In early December of last year, about 10 weeks after taking over as artistic director at the French luxury brand Kenzo, the Japanese fashion designer Nigo flew by private jet from Paris to New York, where he headed straight for the Midtown Manhattan town house of upscale jeweler Jacob & Co. It was a familiar pilgrimage for the streetwear icon, whose appetite for custom chains with diamond–encrusted pendants has made Jacob “The Jeweler” Arabo his informal biographer. This chronicle of Nigo’s career began with necklaces with fist-size ape heads inspired by A Bathing Ape, the culture–shifting streetwear brand Nigo founded in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood in 1993. Then came the bejeweled dollar signs commemorating the Billionaire Boys Club brand he cofounded with superstar producer Pharrell Williams a decade later. In celebration of Human Made, the subdued, hypebeast-casual clothing line he launched in 2010, Jacob crafted an assortment of polar bears, ducks, and other cartoonish characters cast in diamonds and white gold.
As Nigo strolled the length of Jacob & Co’s tunnel-like showroom, bathed in lighting powerful enough to reveal the flaws in any gem, it was clear why LVMH, Kenzo’s parent company, had such confidence in the youth appeal of a 50-year-old designer. Dressed in jeans, a white hoodie, and a denim jacket, Nigo had arrived to find Lil Uzi Vert waiting for him. A$AP Rocky soon followed. Then came the record label executive Steven Victor, who summoned a film crew for an impromptu music video shoot to promote the album I Know Nigo, a pandemic project that would blossom into one of the more interesting hip-hop records of 2022. The album features 11 songs, all curated by Nigo, with new music by Pusha T; Kid Cudi; Tyler, the Creator; and several other rappers whose association with the streetwear icon became a kind of hip-hop flex. The ultimate flex, though, belonged to Nigo, who demonstrated real clout by using the occasion of his new album to reunite, for the first time since 2009, Clipse and the Neptunes—a defunct rap duo and a seldom active production team, brought together again by their favorite fashion designer.
“Nigo is the master curator and tastemaker,” Pusha T told me in an email. “His ability to be so influential for so long is unprecedented and speaks to his appreciation and love for the culture.”
Balancing music video shoots with his work for Kenzo brought back a familiar sensation—one that first struck Nigo two decades ago, when A Bathing Ape exploded in America. It was instantly embraced by hip-hop luminaries like Jay-Z, Pharrell, Busta Rhymes, and Kanye West, who, in turn, sought out the designer when visiting Tokyo. “I thought, Oh, here we go again,” Nigo said.
Of course, the Kenzo role presents a novel challenge. For the first time in his long career, the brand that would rise or fall on his creative decisions was not one that he built himself. Instead, the designer traded pure invention for reinvention at the helm of an iconic Paris fashion house that is older than him by several months. Kenzo Takada, the brand’s founder, remains a guiding light at 18 rue Vivienne, despite retiring from the company in 1999. Takada’s recent death, in October 2020, has made Nigo especially mindful of the need to balance his own creative vision with a degree of fealty to his late countryman.