For Penfolds, a Japanese Streetwear Designer Becomes an Unlikely Ally

In a bid to reach a younger generation of wine aficionados, Penfolds teams up with Nigo — the streetwear designer known for his camo prints and hip-hop collaborations.

Article by Luke Benedictus

Penfolds Nigo_1The rapper Pusha T wears a jacket from a collaboration between Penfolds and Nigo’s Human Made label. Photograph courtesy of Penfolds.

It’s 5:10am at The Upper House hotel in Hong Kong. Having woken too early due to jet lag, I’m in the gym on the 48th floor, pounding away on the running machine and watching the skyscrapers come alive in the faint dawn light. Someone else enters the gym: a stocky guy in a white Adidas T-shirt wearing a bandana over his cornrows. He gives me a nod as he heads into the adjacent weights room. Isn’t that the rapper Pusha T? Presently, I hear him counting his reps and recognise the timbre of his grunts from his music. It is indeed Pusha T and I have a suspicion he’s in town for tonight’s event: Penfolds’ global launch of its new range of wines.

If my hunch is correct, it’s a somewhat unlikely pairing. Penfolds, after all, is the venerable winemaker that has arguably done more than any other brand to establish Australia’s international reputation. Pusha T, on the other hand, is a Virginia-based rapper whose work relentlessly excavates his former life as a street-level cocaine dealer. Still, the more I think about it, the more confident I am he’s here in some capacity for Penfolds, because today the brand is also announcing its first-ever “creative partner”: Nigo, the Japanese designer and music producer.  

Penfolds Nigo_3
The Nigo x One by Penfolds launch in Hong Kong, an event designed to boost brand appeal among “the new luxurians”. Photograph courtesy of Penfolds.

Heralded as the founding father of streetwear, Nigo rose to prominence in the 1990s with his cult label A Bathing Ape (aka BAPE), which featured simian iconography and multi-hued camouflage prints that became wildly popular. This success led to a multitude of collaborations, including the brands Nigo launched with Pharrell Williams: Billionaire Boys Club and Icecream. Today, Nigo continues to run his own independent clothing brand, Human Made, while also serving as the artistic director of Kenzo. He’s also known to be close to Pusha T, who attended his first runway
show for Kenzo last year and made a guest appearance on his 2022 album, “I Know Nigo!” 

Now, Penfolds is looking to tap into Nigo’s cultural cachet. Media personnel from around the Asia-Pacific region have gathered in Hong Kong to see what this sommelier of style will bring to the table. The reason for this partnership, explains Kristy Keyte, Penfolds’ chief marketing officer, is an effort to broaden the brand’s appeal to a younger audience. “We are really trying hard to recruit the next generation of wine drinkers,” she says. “Penfolds has been around for 180 years. We want to be around for evermore. So we are constantly recruiting and re-recruiting the next generation of wine drinkers. This collaboration is a critical component of that.”

Penfolds’ demographic has traditionally been split into two main categories. Keyte describes the first as “the connoisseurs”: highly engaged wine drinkers who are likely to have hefty collections and be intimate with different regions and terroirs. “They’re wine geeks to a large degree,” she says. “Then we have another segment, which is ‘the new luxurians’. These consumers still love wine, but they have a different relationship with it and view it more as another part of their luxury lifestyle. This consumer tends to be younger, and these new luxurians are a space that we are going after as a brand.”

This strategy to woo a younger market makes sense, as the wine industry is belatedly coming to terms with a changing demographic. Last year, a “State of the US Wine Industry” report warned that future business was threatened by falling interest among younger consumers, coupled with the fact that baby boomers — currently the prime market for wine — are nearing retirement age, a time when consumption typically declines. “Millennials and gen Z are going to make up something like 60 per cent of luxury goods [consumers] by 2026,” says Keyte. “They’re significant.”

To understand why Nigo is such a valuable ally in reaching this market, it’s worth considering the opinion of Virgil Abloh. Before his death in 2021, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear famously hailed Nigo’s taste-making vision and described BAPE as his generation’s version of Chanel. “There is no-one like Nigo,” Abloh said in a video to launch the LV x Nigo collaboration. “He helped us understand how luxury can relate to a new generation.”  

Penfolds clearly hopes Nigo will deliver the same game-changing impact for its new range of wines that are based on the theme of “oneness”, a slightly paradoxical concept that involves embracing “what makes us all different and unique, but also the things that bring us together”. But how does a designer renowned for his logo-heavy apparel deliver the goods for a wine brand?

Penfolds Nigo_4
Nigo beside his bold designs for Penfolds, created to help the Australian company tap into a new, younger market. Photograph courtesy of Penfolds.

A few hours later, at the media lunch in the Upper House’s Sky Lounge, the answer to that question is revealed. Dressed in double denim and white Kenzo sneakers, Nigo himself appears, wearing sunglasses (indoors) along with his trademark cap. At one end of the room, the initial fruits of the collaboration are unveiled. For starters, Nigo has designed the branding for the new One by Penfolds range. Modestly priced at $30 a bottle, the 10 wines are sourced from Australia, France, China and the US. To represent these regions, Nigo has designed four animal motifs for the respective nations’ wine labels in the form of a crocodile, rooster, panda and bear. Depicted with cartoonish intensity, the images feel far bolder and street-tough than your standard wine label. “I do think that some people find wine intimidating,” Nigo later explains over email. “But I hope that my designs change that image for some people.”

Making wine more accessible is important to Nigo. Although the 52-year-old describes himself as a passionate wine collector today, his interest came from an unlikely source. “There is a Japanese manga series about wine called ‘Drops of God’,” he explains. “This manga had a great influence on me in terms of wine.”

In addition to the wine labels, Nigo has also designed a range of Penfolds x Human Made apparel. This includes high-quality baseball jackets and T-shirts that feature the various motifs from his newly designed menagerie. They’re significantly less accessible than the wines: the jackets cost up to $HK13,845 ($AU2,600). Those price tags are academic, however: Nigo’s hype power is such that by the time we sit down for the lunch at the hotel, the global supply of these garments has sold out in a matter of hours.  

At the time of the launch, Nigo’s involvement as creative partner is limited to designing labels, apparel and packaging. But the partnership with Penfolds is a multi-year commitment with more outputs set to follow. “This is just the prologue,” Nigo says. “The story will continue from here.”

The wines themselves constitute a diverse range. While the One by Penfolds Red Blend China can only be bought in that country, there are nine other varieties available. Six are Australian: a shiraz; a syrah, grenache, mourvedre blend; a cabernet sauvignon; a pinot noir; a chardonnay; and a rosé. Beyond that, there’s a vin rouge, and a grenache, syrah, mourvedre blend from France, plus a red blend from California. Penfolds winemaker Matt Woo explains that the wines were specifically designed to be “approachable” for consumers. When sampled over lunch, it’s clear that what that translates to are wines that have softer tannins and are fairly straightforward in their overall structure. Yet Woo points out that each wine still bears the hallmarks of Penfolds identity. The whites, he explains, remain defined by their freshness and acid backbone, while the reds still muster that generous mid-palate Penfolds is known for. Woo describes them as “rich, with lots of fruit intensity, before the tannins, acid and alcohol kick in, to help drive the depth of flavour”. The initial consensus among the lunch guests is that the new One range not only looks stylish, but the wines pass the sniff test, too. 

Penfolds Nigo_2
Pusha T performing at the Nigo x One by Penfolds party at PMQ. Photograph courtesy of Penfolds.

That night, it’s time for the big launch event. The articulation of the party’s dress code is perhaps the one moment that suggests Penfolds is still coming to grips with its new customer base. Guests are requested to wear “elevated streetwear (culturally inspired, trendy street fashion that celebrates diversity, individuality and the spirit of collaboration)”. On paper, it’s a baffling remit.

Thankfully, the party is less self-conscious. A multi-level art gallery has been transformed into a full club experience. Guests enter through a neon hallway of flashing screens depicting Nigo’s various animal logos, before being greeted by a DJ priming the crowd with hip-hop bangers. The main space is divided into four corners, each related to the different regions of the wines. From the faux crocodile-skin walls of the Australian section to the fluffy “panda” armchairs in China, every detail feels calculated to be as Instagrammable as possible. The crowd largely young, fashionable and full of influencer types — gleefully complies. Nigo himself lurks in the VIP area, sunglasses still on (of course), nodding his head to the music. Then, Pusha T takes to the stage (confirming my earlier hunch) and delivers a greatest hits package, tactfully only mouthing his songs’ many obscenities. The crowd rocks in delighted approval, smartphones recording every move as the revellers try not to spill their glasses of pinot noir.    

The next morning, I experience the other side of Penfolds. In the Grand Ballroom of the Conrad Hotel, I find myself amid a markedly older crowd of oenophiles clad in blazers and ironed slacks. Classical music tinkles soothingly in the background as we’re individually seated at tables covered with starched white tablecloths. On each table are 27 wine glasses that waiters gradually fill for the media preview of the Penfolds Collection 2023. “You’ll see on your table there are some bigger wines and some lesser bodied wines,” explains Penfolds’ chief winemaker, Peter Gago. “But a constant is not bigness or boldness. It’s the other B-word: ‘balance’. That is a major part of these wines, as is a propensity to age and an ability to cellar.”

Hailing from Australia, France and California, the wines span multiple varieties, vineyards and vintages. They include some extraordinary standouts. The Bin 704 from 2020 redefines Napa Valley cabernet with a silk-like textural definition, while the Yattarna Chardonnay 2021 delivers a fine citrus acidity balanced with floral notes and a long finish. Over a couple of hours, the tasting culminates with the brand’s legendary Grange in the form of four vintages from 1989, 1999, 2009 and 2019. It’s an emphatic reminder that, hip collaborations aside, few Australian winemakers can muster this level of expertise and sheer range. Then again, as Gago himself points out, Penfolds remains committed to the eternal quest for balance. 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 39 of T Australia with the headline: “The Thing”