In the bustling streets of Tokyo, where fashion thrives and individuality is celebrated, one name has etched itself into the vibrant tapestry of streetwear history – Nigo. Born Tamaoki Nagao in 1970, Nigo’s journey from a fashion enthusiast inspired by Popeye magazine to the founder of the iconic A Bathing Ape (Bape) and artistic director of Kenzo is nothing short of legendary. Let’s dive into the colorful narrative of Nigo’s life, career, and the cultural phenomenon he unleashed upon the world.6

Early Days and Inspiration

Nigo’s fascination with fashion blossomed in the 80s, sparked by his discovery of 50s Americana style in Japan. His move to Tokyo at 18 to study editorial at Bunka Fashion College marked the beginning of his journey. Influenced by magazines like Takarajima and the eclectic tastes of tastemakers like Hiroshi Fujiwara, Nigo’s unique perspective began to take shape. It was namely the fashion dedicated column in Takarajima magazine called Last Orgy, written by no one else than Hiroshi Fujiwara himself. (Find more about Hiroshi in our older blog here)

Popeye magazine

Popeye Magazine and Last Orgy 2

Nigo entered the fashion world as a writer and stylist for Popeye Magazine, where he curated a column named Last Orgy 2, a homage to Fujiwara’s work. It was during this time that he formed a connection with Jun Takahashi and Hiroshi Fujiwara, laying the foundation for his future ventures.

Nigo & Jun Takahashi for Last Orgy 2

The origin of the name “Nigo”

As young Tamaoki Nagao was entering the fashion world, drawing inspiration from Takarajima and Popeye magazine, Jun Takahashi introduced him to his role model Hiroshi Fujiwara. As the relationship of two creatives grew stronger, people around them started to notice that they look similar. Therefore, Tamaoki was assigned the nickname “Nigo”, meaning the second. Nigo accepted the nickname with grace, as he saw Hiroshi as number one.

Nigo & HiroshiFujiwara

Nowhere Store

In 1993, Nigo and Jun Takahashi took a bold step, opening their first business venture together – the Nowhere store in Urahara, also known as the hidden Harajuku. Half the store showcased Takahashi’s Undercover brand, while the other half featured Nigo’s carefully curated selection, including iconic pieces like adidas Superstar. This collaboration, however, faced challenges as Nigo’s selections struggled to find a market.

Nowhere store – Nigo & Jun Takahashi

The Birth of A Bathing Ape

Inspired by The Planet of the Apes movie, Nigo, along with graphic designer SK8THING, birthed A Bathing Ape. The name itself hints at a popular Japanese idiom: “A bathing ape in lukewarm water” which describes overindulgence in society. The brand’s initial years were marked by the production of T-shirts distributed through a unique marketing strategy – half sold and half given to friends, creating an exclusive hype around the brand.


Cult Following and Global Recognition

A Bathing Ape gained significant traction, becoming a cultural phenomenon in Harajuku. At one point in mid 90s half of Harajuku youth was wearing ape head and the other one was waiting in a massive line to get their own. Collaborations with major brands and artists like Pepsi and Futura propelled Bape onto the global stage. By the late 90s, Bape had opened six stores across Japan, solidifying its status in the streetwear realm.

Lil Wayne in Bape shark hoodie

Bape’s Evolution and Collaborations

Nigo continued to push boundaries with Bape Sta, a unique take on Nike Air Force 1. Swoosh was replaced by a star and a zapping light. “Air” was replaced with “Bape” and “Ape”. Later on, Nigo introduced collaborations with influential artists like Kanye West and Kaws, thus elevating sneakers into collectible items, setting trends that would dominate the industry in the future.

Bape x Kanye West 2006

The brand became iconic through its ape head logo and colorful hoodies. The steeper price point demonstrated that streetwear pieces could be viewed as a luxury commodity. This was one of the first moments when streetwear infiltrated high fashion catwalks, a thing that we see so much today, but was not usual back in the day.

Bape store NYC

Pharrell & BBC Icecream

American culture and Ametora serve as lifelong inspiration for Nigo. In early 2000, he became a huge fan of Pharrell Williams. It was at this time that he was getting custom jewelry from Jacob “The Jeweler”, the same person who did custom pieces from Pharrell. As Nigo was asking for the same pieces Pharrell got, Jacob decided to introduce the two – leading to the start of one of the most creative partnerships in the history of streetwear.

BBC ice cream custome jewelry2005

As Pharrell was visiting Tokyo to hang out with Nigo and SK8thing, he mentioned that he would love to create his own brand, leading to the establishment of BBC/Icecream in 2003. Taking heavy inspiration from Bape and riding on the wave of loud prints and vivid colors, the brand soon reached the top of the industry.

BBC store opening2004

Venturing into Luxury

In 2005, Nigo showcased the fusion of streetwear and high-end fashion with the opening of Bape’s first store in Soho, New York. The store showcased that streetwear stores can offer a high end experience – where every piece was displayed as an art piece.

Way before Virgil Abloh initiated collaboration between Nigo and Louis Vuitton, or before Kenzo hired Nigo as their creative director. The designers relationship with LV was blooming, as he together with Pharrell were invited by Marc Jacobs to create a line of eyewear in 2004. Named “Millionaire” the sunglasses became one of the most coveted eyewear pieces back in the time. The sunglasses were so iconic that Virgil decided to pay homage to Nigo with his first collection for LV in 2019 by releasing a new iteration – 1.1. millionaire sunglasses.

LV 1.1. milionaire sunglases

Exit from Bape and launch of Human Made

After incredibly successful 17 years, A Bathing Ape started to lose momentum and faced financial difficulties. At this point, Nigo decided to step down from the leading role and sold 90% of Bape shares to Hong Kong-based retailer I.T. Company Ltd. for 2.8 million dollars.

The story is, however, not done by far. No one can stay young forever, and eventually you grow up from designing colorful hoodies and bold prints. The same thing happened to Nigo. As the designer was getting more mature and his style was changing, he was more interested in grown up pieces, with main focus on craftsmanship. This change resulted in the launch of Human Made – another chapter in Nigos Creative journey. The brand name was inspired by evolution of ape into human.

Nigo & Pharrell for Human Made

Elevating Uniqlo UT line through creative lens

Post-Bape era, Nigo and his influence extended to Uniqlo UT, where he became the first creative director. The first Uniqlo UT T-shirts that Nigo dropped introduced a new T-shirt model dubbed “The New Model T” and included a range of collaborations with Star Wars, Line Friends, Peanuts, and more. “It was about the global reach of the company, Nigo said. Nigo leveraged his influence to bring in iconic artists to collaborate with Uniqlo UQ division. Some of the names include Jun Takahashi and Pharrell. The biggest collaboration for Uniqlo then came with artist Kaws. All the unique collaborations underlined artists’ creative lens once more and elevated Uniqlo to the global level we know today.

Uniqlo UT x Kaws

Collaboration with Louis Vuitton and Kenzo

As Nigo continued his creative journey, he befriended the late Virgil Ablog, with whom he formed a strong work relationship. Leading to yet another collaboration between Nigo and Louis Vuitton. Announced in 2019, the collaboration consisted of 2 collections, where Nigo has lended luxury house his creative lens.

Human Made x Luis Vuiton

The Japanese designer made his presence felt through the use of motifs like ducks, hearts, and tigers that are commonly featured across his Human Made offerings, while nodding to UK’s Savile Row and mod era in the process. Other twists included new takes on LV’s iconic Damier and monogram prints through the use of dripping paneling featured across denim pieces and leather goods that one couldn’t help but tie to Nigo’s previous work with BBC ICECREAM.

After decades of shaping modern luxury as we know it through his ventures like Bape, BBC ICECREAM, and Human Made, Nigo was announced as French luxury fashion house Kenzo’s new artistic director on Sept. 20, 2021.

Nigo for Kenzo

Nigo announced the new appointment on his Instagram, saying that Inheriting the spirit of Kenzo san’s craftsmanship to create a new KENZO is the greatest challenge of his 30-year career, but, together with the team, he intends to devote himself to it.