Nigo: Gorillas in Our Midst
“Everyone thinks I’m a gangster, but I’m really normal.”
These words are spoken from a mouth thoroughly bejeweled from molars to incisors, from a man who just moments earlier drove his Mercedes Benz SLR Batmobile into the showroom garage of his five-story mansion in Tokyo. I can imagine Bruce Wayne making similar proclamations of normality with a knowing irony, but from the tone of his voice, Nigo sounds like he’s making an honest appeal.
Yes, the 35 year-old Japanese fashion mogul lives in a gargantuan house filled with fancy cars, vintage Louis Vuitton trunks, opulent chandeliers, a dozen or more original Warhol prints, and an Eames living room set, but his true personality comes out in what sits upon his priceless Prouvé shelves and tables: Star Trek memorabilia, an original “Good Guys” Chucky doll from Child’s Play, and a set of small action figures recreating the Jedi Council in vivid detail, to name just a few in his seemingly endless collection. One wall of his basement is decorated with 4″ x 6″ snapshots of Nigo posing next to various celebrities, including Andre 3000, Devon Aoki, Gwen Stefani, and David Beckham. Above the television are 121 copies ofInterview magazine with Nigo on the cover, arranged in an enormous 11 x 11 square. For anyone else, hanging one’s own face all over the walls would immediately raise accusations of megalomania, but with Nigo, these items and all the other accumulations of wealth are no more than souvenirs from his long personal journey from an “ordinary” Japanese kid with a penchant for collecting to a jet-setting personage of international repute.
Nigo was born Tomoaki Nagao on December 23, 1970 in rural Gunma prefecture. Despite being in the countryside, Nigo felt a gravitational pull towards the big city early on. “I was always fascinated with Tokyo and knew I wanted to move there,” he says in a voice still retaining a somewhat adolescent inflection. In his high school years, Nigo spent almost every weekend waking up in the wee hours of the morning to ride the deathly-slow local trains into Tokyo for a full day wandering around the youth fashion headquarters of Harajuku. He spent many years obsessed with rockabilly and Buddy Holly, but around 1986, young Nagao discovered a whole new cultural world of hip hop – namely, Run DMC and their ubiquitous fashion accessory, adidas.
After graduating from high school, the eighteen-year-old packed his bags and moved to Tokyo to study magazine editorial at the prestigious fashion school Bunka Fukuso Gakuin. There he quickly befriended one Jun Takahashi, aka Jonio – a wild and dreamy visionary soon to create his own punk-rock couture line, Under Cover. The two friends hit the town together, eventually rubbing shoulders with their two personal heroes of the Tokyo subcultural scene, Kan Takagi and Hiroshi Fujiwara. The store staff from Nagao’s favorite Harajuku boutique A Store Robot noticed that the young student shared a striking visual resemblance to Hiroshi Fujiwara and thus christened him, “Hiroshi Fujiwara #2” or in Japanese, “Hiroshi Fujiwara Nigo.” The nickname stuck, and not long afterwards, Fujiwara #2 became an assistant for Fujiwara #1, which launched “Nigo” into a world of DJing, styling, and writing columns for various street fashion magazines such as Popeye and Takarajima.
In Spring 1993, Nigo and Jonio found financial backing to open a small store called Nowhere in a quiet, desolate area of Harajuku. Jonio used his half of the store to sell Undercover whereas Nigo casually managed the other side as a relaxed select shop with imported goods like adidas Superstars. Feeling little love from customers, Nigo and his friend Skatething decided to start their own label later that year, which they named A Bathing Ape, creating a line of street wear with a simian motif they cribbed from a favorite film, 1968’s Planet of the Apes. Success was not immediate, but two years later, the “street snap” pages of fashion magazines would suddenly be brimming with young kids not only wearing Ape religiously but professing to “worship” the brand’s director Nigo. Half the kids in Harajuku had an Ape head on their back, and the other half were waiting in enormous lines outside of Nowhere to get their own. By age 26 or so, the one-time Harajuku Fan was the newly crowned Harajuku King.
While Nigo will not admit to having a specific business strategy, his playbook would read something like this: Rule #1: Give kids comfortable clothes that they want to wear but keep everything limited-edition, detail-oriented, and high-priced so that it feels like “fashion”; Rule #2: Don’t seem so desperate to use traditional advertising, but promote your brand endlessly through monthly magazine columns and public cavorting with musicians and celebrities. In a country where department stores hire multiple women to do nothing more than greet and bow to customers in unison, Ape took the opposite route: welcoming shoppers with silence and cold stares – and the kids ate it up. Despite the fact that Nigo’s stores were selling somewhere around $300 of merchandise a minute during the peak years and were always filled with dozens of teenagers literally fighting over t-shirts, the marketing techniques convinced everyone leaving the store that they had bought into something special, unique, and exclusive.
By 2002 or so, the Ape infestation of Japan was reaching the upper limits of possibility: a flagship store in “serious” fashion district Aoyama, directly-managed stores — called Busy Work Shops — in every major city across the archipelago, a successful shoe line, a hugely popular ladies brand called Baby, a cafe, a hair salon, a full toy line, a record label, huge annual Bape Heads concerts with international and local performers, a weekly television show, and at one point, Bape camouflage on every Pepsi can in the nation. And right when there seemed to be nowhere left to go, Nigo met Pharell. “I was going to New York a lot to get jewelry made by Jacob the Jeweler, and Jacob told Pharell about me.” When the charismatic Neptune came to Japan for the first time in 2002, Nigo lent him his Ape Sounds studio. Their friendship was automatic: “I had been a big fan of his, and we got along well right from the start. The day after we first met, we were already saying, ‘Let’s do a brand together.Õ” That brand became Billionaire Boys Club, and for the last two or so years, the two have worked side by side on various music and fashion-based projects, such as Ice Cream shoes for Reebok and “Millionaire” Louis Vuitton sunglasses.
Although Nigo currently seems right at home with the East Coast hip hop elite, he has had a more tenuous relationship with the United States in the past. “Originally, the reason I became interested in fashion was Run DMC – very American casual. But I guess I had personally become sick of American things for a bit and started doing things more ‘British,'” and like Nigo says, in the mid to late 90s, his sights were locked on London street culture and the increasingly world-class action at home. Despite Ape’s massive domestic success and Nigo’s cadre of big shot friends all around the world, the brand barely made its away out of the Japanese islands until the 21st century. For a long time, the only place to see Bape gear was on the back of Mo Wax founder James Lavelle. The short supply of A Bathing Ape in Western markets made the brand infuriatingly exclusive, and as magazine The Face would declare, “Truly underground.”
Flash forward to 2005, and there’s nary a hip hop video on MTV without that iconic gorilla face beaming back at you. “After I met Pharell, his friends would come to Japan, and everyone told me, you should open a store in America. So I felt like, I guess I should open a store,” Nigo laughs. He finally opened Busy Work Shop New York last December, but it’s not just the clothes and shoes sneaking their way to the mainstream: Nigo was sitting behind Jay-Z at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. The Ape General visited New York 21 times last year and seemed to pop up at every red carpet event in the city.
Now Nigo is bringing back a bit of his latest foreign escapades to Japan with his new rap unit, Teriyaki Boyz. Rumored to be signed personally by Jay-Z for Def Jam Japan, Nigo and his cabal of Japanese rappers drop their debut album Beef or Chicken on November 16th, featuring a slew of ultra-famous celebrity producers from all around the world: the Neptunes, DJ Shadow, Adrock, DJ Premier, Daft Punk, Cornelius, and Just Blaze.
Although the rise of Ape reads like a beautiful choreographed tale of business and cultural success, Nigo does not come off as a conniving tycoon, but more like a kid collector who just made what he wanted and had everything magically turn out right. When asked, Nigo makes clear the lack of a master plan: “I never imagined this level of success would ever happen. I didn’t even think I would be making clothes. It’s all been very natural. So much that I don’t even think about what’s coming next.” But then, what drives the Bape CEO to push into new territory this late in the game? “I have a really strong feeling to create a distinction between myself and others. When I put out a book in Japan, for example, all the other fashion labels started putting out books, so I thought about what I could do that other people couldn’t imitate, and that was opening a big, legitimate store in New York.” Now with Japan maxed-out and American operations going better than expected, Nigo’s next projects are an expansion into Asia (Busy Work Shop in Taiwan open TK, and Hong Kong on the way) and a possible future store in Los Angeles.
As I interview Nigo, he drinks Starbucks coffee from a Starbucks machine in a Starbucks espresso cup, and as I look around the house, I come to notice that everything displayed is some manner of three-dimensional brand logo: vintage Coke and Pepsi machines, a giant Swiss Army Knife with rotating blades, three illuminated Spuds Mackenzies from Bud Light sitting on the floor. Nigo positions himself as a disciple of Warhol, living in a world where branding and celebrity are art. And that fundamental love of branded goods appears to be leading Nigo to one final, Herculean task: placing the Bape logo into the canon of classic trademarks. While the spoils of his success so far may have a narcissistic edge, the next step towards that ultimate goal ironically requires self-dissolution. “There’s an idea that Ape equals Nigo. And I’m not going to live for 100 years. So I’d like it if people came to know about Ape without knowing about me. I think that’d be interesting.”