'The Rise and Fall of BAPE' first appeared in the 5th Issue of Pages Magazine.
The first time I saw a pair of BAPESTA’s was in middle school when I witnessed two classmates transfer a yellow patent leather pair from backpack to backpack with an amount of secrecy that would make you think they were trading possession of a priceless artifact. It was at that time I first saw a pair up close and it will forever be engrained in my memory as the first moment I came across an item of the Japanese clothing powerhouse, A Bathing Ape.
The year was 2006, Clipse had just dropped their classic album ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ and Kanye West was taking hip hop by storm while also being the frontman for BAPE’s 2006 Fall/Winter collection look book. BAPE was on top of the world and rightfully so, it was on the backs of every important hip hop artist and streetwear aficionado alike. BAPE’s visually stimulating colors and iconography was as essential to hip hop in the early to late 2000’s as the Adidas Originals Superstar was to boom bap rappers in the 1980’s. Brightly colored camouflage patterns consisting of distorted Ape heads blanketed pop culture as a whole, and it seemed like it would be that way for years to come.
The marketing of A Bathing Ape was masterminded by Japanese designer and BAPE’s founder Nigo, and it was by no mistake that the Ape landed on the backs of the coolest people in and around his NOWHERE flagship store in Harajaku, Tokyo in the early 2000’s. In the beginning days of BAPE, Nigo would print 50 shirts a week, sell half and give the other half away to style influencers around Japan. The guerrilla (no pun intended) marketing tactic worked and set a business model that many other streetwear brands have tried to replicate since. Print low quantities, get them on the backs of the most important ‘influencers’ and watch the masses literally stampede over each other to get in on the action. Providing an inability for many to get their hands on new releases empowers the few that do. BAPE was not just selling clothes, they were selling cool.
BAPE reached new and astounding levels when brought to the attention of hip hop lovers in the Western world. While some Americans may have been aware of the brand, very few had the means to get their hands on it, with physical BAPE locations only available in select boutiques across Asia. The brands American success can be directly attributed to hip hop extraordinaire Pharrell Williams and the many artists alike that he put BAPE clothing on. If the Lil Wayne wasn’t name dropping the brand in his songs, Pharrell himself was on the red carpet dipped head to toe in the latest collection while simultaneously throwing up Star Trak on his fingers. Pharrell’s co-sign increased sales exponentially in the West and it eventually culminated in New York and Los Angeles stores opening up in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
Somewhere along the way BAPE lost its way. The signature colorful camouflage garments became outdated, over used and just plain uncool. The shelf life for streetwear brands is already short as is, but BAPE was supposed to be different. New releases became less and less, well new. BAPE knew their strong points and repackaged them so many times year after year and collection after collection that they effectively rendered them meaningless. BAPE came into the culture in such an astounding fashion that we imagined it would live and thrive forever. We thought our screen printed Ape’s would continue to evolve with the 2000’s hip hop scene it helped make so memorable.
The kids that once wore the screen printed Ape logo proudly on their chest had grown up and moved onto what was next, even if reluctantly. They traded in their colorful patent leather BAPESTA’s and full zip hoodies for new garments from fresh faced brands like 10 Deep and Rogue Status. Edgy catchphrases and anti-establishment rhetoric drowned out the colorful palettes and characters of yesterdays darling clothing brand. The only time the kids would go back to BAPE if they ever did was for nostalgic purposes but not much else. Simply running through BAPE’s online store today is a testament that BAPE never grew up and never evolved. You will find the same signature camouflage patterns across sweaters, shirts and pretty much everything else just as you did in 2006.
Declines in the brands social status and sales resulted in the sale of BAPE to Hong Kong fashion conglomerate I.T. Group in 2011 for an estimated $2.8 million USD. The brands founder and mastermind, Nigo, signed a contract to stay on as Creative Director for two more years after the sale, which was essentially the captain of a sinking ship giving his last efforts before getting on a lifeboat and sailing into the horizon. Since the sale not much has changed, and ownership seems to think they will turn a profit off of simply being BAPE, but simply being is nothing in comparison to thriving and growing, as BAPE rightfully deserves.
The rise and fall of A Bathing Ape is a testament to how brutal and fast fashion moves in this day and age. While its demise may have been preventable, BAPE may have believed its own hype just a bit too much. They achieved so much success they may have given themselves a sense of complacency, and complacency is the last trait you want to possess while running a fashion company. While they recycled the same clothing season after season, collaborated with literally anyone and everyone, they ultimately sealed their own fate as the streetwear brand of yesterday.
Tony Bueno is the Editor in Chief of Pages Magazine and you can follow him here.