Toby, a likeably taciturn Londoner, is the translator for our interview with Nigo. He tells me I don’t need to take my shoes off when I enter the fashion impresario’s monolithic Setagaya atelier. Being quite soundly institutionalized into this Japanese habit, it feels quite counter-intuitive to leave them on. It just feels wrong wearing shoes to walk on the tiger rugs which lie sprawling on the floor, mouths frozen open in acrylic-fanged roars. Then again, this is not a normal Japanese home. I’m instantly dwarfed by the towering ten foot high pair of Levi’s crucified against the concrete lobby wall; behind a plate glass wall sits a magnificent Rolls-Royce, silent and golden. Descending the winding steps to the basement, the walls garnished lavishly with Andy Warhol images, I feel like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s “Through The Looking Glass” — it’s curious, and about to get curiouser.
A disarming blend of boy and man, Nigo’s diminutive frame is accentuated by his trademark uniform of oversized baggy t-shirt, jeans and baseball cap. A chunky watch encrusted with a barnacle-like cluster of diamonds is incongruously clamped around his slender wrist. You wouldn’t blame a barman for asking him for I.D., even though it turns out that, at 37-years-old, he’s well into his fourth decade.
Nigo’s metamorphosis, from humble country kid to international sartorial and lifestyle phenomenon is a well-documented one. He’s the wet-behind-the-ears Tokyo club DJ and fashion writer whose whimsical decision to dabble in producing his own T-shirts happened to brilliantly catch the wave of Tokyo’s early 90s fashion zeitgeist. It was to change the face of streetwear and elevate him to the status of living pop culture icon. His A Bathing Ape, or Bape, label is the umbrella brand which spans a cafe, a music label, a joint fashion venture with N.E.R.D. frontman Pharrell Williams, and dozens of apparel boutiques across the globe.
It all began in 1993 in Harajuku when he borrowed 4 million yen from Jonio, his then clubland and fellow fashionista-in-crime, to open his first shop, Nowhere. It generated the kind of priceless ultra-hip buzz which marketing executives would sell their kidneys for, and indelibly branded Bape’s name into sartorial, hip history. He’s been Nigo, (the moniker given to him by the director of Harajuku emporium Astoarobot, who said he looked like a clone of designer and DJ Hiroshi Fujiwara) for two years longer than Tomoaki Nagao, the name on his birth certificate. Why does he think this Japanese word for ‘Number Two’ stuck? “I don’t know. I don’t like my real name,” he says softly, without any negative emotion, adding poignantly, “but I didn’t get to choose either of them.”
Speaking of the past with an almost insouciant calm, “I had no idea it was going to become so huge… it just kind of happened.” The main factor that helped Bape succeed where countless other street brands have sunk ignominiously into oblivion, was luck and timing, he says, “There was a boom… then I could make anything and it would sell.”
He played it to perfection, employing the age old marketing tool of exclusivity. He kept his fans hungry and the buzz for his designs high by not only releasing his designs in limited numbers, but by giving away half of every batch he made to the most influential faces on the club and fashion scenes. It would have been all too easy for the younger Nigo to get caught up in that moment’s overwhelming adoration, but displaying his nascent fashion empire mogul credentials, he kept his presence of mind. “I felt I was more serious than that,” he reflects, “I was always looking to the future.”
The name ‘Bape,’ is the widely known shorthand for the company’s long form name ‘A Bathing Ape.’ The term ‘bathing ape,’ is derived from a Japanese expression that uses the metaphor of a monkey soaking in bathwater gone lukewarm to describe a feckless and indolent character. Nigo chose this name for his label to describe the over-pampered and over-indulged generation for whom his clothes ironically were such coveted must-haves. It was a logical step to then create a logo inspired from one of his favorite movies, “Planet of the Apes,” giving rise to the brand’s distinctive heavy-browed simian emblem.
It was, however, a collaboration with Pepsi eight years ago which proved to be a breakthrough moment in Bape’s stellar trajectory. To align his label, then still seen as an underground counter-culture brand, with such a major corporation, took a lot of soul-searching. “I wanted to be a major player, while remaining as independent as possible,” he explains. His desire to not remain on the periphery of the big time proved to be a double-edged sword: while working with the soda behemoth was a massive commercial success, giving Bape the international exposure Nigo craved, he suddenly found himself under fire from detractors who sniped that he had sold-out.
“I just didn’t think about it,” he says simply about his critics, “and I can’t pay any attention to it now.” He seems baffled by the sour grapes and jealousy. “When I go down to Miami and see Puff [Daddy]’s place, I’m like ‘Wow! This is amazing!’ but I don’t feel jealous about it—I’m happy for Puff,” he says earnestly. He finds the Japanese media especially harsh with their criticisms and fickle with their allegiances. “You know, the Japanese are really bad at that. The media here can be so cold, but their attitude changes when they sense the brand is doing well overseas. No one wanted to know when it was just doing well at home.”
While striving for domestic respect at home has clearly been something of a thankless task, Nigo has been careful to protect his heart-on-sleeve sensitivity by surrounding himself with employees who are also his close friends. “He went to primary school with the vice president of his company,” Toby told me before Nigo showed up. “He’s not actually shy, it’s just that it takes time for him to open up to people.” But with the ever-burgeoning nature of Bape’s multiple offshoots, this ethic may have outlived its shelf life. “It’s at its maximum point now,” Nigo laughs wryly. “I think I’ve taken this friends-as-staff thing as far as it can go.” His Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream fashion lines, which he created with N.E.R.D frontman Pharrell, are more branches on the ever-expanding Bape tree. “The genesis of it was out of mutual respect for each other — I’m just more in a supporting role for Pharrell,” he says modestly.
A rich seam of this joy for creation is tapped into when he starts to discuss the idea of having a Bape jet. “I want to make a camouflage Bape jet!” he says, becoming more animated, “you know, like the ‘Pokemon’ ones!” He’s referring to the re-branding of some ANA planes that were emblazoned for a limited time with the custard-colored anime cartoon character. He seems positively tickled by the prospect. “You could buy Bape products in the duty free and the stewardesses would wear Bape uniforms,” he says thinking out loud, visibly enjoying the spontaneous creative process of rolling the concept around in his mind.
Then there’s the idea of a Bape hotel, the next step beyond his diverse fashion concerns and hip Harajuku cafe. “Oh, I haven’t really hought about how I’m going to have the hotel,” he ponders, quite seriously. “Maybe we could put a Bape dental clinic in there too?” He grins, the exposed icy flashes of bling encrusting his teeth going some way to explain his oral care interest. “Nigo hasn’t got very much in the way of actual teeth now,” says Toby. “It’s like a big bridge — he has no real teeth left underneath.” What about other bodily modifications, any tattoos? “I thought about getting the logo, but my parents said I wasn’t allowed,” he says, deadpan. “My character is not to get tired of things. Just because I start a new collection it doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in other ones. I mean, I’m an otaku [Japanese slang used to describe a person with obsessive-hobbyist tendencies]!” he laughs self-effacingly.
The basement in his four-storey atelier, where we are talking, is not his living space — he has a place in Roppongi, and occasionally stays in this building’s private top floor. His other, more private residences, could be where any photos of loved ones are on display, but the images shown here are exclusively of himself, pop icons or famous people. Over a hundred framed copies of his Interview magazine cover (the New York-based magazine started by pop art icon Warhol) form one giant image; elsewhere, Warholian art sits alongside vintage posters of The Sex Pistols and of the 70s softcore French film classic Emmanuelle. “I haven’t seen it,” he says, “I just like the artwork.”
One section of wall is neatly tiled in shiny Polaroids of him and scores of celebrities. There’s Gwen Stefani, looking fierce; Christina Aguilera, pouting; Kanye West, brooding; and a tousled Jade Jagger wearing a Mona Lisa smirk. Could the appeal in having his picture taken with these glitterati be a simple case of one living pop icon seeking out his own kind? “Honestly, I don’t know who they are half the time,” he says. But the truth is, you’d have to have spent the last half a century dazed and confused in a jungle in the Philippines to not know who most of these people are. “Generally though, I like them. I didn’t meet anyone who was nasty or anything,” he says with characteristic affability.
In Japan, there isn’t the Western tendency to deem toy collecting as a solely childhood activity. When I suggest that Nigo’s eclectic wonderland of toy collections (including a wall of gleaming chrome Star Wars light sabers) would be Shangri-La for a child, his expression is one of polite incomprehension. You don’t have to dig too deep to explain this. Nigo doesn’t see his possessions as playthings and finds my association between them and children somewhat odd. And, even if he does hear the ticking of a biological clock, he’s doing a pretty convincing job of remaining unmoved by it.
“Iranai,” he says regarding having kids, the Japanese expression for ‘I don’t want’ coming so fast it beats Toby’s translation out of the starting blocks. Although his response was immediate and short, it wasn’t loaded with anti-paternal emotion. Rather, it was the uninhibited, no skeletons-in-my-closet honesty of someone who not only knows themselves incredibly well, but is comfortable with this knowledge and sees no reason to apologize for what he is.
“I’m going to auction all my stuff off when I’m dead,” he says, adding with a touch of dry humor, “I’m actually thinking of starting the catalog already.” Humor aside, Nigo says he has real-life reasons for not wanting to dilute his focus with becoming a dad. “I’ve seen friends of mine have kids, and of course their instinct wants to protect their new family. They lose sight of their business — that priority goes.” Put simply, fatherhood is not compatible with his life and the things he wants to achieve. And, as if to dispel any further doubt that he’s shunning fatherhood for reasons other than the notion that it will interfere with Bape, he finds it necessary to reiterate succinctly, “ No, it’s not because I’m busy.”
Bape’s success isn’t exclusively a result of Nigo’s visionary prescience. Like most successful entrepreneurs, it’s his unflinching single-mindedness that has gone a long way towards getting him this far. Both of his parents worked when he was growing up in Gunma prefecture, their long hours leading him to spend a lot of time on his own.Does he feel that that being left to his own devices at such a young age, with just himself and his toys for company, inculcated his sense of self-sufficiency?
“Yep, I think so,” he replies. “That had a big influence on me. The solitude made me more independent. In fact, I’m still really influenced by that time.” He gestures around his cavernous ground floor, his hands gesturing cursorily at the meticulously ordered space, uncluttered with plants, or anything else organic. “That’s why I’m so neat and tidy now,” he chuckles.
And what do his parents think of what their son has achieved from scratch? At this, he cocks his head to one side and sucks in a breath of air through his teeth, the gesture which is the visual Japanese shorthand for ‘Hmm, I’m not sure…’ “Honestly, I’ve got no idea what they think,” he responds, true to form. “In Japan, that’s just not the kind of thing that children talk to their parents about.”
After our meeting, it’s time to go. He’s due to fly out to California the following week for a party to inaugurate the opening of a new Bape boutique in West Hollywood. It never seems to stop for him, this being Nigo adventure. I wonder, does he like going to all these parties? He pauses… “They make me tired,” he replies. Nevertheless, Nigo pushes forward.
The designer turned multi-faceted entrepreneur has long vociferously rejected the idea of being a trendsetter, dismissing trends as mere chimeras fabricated by a copy-hungry fashion and lifestyle media. But I wonder why it is he rejects this idea of being a trendsetter so strongly, when it’s clear that is exactly what he is—even inadvertently. “I have no intention of being one, but it happens, “ he says. “I’m really just still interested in clothes.” It could seem disingenuous, the creator of a worldwide fashion and lifestyle empire worth 8 billion yen a year, protesting that he doesn’t really want to be perceived as a style guru. You do, however, get the sense that this acutely private person really means it. He’s something of a romantic anachronism: in this game not for the fawning adulation, and not for the money, but for the love.
Story by jo Bainbridge
From J SELECT Magazine, August 2008