The Founder of Bathing Ape on how the web killed the ‘Fashion Walk’ and why vintage Americana is the future with his new project, Human Made by Peter Lyle. Tomoaki Nago aka Nigo, was one of the three centrak figures in a scene that began in one small Tokyo shopping district in the early 1990s. In the 20 years since, it has gradually come to inform the way fashion of all kinds is bought and sold around the world. Under the tutelage of his mentor, the original street style obsessive and collector Hiroshi Fujiwara, and alongside his friend, future Undercover designer Ju Takahashi, Nigo came to Tokyo in the late ’80s, after high school, at a time when the certainties and career structures of Japan’s postwar boom years were already beginning to unravel. Instead of becoming standard salarymen, Nigo and Takahashi found themselves studying magazinecraft and indulging their adolescent obsessions to become DJs, consultants and cool-hunters, whose fashion advice columns soon won them an ardent teen following. They opened their joint boutique, Nowhere, on April Fool’s Day, 1993, in Harajuku, Tokyo – a short walk from Yoyogi Park, which the city’s teen style tribes used to cross to come shopping on weekends, parading their famously theatrical outfits and allegiances (mountain witches, bloodstained medics, Gothic Lolitas and all that) along the way.
Arguably, though, the new shop also represented the beginnings of the end of all that overly fantastical fashion, as a detail-focused fetishisation of product and its real-world history or scarcity superceded it. Nigo’s strength was a curatorial approach ro the recent past combined with a compulsive collector’s understanding of what made shoppers sick. T-shirts were hung on white walls like modern art and limited-edition trainers were displayed in glass vitrines. Small-run collaborations between like-minded brands in the district energed as a clever new way to generate press coverage and street buzz. Finally, in accordance with this museum-like mindset, selected second-hand designer pieces were recast as something even better and more expensive than new: they were now vintage. In the following years, these innovations were echoed in the wider fashion world. Luxury Western fashion brands who’d lost their edge and grown naff since the ‘70s got their groove back by becoming more exclusive in their distribution and arty and subtle in their ads. (And then, later, by rediscovering the treasures in their archives.)
American designers like Mark Jacobs opended their first boutique – eschewing the high-sheen and snob value of traditional high-end clothes shops for a mix of gallery-like presentation and idiosyncratic, warm, thrift store charm – and flourished. The most lauded fashion designers to emerge from Europe in the years that followed – from Raf Simons and Martin Margiela to Heidi Slimane – overty and reverently memorialised their own teenage obsessions with music and fashion in their work. Back in Tokyo, Nowhere evovled to become a company rather than a mere shop, thanks to Nigo’s establishment of his own label, A Bathing Ape. It riffed on hip hop culture, skater style and the popculture preoccupations of overgrown adolescents. The brand’s name was inspired by Nigo’s love of Planet Of the Apes and related memorabilia, and was a knowing joke about the selfindulgence of Nigo and his peers in Japan’s first “lost generation”. By the early 21st century, it had become an empire ardently followed by geeky fashion boys across the world and endlessly refreshed and expanded with new sub-lines, spin-offs, and collaborations with other brands and hipster-worshipped pop stars like Pharrell Williams and DJ Shadow.
In early 2011, Nigo sold 90 per cent of Nowhere/Ape to a major Hong Kong retail conglomerate, although he will stay on as creative director for at least another year. The brand is booming in China, but well past its frenzied peak in Japan – something Nigo acknowledged at the time, alongside his decision to move on to other things. Perhaps just as important, though, is the one other factor that Nigo mentioned: last December, he turned 40. The boy who never grew up has a new label, Human Made, available outside Japan for the first time this season, and a new frame of reference: mid-century American casual classics and workwear, his first love. It seems part of a wider nostalgic mood. In interviews, the ’90s branding guru and arch marketer now talks longingly of fading Japanese traditions like kabuki, and of the isolating effects of doing everything online. Though Nigo’s establishment interests in logos and lifestyle all inform Human Made, so too does a new level of detail – a relentless, nerdy focus on finish – that you simply can’t appreciate until you’re inches away from the real thing. I’d only ever admired A Bathing Ape as a business rather than desired it as a look, and the first time I saw Human Made pieces in photos, I wasn’t sure I got the new brand either. But by the second time I got to properly see and feel the new collection on the rails, I wanted loads of it really quite badly.
I’d been ambushed by its technical focus on archive detail – the way the precise tone of a coat, the stiching of a pocket, the sheen of the panels on a
sweatshirt, or the embroidery on a bowling jacket seemed to uncannily tap into blurry half-memories. Things you simply hadn’t seen since your
childhood, except in photos or old films; warm and familar on the one hand, utterly alien to 2011 on the other. It’s almost Proustian. That seems to have
been the plan all along. Human Made is based entirely on reference pieces from Nigo’s personal collection, because he didn’t want to work from photos
or anything he couldn’y see, touch and reverse-engineer himself. (Nigo bought his first vintage denim jacket at the age of 15 – his mother couldn’t
fathom why he’d paid money for something old and riddled with holes – and recently opened his own chain of Tokyo antiques and vintage stores, Pass the
Baton.) The new label was entirely developed in collaoration with Warehouse, the Osaka company set up by two brothers in 1995 to be the very best at
what japanese companies in general were already becoming known as the best in the world at: reproduction vintage clothing and fabrics. (Warehouse’s
self-declared mission is “an investigation of limitless detail.”) And yet Nigo explicitly set out not to make any direct replicas. It’s kind of
bonkers. It’s kind of beautiful. When, ever the shopkeeper, Nigo came over to the UK in August to oversee the label’s introduction to stores, we asked
him to tell us more.
Human Made seems intensely personal, even intimate. Is that something you intended all along?
Nigo: Yep, In making it, I wanted to do something that was the anthithesis of the way that fashion has gone, where everything’s fast fashion,
disposable: buy, usem thriw away. I wanted to make something that had some weight and value to it – the materials used the method of construction. And
as a balance to Ape, which has become quite big and well known. This is more about the personal connection to the clothing that I make and the clothes
that the customers buy, For me, obviously, but I hope the people who buy it will have the same feeling too. There’s soemthing quite important about that
You mentioned A Bathing Ape as a point of contrast. Given that label’s size and endless lines and diversification, Human Made seems to be a very cinsciously singular, pared-down idea.
I agree. One of the important elements in Japanese is shokunin, which means sort of like ‘workman’, or someone making hand-crafted products. What’s made is still within the scope that can be controlled and overseen by one craftsman.
Is that how toy see yourself in relation to Human Made? As its shokunin?
Not in the sence that I’m making the products by hand, but in terms of what I’ve always done. Only now, I’m it in a more deeply involved and a way that is focused on artisanship. If there’s a piece of stiching on a garment that I want to use or recreate like something old, then most factories won’t have the equipment to stich that any more. So the first step is just finding those old machines, and the whole process after that is very involved. Like the idea of ‘intage’, the fashion collaboration was something quite novel and small-scale when it evolved in Tokyo in the 1990s. But also, like vintage, it’s ubiquitous in the industry at all levels now. I’m definitely very over it and quite bored of the whole idea of collaboration as a means of doing something creative. You may be right to pint out that Harajuku was where that started, as a kind of marketing tool I guess, but it wasn’t thought of like that then. There was something genuine about it and it was usually on a very small level between real friends, who just happened to be doing things on different brands and found it fun to work together. The big companies started to get involved, and the it would end up just as two big companies combining. I becomes quite booring.
And what do you make if the ogoing dominance of vintage references and heritage fashion, especially in menswear, today?
Analysing it in a trend-based way, when the economy’s poor, people want to buy clothes tha they feel are kind of above fashion or outside of fashion. When things are doing well, it’s good for people to recognise that you’re wearing the new season of something, and not to wear last year’s clothes. But when things are slow and average, you tend to see people get bored of fashion and wear something the’ve had for 20 years, or at least wear something that looks like they’ve had it for 20 years. I think part of the reason it’s become this popular is something as simple as that, it’s actually partly the global economic trend.
Do you ever yearn for that kind of obsession with new fabrics and futurism that still seemed to be important in 1990s fashion?
I enjoyed thse times too, wearing the new shit all the time. But I also feel that the current heritage thing actually has alot to do with the workwear boom that happened i the ‘90s too. Now,it’s like vintage versions of workweat instead of the contemporary styles that were popular then, but the shapes are basically the same. It’s on that cycle. If you were to wear some of those things we were wearing in the ‘90s now, they’d look pretty dated, as they’ve changed the shapes, but it’s the same flavour just sightly updated. It probably still speaks to the people who were into it then, when it was quite a tight scene, but it’s more mainstream now.
Human Made has seen you work very closely with the vintage producers Warehouse. Why is that, and what does it mean in practice?
Who I initially worked out what I wnated to do withe the brand, and the level of quality that I wanted to achieve, I felt that they were the only people who’d be able to get me there. They understand all the references I’m talking about and, technically, they’re probably the only people who could have done it. They make some great stuff too, but their goal is really to recreate their historical garment that really existed, whereas I want to take the skills reqired to be able to make something that looks like that, but make something which is new – that has its own personality, rather than just remaking something old, exactly.
Does that kind of precision, or scarcity of materials, mean toy always have to make certain pieces in very small numbers?
With some pieces, there are only 50 in the world. To go up to a bigger level of production would invovle setling for the level of quality and finish of a good conteporary pare of premium jeans – which is great, but it would be a step down because those companies are still working at much bigger scale. There’s a lot of handwork in Human Made. Often, you wouldn’t know exactly what was giving the garment its feel until the tiny details were pointed out, but you’d sence, and it would haveto be made certain way to elicit that response. If you cut back on those details to save time or money, you lose some of that feel. Every season, I will pick about 100 items and then we go through the process of trying to work out which ones they can make. It usually comes down to about 50. It could be that even Warehouse can’t find the fabrics or elements, or that it would take too long to get together and we look into it for the following season because it can be done, but it can’t be done within a fashion production cycle. One of the concepts for the collection is that “the future is past”. The other main thing I’m interested in with it is the idea, the pursuit, of people trying to remake things that were very easyto mass-produce in the past but are very difficult to make now. A lot of details that are now hard to recreate – like the shape of a buttonhole or a kind of seam – are things that only existed because, with the technology at the time, they were trying to make things streamlined and easy and improve the costefficiency of mass-production. But now, because the technology has changed, those things can be incredibly hard to do again.
What else is invovled in this vintage recreation, beyomd finding the old machines and materials, and how much has it evovled it the past few years?
If you think about it, the most modern part of the process is ‘ageing’. To actually deliberately make clothes look worn is something people not long ago would never have imagined happening any way but naturally. The production process is actually a completely new concept, from that perspective – that area’s been evolving a lot recently. If you look at vintage-inspired denim from a few years ago, it’s pretty obviously fake, but now it’s starting to look alot more like the old stuff. You’ve got to make the fabric in the knowledge that it’s going to be wahsed or distressed. Ultimately, how you choose to do it is about how it turns out rather than the process. In some areas you have to go back to the original methods, sometimes it’s more of a modern process.
Will the techniques for ageing clothing keep improving with time and technology?
As a process, in many ways it’s kind of come as far as it can. Really, the issue is how much time and efford you want to spend. Most denim distress washing is done by machine, but our jeans are done by hand, on a 3D form. Each pair is a near to identical as we can make them, but they have variations because of that process. As a result they’re really expencive, but they still sell really well. I’d like to make more, but they just take too long.
For all that historical focus, what insantly sets Human Made apart from the heritage menswear moment is the way you have combinced the ‘replica’ detailing with graphic and slogans by your old collaborator Sk8thing that are overtly playful, rather that ‘authentic’. How did that work?
It’s not that though-out a process, it happens quite naturally. The graphic references are things that comes out of my lifestyle, like coffee. The civet cat on the jacket referencing the civet coffee, kopi luwak – where the civet eats the beans and craps them out, which gives them an interesting flavour.
Is that a kind of coffee you especially like?
I kind if I like it, but it’s not my favourite. There’s actually quite a lot of fake kopi luwak about because it’s so coveted, and I haven’t been toIndonesia to try it properly, but I’d like to. I’m more interested in the idea that this cute jungle critter eats this beans, and someone come along one day and decides to try to see what happends if you roast them. There’s a weird, funny story there and that’s at least as important.
Hip hop was obviously a key influence on A Bathing Ape. Have toy been listening to anything particular while you work on Human Made?
With Human Made I was listening a lot to early Elvis, but also I like Kitty Daisy & Lewis, the kids from London – they’re actually two brothers and a sister, they’re a sort of neo-rockabilly band and they’re really young. Also the Polecats, the ‘alternative’ Stary Cats from the ‘70s. But in the office, Hot 97 is always streaming straight from New York.
Hev you noticed anything interesting or new about British fashion on this trip here?
Between London and Japan, there’s always been quite a commonality and approach compared with, say, the US, and a lot of people with very individual good style, which also reminds me of Japan. Also, right now, the whole world is in a mess in terms of its financial outlook, and in Japan you can really kind of feel that in the way people are dressing on the streets and what they’re getting up to. But coming to London this time, it seems that one of the good things is that the dip doesn’t seem to stop people from having energy and looking like they’re still having fun. Dressing like they want to dress – there’s more expression.
Obviously, in Japan things have to been great financially for a long while and now, as a result of the earthquake, we’re having to conserve power, so it’s quite dark and we’re not going out as much. Poeple are bying clothes a lot more online now, they’re going to stores less, so there are less people who care about fashion out in the streets. People have just become more stuck inside, where before there would be a real culture in Japan of wearing clothes to go shopping on a Saturday afternoon. That’s what they wanted their clothes for, not necessarily to go into clubs or anything else, but to wear to go shopping in, so everybody would see everybody else. Now people are just buying clothes to go to the convenience store – sweatpants or whatever – and the general mood of everything now, after the earthquake, is so sombre. The classic ‘fashion walk’ is kind of over.