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.
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, use, throw 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 something quite important about that connection.
You mentioned A Bathing Ape as a point of contrast. Given that labels's size and endless lines and diversification, Human Made seems to be a very consciously 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 you see yourself in relation to Human Made? As its shokunin?
Not in the sense 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 stitching on a garment that I want to use or recreate like something old, then most factories won't have the equipment to stitch 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 'vintage', 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 point 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. Then big companies started to get involved, and then it would end up just as two big companies combining. It becomes quite boring.
And what do you make of the ongoing 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 that 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 they'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 those times too, wearing the new shit all the time. But I also feel that the current heritage thing actually has a lot to do with the workwear boom that happened in the '90s too. Now, it's like vintage versions of workwear 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 slightly 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?
When I initially worked out what I wanted to do with 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 a historical garment that really existed, whereas I want to take the skills required 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 you will 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 involve settling for the level of quality and finish of a good contemporary pair 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 handiwork 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 sense it, and it would have to 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 in the 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 easy to mass-produce in the past but are very difficult to make now.
A lot of the 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 cost-efficiency of mass-production. But now, because the technology has changed, those things can be incredibly hard to do again.
What else is involved in this vintage recreation, beyond finding the old machines and materials, and how much has it evolved in 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 a lot more like the old stuff.You've got to make the fabric in the knowledge that it's going to be washed 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 effort 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 as near to identical as we can make them, but they have variations because of that process. As a result they're really expensive, 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 combined the 'replica' detailing with graphics and slogans by your old collaborator Sk8thing that are overtly playful, rather than 'authentic'. How did that work?
It's not that thought-out a process, it happens quite naturally. The graphic references are things that come out of my lifestyle, like coffee. The civet cat on the jacket's referencing 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 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 to Indonesia to try it properly, but I'd like to. I'm more interested in the idea that this cute jungle critter eats these beans, and someone comes along one day and decides to try to see what happens 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 you 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' Stray Cats from the '70s. But in the office, Hot 97 is always streaming straight from New York.
Have 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 not 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. People are buying 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.