The A Bathing Ape universe has been around since 1993. In collaboration with the founder of Undercover, Jun Takahashi, founder of Nigo, real name Tomoaki Nagao, opened NOWHERE in the renowned Japanese fashion district Ura-Harajuku that year. Both individuals studied at Bunka Fashion College, which Nigo claims did "zero" for him other than give him the opportunity to meet Takahashi.
They received assistance from Hiroshi Fujiwara, known as the "Godfather of Harajuku." At the time, Fujiwara was a well-known figure in the Japanese streetwear industry and is recognized as one of the country's first hip-hop DJs. He ensured the opening of NOWHERE's success by utilizing his knowledge and influence. Nigo would continue to collaborate with Fujiwara on designs throughout his career, earning the moniker "Nigo" (which means Number 2) as a result.
A network and platform like this, along with Nigo's own skills, imply that BAPE was destined for success from the start. Soon after NOWHERE's debut, Nigo started using it as a flagship store for his new brand after borrowing 4 million yen ($35,000 at the time) from a friend. It took him nearly a year to pay back the loan.
As some people may already be aware, Nigo was inspired to make fun of his target market when naming the brand what he did. A youth who leads a complacent and sheltered life, whose only concerns are with passing midterms and getting into prestigious institutions of higher education, is described in Japanese as "a bathing ape in lukewarm water." Because of Nigo's love of science fiction, particularly The Planet of the Apes franchise, the name naturally conjures up the primate theme.
In its early years, BAPE mastered and pioneered the artificial exclusivity that major streetwear brands today create. To create buzz, Nigo would create about 50 shirts per week, sell half of them, and give the remaining half to Tokyo-based creatives and fashion icons. He earned so little because he was aware of the direct relationship between exclusivity and desirability. He also acknowledges that he didn't like seeing so many people in similar attire. But Nigo didn't fully comprehend the reality of the exclusivity concept until 1998.
BAPE has always operated under the premise that 10% of the demand should be met with 10% of the supply. The brand was available in about 40 shops across the entire country of Japan in 1998. Nigo, however, made the abrupt and ostensibly retrograde decision to stop sales at all but one retail location and to concentrate distribution there only. Sales from that one store soon reached parity with those from 40 stores carrying BAPE, if not exceeded them.
This extreme exclusivity was complemented by the brand's ongoing distribution to well-known rappers and fashion icons like Notorious B.I.G., which increased the brand's popularity and desirability to new heights. A Bathing Ape was arguably at its best during the late 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, when its commercial success was first fully appreciated. Knowing this, Nigo pushed the brand to its limit.
Rap-aware buyers found appeal in both BAPE's clothing line and its footwear, which had been produced alongside the clothing since the brand's inception. Since the 1990s, BAPESTAs, low-top sneakers typically made of glossy, neon-like plastic, have been a mainstay among sneakerheads. And it really gained popularity when Kanye West collaborated with BAPE to create one of his own in 2007.
Pharrell’s fondness for A Bathing Ape marked a crucial turning point in the company's development. It was no longer a specialty of Japan, nor was it something you could wear to feel like you belonged to a forward-thinking group of artists, as you could when it first started.
Today, Nigo no longer heads the company, having stepped down in 2011 due to the significant levels of debt the company had accumulated. However, A Bathing Ape is and always will be canonical streetwear. It’s importance and influence is difficult to state.