It’s a year since Nigo‘s debut collection for Kenzo. In his third season for the brand, the designer began to bring himself more forcefully into the picture, which doesn’t mean there was no sight of Kenzo Takada’s spirit. Nigo went for a Beatles-inspired wake, developing a collection that was deeply rooted in mod culture but which also enveloped Kenzo’s and his own through that deeply impressive Japanese capacity to brilliantly editorialize clothes. English country couture and its mod unravelling played against Japanese tailoring, kimono inspired, above hakama-style traditional dress trousers. There was, Nigo conceded happily in a preview, a strong dose of post-Pirates Vivienne Westwood in the underlying instinct to remix through disruption. The stitched patterns were sourced, Nigo said through his translator, from the etching used on sashiko jackets traditionally used to practice Kendo. But it was all wrapped up with other factors; US workwear, UK punk, post-military (in an incredible khaki goldfish-embroidered kimono bomber look), contemporary workwear and more. The only criticism was that Nigo’s mastery of the feminine aspect seemed unsure: it was either menswear-sourced templates or frills and shirring: reductive.
Collage by Edward Kanarecki. Don’t forget to follow Design & Culture by Ed on Instagram!
This sophomore collection by Nigo for Kenzo marked a double graduation. The first was that Nigo is increasingly finding the levels and detail of denim (now all sourced from Japan) and workwear production here much more aligned with his expectations as a connoisseur, thanks to evolution within Kenzo. Secondly, a graduation is what this show was staged to remind us of. Nigo said he’d used the concept of a passing out ceremony – inspired by a 1980s show by Kenzo Takada based on a sports day – in order to present an otherwise diverse group of dressed characters under the same banner: this was Kenzo’s class of ’23. Nigo is still understandably steeping himself in the archive of the house’s founder. Waistcoats came patched with an array of long-defunct labels that were reproductions of original Takada-era graphic designs. Similarly the patched naif animalia pieces were based on an archive design. And the womenswear especially – with the notable exception of a wabash and hickory striped denim liner dress in look 19, and look 16’s fabulous unwashed swing skirt – seemed deeply rooted in Takada’s oeuvre. Although this was a continuation of last season’s collection, a new interjection was the armada of naval inspired pieces. As well as literal-ish sailor wear, the maritime scarf was ingeniously integrated into the house’s revived tailoring as jacket lapels. The maritime aesthetic is deeply embedded in contemporary Japanese dress – just look at the school uniforms – but it also served as an interesting point of connection in a collection that was produced by a French house, conceived by a Japanese designer, and which took fundamental points of inspiration from Americana: conceptually, these were much-traveled clothes. This was a collection with pan-generational appeal that spanned continents and cultures: word is that the sales are already reflecting the new wind Nigo has brought to Kenzo.
Kenzo might be finally be back on the right track with a new creative director. For his sharp debut, Nigo (the legend behind A Bathing Ape) invited the fashion crowd and some big names – Pharrell Williams, Shygirl, Tyler, The Cretor, and of course the couple of the moment, Kanye West and Julia Fox – to Galerie Vivienne in Paris. It was here in 1970 that a small gallery unit with cheap rent was snapped up by 31-year-old Kenzo Takada, who had arrived circuitously from Tokyo five years previously with the dream to emulate Yves Saint Laurent and become a fashion designer. The brand’s founder’s collection was cut and sewn fabrics brought from a Montmartre market. As Kenzo later recalled: “I was looking for some kind of identity as an outsider, so I wanted to bring something very Japanese into it, and that meant textiles with a lot of color and pattern.” By 1993, when he sold his company for $80 million to what would become LVMH, Kenzo had developed that formula to become one of the most beloved and distinct designers operating in Paris. He sadly passed away in late 2020 after being laid low by Covid, but had continued to work on new projects until shortly before. But the brand without its creator has struggled to stay relevant for years. Yes, there was that period, starting a full decade ago, when the Kenzo-coded tiger sweatshirts produced under the Carol Lim and Humberto Leon went from cool to hot to way overcooked. After they left in 2019, Felipe Oliveira Baptiste delivered some interesting and criminally underrated collections, but sadly they just didn’t resonate with the customers. Nigo’s creativity and clout – and of course his personal passion for and parallels with Kenzo – make him a serendipitously synchronized recruit for LVMH. His autumn-winter 2022 line-up celebrates Takada, redefines what Kenzo’s true aesthetic is, and has some really, really good clothes to offer. The key poppy print was redrawn and applied in silhouette on washed denim workwear, by velcro patch to hats, plus on waistcoats, midi-skirts, camp collar shirts and more. The cutely kawaii stuffed animal scarves, knit and fleece, were another revival. The conversation between cultural clichés was highly enjoyable: for every souvenir jacket with a map of France on the back there was a beret (always best in burgundy) stitched with the year of Kenzo’s founding. Not at all ironic, however, were the beautiful high kimono jackets in navy, gray and olive. The bibbed gingham aprons worn over suiting were apparently adaptations of a specific Japanese garment worn during the tea ceremony. This intriguing cross-section of cultures is exactly what Takada used to in his collections, always with grace and consideration.
Nigo is of the generation raised during Japan’s obsessive absorption and reinterpretation – often more beautiful than the inspiration – of the Ivy League original into American Casual and Yankee variants. During the preview he’d commented fascinatingly on the difference between building a collection with European factories (which he said created garments more “clean” than he’d wish for) compared to Japanese (who can make it “dirty”). For this reason he’d insisted all the denim in this collection hail from his homeland, even if the top-stitching on his undyed indigo was a little too “clean” to be exactly perfect. Tightly observed post-Ivy, post-Yankee, come-to-Paris pieces here included the varsity jackets and unwashed dungarees. Shortly before the show, Williams said: “The coming together of Nigo and Kenz – it’s symbolism, right? None of us would miss it. Nigo is the father of so many things that we’ve all looked up to, and that have meant so much to all of us.” Of the collection he added: “So it’s like 1950s and ’60s clothing remade in the ’80s, you know, but through the lens of the 2020s.” Which was a pretty perfect summation of this first page of a fresh chapter in the story of the house of Kenzo.