curate, and to define. He has spent years – decades, now, a lifetime even – not, as so many do, listening to what people want and reflecting it back at them, but rather showing us what streetwear could and should be, and what it means to build an identity and a community around those ideals.

None of this is to suggest, however, that we might presume a complete reimagining of the KENZO brand under Nigo’s astute, contemporary direction. Yes, there will likely be changes – but these will be much needed and carefully choreographed turns.

Instead, what we might expect is a return to KENZO’s roots: to the accents and iconography which have the potential to make the Parisian house’s pieces so special – to the building blocks of the brand and the label’s core creative tenets. Nigo will not, of course, be building this brand from the ground up – but he knows by now that this is the place to start.

It has long been reported that Kenzo Takada’s first impression of Paris was a city “dismal and bleak” in nature and it would be doing the late designer a disservice to suggest that KENZO, the label, aligned itself with his. And, yet, it would be fair to say that – at least in recent years – perhaps the house has succumbed to its surroundings and the rigors of the fashion industry’s schedule; identikit pieces are all-too-often found in remainder stores and stagnating on resale websites. This is not what the label promised or what it was built on, and Nigo – if one thing can be said for sure about his upcoming tenure – will not stand for this way of thinking and working moving forward.

Undoubtedly, this is the beginning of a new era for KENZO. One that honors the legacy of its namesake and the potential his name still carries.

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