Nicopanda: “You Harajuku Girls. Damn You Got Some Wicked Style”
You can hear Nicola Formichetti’s mobile phone whistling away in the background as we talk, even though we’re talking over the phone. He must have another one. How modern. Formichetti is my first interview, ever, via Face Time, that slightly terrifying video-telephony app.
Slightly terrifying because of the pixelated, unflattering version of your face it projects to your co- conversant and vice versa. It seemed like a very “Formichetti” thing to do, though, as Formichetti is obsessed with the new, and the next, and the young and cool. Formichetti has shot an advertising campaign, with Nick Knight, on an iPhone. That was for Diesel, where he works as creative director. Last year, he devised another campaign with Doug Abraham, aka BessNYC, an Instagram-based artist- cum-ad hacker who does things like slice apart Justin Bieber’s Calvin Klein underwear adverts and intersperse with imagery of raw meat or gay porn (his hack for Diesel was a bit tamer, granted).
But as soon as our interview begins, Formichetti asked me why I wanted to use Face Time – “I don’t even use this with guys!” he laughs. I certainly didn’t want to. So we talked via Face Time without faces. Like a phone call. How quaint.
Formichetti was in New York when we started trying to talk, but ended up in Italy before we did. He often goes across to Japan also. Add in my location – London, Formichetti’s former home – and those four points reflect both his upbringing and current aesthetic. Born to an Italian father and a Japanese mother, he moved to Rome for school aged 12, and then to London, resulting in the odd meshing of styles that gives his work its unusual flavour – and that is most marked in his solo outing, a label of ruffled and gussied-up streetwear called Nicopanda, which unlike its near- namesake mammal, is far from extinction.
ALEXANDER FURY: “You’re already one of the most overworked men in fashion. You do Diesel and Uniqlo and shoot advertising campaigns and editorial and music videos. Where did the idea to start Nicopanda come from?”
NICOLA FORMICHETTI: “I had an opportunity four years ago to do a pop-up store in New York. It was called Nicola’s and it was about whatever I liked.”
AF: “That was during the Lady Gaga years, right?”
NF: “Yeah. So I put some stuff I made for her on the mannequins, and some young designers. It was my first retail experience. All the stuff I had in there was… expensive. You actually couldn’t buy the Gaga clothes, but all the young designers and the vintage pieces were kind of pricey. And I wanted to create products that were reasonably priced for… my fans, for the people who went there just to be a part of it. So I thought, ‘Let’s create a lighter, or a handkerchief, or a T-shirt, or sweats, things like that.’ And I also thought I’d love to have a logo, something I could stamp. I didn’t want to put my name on there. So that’s where I came up with the idea of Nicopanda. I wanted to do something a little bit like Hello Kitty, so you could just have this kawaii thing stamped on. But my version of it. So it’s kind of a punky version of Hello Kitty, in black and white. That’s how it began.
“Initially, we made gadgets, with a panda logo everywhere. And then Lane Crawford saw it and they said, ‘Oh, we love it! We’d love to have this entire pop-up in China.’ So they took the whole thing, we did it in Hong Kong and in Beijing – huge pop-up stores with Nicopanda. Then that kind of grew. I did another pop-up store in Tokyo. And that year, four years ago, was about putting my logo on very reasonable products, so my fan could enjoy it locally. That was it. Most of the things lived online. We created a Tumblr where people designed their own pandas and GIFs, and I would sometimes take those graphics and make them into T-shirts. So that’s how it started.
“Then, two years ago, I decided to do something properly. I was like, okay, I’m doing this panda stuff – without a business plan or anything – and I was talking to my team and thought it would be great if we could do something a bit more elevated, so I could wear it. So it wasn’t really about the logo, but more about the vibe. That’s how I created the collection. It’s now become a full collection – I’ve done two seasons. Now we’re doing a pre-collection! And menswear!”
AF: “It’s become such a massive thing, so quickly. A real fashion label from this cult start-up.”
NF: “Nicopanda was about my fans, but it was also about listening to buyers, their needs, what they wanted. In a way, it was the first time I worked like this. Normally, I would just create something, but this time, I already had a good relationship with different buyers around the world, so I was talking to them. They said it would be great to get lots of sweats, hybrid things. So that’s how we started designing. It’s very commercial and wearable, but we are doing something that maybe no one else is doing. Something in between contemporary and streetwear. And I really tried to make it as cheap as possible – as I can do. I didn’t want to charge a high fashion price. Because it’s not. I want it to be about inclusiveness.”
AF: “Was design where you originally saw yourself ending up? Is that what you envisaged when you decided you wanted some sort of fashion career?”
NF: “I never had a plan. I mean, when I was super young, yes, I wanted to be a designer, for sure. But I went to study architecture and sort of got lost in the London world, just went clubbing and stuff. I found myself loving photography, doing styling, making visuals. I sort of forgot about the whole designing thing. Stylists are like designers. I can sew, we can design. I know so many stylists who are incredible designers, but it’s about confidence.
“Maybe in the beginning I was happy being backstage, being part of the design team. But the whole Gaga thing pushed me into the limelight, then the Mugler thing happened. Instead of saying no, I just did it without really thinking. Maybe it was too early, for me. But now I feel like… it feels really good.”
AF: “I was really interested in how you’ve talked about Nicopanda and Tumblr – about the whole line itself being born out of that website culture. It’s the kind of thing you sometimes hear other designers talk about. Proenza Schouler did a Tumblr-inspired collection, and before that, Altuzarra had designed a collection influenced by Tumblr, and by Google Image Search also. But this isn’t a conceptual idea, of what Tumblr is or how to interpret the notion of Tumblr in a fashion context. It’s actually using it as a creative tool.”
NF: “Totally. I’m actually commissioning people through Tumblr. It’s about artists, graphic designers, illustrators, photographers. It’s a great place for them, they can display their artwork in a really beautiful way. It’s very accommodating to those creative people and a great place to attract that mind-set. In the beginning, I just wanted to have fun with pandas, you know. Black and white is boring – I asked the community to come up with creative stuff. They did so many crazy things. We actually did a party with Tumblr, where we made Nicopanda T-shirts and gave them away. It was very spontaneous. We didn’t think about anything ‘business’ or whatever. Tumblr was super important in the very beginning.”
AF: “I also think Tumblr is a bit like a subculture unto itself. You don’t really get them any more, except these new subcultures being born on the internet. And in turn, those become far more global than anything used to be. Everyone’s interconnected, everyone’s exchanging ideas.”
NF: “On Tumblr there are lots of very different vibes. There are people who are into lots of very futuristic things, people into gaming and computer graphics – and those almost Miley Cyrus things, very pop, crazy, anything-goes kind of look.
“Snapchat, for me, is another whole kind of subculture. I started to do it recently, and I’m completely obsessed. I don’t do Instagram any more – it became so corporate. We know all the rules, what you can and can’t put up. Snapchat is just… Everything! It’s so beautiful to follow such an intimate thing. People are filming their feet. It’s mind-blowing.”
AF: “Doesn’t it only exist for a period of time? So it has that temporal idea – unlike everything else on the internet, it won’t have an eternal life.”
NF: “I love it – your story only lasts for 24 hours. And your messages get deleted every time you send. If they see it, it’s deleted. I love that spontaneity. It’s the complete opposite of Tumblr.
“I was remembering the other day how, when I first moved to London, I was following the subcultures I used to read about in magazines. When I was growing up in Italy, I was obsessed with The Face and i-D. You could see where those cool kids went, the clubs and shops. Those were my bible. I moved to London because of them. There were the skater kids, punk kids, the goth kids, the fashion kids. It was related to music, rock, clubs. And now… ”
AF: “It’s all online now.”
NF: “Yeah! And also it’s humungous. It’s incredible, but sometimes I get worried about these younger generations who are… only doing that. Because it can be very flat, where you don’t know where something came from, but you just like the look of it. Which is cool, too – whatever I liked, I liked for the music and for the look, and then I went into it [the research].
But you can just Google now. Type ‘punk’ into Tumblr, and all these references come up. But sometimes you see kids who are completely… they adapt to the whole thing. So it doesn’t matter any more. When you actually talk to them, they don’t have any idea where anything comes from. I feel so old. They know the image – they know what punk looks like. They think it’s cool. That’s why I think going to school, or reading, going to the vintage store and the flea market is so important. The journey. But then, maybe, these kids do that online today. Maybe that’s how they find things. It’s a love-hate relationship, for me.”
AF: “Do you miss that kind of enthusiasm for the underground in magazines? Like the fanzine – something away from the mainstream? I wonder if we’re looking for the magazine equivalent of alternative labels such as Vejas or Vetements.”
NF: “But isn’t that what Snapchat is? Isn’t that what Tumblr is? Because they’re so spontaneous? You just do it, throw it out there. I’ve been talking to a few people and they were saying, ‘Oh, we miss the fanzine. Just a photocopied Polaroid!’”
AF: “But that’s a nostalgia thing. If you were to do that now, that wouldn’t be like someone publishing Sniffin’ Glue in the 1970s. It’s nostalgia – it’s a fake version of a 1970s fanzine, by kids who should be doing something on the internet.”
NF: “Sometimes, having too much information can dilute the whole thing. Kids’ attention span is so short now, it’s like, ‘informationinformationinformation’ – oh my God. That’s why, for Nicopanda, I said, ‘I want to do something different, new, something that talks the language of this younger generation.’ We even thought about doing a little fanzine, but we decided to concentrate everything online – YouTube videos… more free, less like, ‘Let’s get that photographer in and do this campaign.’ And rather than working in four seasons a year, I want to work weekly – putting things online. Feeding this hungry beast, every day, with information.”
AF: “Speaking of subcultures, I see a lot of Japanese subculture in your work. I remember your spring/summer 2015 Nicopanda presentation in New York, with the ruffled dresses and the tea and cakes. It was so Harajuku, so Lolita. How much are you referencing those Japanese subcultures?”
NF: “Oh, for me, that’s always the starting point. Always. The Harajuku punk boys and Lolita girls. That was my childhood. Harajuku is the only place I go to every time, and it always has the same vibe. For girls, they love the kawaii, very princess, super cute. For boys, it’s a little bit punkier. Then they all kind of mix with each other, and sometimes girls dress up as boys and boys dress up as girls. It’s been that way since the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a huge influence on Nicopanda. Have you been to Tokyo?”
NF: “I mean, the kids there are so… for me, they are the most stylish kids. They’re my favourite from around the world. It’s always spot-on. They’re very studied and obsessive and to the core. That Harajuku vibe is, for sure, always a starting point for me, for Nicopanda. I want to bring that to the West, more and more. It’s so cool. And it’s my Japanese side.”
AF: “There’s also that whole idea of displacement – bringing something so fundamentally Japanese into a new context makes it, immediately, seem very different.”
NF: “But also, the original ideas of the princess and the goth Lolitas came from this idea of French princesses, via Japan and punk, via Harajuku, now to New York. It’s fun. It’s very global, it’s very internet. I love that. And of course, we’re going to progress – I don’t want to do something always the same, but I do want to keep that whole Japanese vibe, because it’s something true to myself.”
AF: “It’s interesting looking at Nicopanda. I feel that a lot of the clothes seem to reference previous work you’ve done – styling, shoots, videos. There is this idea of an aesthetic that came from your upbringing, from anime videos, from Japan meeting Italy.”
NF: “And from London!”
NF: “In a way, Nicopanda, for me, is me doing my greatest hits, from my life and the past 10 years of my work. Stuff I’ve done for magazines, stuff like that. It’s really natural, it’s stuff that I like. No marketing strategy or anything. Just cool stuff that people want to wear and that I like. Just really… easy.”
Text by Alexander Fury
Photograph by Jordan Hemingway
Taken from Issue 43 of 10 Men