I’ve had the pleasure of working with Nikko Lencek-Inagaki on two different photoshoots, though I hadn’t gotten to know him as well as I did during the process of this interview. The designer of Freemans Sporting Club grew up in New York City, the son to two immigrants—his mother, a Slovene-Italian artist who came to America by boat at age 7, and his father, an engineering student from Tokyo who later became a filmmaker. He tells me he and his sister “grew up with very strict budgets, and strong values about how to use resources. We had to be well-dressed and groomed wherever we went out, because that’s how we could affect how the world would treat us. It’s a strong compass to follow whenever making new clothes.”
Nikko studied the history of psychology at the University of Chicago, but moved back to New York City, working at TRACE Magazine and Out Traveler “just as print media was panicking over the digital divide.” He loved both, but wasn’t fulfilled by either, and wound up working in menswear because he wanted to design clothes he couldn’t find himself. He then enrolled in FIT’s continuing education program to round out the skills necessary to technically design clothes. Around this time, he also met his mentor, Caroline Priebe. “I think that was more important than anything,” he explains, “to find someone who shared my love of making things, values for how to do it, and who has the patience to teach me how to make that a rewarding career.”
Below, Lencek-Inagaki talks all things Freemans Sporting Club, his favorite places in New York City, and provides insider insight into forming a proper wardrobe.
What do you do at Freemans Sporting Club, and what was the road like getting to this point?
It was a long and winding road, fraught with peril, romance, scandal, and international intrigue—sometimes all at once. It’s a small company. I’m the Director of Design and Merchandising now, by way of production manager, salesman, e-commerce manager, and spreadsheet go-to-guy. My job is to imagine a ready-to-wear men’s collection twice a year, design, source, and develop it; bounce it around the cost matrices, sales data, and delivery windows; grow a lifestyle around it in our store with collaborations and partners who make things I do not; and make sure everything is “brand aligned” (while figuring out a little better every day what that is and should be).
My days are not sexy artist days sitting alone in a studio waiting for divine inspiration. I’m good with that. I like making things, and sometimes designing a system or spreadsheet is more thrilling than fitting chinos. I’ve been spending more time recently on collaborations, lifestyle products, and creating content around the spring/summer ‘20 and fall/winter ‘20 collections. It’s been really fun to work with new partners on these and get excited with and challenged by them. I’m going to make a point of doing that more.
What makes FSC’s shop stand out in the landscape of NYC retail?
I remember I used to walk into some stores and stiffen up. There’d be one size of each style on display, hangers four inches apart, unsullied by anything so material as a fitting room. But dressing well—quality fabrics, thoughtful design, good craftmanship, style—shouldn’t be a passive experience. That passivity of consumption is fairly new, I think. On our best days, I hope we provide our customers a well-appointed toolbox with which to make style, whether that’s our made-to-measure suiting program, or something off the rack that they aren’t looking for exactly, but that they are excited to find and incorporate into their own closet. It’s not life or death, this stuff, clothes, but it should be more than a necessary evil. And you should be offered a drink while you’re at it.
Do you think of FSC as a fashion brand?
Nope. But they [fashion guys] shop here, too, sometimes. I believe that fashion is something you buy, and style is something you do. I grew up around saving for particular pieces (and doing a lot with them), not buying entire looks every season.
As a native New Yorker, what are five non-negotiable spots someone new to town must hit?
Yikes. Honestly, I love this city because it feels alive and chaotic and because it belongs to so many people (and animals and plants). We all make it up, literally, as we go along. I think maybe you are a New Yorker when you build your own lifestyle here, find your own non-negotiable spots, and feel like they belong to you a little bit, too. But here’s a few of mine, anyway. Eighth Avenue from Penn Station through the Garment District past Port Authority and the NYT building and up to the Theater District. It’s an abusive, overwhelming stretch. Coney Island. The parade of humans and tiny dogs in Central Park early on a weekend morning. Ichibantei on 13th and 1st for incredible fresh Japanese bar food, literally icy beer mugs, news with subtitles on the silent TV, and a lot of reggae records. Maybe the Odeon? Gosh, it may be older than I am and it’s still here, which is saying quite a lot. Post on Avenue A is great, too. A former Freemans alum opened it recently and it’s still an oasis of quality and calm. And Freemans, of course. It’s an institution for good reason.
Which criteria do you think makes for a brand’s longevity? Do you have any favorite brands or designers?
I think it’s about finding values—as a brand, a lifestyle, a business, an attitude—that resonate. It’s easier to achieve, at least at first, the more focused that value is: for example, a sustainable and traceable unisex T-shirt. But longevity, I think, requires more. That T-shirt might be a great chair, but it is not a house. The tricky thing, I think, is to risk making things that people will love, rather than making things they already love. There are a lot of brands and designers I admire. Definitely up there are Margiela, Hedi Slimane, Dries van Noten, Issey Miyake, Eiko Ishioka, and Anni Albers.
Are there specific pieces men need when starting a proper wardrobe? Do you have any style rules?
Yes-ish. One, whatever is on the rack, approach it as a starting point. Take it to a tailor; have it hemmed, tapered, let out. Cut it into shorts. Buy it a size too big (but not too small). Two, the adage that “clothes make the man” is misdirecting, because you have a choice in what “man” you want to be. Designers make suggestions, but your style and its purpose are ultimately your own.
Personally, having these nearby makes my life way easier: white tees, dark indigo jeans, slim black jeans, white pants (linen or jeans, either work), a white linen plain front shirt, white dress shirt, blue hopsack patch-pocket sport coat, navy blazer with gold buttons, black mohair suit, dark velvet sport coat, brown suede Chelsea boots, black jodhpur boots, black dress shoes, black slip-ons, bright socks. Usually, my outfits also fall into an “all same” or “all different” bucket with respect to elements like color, texture, pattern, fit, luster, etc. Have you ever played the game SET? It’s like that.