Who Is Nigo?
Updated: Mar 1, 2022
By: Alex Germain
With his recent debut as the artistic director of Kenzo, Tomoaki Nagao, known as Nigo, has cemented his legacy as one of the leading forces in fashion today. However, he also has a long and illustrious legacy in the worlds of fashion, music, and general popular culture. From starting his own fashion label to forming his own rap group to starting his own restaurant, Nigo is truly a modern renaissance man whose boundless creativity has greatly influenced popular culture. Here’s an abbreviated history of Nigo’s career.
Nigo was born in Maebashi, Japan, on December 23rd, 1970. At the age of 16, Nigo became enamored with hip hop. Groups such as Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys became his style icons, and this love for hip hop style would be a mainstay throughout his career. After high school, Nigo attended Bunka Fashion College, where he was immersed in the nightclub culture of Tokyo and fostered connections which proved invaluable to his fashion career. While enrolled at Bunka, Nigo met designer Jun Takahashi, who went on to create the highly influential label UNDERCOVER, and the person who proved to be most important in his fashion journey, Hiroshi Fujiwara.
Fujiwara was known as the “Godfather of Harajuku”, which is a highly influential fashion-oriented area of Tokyo. Nigo got his nickname from his close resemblance to Fujiwara, as well as his friendship and job as an assistant to Fujiwara. “Nigo” translates to the number 2 – he was Fujiwara 2. With Fujiwara’s help, he founded the boutique Nowhere with Jun Takahasi, which sold imported brands such as Nike and Adidas alongside local streetwear brands created by them and their friends. It was during this time in which Nigo created his most successful brand, A Bathing Ape. Originally named “A Bathing Ape in Lukewarm Water”, referencing the Japanese custom of taking hot baths as well as commenting on generational divides, Nigo worked with graphic designer SK8THING to create a visual language which included references to Planet of the Apes, a repeated ape camo motif, and a shark graphic most famously featured on hoodies.
A Bathing Ape, often shortened to Bape, initially operated on a model of scarcity, at first due to necessity and later by design. This created mass amounts of hype for the product, as consumers could only buy items from Bape stores in Japan in limited amounts. This resulted in a golden era for the brand, stemming from the 90s to the mid 2000s. Bape introduced sneakers such as the Bape Sta and the Sk8 Sta, which riffed on popular Nike models, namely the Air Force 1 and the SB Dunk. It was during this time that Nigo was introduced to close collaborator Pharrell Williams, already at the time a famous music producer. They launched the brands Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, and would later collaborate musically, with Pharrell helping contribute beats to the various projects of the rap group Teriyaki Boyz, a group Nigo started in 2005. Most notably, Pharrell along with his group the Neptunes produced the theme song for the film The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, performed by the Teriyaki Boyz.
With celebrities such as Pharrell, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West being among its fans, the brand was seemingly unstoppable, with collaborations with Disney, Nintendo, and even Pepsi proving its status as one of the defining brands of the era. However, all good things must come to an end. Bape was a victim of overexpansion and changing consumer taste, and in 2011 Nigo was forced to sell 90% of the company to Hong Kong fashion conglomerate I.T. Group for roughly $2.8 million. Nigo stayed on as creative director up until 2013, but the writing was on the wall: the Bape era was over for Nigo. Bape lives on today, becoming more accessible and collaborative as time went on, and remains a mainstay in the streetwear community.
After the sale of Bape, Nigo turned his attention to a new brand he founded alongside SK8THING in 2010: Human Made. Focused on vintage American workwear, this brand’s identity was much more subdued and muted, with primarily vintage inspired graphics and a focus on construction and design details. Collections often feature well-crafted denim and knitted pieces, as well as various household items. Nigo’s spirit for collaboration lives on, with Human Made collaborating with partners such as Adidas, Louis Vuitton, and artists such as Lil Uzi Vert and Kaws. As well as starting up Human Made, Nigo was made creative director of the Uniqlo UT line, giving him a much wider reach with his ideas. Nigo also expanded into the food and beverage space after Bape, launching his own restaurant chain Curry Up in 2010 and the sake brand Sake Storm Cowboy with his old friend Pharrell in 2020.
This brings us to the present day. After the departure of former creative director Felipe Oliveira Baptista in 2021, Nigo was appointed creative director of the brand Kenzo, making him the first Japanese creative director at Kenzo since its founder Kenzo Takada left the brand in 1999. Debuting his first collection for the brand to critical acclaim in January 2022, Nigo looks to further advance his legacy in fashion and leave his mark on culture. Ever the polymath, Nigo isn’t done with music either, with his first album in almost two decades releasing in March 2022, featuring collaborations with artists such as Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky, and of course, Pharrell. It’s safe to say Nigo isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and we all look forward to whatever he does next in fashion, music, and any other field he wishes to try his hand in.