A Bathing Ape – or BAPE – took the fashion world by storm in the 90s and has remained one of the most influential streetwear brands globally.
Nigo (otherwise known as Tomoaki Nagao) founded this company in Japan in 1993, at the beginning of the streetwear movement. Since its opening, BAPE has remained a constant in the fashion industry for three decades.
Since its inception, BAPE has gone from a hyped brand to bankruptcy and back again. Throughout its history, it consistently continues to beat the odds and thrive in a competitive industry. This company is also responsible for offering the public some of the best collaborations in fashion.
The question becomes ‘how does BAPE continually do it?’ In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into BAPE’s history to better understand the brand. We’ll be looking at some varying periods along the way to grasp the timeline of the brand’s growth.
Let’s take a look!
BAPE History – The Origin of the BAPE Logo
Like most Japanese streetwear icons we know today, you can trace BAPE history back to the Ura-Harajuku period in the early 90s. Most likely, this is because most of the top heavyweight brands in the streetwear industry had founders who were friends from the same scene.
Each of them was doing their own unique thing while lending a hand to each other along the way. Nigo is the founder of BAPE, but he worked as an editor and stylist at Popeye magazine before opening his store. Named “Nowhere,” the store was launched alongside Jun Takahashi of Undercover. Shortly after, Nigo collaborated with Sk8thing to launch his clothing brand and called it A Bathing Ape – or BAPE for short.
Nigo is a top fan of 20th-century pop culture, and he had a love for the 1968 movie ‘Planet of the Apes.’ He channeled this love into naming his brand, and it was also apparent in the creation of the BAPE logo.
The logo and the brand name also referred to the Japanese phrase ’a bathing ape in lukewarm water.’ This phrase describes a person who likes to overindulge, like lying in a bath until all the warmth is gone. A reference to the hyper-consumptive youths of his time, these young people would eventually become the cornerstone of the BAPE brand.
BAPE History – A Big Brand in Japan
BAPE was a mixture of American street and sportswear. It also pioneered top Japanese streetwear labels like Nowhere and WTaps’ predecessor Forty Percent Against Rights. Therefore, BAPE’s history shows the brand quickly becoming a cornerstone for the emerging streetwear movement. Nigo was one of the figureheads for the Japanese streetwear movement dubbed the Uru-Harajuku or “Underground Harajuku.” Heavily informed by a mix of varying American clothing and style, BAPE was one of the streetwear brands that helped define this underground streetwear style of the 90s.
BAPE’s history shows the brand’s association with the international Stussy Tribe and the UNKLE and Mo’Wax Records. Due to this, BAPE became quickly established and a top cultural tastemaker in Tokyo.
It was also a best-kept secret within a closed circle abroad. The hype grew by people who went to Japan and returned with some BAPE clothing and magazines that featured the brand. Slowly, BAPE hype began to spread and mainly through word of mouth.
BAPE History – The Influence of Exclusivity
Although BAPE scarcity is one of the top influences of its popularity, the brand didn’t include exclusivity in its marketing strategy at the beginning. At first, BAPE’s scarcity was a financial necessity because Nigo started the brand on a tight budget.
Due to this, he could only afford to produce a limited number of t-shirts a week. Additionally, Nigo hated the idea of everyone wearing the same thing at once. By 1998, BAPE was located in over 40 locations around Japan.
At this period, Nigo decided to cancel all wholesale operations of the brand and, instead, focused all his energy on a single flagship location in Tokyo. BAPE history shows this as an excellent move for the brand as sales scaled through. It exceeded the previous level, which led to the birth of streetwear’s formula: hype, public spectacle, and scarcity. This move also birthed the streetwear’s queuing culture that most of us have come to simultaneously love and hate to this day.
BAPE History – The Pharrell Era
The late 90s and early ’00s could be considered the golden era of BAPE. Products quickly sold out in Japan, and top figures like the Notorious B.I.G were constantly giving the brand some recognition in hip-hop culture. In the early ’00s, Nigo met Pharrell Williams through Jacob the Jeweler. He noticed a similarity in their jewelry commission and decided to introduce them.
In those years, Pharrell Williams was known for his laid-back personality and free spirit. Therefore, BAPE’s bright and flashy style was an inspiration for Pharrell. Part of his success was paying greater attention to BAPE’s stateside presence. However, the brand continued to maintain its scarcity due to a lack of American stakeholders.
In 2005, Pharrell Williams and Nigo partnered up on the N*E*R*D Frontman’s Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream Clothing Line. Soon the oversized style of BAPE became a mainstay for millennial hip-hop fashion.
Additionally, in 2005 and 2006, Nigo successfully opened his overseas flagship stores in New York and Los Angeles. During this period, the brand collaborated with Kanye West to design his Bapesta sneakers that people still covet today.
In 2007, Soulja Boy’s popular video ‘Crank Dat’ was released, and in it, ‘Soulja Boy’ wore his one Bapesta alongside the line ‘I got me some Bathin’ Ape.’
Although the authenticity of the Bapestas faced questionings, this also led to the brand’s growth. This factor led to the entry of BAPE into the cultural zeitgeist. The brand also claimed its place as a flashy and expensive streetwear king.
The Steady Decline of the Brand in BAPE History
Although BAPE’s history up to this moment has been one of extensive success, the brand also experienced significant issues. Its meteoric rise to success in the States had positive and negative effects on the brand.
The scarcity of BAPE products in the US combined with the brand’s high prices for young Western consumers led to the production of counterfeit products. These cheap knockoffs saturated the market before the brand could even find its feet in the country. The explosion of BAPE also meant that its popularity was like a passing trend, unlike its slow and carefully grown popularity in Japan.
By 2010, the brand was no longer in vogue like it used to be. Soon, it became known that BAPE had over 2.5 billion yen ($22.5 million) in debt. At this point, Nigo stepped down as CEO of the brand, and he sold it to a Hong Kong fashion brand for the modicum sum of $2.8 million in 2011.
The next couple of years in BAPE history showed Nigo hanging around to help the company with its transition. During this period, he also launched his vintage label Human Made. He also took on a new role in Uniqlo as a creative director and was in charge of Uniqlo’s ‘UT’ T-shirt collection. Long after Nigo’s departure, People could still feel his impact and BAPE’s presence in several streetwear cultures.
BAPE Today – Beating the Odds
After the fashion conglomerate I.T. acquired BAPE, the brand became a mainstay label of contemporary streetwear. The brand is no longer as scarce or unpredictable as it used to be in its early years. However, its legacy as a Japanese streetwear pioneer and its rooted connection in hip-hop and street culture has helped the brand endure with a broader audience. The brand has some top coveted collections like the BAPE shark hoodies and its insulated snow jacket. These pieces have become mainstay pieces every season. Today, BAPE’s iconic camo is one of the most outstanding graphics of contemporary street style.
Also, one of BAPE’s collaborations with Adidas to create the Super Ape Star continues to be one of the leading reasons for the brand’s popularity. This set of sneakers like the Bapestas is much coveted and helped the brand stay afloat during its declining years.
Many people who knew the brand initially will argue that BAPE today has nothing in common with the brand in its early years. However, there’s no method to tell whether this is good or bad because it all depends on perspective.
In 2017, BAPE continued to be a brand defined by a young consumptive audience. Their voracious appetite for anything on offer has kept the brand afloat. This aspect of the streetwear brand, consistent throughout BAPE history, shows it is still the same as it always was in many ways.
Why BAPE Collections are so Expensive
Very few people talk about the brand without mentioning how pricey the BAPE collections are. Therefore, an age-long question throughout BAPE history is ‘why is BAPE so expensive?’
Like many Japanese brands today, BAPE has a long list of reasons behind its pricing structure. Some of them are the higher standard of quality they offer the better wages available for Japanese manufacturers, and the belief that a good product is worth a high price tag.
Although this existed in BAPE history, it is no longer the case with the rebranded BAPE brand. Most of their products come from China, and therefore, the quality is nothing special like it used to be. Its reputation in Japan has also faltered. This is mostly because BAPE collections are so common today that people won’t bat an eye at them. Many would argue that BAPE is so expensive today because it has always been that way.
The brand name refers to the over-indulgent and complacent youth. Therefore, the brand is expensive because it targets young folks with enough money to spend. This is one of the appeals of the brand that has made it stand the test of time. It charges premium prices to maintain its customers’ views as a premium brand.
BAPE is iconic streetwear that’s popular for being one of the pioneers of the streetwear movement in Japan. Its influence and importance in street culture are hard to overstate. The brand has experienced some good days and bad days and remains relevant, beating the odds. Throughout BAPE’s history, Nigo’s ability to successfully and quickly expand into new markets after periods of exclusivity was profitable for the brand. Despite the problems faced by BAPE in the US after its entry, it continues to be a top brand in Japan and a staple in streetwear history. BAPE’s legacy and long-lasting demand are one of the reasons its presence in the streetwear industry will be consistent in the foreseeable future.