The History of BAPE
What initially began as one of Japan’s best-kept secrets in the most exclusive closed circles has since grown into a globally recognized OG lifestyle brand that has made an undeniable impression on the fashion industry. Born in the heart of Harajuku, Japan, in 1993, BAPE quickly became a cultural tastemaker in Tokyo and nearby areas of Japan, solely through word of mouth. BAPE’s nearly 30-year legacy is nothing short of impactful. With the arrival of the iconic Japanese lifestyle brand to the FEATURE brand roster, keep reading to learn about the origins of BAPE by founder Nigo and how the brand has maintained its role as a leading lifestyle brand.
Born Tomoaki Nagao, Nigo would record shop in Tokyo as a young teen. By doing this, he discovered his love of hip-hop music and found fashion inspiration from artists such as Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys. After working as an editor and stylist at Popeye Magazine, the devout hip-hop addict quickly enveloped himself in the music scene and found himself at nightclubs while in college, making connections that would help him set the stage for his future fashion endeavors. Nigo met a young Jun Takahashi (who would later go on to find UNDERCOVER). Right around this time, Nigo befriended Hiroshi Fujiwara. The duo would establish the fashion boutique ‘Nowhere’ in 1993. Nowhere was a mixture of imported American streetwear and sportswear into a niche Japanese streetwear boutique. It quickly established itself as an early burgeoning factor in the ura-Harajuku scene of the early ‘90s.
During the time that Nowhere was in full swing, A Bathing Ape (BAPE) came to fruition in conjunction with Nigo’s friend and collaborator SK8THING, otherwise known as Shinichiro Nakamura. The brand was established in 1993 by Nigo and SK8THING in Harajuku, Japan. The concept for the name A Bathing Ape arrived after the duo ‘indulged’ in a five-hour marathon of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. This iconic film inspired the name, along with the traditional Japanese idiom ‘a bathing ape in lukewarm water,’ a common phrase used in Japanese culture that describes a person who overindulges. An example of this could be sitting in a bath for so long that the water has now become cold. BAPE began with just about 50 screen-printed t-shirts a week Nigo would sell about half and give the other half to local Tokyo natives to help generate hype about the streetwear brand.
What is BAPE?
After BAPE was brought onto the scene by Nigo and SK8THING, the streetwear brand quickly became a household name in Japan. Remaining exclusive to Japan until the early 2000s, BAPE became revered for its signature streetwear apparel presented on graphic t-shirts, sweat shorts, hoodies, crewnecks, sweaters, sweatpants, full-zip hoodies, pullover hoodies, and more. BAPE is considered to be one of Japan’s OG streetwear labels. What helped put BAPE on the map even further was its iconic motifs that became synonymous with the rest of the label’s offerings. These included the iconic ape head, camo shark, and more recently the baby milo. BAPE’s ‘90s roots align with the ura-Harajuku scene, specifically with now iconic designers like Shin Takazawa of Neighborhood, Tetsu Nishiyama of WTaps, Hiroshi Fujiwara, Sk8thing and others, who were all friends around that time, providing insight to one another along the way.
While BAPE was becoming a Japanese household name with its logo t-shirts and camo hoodies, BAPE’s legacy as an underground Japanese fashion label was about to become something much more. Although BAPE was kept under wraps from other parts of the world up until the early 2000s, NIGO took a step further with his iconic brand in 2002 by releasing the BAPESTA sneaker.
Highly nodding to the iconic Nike Air Force 1 silhouette, the BAPESTA made an impression with its distinct lightning bolt that spread from a star a the side of the shoe. The low-top silhouette was made with glossy-like neon plastic material and quickly became among sneakerheads since the ‘90s. BAPESTAS became best-sellers in the U.S. market, resulting in collaborations with brands and entities like Adidas, Kanye West, KAWS, N.E.R.D, and even pop-culture iconographies like Spongebob Squarepants and DC Comics. The shoes were quickly adopted by the hip-hop community and still remain a pillar in the overall BAPE identity.
The Influence of Pharrell
Right around this time, BAPE was at its peak, and popular rappers and influencers in the United States began to hear about this underground Japanese label that was ready to break through into the U.S. market. Thankfully, NIGO met record producer, rapper, singer, and songwriter Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D through Jacob the Jeweller, who made note of the duo’s similar taste in jewelry. BAPE’s distinct and bright aesthetic aligned seamlessly with Pharrell’s personal style. Nigo and Pharrell joined as one, and Pharrell took on an unofficial brand ambassador role for BAPE. This was right at BAPE’s high, and this venture allowed BAPE to officially into the peak of hip-hop style, which was continuing to gain popularity within the United States. Pharrell was cirtical in helping A Bathing Ape find success in the West, and he helped catapult the brain to a newfound level of popularity, hype, and exclusivity.
Nigo and Pharrell’s joint ventures didn’t end with BAPE. It actually did quite the opposite, as the duo launched the iconic hip-hop streetwear brands Billionaire Boys Club and ICECREAM in 2003.
Iconic BAPE Pieces + Imagery
Out of the many reasons why BAPE has maintained such an important role in streetwear is its memorable imagery and motifs that make the brand recognizable to any fashion enthusiast. BAPE’s importance and influence on fashion are difficult to overstate, and a large portion of this can be accredited to an iconic apparel item such as the BAPE Shark Hoodie. This is considered to be one of the most iconic apparel designs within the A Bathing Ape line, due to its ‘out there’ design and unique details that reinforce the exclusivity of BAPE as a brand. The shark design is inspired by military artwork that would often be placed on the nose of fighter planes and battleships. Alongside the BAPE Shark Hoodie, the brand’s iconic ‘Cloud Camo’ print has transcended streetwear as a whole, and nods to the Japanese fashion industry’s keen interest in military-inspired aesthetics.
Since its establishment nearly 30 years ago, BAPE’s reputation as a fashion icon has remained intact and has continued to grow as the brand has established even more notable designs as well as countless diffusion lines to appeal to all different types of BAPE enthusiasts. BAPE’s impact on the streetwear and fashion industry as a whole set the tone for how something as small as printing a small batch of t-shirts a week can grow into something as large as a global lifestyle brand that has crossed over into countless parts of pop culture.
BAPE is available now exclusively at our FEATURE in Scottsdale location + online via invoice. For our Scottsdale location’s store hours + contact information, click here. View our debut BAPE collection by clicking here.