Contemporary Art

NIGO® Collects

By Michael Slenske

TOKYO AND HONG KONG – The Japanese fashion designer NIGO® has been collecting since childhood. He is now parting with his unique holdings in a sale that reflects his coolly refined Pop sensibility. Michael Slenske talks style and influence with NIGO® and his longtime friend and frequent collaborator Pharrell Williams.

When he was five years old Tomoaki Nagao, the Japanese music producer-turned apparel magnate now known simply as NIGO®, went to a New Year’s party where he was given a fukubukuro. Among the trinkets inside that traditional “lucky bag” was a small Donald Duck puppet that he found especially captivating (see top). “That’s the toy where you push a button in the base and the figure sort of collapses,” says NIGO®. “I found out there were other characters and I wanted to have all of them.”


And that was how NIGO®, now 43, started his dynamic collection of toys, art, design and pop-culture memorabilia that he has amassed over the past four decades, while also launching his wildly successful clothing lines A Bathing Ape (BAPE), Ice Cream and Billionaire Boys Club – the latter two co-founded with Pharrell Williams, the Grammy-winning musician. “The style of my collecting is really unchanged and I still collect toys,” NIGO® says. “I am motivated to do it for the same reason, which is the personal attraction I have to certain things.” Along with Star Wars figures, Batmobiles and movie posters, he has acquired Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can screen prints and 1940s and 1950s furniture by Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé. These have shared space in NIGO®’s Tokyo atelier with Eames chairs; vintage and limited edition luggage by Goyard, Fendi and Louis Vuitton; and sculptures and paintings by New York artist KAWS. On 7 October more than 100 such items will be offered in NIGO® ONLY LIVES TWICE, a curated sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

Friends and collaborators Pharrell Williams and NIGO® at Uniqlo’s Fifth Avenue store in New York.

The sale’s title is courtesy of his friend Pharrell, who also wrote the introduction to the auction catalogue. “There is life in every moment and this sale is just a chapter in his super long book,” says Williams. The two met in the early 2000s and have since teamed up on numerous projects, most recently co-creating a sneaker for Adidas and the Japanese version of Williams’s “Happy” video. “NIGO® is a genius of subtlety, which is what I aspire to be,” says Williams. “I would say I’m a novice collector and taste-wise I would think we both choose a lot of the same things. But his taste and tone is next level.”

That “next level” acumen applies to NIGO®’s collecting habits, which have also had a significant impact on his design ventures. “I have been able to see a wide range of objects that have given me direct visual inspiration,” says NIGO®. Drawn specifically to vintage and Pop, he appreciates objects “that were designed for industrial production in an earlier era and have now become rare or unusual for reasons that weren’t intended by their creators,” he explains. “It’s the opposite of people who are drawn to masterpieces with some expression of personal genius, which is probably the more normal thing to look for in antiques and artworks.”


He also has what he describes as a desire to “make things that might be coveted by collectors,” a wish that has been fulfilled if one considers the devoted sneaker freaks who have endured hours-long lines for NIGO®-designed footwear. Currently, he is a creative director for Uniqlo and has a new line of his own, Human Made. But NIGO®’s influence goes beyond fashion. “Being around him, you start to pay attention to the details that you have always seen but didn’t necessarily attribute to the bigger picture,” says Williams. “I actually look at my life and my career the same way now because of it.”

NIGO® has approached the forthcoming auction with that rigorous sense of detail. “I was always influenced by the catalogue of Sotheby’s Warhol estate sale,” he says of the 1988 auction. “It has been a bible for me. I wanted to have an estate sale of my own but obviously I couldn’t get any enjoyment from it myself if I was dead. So I decided to do it now.” Another impetus to part with the items now is to make sure they are being enjoyed. “Many of these things have just been stored (carefully!) without being used. That felt wrong,” says NIGO®. But, he admits, “I don’t actively want to be rid of any of these things. They have all been important to me.” 

Michael Slenske writes for W, Architectural Digest and other publications.

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