Calling NIGO a fashion designer is like saying Cristiano Ronaldo is a footballer. It’s true, but is a terrible understatement. NIGO is the fashion luminary that created the cult urban clothing line A Bathing Ape, otherwise known as BAPE, and helped mould the Japanese fashion industry into what it is today. In the last 20 years, he has gone from selling t-shirts and hoodies out of a small shop in Ura-Harajuku to upmarket boutiques around the globe. Apart from his own line, NIGO has also worked with Pharell Williams, fellow creative powerhouse, to launch another streetwear label called Billionaire Boys Club. In 2014, streetwear fans around the world were floored when they heard NIGO had taken up residency as Uniqlo’s Creative Director for UT, but the 45-year-old proved that he was up to the challenge of designing for a much bigger audience base. Speaking to us at Uniqlo’s HQ in Midtown Tokyo, NIGO shared with us about his upcoming collaborations and the challenges he faces when needing to work within another brand’s framework.
Why has UNIQLO decided to partner with Futura and Andre Saraiva for Spring/Summer 2017, with regards to UT?
So the process for designing (which artists to work with? what content to put into the range?) always starts the same way: The design team and I spend a long time discussing and coming up with a list of content we want to put into the line for that season. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a collaboration with a particular artist. It’s a whole process of discussion and it comes down to working out which things are going to work out.
With regards to Futura and Andre Saraiva, it was my direct suggestion to work with them because I have personal connections with them, and I’ve worked with them many times over the past 20 years.
When you first started working on UT in 2013, you said that one of the biggest challenges was working within a framework. Does that remain a challenge?
Working within this framework is something that is still challenging. In the past I dealt with it by leaving out personal expression in the designs. That is to say, I avoid trying to put too much personal influence into what I’m doing for UT. The designs should be about the brand, not me.
Gradually though, I’ve felt more comfortable putting in some designs with which I have a more personal connection, for example the KAWS collection I did last year. That’s a personal connection that goes back a long way, but I felt comfortable bringing that into the line and it turned out very successful.
So I still maintain the stance that the designs should be about UT, but I’ve become more comfortable bringing in content and collaborations that I have a more personal connection with.
What have you learnt after four seasons of working on UT?
The thing about working exclusively on t-shirts is that there is less room to make design changes in the format – the shape of the clothing is basically fixed. So it’s an annual exercise in coming up with original, innovative, unique content to put on the t-shirts.
You are regarded to be “Cool” by many people around the world. What do you think is “Cool” and how does that translate to your designs for UT?
To be very honest, it’s a bit difficult for me to understand why people think what I do is “Cool”. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always worked my lifestyle into my design outlook. So what you’re seeing is actually my real life. However, like I said, what I do for UT cannot be quite so personal because it has to satisfy a much wider base of consumers. But while I cannot put 100% of my lifestyle into UT designs, it remains the backbone of my work here. I just have to adjust for a different bill and a different expectation.
Do you think artists lose themselves when they start becoming more popular and established?
I feel the need to emphasize that in my perspective, something that is good is good regardless of what level it’s presented at, or how many people are interested. When I look at KAWS, as a particular example, I see somebody on a parallel track of what’s happening in my own career – going from being a very niche underground artist, to becoming widely recognised and popular. I’m happy to see my friend from a long time ago, moving up to that level and is still making intrinsically great art.
What kind of music played in your mind when you worked on this collection?
Nothing, actually. Silence. That’s important when it comes to designing UT. That’s not the way I work on my personal collections, but for UT it seems appropriate that there is no outside influence.
In the past UT actually had different kinds of packaging. Are you planning on exploring any kind of special packaging for your own UT collection?
Packaging is something that I’ve always been interested in, and I’ve actually worked on some for the Disney collection. It’s something that I’d like to explore more, but it’s usually quite difficult to make it work because of the sheer volume of products being produced. So there are many practical considerations that make packaging quite difficult to achieve consistently. I’m going to keep trying, but no concrete plans at the moment.
As Creative Director of the UT line, what legacy would you like to leave behind?
I actually think it’s important for me not to make too much of an impression. Like I’ve mentioned, it should be about UT, not me. From the perspectives of the consumers though I think they’ll probably remember my work with KAWS and Pharell because they are the most ‘Nigo-like’ collaborations I’ve done while on the team.