Fashion designer Nigo, born Tomoaki Nagao, is founder of urban clothing label A Bathing Ape (BAPE) and co-creator with US rap star Pharrell Williams of Ice Cream and Billionaire Boys Club. Metro asks him about Japanese fashion, his love for music and expanding the brands.
Metro: How did you get into designing clothes?
Nigo: I was interested in fashion from the moment I saw Run DMC on TV as a boy. I went to a famous fashion college to study editorial, where I was a year behind Jun Takahashi, founder of cult design label Under Cover. We became friends and opened a shop together called Nowhere. Jun was a designer from the start; I used to operate very much as a stylist, buying dead-stock sneakers and vintage American college wear to sell in the shop. Jun encouraged me to start my own brand because it was exhausting going to America on buying trips. Those are the roots of A Bathing Ape and I’ve been fortunate it hasn’t let up since. While I still don’t think of myself as a designer, it’s the easiest way to describe what I do.
M: You DJ and produce music as well.
N: While I was studying I became a stylist and DJ, and started to get some recognition. The clothing side became more successful but the idea of one without the other is quite strange. I’ve released a few records – the first ones were released in Britain on the Mo’ Wax label – and I continue to make music.
M: Do you still have time to spin records and make the odd instrumental?
N: Honestly, it’s difficult. The clothing has brought quite a few responsibilities so even if I personally need to focus on music, that isn’t always possible.
M: How has fashion changed since BAPE started in 1993?
N: What we were doing has become much more accepted and normal – to the point that people sometimes take it for granted, as if it was inevitable culture would evolve this way. There are good and bad sides to that. I’ve enjoyed the fact we can affect the mainstream but there used to be something special about belonging to an exclusive little club. Fashion obviously changes very quickly but at the level of what people wear in their daily lives, things are much more stable. The street of 2010 looks closer to what I wear than it did in 1993.
M: Japanese kids seem to have an eye for fashion.
N: People care about it. It isn’t unusual to be very informed about trends and brands and products. A lot of people here don’t feel the pressure to fit in which maybe exists in many other countries.
M: You’ve teamed up with characters from popular media, including Marvel, Hello Kitty, SpongeBob etc. What do you most enjoy about these link-ups?
N: It’s amazing to be able to add my touch to a famous character. If I couldn’t change them in some way, there’d be no point.
M: What other fashion designers are you rating at the moment? I interviewed Carri ‘Cassette Playa’ Mundane, who had some kind words to say about you.
N: I think it would be unfair to pick. I still see myself as a consumer, not some kind of judge who’s above it all, so I like to be able to recognise one good piece in a collection I didn’t really like, for example. There are a lot of good designers now. I like Carri, that’s nice of her.
M: You own A Bathing Ape and also work with Pharrell Williams on Billionaires Boys Club and Ice Cream. Which do you prefer?
N: Well, BAPE is older and it’s all mine but working with Pharrell is one of the most important things that has happened to me.
M: Do you always see eye to eye?
N: Mostly. I don’t speak enough English for our relationship to work if we didn’t ‘get’ each other already. The difficulties of communication in language sometimes help you realise differences of opinion aren’t that important.
M: Why did you recently close your L.A. store?
N: It was a difficult decision. The whole environment in L.A. changed after the economy crashed. We thought it was better to close. As for online sales, I was reluctant to do it at first. I had a shop before I had a brand and I’ve always wanted people to see my products in a certain way. I’ve been converted, though, but I think each way of buying appeals to different customers.
M: Lastly, what can we expect from Nigo in the near future?
N: I’ve just opened my first shops in Beijing and Shanghai, which is something I was working on for a while. Other than that, I am preparing new collections for BAPE, Mr Bathing Ape and Human Made.
A Bathing Ape Pop Up Pirate Store, Dray Walk, Truman Brewery, London, E1, open until January 30, 2011.