Who owns Bape? The fashion brand’s Asian origin and ownership

Bape store

Nike has filed a lawsuit against Bape for copyright infringement. The civil action seems long overdue, considering the similarities between some of Bape’s shoes and Nike’s iconic offerings, including the Airforce, Dunk, and Air Jordan. Nike’s suit illustrates the undeniable similarities between Bape’s STA shoe brands. 

The only apparent difference between the shoes is the logo: Bape’s STA offerings feature a lightning bolt emanating from a star; Nike brands have the brand’s iconic Swoosh logo. Bape has the resources to fight the suit, but Nike has a solid case. 

In light of the legal troubles faced by Bape, let’s look at the brand’s origin and ownership. 

Key Takeaways

  • Bape’s founder, Tomoaki Nagao aka Nigo, borrowed 4 million Yen from a friend to launch the company.
  • Nigo sold Bape to Hong Kong company I.T. Group after the company failed to hit in the U.S. and accrued a massive debt.
  • Investment Advisory Firm CVC and Brooklyn Investment Limited own Bape after it spun off from I.T. Group.

Bape’s founder Nigo said he had no interest in creating an international brand

The Founder Of Bape, Nigo | nigo/Instagram

Bape originated from the trendy Harajuku scene of the 1990s. Tomoaki Nagao, famously known as Nigo, launched the brand after years of working as an editor and a stylist for Popeye magazine. The Bunka Fashion college alum borrowed 4 million Yen from a friend to start the business. 

Nigo collaborated with Sk8thing to create BAPE or A Bathing Ape. The inspiration for the name and the logo came from Nigo’s love of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. He also drew from the Japanese phrase ‘a bathing ape in lukewarm water’. 

The Japanese phrase criticizes overindulgence: they typically bathe in hot water; if you stay in the bath long enough for the water to get lukewarm, you are being overindulgent. “It wasn’t really meant as a social message,” Nigo told CNN. “It was just something that I felt was right at the time.”

Exclusivity, which Nigo said he achieved by accident, helped establish Bape as a unique brand. Due to financial constraints, Nigo could only produce about 50 T-shirts a week: he sold half and gave the rest to friends. Nigo explained:

“The exclusivity part…that was unintentional too. I didn’t intend to create demand by limiting supply. I just didn’t like the idea of a lot of people wearing the same clothes. So since these were my designs, I decided to only make a few. It really wasn’t a conscious decision to cause a demand for the clothes this way, it just happened!”

By 1988, Bape sold in around 40 locations across Japan, but sales were low. Nigo pulled the brand’s offerings from the 40 locations, opening one flagship location in Tokyo. The move worked: sales rapidly exceeded previous levels. 

Bape’s success spilled overseas to Europe and the United States. Nigo said his goal wasn’t to make Bape an international brand, but he couldn’t turn down a collaboration opportunity with Pepsi. He explained:

“I was very nervous and scared about going mainstream. To be honest I would have preferred staying underground and cool, rather than appealing to the masses. But when I got Pepsi’s invitation, I thought about it and realized that it’d be a good challenge to be a major player. So with that in mind, I did the collaboration with Pepsi..”

Chinese fashion conglomerate I.T. Group acquired Bape following rumored financial struggles

In the 90s and early 2000s, Bape profited from its association with hip-hop culture. The Notorious B.I.G, Soulja Boy, and Pharell Williams helped popularize the unique and colorful Bape aesthetic. In 2005 and 2006, Bape opened flagship stores in Los Angeles and New York. 

However, Bape failed to capitalize on free endorsements by hip-hop’s biggest stars: in the U.S., Bape products were too scarce and expensive. Consequently, cheap, counterfeit Bape products flooded the market, depleting Bape’s sales. 

By 2010, Bape’s hype in the United States had shrunk. Bape reportedly owed 2.5 billion Yen in debt. Nigo stepped down as CEO before selling Bape to fashion conglomerate I.T. Group for a measly $2.8 million in 2011. The founder helped with the transition by serving as the Creative Director for the next two years. 

In an interview with WWD, Nigo denied that Bape was struggling financially. Nigo insisted that he sold Bape because it had become too vast for him to manage: “Basically, I can’t do business. I’m not suited for it. I wish I had had a partner on the business side from the beginning.”

Sham Kar Wai, I.T. CEO and Chairman, said: “We are delighted about this acquisition of Nowhere [Bape’s parent company], which owns some of the most sought-after brands in street wear fashion. We believe that this acquisition will broaden the brand portfolio of our Group and increase our market share in street wear fashion in Greater China.”

Bape is owned by Brooklyn Investment Limited and CVC

In April 2021, I.T. Group’s shareholders voted to privatize the company, delisting it from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Brooklyn Investment Limited paid the shareholders $168 million to take over the company. Chairman Sham Kar Wai said:

“”The support that the privatization received from our shareholders has been very encouraging. We thank our shareholders for their support over the past sixteen years, which has helped the company expand across new markets and brands.”

Bape spun off from the I.T. Group as part of a restructuring of the company. In June 2021, CVC, a private equity and investment advisory firm, invested in Bape, acquiring co-control of the brand. 

CVC said it would support the expansion of Bape’s online and geographical business. Yann Jiang, a CVC Director, said:

“BAPE is an iconic brand with a loyal fan base that has defined the fashion industry with its premium streetwear designs. We are looking forward to bringing this exciting brand to more markets and new customers around the world.”

“I take great pride in the success of the brand to date, which has been thanks to the commitment of our leadership and staff. CVC is the right partner to support the transformation of BAPE as we focus on our long-term growth.”