With almost 20 years of retail success, streetwear luminary NIGO spreads his whims from emporium A Bathing Ape (BAPE) to his limited edition vintage label, Human Made. Neither is non-pollutionary nor anti-institutionary nor pro-confectionary; but both factories of fun guarantee 100% cool beans.
“I want the world. I want the whole world. I want to lock it all up in my pocket. It’s my bar of chocolate. Give it to me. Now!” Oh, Veruca Salt, how you echo youthful ambition and materialism. Nowadays, people of all colors and collars got the bug of shopping battiness. Their code reads: regardless of price, shop to your heart’s content.
Nigo chairs this union of collectors and accumulators, but unlike the fictitious Veruca who remains at the hems (no oompa loompa would allow a bad nut to rule), Nigo has the willpower to be their center figure by churning out collection after collection of apparel ready to stir consumer rage. You’re lucky if it’s within your wage. Then again, everybody needs oomph for his moolah, be it in a buttonhole or a seam. Fancy looking cash wearing camouflaged hoodies? Smile. Say, green!
Even Jay-Z raps about ape kicks, but way before hip-hop alphas Kanye West and Pharrell Williams sported BAPE; the brand—inspired by the Japanese expression for “bathing in lukewarm water,” a luxury Japan’s privileged youth enjoy—earned a cult status right in Harajuku’s backstreets where BAPE-heads crowded to get dibs. It started from a shop called Nowhere to a label that has adorned cafes, art galleries, hair salons, and even condoms everywhere.
It got too big, according to Nigo, so he decided to sell it, but remained on its helm as creative director. Since then, his sensibilities have transitioned from blinged-out to pared down Americana and rockabilly-inspired, a core aesthetic for Human Made.
Nigo’s first vintage garment is a shredded Levi’s Type 2 jacket which he has kept since he was 15. Now, he’s recreating the past’s wear and tear by shokunin’s (workman) handmade craftsmanship.
Clothes are just a part of the big picture because Nigo expresses himself by collecting all sorts of items. As STATUS witnesses, whether it’s vintage, life-sized, labeled, organic, plastic, limited edition, distressed, spare, or futuristic—he curates them all.
His parents worked all the time and toys became Nigo’s childhood allies. Until now, they keep him company. In a way, they keep us company, too. Owning Nigo’s creations from Billionaire Boys Club to his latest ventures with Converse and Polaroid owe so much to a sense of childhood entitlement and wonder. Good for Nigo, his dolls turned into dollars. Even if his resemblance to Hiroshi Fujiwara earned him his moniker, Nigo, which means “number two,” he will always be the godfather and perpetrator. Now, it’s your time, kid. Charlie, you’re it.
“I have always wanted to make something original, to be the originator.”
Hi, Nigo! You started your career in publishing, specifically in Popeye & Olive. What made you decide to pursue it instead of becoming an editor?
I studied to be an editor at fashion college and, in a way, the shop was actually a project that came out of my editorial work—it was an idea or theme for a column that I wrote. Eventually the success of the store made the priorities change, but I was never really that conscious of it. I still do a lot of work with magazines, so it doesn’t seem to me that it was a real change… I still perceive myself as doing basically the same thing.
There’s truth to the saying; “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Who helped you on your way up?
I was lucky to have great friends, but I don’t think of it as being a situation where there was someone particular who helped or supported me in that way… There was a group of us and we were naturally into what each other was doing.
For something random, Banksy’s new book says, “You are an acceptable level of threat and if you were not you would know about it.” Any thoughts on this statement? In your younger years, did you ever feel a sneaking suspicion that you’d be successful?
I never thought that I would be successful. I wasn’t thinking about anything like that at all… I just did what felt right at any given moment. Perhaps, the fact that I was able to concentrate on the present and on things closer to me was beneficial. I don’t know. If I hadn’t started doing what I do now, I would probably still be happily working in a curry shop.
“If I hadn’t started doing what I do now, I would probably still be happily working in a curry shop.”
In an interview with Nylon Guys, you mentioned you’ve been received better in the west than in Japan, which happens quite often in many cultures. How did you legitimize your brand to overcome that perception?
Nothing I do is that carefully planned. I felt more genuine appreciation overseas, so I was naturally drawn to focus on that—it was more rewarding. It felt like they understood what I was doing and valued it. Ironically, the reason I didn’t feel that in Japan was, I think people already assumed that they knew everything they needed to know about what I was doing. So, they could turn off their attention. It is a notable phenomenon in Japan, though, that Japanese people are very proud and supportive of anything Japanese that becomes a real success overseas, particularly in America. Even if they hated it when it was a ‘Japan only’ thing! I was almost ignored in Japan while I was becoming known in the States; when people here finally realized that the brand was really happening there, I was welcomed again. It has been an interesting experience.
What were the toughest challenges you encountered in your career?
It’s a constant challenge to do this. With each level of success, new and bigger challenges appear.
You’re surrounded with materialism and celebrity, how do you deal? How do you keep it real?
The flashy stuff is only ever 10%; the remaining 90% is genuine dedicated hard work. I am a naturally quiet person and I am serious and passionate about what I do. I ride a vintage Schwinn bike to the office everyday!
You don’t care much about money but you magnetize it. What’s your rule in balancing a cool/underground image and profitability?
I really don’t think about anything other than staying creative and making good things… The rest should take care of itself.
“For Human Made… I am only making what I want to make for myself.”
I love that you’re over the whole idea of collaboration as a means of doing something creative. You seem to always be ahead of the curve, what feeds your creativity these days?
Really, collaborations were never that important to me. I think they got undue attention as a convenient tag to describe what was new and different about the “scene” that I was seen to be a part of. I have always wanted to make something original, to be the originator.
We found out you’re interested in kopi luwak, which is produced in the Philippines. In line with this, you’re an obsessive collector; what are your current exotic favorites?
I know (of course!). Recently, I have been very interested in traditional Japanese culture—kabuki and so on. I never knew much about it before, so to me, it is strangely exotic and yet vaguely familiar.
With Human Made, you’re able to pursue your interest in remaking mass-produced items from the past that are hard to create now. Can you tell us more about this new creative process in contrast with what you do for BAPE?
I feel that BAPE got too big… Like an oil tanker, it’s difficult to steer. My role became to provide what our customers want. For Human Made it’s quite the opposite—I am only making what I want to make for myself.
You said, you just don’t want to have a clothing company—you want to have a lifestyle company instead. How do you see your lifestyle company evolving in the next years especially that your progression has been from doing it really big (BAPE) to doing something in a small, handcrafted way (Human Made)?
I have been studying the work of Raymond Loewy, the great industrial designer. He’s one of my heroes. The New York Times said about him that, “From toothbrushes to automobiles… he changed the look of American life.” I like that idea. Within my work as Nigo is BAPE and also Human Made—they are designed to do different things, and I have worked with many different brands and products, and I hope to carry on expanding that repertoire in the future.
Complete the sentence, Nigo…
Nigo IS made in Japan.
Story by Kristine Dabbay
Photographed by Keiichi Nitta