Having blown out its 29th candle at the beginning of April, BAPE is now a key player in streetwear fashion. But who knows all its history?
The story of BAPE is that of its founder, Tomoaki Nagao. With his nickname Nigo, this man started DJing at the age of 16. The hip-hop enthusiast left his native province of Maebashi after high school to go to the Japanese capital, Tokyo. He then moved to the Shinjuku district to study fashion. But the man will admit later that he didn't learn anything during his studies.
This did not stop him from becoming a stylist and editor for the Japanese fashion magazine, Popeye. In 1993, Nigo left his position at Popeye to join forces with a friend, Jun Takahashi. If you are aware enough of Japanese streetwear, you will have noticed that he is the founder of the brand Undercover. Together, they launched a clothing store, located in the Shibuya district of Harajuku.
If Nowhere is the store he will open with his friend Takahashi, Nigo will soon create his own clothing brand. The same year, the young Japanese launched A Bathing Ape. It is now shortened to BAPE. Its name and logo are directly inspired by Planet of the Apes, a movie that was a highlight for Nigo. The name recalls the monkeys that like to bathe in the country's hot springs. It is derived from the expression "like a sign in a bath of warm water". In France, it would mean something like "se la coulerie douce". The logo is inspired by the same movie.
Tomoaki Nagao and Jun Takahashi were able to launch this brand thanks to the help of Hiroshi Fujiwara. Known as the "Godfather of Harajuku", he is well known in Japan for having collaborated with brands such as Beats by Dre, Nike, Louis-Vuitton or Sofia Coppola. It is by frequenting him that Nigo will find his artist name, which means "number 2" in Japanese. Fujiwara will donate funds for the opening of the Nowhere boutique. In the process, Nagao will create BAPE.
To make his brand known, Nigo will use an innovative strategy within the fashion world. The designer produces between 30 and 50 t-shirts per week. Half of his creations are distributed to friends who are also in the business. The other half is intended for sale. Thus, BAPE is quickly worn by young people in the city of Tokyo. It doesn't take much more to get the rest of the city's youth excited about it.
This strategy paid off and led Nigo to open other shops in the city and the country. In 1998, there were about 40 sales outlets. During this same year, he radically changes his strategy. The creator cancelled the contracts with the resale points to limit the distribution of BAPE to Tokyo only. Nigo became aware that the attractiveness of a brand depends on its degree of exclusivity. He thus declared:
"I left only one store open in Tokyo, but that didn't stop the sales volume from exceeding that of our previous shop in the whole of Japan in a very short time. To say that the results exceeded my expectations is an understatement. "
The shop has stricter rules than a traditional store. Customers who come to buy can only leave with one piece per visit. They must also try it on to avoid the resale effect. This strategy paid off as the BAPE store became a gathering place for fashion aficionados. Being hard to get, like Supreme, BAPE clothes became the symbol of the Japanese youth. The brand is then a symbol of the Japanese urban culture.
Playing on rarity has allowed BAPE to increase demand tenfold. But it is also thanks to the opening towards other countries that the brand will continue to be known.
The first artist to wear BAPE was Notorious B.I.G. It is finally thanks to Pharrell Williams that the brand will grow. In the early 2000s, the artist travels for the first time in Japan and attends a showroom of Nigo. The two men immediately hit it off despite the language barrier. Pharrell Williams became a representative of the brand by dressing almost exclusively in BAPE.
It was during this period that the brand's most memorable pieces were released. If you already know BAPE, you'll think of the shark hoodie that zips up completely, or the camouflage outfits, which Lil Wayne loved. But it's also time for the Bapesta sneakers, greatly inspired by the Air Force 1.
The craze for the brand is strong, so much so that stores are opened in the United States.
By being fashionable, BAPE ended up being unfashionable. Starting in 2009, sales decreased and losses increased. In addition, the brand adopted a diversification strategy (opening a restaurant, an art gallery, a brand for children Baby Milo) with little payoff. BAPE finally became commonplace, going against the model that Nigo was carrying at the beginning.
From 2009, the designer is no longer president and becomes artistic director. In 2011, the Hong Kong group I.T. acquires 90% of the company's capital for only 2 million euros while its debt is 23 million euros. Finally, in 2013, Nigo left BAPE, admitting that he was overwhelmed by the success of the brand.
The I.T. group then returned to the brand's roots to revive it. It relies on the exclusivity strategy that had worked so well in the early days of the company. The designs are now more sober, the striking pieces are given a new lease on life and collaborations are made in very limited editions, with brands such as Reebook, Ferrari or Dragon Ball. Current stars, such as A$AP Rocky, honour BAPE.
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