In a lot of ways, the story of A Bathing can be summarized in the phrase “Slowly at first, then all at once.” Read our Complete History of A Bathing Ape to see why.
You’ve listened 21 Savage rap about it. You’ve seen Keith APE wear it to the point you thought he was sponsored. And you’ve probably heard YMBAPE yelling about it online or maybe in person if you live in NYC.
A Bathing Ape has been bathing it’s ape now since 1993. That was the year when founder Nigo, real name Tomoaki Nagao, opened a shop called NOWHERE in the world-renown fashion district Ura-Harajuku in partnership with Undercover founder Jun Takahashi. Both attended Bunka Fashion College which Nigo credits as having done “zero” for him other than giving him that chance to meet Takahashi. Both also knew the “Godfather of Harajuku” Hiroshi Fujiwara. Fujiwara was a prominent figure in the Japanese streetwear scene at that time and, among other things, is credited with being one of the first hip-hop DJs in Japan. He used his experience and clout to ensure NOWHERE’s success upon opening. Nigo would go on to design with Fujiwara throughout his career, earning the nickname “Nigo” as a result which means Number 2.
A network and platform such as this combined with Nigo’s own talents suggests that BAPE was poised for greatness from it’s inception. Soon enough after the opening of NOWHERE, Nigo began using it as a flagship store for his new brand after borrowing 4 million ¥ ($35,000 at that time) from an acquaintance, a sum that took almost a year to payback.
As some may now know, Nigo’s inspiration for calling the brand what he did was some tongue-in-cheek humor at the expense of his target demographic. In Japanese, the phrase “a bathing ape in lukewarm water” describes youth who lead complacent and sheltered lives, whose only concerns deal with passing midterms and making it into prestigious institutes of higher education. The name naturally begged the primate thematic, which Nigo credits to his love of science fiction and primarily The Planet of the Apes franchise.
The exclusivity that large streetwear brands artificially generate today was something BAPE mastered and pioneered during it’s early years. Nigo would make about 50 shirts a week, sell half and give the other half to creatives and style influencers in Tokyo to generate hype. He made such a limited amount due to his understanding that exclusivity was tied directly to desirability. He also admits that he didn’t like a lot of people wearing the same clothes. But it wasn’t until 1998 when Nigo fully understood the truth behind the concept of exclusivity.
From it’s start BAPE operated on the principal of providing only enough supply to meet 10% of the demand. In 1998, the brand was being sold in approximately 40 stores nationwide in Japan. But in a drastic and seemingly regressive move, Nigo decided to halt sales in every location but one and centralize distribution out of that single venue. Soon enough, sales were equal (if not better) out of that one store than when BAPE was being carried by 40 retailers.
Another implementation of this strategy of scarcity manifested itself in the Busy Works boutique that Nigo opened with Eric Kot and Jan Lamb in Hong Kong. It was located on the 17th floor of an office building and required those who wanted to shop there to go through an application process that required a Hong Kong passport. Customers that were approved as Busy Work Shop members would have to set appointments before being able to enter the store. Essentially, Nigo made the experience more akin to visiting a dentist rather than buying clothing.
This intense exclusivity was complimented by the continued seeding of the brand to popular rappers and style influencers such as Notorious B.I.G, pushing the brands popularity and desirability to new levels. It was in the late 90’s and early 2000’s that A Bathing Ape was arguably at it’s peak and it’s commercial success was first being realized to the full extent. Nigo was aware of this and pushed the brand to it’s limits.
He did a collaboration with Pepsi in 2001 that was somewhat uncharacteristic of what the brand had set itself up to be in it’s inception. It was the first major corporate collaboration that BAPE had done and the first indication of that the marketing conventions that had established it’s core appeal were no longer relevant to it’s future. BAPE began to expand rapidly, seeking to win widespread market appeal, and as a result quickly killed the concept of scarcity that had built the foundation of the brand.
It was not however quite yet time for the ape to leave it’s bath. Nigo met Pharrell in Tokyo in a stroke of luck during sometime in the mid-2000’s, the later of which was told by Jacob the Jeweler that Nigo often commissioned pieces similar to his. Pharrell was a fundamental catalyst in helping A Bathing Ape find success in the West. The brand was catapulted to a new popularity, a popularity that was again attributed to hype and scarcity. Fact of the matter was, A Bathing Ape only had stores in Asia at the time and online shopping was not as widespread. Nigo made moves to ever-so-slightly meet growing demand from the fresh American market with shops opening in New York and LA in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
Rap-conscientious consumers found appeal not only in BAPE’s clothing line but also in it’s footwear that had been made along with the clothing since the beginning of the new millenium. The BAPESTA, a low-top sneaker made usually with glossy-like neon plastic material, released in the early 2000’s at the Foot Soldier Store in Japan. And it really hit the mainstream when Kanye West helped design one of his own in collaboration with BAPE in 2007.
Such notable collaborations during this period were indicative of the status that the brand had acquired abroad. Pharrell himself had put out a sneaker the previous year called the Roadsta, cultivating said status which can be accredited to Pharrell’s affinity for both the brand and Nigo. The two would go on to start Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream together, highlights of a professional and amiable friendship that continues to last to this day.
Pharrell’s liking for A Bathing Ape signaled a fundamental turning point in the trajectory of the company. It was no longer something unique to Japan, nor was it something you could wear to feel that you were part of an innovative group of creatives, as you could during it’s start. Eventually the renaissance waned as hype ebbed and flowed away from the ape. The LA store closed in 2010 and BAPE’s presence stateside incurred the same lack of notability that it suffered in Japan during the start of the new millennium.
Furthermore, it was revealed that the parent company, NOWHERE Co, was in massive debt to the tune of ¥2.6 billion, ending 2009 and 2010 both in millions of yen in the red. That was seemingly enough for Nigo and he stepped down as CEO in 2009. Though he wasn’t yet completely finished.
The focus of BAPE was again fixed eastwards but now towards Taiwan and China. Stores opened in Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to cater to an evermore attentive and loyal audience than what BAPE was finding in Japan. Baby Milo, a “cute” derivation of BAPE’s main product line, became particularly popular in Hong Kong and received media coverage as being the new youth fashion trend.
This new-found success in East Asia directed proved to be a critical turning point in the brands history. I.T Ltd, a Hong Kong fashion conglomerate, bought out A Bathing Ape in 2011 along with all of it’s accumulated debt. The purchase came to be $2.8 million for 90% equity, a steal for all things considered. But also indicative of Nigo’s desire to pursue other ventures. He agreed to stay on as creative director for 2 years to help the brand transition to it’s new owners.
After the acquisition by I.T Ltd and the leave of Nigo, BAPE has catered more and more to it’s Chinese and Taiwanese audience, further transforming itself from an exclusive and experimental streetwear brand into something that more resembles a higher-end affordable luxury flex piece. The Fall of 2016 saw BAPE do a collaboration with Coca Cola that highlighted it’s continuing success as a capable marketing entity and it’s failure to reinvent and develop itself after the buyout.
A Bathing Ape is canonical streetwear. It’s importance and influence is difficult to overstate. Yet it’s current relevance as something fresh and new most definitely is. Nigo’s aggressive expansions into new markets after periods of extreme austerity and exclusivity were profitable in quick intervals, but unable to lay the foundation for consistent and long-term growth. Slowly at first, and then all at once succinctly describes both the accumulation and loss of his empire. In any case, fueled by Asian demand and the legacy that it has created, it’s presence in streetwear will continue for the foreseeable future.