master of all trades: getting to know

words by natalie sim • images by azizul ali

In life, there are two camps – the doers and the followers. Once in a while you meet someone who doesn’t simply fall into either category; sometimes, you meet a “doer” who seems to be so good at everything that it’s impossible to pin him/her down as a master of a single trade. Meet Niks, who radiates infectious energy that’s fuelled by an intense passion for art, fashion, dance, and anything creative – all of which he manages to practice simultaneously.

We met Niks on a warm evening, during the hazy time of the day where everything is illuminated by the glow of the transient golden hour. As he invited us into his home and makeshift studio/workspace, we were immediately greeted by an explosion of colour, emanating from his impressive display of Nike sneakers and walls that were decorated like an ever-evolving mood board. It was as if a delightful cloud of colour had descended upon us, a background befitting the creative who has lined up an impressive professional and personal portfolio, with a variety of projects that range from Nike campaigns to his independent fashion label, Nine™.

Having recently returned from a successful solo art show in Tokyo, Niks first introduced us to his world of art by unrolling the pieces he had created for his show, Zero Consistency which he had exhibited with B Gallery by BEAMS Japan. As if a perfect reflection of his surroundings, the canvases are unabashedly laden with a spectrum of bright colours, with pops of neon that juxtaposed more muted pastel shades.
Drawing inspiration from the 90s, Russian constructivism, and the visual elements of advertising and typography, the works for Zero Consistency served as a visual representation of the different phases of Niks’ life, arranged in abstract geometrical shapes and the occasional inclusion of iconography. As Niks laid out his works in a surprisingly cavalier manner, he confesses to us that he actually had a difficult time coming up with this series for BEAMS show as he posed himself the challenge of intentionally departing from his usual hyperreal style of painting. Experimentation was naturally an integral element for Zero Consistency, as Niks explored techniques and styles that were completely foreign to him. A chronological survey of the series could thus double up as a documentation of Niks’ progress and the evolution of his technique.

“To be honest there was no plan. I never plan. In the first stages, it was very frustrating. When I first started painting it looked very ugly, and it was kinda hard to imagine. I was like ‘how far will this go?’ But then when you get really far – too far, and you’re like ‘fuck, I either go all the way in, or scrape it totally.’ Sometimes you know exactly the right time to stop and it’s perfect, but sometimes it’s too much. It’s funny, the first and last one of this series are the best, everything in between is almost like a work in progress.”

While undoubtedly a scary experience, the experimental process of coming up with the works for Zero Consistency spoke volumes about Niks, who tells us, “I don’t like being pigeonholed into a single category or to be only known for that one thing”. This is especially true when we consider the fact that Niks also has his own fashion label, Nine™. Niks founded his own label, which was birthed 7 years ago in the living room of his then home, in Vancouver. Considering its success today, especially amongst the Japanese, Nine™ has certainly come a long way since its humble beginnings. That being said, the modest homemade set-up from which the ideas for Nine™ sprung, however, hasn’t changed much. Believing that it is always better to “do things yourself”, Niks makes the prototypes for Nine™ in-house, creating samples by hand before deciding if it should be sent to the factory for production.

“I think it’s fun to experiment, y’know? I don’t want to be that guy who has an idea, but has no idea how to make it.”

Niks shows us his most recent project, a bag made out of Tyvek paper, the material that your concert wristbands are made out of, telling us as he points to the intricate details of his design, “I don’t want to be making a thousand, I want to see how it feels. I feel like if you don’t make your samples yourself, then you don’t really have freedom… Because I do it myself, I can change the size, I can change the print, and I can add on little things like this and sew on different colours.”

Whether it is picking out interesting fabric on his travels or deciding to go against the grain by designing a Fall/Winter collection that intentionally strays from the season’s typically darker colour scheme, Niks doesn’t compromise on his visions;  his creative endeavours propelled by a ‘you never know until you try’ attitude. That being said, Nine™ is mainly inspired by utility and workwear at the moment, a style representative of the working class, which Niks feels ties in with the handmade element that’s fundamental to the brand.

The label has also recently focused on rebranding itself by telling the story of a Local Stranger which is pretty self-explanatory – the story of someone who feels like a stranger in a local environment. The concept is built upon Niks’ own background of having constantly been on the move since the tender age of 10. Having lived in Russia, France, Canada, and Amsterdam, Niks, who currently resides in Singapore, feels like he’s always been a local stranger. Existing in the liminal state of being “the other guy” no matter how much he feels like he has grown accustomed to the peculiarities of a certain place. It is this narrative of a Local Stranger that Niks seeks to convey through his designs for Nine™. He does this by paying meticulous attention to detail and including that one odd thing that stands out from the rest. One of our favourites in the brand’s recent drops, the Poster Boy Giant Denim Tote, is a prime example of a product that features a “Local Stranger” detail: a neon orange Velcro strip that lines the middle section on the bag, with 6 detachable reflective logos attached, out of which only 1 is blue.

While the idea of Local Stranger mainly stemmed from his life story, Niks maintains that Local Stranger can also be an experience that isn’t purely geographical, instead a universally relatable experience of feeling out of place in an environment that’s supposedly “local”, or a place they should belong in. Take Instagram captions like “I feel like an outsider in my own home,” that seemingly plague millennial sensibilities, for instance, lends to the notion that the feeling of being a Local Stranger is hardly a bizarre phenomenon.

While feeling like a Local Stranger can be tiring, Niks confesses, he stresses on the joys of embracing the beauty and power of local cultures and the importance of seeking out the most organic and authentic ways to experience the “local”. In his many years of traveling, Niks has found that creative channels have always been the one way to meaningfully bridge this gap between “local” and “stranger”.

“Dance definitely enabled a lot of localisation, I was able to quickly understand what Singapore was all about. It’s hip hop, right? It’s a street thing, they are on the street, they have their ears on the street… They’re like the real news on the street.”

Citing his immersion into Singaporean culture as an example, Niks revealed to us that dance was the key factor that allowed him to really feel like a local. As a true master of many traits, dance, more specifically breaking, is yet another facet to Niks’ creative pursuits that have also shaped the way he approaches life. Instead of living the expat’s dream in Singapore, basking in the sun of our forever-summer by the poolside or jet setting to the plethora of sunny island in the region, Niks found himself painting walls at 4am, designing and photographing for the official launch of local street brand, Hancai Clothing, within the first week of moving to Singapore. Niks’ unconventional introduction to Singapore was enabled by Felix Huang and Radikal Forze, a crew of pioneering b-boys in Singapore who became Niks’ de-facto Singaporean family. From knowing where to get the best plate of mee goreng, to knowing how to chope the best spots at *SCAPE to break at, one could say that the Radikal Forze boys have properly inducted Niks into Singaporean culture, who now knows how to hancai the Singaporean way.

“There was a ‘Felix’ in every country I lived in,” Niks tells us, the biggest takeaway from being a “Local Stranger” being the precious connections and friendships he’s made with the locals who have taught him one thing or another, believed in him, gave him the opportunities to create and pushed him to be better. The Niks we see now is, in a way, a product of many of the interactions he’s had with these people – shoutout to Robert Chaplin, El Kartel’s Pablo, Poe One and Colony Clothing’s Kozo – who influenced him not just in terms of art, fashion or dance, but life in general.

A move to Tokyo is possibly what’s next in line for Niks. He’s going all-in again as he usually does but this it’s different. The stakes are higher, with his art and fashion label on the line. Taking the risk of hustling as a fully independent creative, he’s hoping that the Japanese market would be a welcoming one with ample opportunities for him to take his creative endeavours to the next level. One thing’s for certain, he’ll miss the comfort and stability he’s experienced with a largely unchanged Singapore from the first time he set foot in the country. An optimal environment to create this colourful and fascinating universe we can’t get enough of.