Following our first edition covering the life and times of Shawn Stussy, we bring you the second of our Fashion History Lessons, this time following a legendary figure from across the ocean – the one and only NIGO.
A little over two years ago, one of the most notorious names in Japanese fashion announced that he was leaving the label he had founded way back in 1993 – a label that had become synonymous with streetwear and the culture of its time.
When NIGO revealed he was exiting A Bathing Ape after two decades at its helm, the announcement marked the end of an era. In typically visual, irreverent fashion, the designer posted an image to Instagram showing a toy-version of himself being lowered into a grave by a KAWS-drawn interpretation of Bart Simpson. It was almost everything you’d expect from the man.
In many ways, that image was symbolic – a perfect encapsulation of the way in which the iconoclastic, irreverent style that he and his collaborators had pioneered was crumbling around him as consumer tastes moved on. The fashion world had turned decidedly more serious, with designers such as Raf Simons and Rick Owens entering the parlance of the average streetwear consumer eager to prove a more discerning level of taste. Meanwhile, NIGO’s brand of loud, logo-heavy apparel had lost much of its sheen.
It was, as such, a rather understated departure for a man who had held such prominence in the scene, all played out in the same year his former label celebrated its 20th birthday. An unfitting end, perhaps, and one which didn’t quite tell the full story of what A Bathing Ape once was (and, to some at least, still is). To tell that story, however, you need to look at both the beginning and the end of its epic journey.
Despite its unceremonious announcement, for many, NIGO’s departure from BAPE had been on the cards for some time. Following a buyout by Chinese retail conglomerate I.T two years earlier, whispers of discontent had long been circling. What’s more, the brand was in dire financial straits.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Nowhere Co. (BAPE’s parent company, owned by NIGO) had been suffering huge losses in the years prior to the buyout. “For the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, 2010, its net loss was 119 million yen, slightly better than a loss of 267.4 million yen the previous year. The company had liabilities totaling 1.03 billion yen in the year ended August 31.”
As part of the brand’s rescue deal, NIGO agreed to stay on as creative director. However, his waning influence, or perhaps waning interest, was apparent. As the business grew, opening more stores and selling more product, it became closer and closer to the antithesis of what A Bathing Ape had originally stood for – something for the few, not the many.
Where BAPE’s cultural cachet had originally been built on an ideal of exclusivity, this modern-day iteration was for everyone, in any and every way imaginable. Everything from coffee mugs to baby grows were plastered with that iconic Ape motif, and product was flogged to anyone willing to buy it.
This business plan, however, was only accelerating a trend of over-expansion that had already plagued NIGO’s empire in the post-Pharrell boom years. A Bathing Ape – originally named A Bathing Ape in Lukewarm Water – had become decidedly lukewarm, churning out head-scratching collab after head-scratching collab. Its notorious shark hoodie, meanwhile – once its most desirable and hard-to-attain product – had become little more than a tokenistic purchase available to anyone willing to part with the cash. For many, this was not the BAPE that they had fallen in love with.
For those who were around in the early days, they remember a time when they were genuinely part of something. The product was quality, the reference points were sound and it was elusive enough that consumers felt like they were more than mere consumers – they were part of some camo-clad clique that spanned the globe, yet remained resolutely underground.
When asked what he learned about fashion from NIGO, Craig Ford (one of BAPE’s first major distributors in the UK), simply replied “everything” – a sentiment echoed by countless musicians, artists, and cultural influencers over the years.
But how did the son of a metal fabricator and a nurse living in Japan’s Gunma province reach such heights?
NIGO, born Tomoaki Nagao, was a devout hip-hop addict, and it was this that served as his introduction into the scene he would later go on to dominate. At 16 he would regularly venture into Tokyo to go record shopping at a store called Cisco, and that year managed to save up enough to purchase his first set of turntables. Enamored with hip-hop and its style, the wannabe-DJ began dressing like the icons he found on record sleeves: people like Public Enemy, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys became his icons.
After high school, NIGO swapped sleepy Gunma for the neon lights and late-night bars of the nation’s capital as he accepted a place at the seminal Bunka Fashion College. However, while he did attend classes, NIGO’s real education was in Tokyo’s nightclubs, where he found himself making connections that would further his fashion career more than any lessons in pattern-cutting ever would. He would later remark that he learned “zero” from Bunka, and the most important thing he took from it was meeting Jun Takahashi (who would go on to found UNDERCOVER).
It was during this time that the young Nagao also befriended the so-called “Godfather of Harajuku,” Hiroshi Fujiwara. In fact, it was a direct result of the pair’s close friendship that he earned his infamous nickname. “NIGO” translates as “number two” – a reference to the duo’s striking visual similarity and the eventual assistant’s role he would play to Fujiwara.
With Hiroshi Fujiwara’s help, NIGO and Takahashi would go on to found Nowhere in 1993 – a niche fashion boutique that sold a selection of international streetwear brands, shoes by adidas and Nike as well as their own respective wares. It was at this time that A Bathing Ape was conceived, in conjunction with NIGO’s friend and frequent collaborator, SK8THING.
While the brand’s original name (A Bathing Ape in Lukewarm Water) was certainly a mouthful, it incorporated references that would ultimately define the brand’s output for years to come. The first drew parallels with The Planet of the Apes, with simian iconography quickly becoming a visual hallmark of the label. The latter, however, was a reference to a Japanese colloquialism that mocked the opulence of post-war, consumption-obsessed Japan – an ironic parallel for a brand that would come to embody this stereotype in many respects.
In what would turn out to be an incredibly shrewd move, the demand for A Bathing Ape was predicated on a deliberate policy of scarcity, with the production run only ever fulfilling around 10 percent of demand. This tactic was to become a brand hallmark, increasing its desirability among connoisseurs by a huge degree.
Even so, in 1998 NIGO chose to scale back operations still further, acutely aware that brands of his nature can quickly lose their appeal if they fly too close to the sun. In a 2008 interview with Complex Mag he commented, “We used to sell to something like 40 different stores in Japan…But around 1998, I decided to just cut back to our one store in Tokyo. It didn’t take long until the sales from one store were as good as when we sold throughout the country. That made me realize that this was something bigger than I had imagined.”
That realization filtered into a mantra of hyper-exclusivity and vertical retailing, making BAPE painstakingly hard to find. At the same time, key cultural influencers like Notorious B.I.G. and Mo’Wax records boss James Lavelle were pushing the brand in the media, boosting its appeal unimaginably.
The years that followed that were arguably some of NIGO’s most profitable and successful. As artists like Pharrell began to shape the face of hip-hop in the post-millennial era, BAPE’s exposure grew and grew. It wasn’t long before a partnership between the two saw them launch two brand new brands – Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream – but also saw Pharrell take on an unofficial brand ambassador’s role for BAPE. Kanye West, Lil Wayne and a slew of other rappers would follow, positioning the brand at the very peak of hip-hop style.
At the same time, NIGO himself began producing tracks for Japanese rap act The Teriyaki Boyz. He would later tell Inventory Magazine that “starting to hear people reference the brand in rap lyrics marked a real change.” With the company’s profits soaring, i It was during this time that NIGO’s taste for consumption really took on a life of its own.
As a softly spoken individual who had always chosen to communicate in a strictly visual sense, it was no secret that the designer had a weak spot for collecting. Whether it was famous works of pop art by the likes of KAWS, Futura and even Warhol, or rare toys (his Star Wars collection alone was valued at $250,000), NIGO was a true cult obsessive. And, as his success grew, so did his shopping habits.
In one of his Tokyo homes, the designer famously had an entire room dedicated to his love of Gucci, in which everything from the wallpaper to the furniture and ornaments was made by the Italian fashion house. “No one has more of anything than this dude, he is a connoisseur of all great things,” Pharrell told Vibe magazine in 2006.
In the same article, NIGO estimated his brand was bringing in around $45 million a year. Much of that figure could be attributed to his iconic Bapesta – a playful take on Nike’s Air Force One, which saw sneakerheads scrambling to get their hands on a pair in spots like New York’s Flight Club, long before the term “sneakerhead” had become part of regular parlance.
This was BAPE at its absolute peak: its stores were often stockless, such was the demand for product; there was a café; there was a TV station; an official sponsorship of Japanese wrestling; there was even an awkward interview segment with British TV talkshow host Jonathan Ross. At the rate it was going the brand seemed invincible. But, of course, nothing in the world ever is…
As millennial tastes changed and the ridiculous spiral of expansion and consumption began to collapse in on itself, it became apparent that NIGO’s fortunes had shifted. In fact, when faced with the black hole at the heart of the company’s finances, he was forced to sell off 90% of the BAPE brand for just 230 million Japanese yen, or around $2.8 million. It was then that the end of this chapter in NIGO’s life became clear for all to see. Two years later, and he had left the brand entirely.
Today, NIGO keeps himself occupied with his altogether more refined label, Human Made, which focuses on high-quality vintage reproductions. He also works with Japanese high-street powerhouse Uniqlo as the head of their UT T-shirt line, and has a sporadic collaborative relationship with adidas. However, while all these projects have merit in their own right, nothing yet has touched the fervent energy that once characterized A Bathing Ape in its glory years. In many respects, it is a nostalgic longing for those years that still drives much of NIGO’s own personal appeal.
Was he the greatest businessman? Perhaps not – something he himself admitted to Women’s Wear Daily in 2011: “I had a strong feeling that I wanted the brand to survive,” he told them. “The main thing was thinking what to do about that. I spent 20 years building it up, so it would be a real shame for it to disappear.”
There is something admirable in that idealism. And, for what it’s worth, NIGO got his wish. BAPE is very much still alive and kicking today, and it’s NIGO’s own belief in what it meant to so many people across the globe that is perhaps its most enduring legacy, whatever your opinion of the clothing. Like Shawn Stussy before him, NIGO birthed a giant of the streetwear industry, only to eventually find it had taken on a life of its own.
Still, wherever that life takes the brand in future, one thing is certain: it will always be remembered in light of one man – “number two.”
- Words: Calum Gordon