A visitor to Nigo’s latest installation, BAPE Café would be greeted by a ceiling mural of American 1950s-style pinups suggestively manipulating BAPE merchandise. Once inside one is completely enveloped in the BAPE brand. The BAPE logo, a blurry, psychedelic, shag-hair ape face, is everywhere. Coasters, napkins, tables, stools, chopstick sleeves, plates, the bill, and various nooks and crannies throughout the café are all ape-branded. The centerpiece is a giant, dark wood table cut in the shape of the logo replete with a recessed mirror image carved into the ceiling above. Even the toilet is BAPE-shaped.
Clearly Nigo has a bit of a grasp on this branding thing. There is a rigid consistency in the otherwise seemingly hip, laid-back personality of the brand. BAPE started as a clothing line, and every article personally handcrafted by Nigo has the ape logo carefully placed on it, sometimes in the most unexpected places. Even more crucial to BAPE’s brand success than consistency has been its “limited editions” strategy. The self-enforced scarcity of BAPE products and boutiques makes them more sought after among BAPE fans than De Beers diamonds.
The humble origins of this ape fetish fashion lie in the backstreets of trendy Tokyo neighborhood Harajuku, where 10 years ago Nigo launched his brand in an unassuming shop entitled “Nowhere Ltd.” He took his inspiration from what was closest to him: the streets, Japanese society, and, of course, Planet of the Apes. Nigo’s designs foreshadowed the urban hip-hop style that has come to prevail as a dominant youth fashion in Japan. But it was not merely his passion for collecting POTA memorabilia that led him to emboss his carefully crafted clothing with primates. The brand name is actually a clever riff on the Japanese society, as it is derived from the expression “to bathe in lukewarm water.”
Nigo explained his intentions in a recent interview with Metropolis, a Tokyo information magazine. “It’s a comment on kids in Tokyo today. They’re very shallow; they take things for granted, and they’re not street savvy. It’s sort of ironic for them to be wearing my clothing. I’m trying to show how they are incapable of being independent-minded. They have no plans, no goals, because they’re just too comfortable. Like bathing in lukewarm water.”
Not one to bathe in lukewarm water himself, Nigo has grown his brand far beyond the walls of his backstreet clothing shop. BAPE is not just a clothing line but a chain of stores extending to Hong Kong, London, and soon New York, a hair salon, a gallery, the café, a record label, and finally, the limited edition (of course!) BAPE Pepsi can.
The collaboration between BAPE and Pepsi will hopefully act as a stepping stone for the export of Japanese pop culture. While Japan has always trickled a steady, if narrow stream of high-brow luminaries such as musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, designer Issey Miyake, and filmmaker Nagisa Oshima, Japanese pop culture has consistently failed to make much if any noise on the global stage. But now with the BAPE Pepsi can and artist Takashi Murakami’s bold redesign of the classic Louis Vuitton handbag things may be starting to change. If BAPE’s latest co-branding exercise with adidas (launched last month) is any sign, the changes are already underway.
In many respects BAPE’s success shares parallels with Apple’s storied survival. Apple remains in the game with intensely focused branding efforts, targeting niche markets that expect something a little different. Each additional product in Apple’s line relates to its focus on creativity. Likewise, the inspiration behind each new BAPE brand extension links back to, well, the creative interests of Nigo. Designing a limited edition set of Beastie Boys action figures was a natural extension of Nigo’s long-standing friendship with the goof-fathers of hip hop. Cutting an album on his Ape Sounds label segues well with his fashion exploits and recalls his earlier days as a drummer with a punk band called the Tokyo Sex Pistols. And his hair salon is a logical step in creating a total BAPE style experience, elevating BAPE from mere a clothing brand to a “lifestyle” brand.
But the parallels between Apple and BAPE do not end there. For some, both brands exemplify the triumph of style over content. The worlds of Japanese art and commercial design since the Meiji Restoration have often appropriated ideas, styles, and techniques from the West, recombining them in unexpected ways. Often this process is taken to such an extreme that the result amounts to little more than cut and paste madness. Little concern often seems to have been given to thematic development and the relation among parts of works as a whole. The Mickey Mouse-on-acid designs of Murakami are a perfect example of this, as are the schizophrenic genre splicing of music artists Cornelius and the Boredoms. Nigo, it could be said, also falls prey to these criticisms.
But wait. Isn’t this affected haphazardness the perfect metaphor for the Internet age, which boasts torrential excesses of unrelated, disorganized information? Isn’t the lack of a coherent message an ironic reflection on the dissolution of the “authentic individual” in a world of PR smoke and media mirrors?
Nigo, with his ironic take on the consumers he clothes, feeds, and entertains, seems to be leaning in this direction. Clearly, the BAPE brand is part of a new generation of designers and artists that are increasingly comfortable conflating business and art. Like it or not, BAPE is a brand that plays by the rules to perfection, and if an empty signifier, is surely more aware of this than most of its loyal customers.