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A Brief History of BAPE

30 years deep, we look at the backstory behind the exclusive streetwear brand

History Bape, image courtesy of Redd F
Image Courtesy of Redd F Via Unsplash

From its origins amidst the vibrant streets of Harajuku, Japan, to its global reign in the realm of streetwear, BAPE is a name that resonates deeply within the exclusive street fashion culture. Founded by Tomoaki Nagao, better known as Nigo, in 1993, BAPE defied the conventions of its time, crafting a unique fusion of Hip-Hop and fashion that captivated the youth of Shibuya long before it gained mainstream recognition.

Nigo's fashion odyssey found its roots in his profound connection to the cultural soundscape of Hip Hop. Starting as a teenager working in a record store and later evolving into an editor and stylist for Popeye magazine, Nigo's drive to carve out a path of streetwear innovation burned brightly.

As Nigo built connections within the fashion industry during his editorial career and tenure at Bunka Fashion College, he forged a friendship with Jun Takahashi, the founder of Undercover. Together, alongside the support of Harajuku fashion pioneer Hiroshi Fujiwara, they birthed the boutique 'NOWHERE.' This unassuming streetwear sanctuary quickly evolved into a hotbed of innovation and garnered a cult following among the burgeoning Ura Harajuku community.

History of BAPE
Image Courtesy of Pinterest

Nigo's growing ambition to establish his own streetwear brand led him to collaborate with graphic designer Shinichiro Nakamura, commonly known as SK8thing, resulting in the birth of BAPE. The acronym 'BAPE,' which stands for 'A Bathing Ape,' offered a satirical twist on the famous Japanese idiom 'A bathing Ape in lukewarm water,' mocking the privileged youth and their excessive consumption of high fashion.

In BAPE's modest beginnings, Nigo churned out a mere 50 T-shirts per week, with roughly half sold and the rest given away to locals, cultivating brand awareness. In a remarkably short span, BAPE became synonymous with the Harajuku district, ushering in a new culture defined by vibrancy and self-expression. It expanded its horizons with an exclusive range of hoodies, T-shirts, crew necks, shorts, and accessories.

Teriyaki Boyz Advertisement Bape

Throughout the 1990s, BAPE remained a Japan-exclusive brand, catering to just 10% of supply and demand. Nigo's commitment to exclusivity meant that not everyone could don the clothes he designed. In a bold move in 1998, BAPE was withdrawn from sale in all stores across Japan, except for the flagship Harajuku store. This strategy elevated the brand's desirability, leading to increased sales volumes.

The dawn of the new millennium saw BAPE's conquest of the United States. Building upon its success in Japan, the brand infiltrated mainstream Hip Hop culture, with high-profile rappers such as Kanye West and Pharrell Williams proudly endorsing BAPE products. Nigo's introduction to Pharrell Williams, facilitated by Jacob the Jeweller, unearthed a shared passion for rap, hip-hop, and fashion culture. By 2003, the dynamic duo launched Billionaire Boys Club (BBC) in New York City, which later expanded to include Ice Cream, Billionaire Girl Club, and Bee Line.

Image of Nigo and Pharrell Williams

Amidst BAPE's triumphs, Nigo introduced his iconic sneaker line, Bapesta. Drawing inspiration from Bruce Kilgore's Air Force 1, the Bapesta distinguished itself with a shooting star in place of the Swoosh, and the 'Bape' wordmark inscribed on the midsole rather than Nike's renowned Air branding. Each unique iteration featured a diverse range of colour schemes and instantly recognisable designs, swiftly becoming an emblem of global streetwear culture.

Nigo's rapport with key figures in the U.S. rap scene paved the way for iconic collaborations, including the Kanye West Bapesta, inspired by West's debut album 'The College Dropout.' This collaboration marked the inception of many more, involving luminaries like Marvel, Daft Punk, N.E.R.D, and KAWS, leaving an indelible mark on the fashion world.

Kanye West 'College School Dropout Bapestas
Image Courtesy of GQ Website

However, after years of global acclaim, BAPE's popularity began to wane in 2010, following the closure of its Los Angeles store and the subsequent closure of its New York store in the following year. Around this time, Nigo decided to part ways with the brand, announcing BAPE's sale to the Hong Kong Conglomerate I.T. Group for approximately $2.8 million.

BAPE's journey from the vibrant streets of Harajuku to worldwide prominence exemplifies the fusion of fashion and culture. Nigo's innovative spirit and enduring passion for Hip Hop led to the creation of an iconic brand that left an indelible mark on streetwear and pop culture. As the brand evolves under new ownership, its legacy lives on, forever intertwined with the rise of exclusive sneaker culture and the fusion of Hip-Hop and fashion.

In other news, the Air Jordan 3 silhouette turns 35 this year


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