WORDS BY LUCY HARDY
It’s 2020 and streetwear is bigger than ever. What was once considered a fringe movement has now taken center stage. Major players are more hyped than ever — every designer brand from Balenciaga to Burberry draws heavily on the culture, and street stars, such as Virgil Abloh, have taken their place at the helm of well-known luxury brands. But let’s go back to ’93, to a time well before we were all aboard the hype train and when Japanese brand BAPE was just starting out. Today it’s considered one of the most iconic names in streetwear, widely-recognized for its shark motif hoodies and iconic camo print. Here’s everything you need to know about the BAPE history, and how it went from being a little fish to a major shark of the streetwear market.
The history of BAPE: how did BAPE start?
BAPE was founded by one man — the legend that is Nigo, with a little help from his friends. Like most of Japan’s streetwear brands, the label emerged from the underground Harajuku scene. Nigo opened up a clothing store, ‘NOWHERE’, with his contemporary Jun Takahashi of Undercover, and subsequently started designing his own clothes in collaboration with the elusive designer Sk8thing. Launching the label on a shoestring budget (Nigo could only afford to produce around 50 T-shirts per week) led to the unintentional invention of the two elements that form the backbone of today’s streetwear model — hype and scarcity.
So, what does BAPE mean?
BAPE’s definition is simple — it stands for A Bathing Ape and there are two meanings behind this. Firstly, it’s an homage to Nigo’s favorite film, Planet of the Apes. And secondly, it’s a reference to the Japanese idiom ‘a bathing ape in lukewarm water’, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the overindulgence of the young streetwear consumer.
BAPE’s love affair with hip-hop
Streetwear is intrinsically linked to hip-hop and BAPE is no different, in fact it’s inseparable from its hip-hop legacy. Whilst the brand was selling out fast all over Japan during the early ‘00s, American rappers, including The Notorious B.I.G, Clipse and Pharrell Williams were about to make BAPE go big stateside. It was Nigo’s partnership with Pharrell in 2005 through the Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream retailers that solidified BAPE at the top of the game.
The brand has outfitted rap’s biggest names, becoming a rite of passage in the culture and being name-checked in many songs throughout the years. It’s had Soulja Boy bragging about it, Lil Wayne and Pusha-T beefing about it, Cardi B chilling in it and Kanye West designing it — West’s ‘College Dropout’ BAPE STAs were in fact his first foray into sneakers in 2006, and remain one of the brand’s most sought-after items to this day.
Cop the signature BAPE style
BAPE clothing is loud, brash and colorful. The brand is responsible for some of the most iconic pieces in streetwear history, and that’s not a description we bestow lightly. There’s the full-zip shark hoodies complete with ‘World Gone Mad’ (WGM) varsity patches. And the distinctive shark design takes its inspiration from military artwork featured on fighter jets and battleships.
Then there’s the instantly-recognizable Cloud Camo print which injects BAPE with the cartoonish element of Japanese fashion. The signature print has featured on everything over the years. And when we say everything, we mean everything — from Pepsi bottles to duct tape and condoms. A true lifestyle brand.
Lastly, there’s the BAPE STA sneakers. The shoe is unequivocally and unapologetically a replica of Nike Air Force 1’s, except the famous swoosh is replaced with a lightning star, the colorways are mad flashy and the patent leather upper gives it a distinctive glossy sheen. You may wonder how BAPE got away with it. In short, Nike was unbothered — a testament to the highly-referential culture of early ‘00s streetwear.
Who owns BAPE?
BAPE was sold to Hong Kong fashion conglomerate I.T in 2011, after struggling to combat the counterfeit market. Although Nigo stepped down from the company a few years later, the brand is still going strong and the streetwear crowd continues to go ape for BAPE.