The Changing Brand Value of Bape

Fourteen years ago this April, two Japanese twenty-three year-olds straight out of vocational colleges with little in the way of professional experience opened up a small boutique fittingly called “Nowhere” in the quiet back-streets of Harajuku. One of the young men was Jun Takahashi — who used his half of the shop to sell his own avant-punk designer brand Under Cover. On the other side of the shop was Nigo — who would soon become the total director behind the international wünder-brand A Bathing Ape (Bape). For the first few months of Nowhere’s existence, the Nigo-side sold adidas and other select import goods, but pressured by the almost instant success of Takahashi’s label, Nigo realized that he needed to start an original brand of his own. Brainstorming with his graphic designer friend Skatething, the two came up with the semi-English phrase “A Bathing Ape in Lukewater” as the brand name and appropriated the gorilla face from the Planet of the Apes films for the visual icon.

Within two years, those ape heads could be seen on half the t-shirts in Harajuku, and the success of Bape ushered in the Ura-Harajuku style moment in Japan. This look combined the casual vibe and comfort of street clothing with the rarity-factor, celebrity-connections, and high price points of designer fashion. Bape’s continued domestic success in the 1990s eventually led to international acclaim. For many years, however, Bape could only be found outside of Japan on the backs of Nigo’s foreign music and graffiti allies and had thus attained a mythic status as the ultimate prize in the hunt for limited-edition apparel (The Face in 1999 called the brand “Truly underground,” totally incognizant of the brand’s mass status in Japan.) Starting with the 2002 opening of Bape’s Busy Work Shop London, however, the brand began its remarkable journey from being a super-rare insider commodity to becoming the clothing of choice for the American hip hop elite and a prop in every other video on MTV.

Although Nigo may not frame his story in marketing language, A Bathing Ape is absolutely an exemplar branding case study for the Japanese market. Nigo is not a fashion designer, nor does he make claims on such titles. His success has been a product of his impeccable skills in marketing and curation: i.e., it’s about what he sells and how he sells rather than what he “creates.” There are probably ten-thousand small T-shirt companies in Japan that use images and themes from Western popular culture and old sci-fi movies, but Nigo was able to masterfully leverage his celebrity connections in the media to create a total lifestyle around the clothing. Bape was never just apparel — the “brand” encompassed concerts and record releases from musicians in Nigo’s orbit, collectible toys, and self-produced media. By only selling clothes through directly-managed retail outlets, Nigo controlled the entire shopping experience from the background music to the architecture (courtesy of Wonderwall) to the long lines and intentionally-unhelpful staff. Instead of fitting his brand to a pre-existing consumer subculture, Nigo just invented his own. And the kids fell into line accordingly.

The Big Change in 2001

Bape’s success stood upon three strategic marketing pillars that emphasized the “underground” brand image at every turn: limited-edition supply, obfuscated stores, and a rejection of traditional advertising. This worked wonders from 1993 to 2001. Everything changed overnight, however, with Bape’s collaboration with soda brand Pepsi. Suddenly, the brand’s trademark ape-faced camouflage was in vending machines all the way from small towns in northern Hokkaido to beach-side huts in Okinawa. Regardless of any intentions of ironic subtext, here was an open acceptance of commodification after a career based on decommodifying the T-shirt and jeans. Although some at the time claimed that the move was not a “sell-out” because of Pepsi’s “outsider” status in Japan (see the similar idea behind the October 2001 Relax issue on Pepsi), the move loudly signaled a new direction for Bape. Nigo no longer seemed apprehensive of going too mass, and large-scale aspirations rerouted his once modest strategy.

Around 2003, Nigo made friends with Pharell Williams from the Neptunes, and this connection made the Bape brand (especially the Bapestar sneakers and colorful camo hoodies) must-haves for hip-hop royalty in the United States. Bape subsequently became a hit item there — a market Nigo had willfully ignored in the ’90s because he had believed selling to Americans was too “mass market.” By the early Aughts, however, his values had changed from emphasizing brand cachet-über-alles to wanting the bling-bling cash-out in the short-term. He could have engaged the American hip hop market while staying true to the limited-edition concept, but once Nigo crossed the Rubicon, he never really even half-heartedly withheld supply to demanding parties besides constructing barriers with the high product prices.

So Goes the Brand

Nigo seems to justify this change as “brand growth/expansion” but this new direction unfortunately created points of radical difference to the original and established brand image. The following outlines the changes to the total brand experience for BAPE:

Consumers: By obviously going for the mass market, Nigo abandoned his core base of fashion-forward teens who had previously believed to be buying a certain level of “safe exclusivity” in A Bathing Ape. Once Nigo started selling to the Chinese cultural sphere in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Japanese fans saw their brand being consumed by a group which they fairly or unfairly considered lower on the global style hierarchy. Even though Bape found a fan base in first-tier American rappers, most Japanese kids in the hip-hop subculture remembered Bape’s old market position too well to be able to use the brand to express belonging to their particular subculture. Before the globalization of the brand, Japanese core consumers only saw the brand being consumed by the proper parties who understood its meaning. The willful abandonment of the founding principles to market to other countries confused this message on the home front.

Supply: Nigo was very careful at first about selling to the Chinese market. His first Hong Kong store had been “by appointment only,” but the brand’s introduction into the Chinese-language world coincided with the mass production of fake Bape by counterfeiters in China and Korea. I remember an Ebay in 2000 with a maximum of three A Bathing Ape t-shirts. Today there are more than 2000 — few of which are real. The supply not only increased over time, but the counterfeiting problem degraded the aura the brand enjoyed in which low quantity implied high quality.

Retail Locations: In Japan, there are Busy Work Shops in almost every major (and minor) metropolitan center. Overseas, New York and London have been or will be soon joined by Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Taipei. Tokyo once had a few select locations, but now there is a surplus of Bape-branded ventures — the BAPE Cuts hair salon, BAPE Café, and a Bape Kids children’s clothing store — each spreading the customer base thinner and thinner. The shopping experience no longer feels special and exclusive or has the air of destination shopping.

Now certainly, we should admit that A Bathing Ape would not have been able to forever keep up the ruse of selling on a mass scale while claiming an underground credibility. Nigo changed the brand partly because he had nowhere left to
go. Nigo himself often claims that “times have changed,” and he is right that “limited-edition” (限定) was a bit of a ’90s phenomenon that outlived its usefulness.

The ’90s phenomenon of exclusivity, however, was core to his brand, and since he will never be able to charge Dior-like prices for his street clothing, abandoning his artificial attempts to control supply (or appear to be doing so) means a decrease in the exclusivity still necessary for his semi-luxury goods to work. Marketing for short-term success and creating a durable brand value are polar opposites, and while anyone would be hard-pressed to write off the current state of Bape as a “failure,” the brand value at least appears to have struggled for the last five years in Japan. As a clothing line that once famously attracting huge lines on the weekends, the Tokyo stores are often quiet, and when populated, have an image of being populated with Chinese-speaking tourists. (Some of the rural locations apparently still attract a large fan base.)

Japanese fashion editors in the 1990s spent year after year privately pronouncing A Bathing Ape “dead,” but the brand kept growing stronger and stronger. I do not want to suggest that Bape has come to any sort of end, but in sheer terms of brand value, Bape has gone from a model of perfection in the Japanese market to a confused hodge-podge of messages, images, and subcultural affiliations. A Bathing Ape’s success in the 1990s Japanese fashion market should be attributed to their brand-centered marketing, and although Nigo was right to abandon some anachronistic parts of his strategy, I can’t help feeling that the concept of unified brand has fallen by the wayside.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

9 Responses to “The Changing Brand Value of Bape”

  1. Avoidinglife.com Says:

    clast » The Changing Brand Value of Bape…

    A look at the once-cult fashion house BAPE and its founder’s decision to abandon exclusivity in favor of worldwide expansion….

  2. links for 2007-04-22 at Litwack.org Says:

    […] Marxy for clast » The Changing Brand Value of Bape A solid historical overview. I’ve never bought a piece of Bape in my life, but I’ve followed the brand since 1997 via the Beastie Boys, Futura, James Lavelle, and the glory days of Tokion. (tags: abathingape bape marxy) […]

  3. Halvsie Blog » Blog Archive » Japan Blog Surfer: May 07, Week 4 Says:

    […] Quick includes: On Pink Tentacle, a cool set of images from some excellent customized vans. And finally, on Trends in Japan, an in-depth look into the new beer-like beverage for kids. And finally, to round out your weekend reading, an excellent review of the history of Bathing Ape in Clast’s article “The Changing Brand Value of Bape. […]

  4. Bapes Says:

    Bape is a dying brand its too expensive for something that isnt really worth it, you might as well buy a fake, type in bape in google there are a lot of fake sites,

  5. Mutantfrog Travelogue » Blog Archive » A Bathing Shoko Says:

    […] may stand for the combination of “capitalism and commerce, religion and revolution,” notwithstanding some recent dilution of the brand BAPE’s message is more along the lines of “wear this if you are young and listen to […]

  6. Bape Says:

    Every kid had a cool BAPE t-shirt or hat and I just had to have one.

  7. Bapes Says:

    i must agree bapes is really dying. More fapes than bapes out there

  8. bape hoodie Says:

    i saw http://www.bapebbc.net has selling the bape things.

  9. Trend Fresh » Blog Archive » Is Bape Dead? Says:

    […] excellent marketing blog Clast has a piece up about the changing value of the Bathing Ape brand. They talk about how Bape has struggled to maintain authenticity amongst the people that made it […]