Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
Just a week after our only A Bathing Ape store announced its impending closure, the news now is that they’re embarking on an expansion drive. But not here
The closure of A Bathing Ape (Bape) at The Mandarin Gallery on 18 June 2021 would not be a sign that the brand is approaching any semblance of doomsday. There is, it seems, a long life ahead for the Ape. According to recent media editorials, private equity firm CVC Capital Partners—“co-investor” in Bape—has “successfully completed an investment” in the streetwear brand. The value of that investment is not announced. Bape’s Japanese company Nowhere Co was acquired by the I.T Group (the company behind the also-now-closed i.t multi-label store) in 2011 for what has been described as a bargain: US$2.8 million, which, according to the The Wall Street Journal, amounted to a 90% stake. Founder Tomoaki Nagao (aka Nigo) stayed on for the following two years to help with the transition. It is not known who ran the design studio thereafter or if a creative director was ever installed.
Last December, it was announced that I.T Group founder and chairman Sham Kar Wai has enlisted CVC to take Bape private. CVC’s fashion portfolio includes Breitling and Spain’s Tandem (manufacturer and retailer of the brand Springfield, once available in Isetan here). At around that time, Yahoo News informed that I.T was “delisted from Hong Kong Stock Exchange for US$168 million as it struggled with getting its online operations up to speed”. Despite its shoppable e-commerce platform, I.T curiously does not deliver outside of Hong Kong and China. According to the South China Morning Post, the retailer “reported a net loss of HK$337 million for the six months ended August 2020, a 373 per cent jump from HK$71.2 million a year ago”. It is not unreasonable to assume that A Bathing Ape was part of those losses.
Although it is widely said that Bape has lost much of its appeal and is no longer as cool as it once was, when it became inspiration behind other streetwear labels such as Pharrell Williams’s Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, both aided by Mr Nagao in their conception, Mr Sham and CVC seem to believe that there is still potential in the 28-year-old A Bathing Ape. In a press statement, Mr Sham said, “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.” Further reports indicated that “CVC will support the expansion of the business, both online and geographically”. Markets cited include China, the United States, and Europe. There is no mention of the continued presence of A Bathing Ape here or or anywhere in Southeast Asia. It is possible that the Ape, in a bath or not, would’nt be returning.
Once a popular streetwear label, The Bathing Ape has lost its simian appeal, and will exit our shores on 18 June
Gone will be the good ape. The well-loved, urban primate that bathes will vacate its flagship premises at the Mandarin Gallery after 12 years. The impending closure of A Bathing Ape (also known as Bape) was announced on Vesak Day via the label’s Facebook page. “We hope to see you all one last time before we say a final goodbye,” went the message. Although another fashion brand to exit Singapore is hardly surprising these days, some observers thought Bape, one of the better-known and established Japanese streetwear names, would survive the retail havoc caused by COVID-19 since it had past the one-decade mark. When a member of the staff was asked yesterday why the store would be closing for good, he shrugged his shoulders and then added, “don’t know”. But it requires no effort to guess that even the great ape is unable to survive the pandemic jungle. Next month, the bath water will be thrown out of our island, and sadly, together with the ape.
The Bathing Ape opened its first Southeast Asian store here at the Mandarin Gallery in December 2009 (then, the seventh outside Japan. Three years earlier, Hong Kong saw Asia’s first). Distributed by the thirty-year-old fashion retailer Kwang Sia Fashion, a Singaporean company that brought to our shore brands such as Max Mara and Y3, and lost those, such as Hugo Boss, Dsquared2, and Replay Jeans, Bape was very much welcomed at its 186-square-metre debut. Prior to its opening here, most fans would cop their must-haves (mostly T-shirts) in Japan, or nearer, in Hong Kong. The opening of Bape also attested to the growing popularity and importance of streetwear here. And that there was a sizeable market for those willing to pay for what has been touted as a premium brand (no S$29.90 T-shirts!). Bape’s logo—a recognisable silhouette of a species-indeterminate ape—was the Supreme box logo of its day. It would not require extraordinary insight to know where our own The Slurping Ape (conceived in 2001, eight years before Bape’s splashy Orchard Road appearance) took inspiration from.
A Bathing Ape is the brainchild of Japanese street-fashion impresario Nigo—on his passport, it would have read Tomoaki Nagao. Mr Nagao is no longer directly associated with the line he created, but Bape and its sibling brands that emerged later are still linked to their creator/founder. Nigo’s A Bathing Ape emerged in the early ’90s alongside schoolmate Jun Takahashi’s Undercover. These were the fledgling years of street fashion in Japan. In the late ’80s, Mr Nagao, then a high-school student, met his idol-turn-mentor Hiroshi Fujiwara, the godfather of Japanese hip-hop, as well as its “living legend”, as Western followers of Japanese street style like to call him. As luck and the intervening hand of fate would have it, Mr Nagao ended up working for Mr Fujiwara, whose first clothing brand Goodenough (considered Japan’s “first streetwear brand”) was a rapid success after its launch in 1990. Soon, he decided to open his own retail store. It was situated in the then not-quite-frequented ura-Harajuku, and appropriately named Nowhere. Two of Mr Fujiwara’s friends were asked to operate the business: Mr Takahashi, who took one half of the space to stock his Undercover line, and Mr Nagao, who took the other half, sold imported labels, such as Stussy. But, Mr Nagao’s share of the store reportedly did not fare well. He realised that, just as with his mentor and friend, he needed to have his own brand.
A Bathing Ape was born in 1993, before, as we remind ourselves, the Internet, before Instagram. As many know by now, the name was derived from the old Planet of the Apes films that found a fervent fan in Nigo, who had (what we call today) binge-watched on them on television. The simian logo requires no explanation. The name, however, came not from any scene of the films in which a primate was bathing. Rather, as author Marx W. David wrote in the seminal book Ametora, Nigo “slapped on an English slogan—A Bathing Ape in Lukewater (sic)—borrowed from a line in an underground Takashi Nemoto comic that described an old man “like an ape in a bath of lukewarm water”. The initial run was T-shirts (just 50, reportedly) and jackets in the vein of American vintage wear that was popular at the time. From the start, A Bathing Ape (shortened to Bape in the late ’90s) was aligned with local hip-hop stars. And then there was the meeting with British electronic musician James Lavelle, also founder of the indie record label Mo’Wax and a member of the band UNKLE. Mr Lavelle wore a lot of Bape. He would also soon introduce Nigo to grafitti artist Futura (formerly Futura 2000, who, two seasons ago, collaborated with Comme des Garçons). In 1997, Nigo—even not a musician—surreptitiously debuted the album (B)Ape Sounds under Mo’Wax. The blink-heavy cover was, unsurprisingly, designed by Futura.
These deep connections with the music world, especially hip hop, led to long-lasting affiliations with those of similar taste, who eagerly endorsed Bape, such as Pharrell Williams, the Notorious B.I.G., and Lil Wayne. In no time, others came to sing Bape’s praises, including Kanye West and Virgil Abloh, with the rapper Souja Boy even going on about eagerly acquiring some Bapes in the 2007 Crank Dat. In return for the enthusiastic response he received in the West, Nigo (and his friends) would help launch Mr Williams’s now-waning labels, Billionaire Boys Club (BBC) and Ice Cream. The Japanese graphic designer Sk8thing (aka Shinichiro Nakamura) from the days of Goodenough, and a faithful Bape collaborator, would also create BBC’s astronaut logo and the brand’s well-loved repeated patterns. A Bathing Ape, now an international brand, sold in some of the buzziest streetwear stores in the world, and worn by performers from both sides of the Atlantic, gained even more traction in Japan, where it was sold in the Nigo-conceived Busy Work Shops. The success in America meant that they could open flashy Bape flagships, such as that in Aoyama in 2005 and in Shibuya in 2007, both designed by the bigwig Masamichi Katayama from the esteemed firm Wonderwall.
Market watchers believe Bape enjoyed a peak in popularity between 2000 and 2010. At its height, there was even a Bape café and a Bape TV station. But after 2010, adoration for the brand started to wane. There were always complaints of scarcity, a deliberate merchandising model to project the forced exclusivity that would come to define Supreme, but it became detrimental to Bape’s ability to win continued customer support. Quantity unfortunately remained below market demand. ‘Limited editions’ soon limited the brand’s appeal. Bape’s standing among Japanese consumers can perhaps be best summed up by what has been clearly observable. Vintage pieces are mostly found in the grungy neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa, for example, rather than those in the secondhand shops of swanky Ginza or Shinjuku, where Bape’s fellow brand in Nowhere in the ’90s, Undercover, could often be found. When one visited the Shibuya store (now closed), just next to the old Parco, one would often see mostly mainland Chinese tourists wanting merchandise that would allow them to boast about their visit to a Tokyo Bape store. Its arrival here in 2009, although rabidly received, was really at the tail-end of its popularity. Singaporean consumers, as it’s still often said, tend to be late adopters.
In 2011, the fashion world was brought to torso-straightening attention when it was announced that A Bathing Ape was acquired by the Hong Kong fashion conglomerate, the I.T Group. A year prior to that event, news had emerged that the Japanese brand had accrued a whopping ¥2.5 billion (approximately S$30 million) in debt. The sale to the Hong Kong owners was made for a surprisingly paltry ¥230 million (approximately S$2.7 million). Tomoaki Nagao stayed on as creative consultant for the next two years to “help with the transition”, as widely reported. Last December, another surprising announcement was made: founder and chairman of I.T Group Sham Kar Wai and co-investor of A Bathing Ape CVC Capital Partners had decided to keep the brand as separate company, independent of I.T Group. A year before the high-profile sale of the brand he created, Mr Nagao launched Human Made. It has, as we understand, yet to become as huge as Bape. In 2014, Uniqlo appointed Mr Nagao as creative director (namely for their UT line). A year later, he opened the rather out-of-place Store by Nigo in Harujuku’s Laforet. As expected, Human Made took the spotlight. Nigo, without his beloved Bape, is still a fashion force that brands turned to. Ten years after Bape’s staggering debt was announced, Louis Vuitton revealed a collaboration with Nigo—without doubt facilitated by pal Virgil Abloh.
At the time of its rage, many young fans found Bape expensive, even when purchased in Japan. Sure, if you look at just the T-shirts, they were cheaper than Supreme, but dearer than Stussy. Aware of the less-appealing pricing of Bape, the I.T group created Aape, which was available here in their short-lived multi-label store i.t at Orchard Gateway. But A Bathing Ape’s visual appeal slowly lost to the likes of the BFF of Kaws. Although the brand tried to counter the simian logo’s seriousness with other more affable-looking characters such as Felix the Cat and the other feline, Hello Kitty (with the cuter Baby Milo), Bape did not quite regain its footing at the apex of global streetwear, not even with best-sellers, such as the Nike Air Force 1 look-alike Bapesta (Kanye West even has his own made) or the no-longer-rare, quickly-jelak shark-head hoodie. Bape, like all primates, has aged.
A day after the closing down was announced, shoppers formed, outside the Mandarin Gallery store, a line that stretched past Michael Kors in the corner of the building. The waiting time in the scorching sun was, according to the Bape-clad crowd controller, “an hour and a half”. As with many brands suffering the same fate, A Bathing Ape is appealing when it is going out of business (50% off storewide, except T-shirts, which are marked down by 40%). A twentysomething guy in a tee with the name Alexander Wang repeated six times down his chest was deciding whether to join the queue. “Actually,” he told us, “I don’t wear Bape anymore. The last time I bought something in the store was when I was in secondary school.” He looked up, as if someone was beckoning. We looked too. On the façade of the store on level two, the familiar head of the twenty-eight-year-old primate was looking at all of us below. A speech bubble, larger than his face, sat alongside, with the text, “Go! Ape”. In all likelihood, that exhortation will be permanently gone.
I’d be the first to admit; I can’t stand mice. Although I am a dog lover, give me a cat any time. That the world’s most famous animated character should be a mouse truly escapes me. And, have you heard it speak? I’d rather be locked up in a room with a yellow canary. And you can throw in the granny!
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know which rodent I’m referring to, or which bird. It now gladdens me to no end that, of the many animal logos fronting fashion brands and in the face of computer-generated cartoon characters such as those of the Minions gang or the irascible Frozen sisters, a black-and-white, hand-drawn cat from the silent-film era is picked to make a comeback. “Felix the Cat, the wonderful, wonderful cat…” Yes, I’m singing!
And what’s fascinating is that Felix the Cat is paired with Baby Milo, the monkey of indeterminate parentage at Japanese street wear label, A Bathing Ape. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you why a simian that bathes deserves a clothing line. Apparently, this one does. Like many Japanese brands, the chosen moniker is misleading since its chief primate, as far as I know, has never been depicted taking a wash. Founded in 1993, A Bathing Ape offers a logo that shows the hirsute countenance of a hominine beast that could have been Caesar of The Planet of the Apes.
In fact, the brand’s creator Nigo—a T-shirt-obsessed Beng of a character in a sea of serious Japanese fashion intellectual types (with the name Tomoaki Nagao on his IC)—has professed to a near-obsessive love for the original 1968 film adaptation of French author Pierre Boulle’s book La Planète des Singes, as well as the sequels between 1970 to 1973. While some of us may have loved the films enough to collect toys from the early days (such as those by Mego Corporation), Nigo built a clothing empire. Success meant he could indulge. In 2003, with the completion of his multi-million house, Nigo was able to display what was then considered to be the world’s largest collection of Planet of the Apes toys.
So it is not surprising that there is a Milo, who is the baby Caesar in the Apes films. It is not likely that A Bathing Ape’s Milo is inspired by the Milo of Croton, the 6th century BC wrestler, known to be the associate of the philosopher Pythagoras (yes, of Pythagorean Theorem fame), but I speculate. Baby Milo is cute, by responses to most first-time encounters with it. Its cuteness bears little semblance to the central figure in A Bathing Ape’s communication, which mainly refers to the brand by the portmanteau: the cleverer and cuter—though not sexually suggestive—Bape.
Baby Milo, by the way, isn’t such a baby anymore. This year it turns 17, and, oddly, it is still a quiet ape with none of the teenage angst typical of those in its age group. If a comparison is required, the Powerpuff Girls are 21: marriageable! I think Baby Milo has no hang ups with regards to his years of existence, preferring its cohorts to be older. He has partnered Spongebob (31), Mario (of Super Mario fame, 31 or older), and the rather mature, equally silent Hello Kitty (42)!
Felix the Cat is, of course, much older. If his prototype, the scrawnier Master Tom, conceived in 1919 for the silent short Feline Follies, is taken into consideration, Felix is a near-centenarian at 97! Although his last appearance in film, to my knowledge, was a cameo on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, there isn’t a discernible decline in the cat’s popularity, especially in the land of the kawaii. Felix himself, in fact, went to Japan in the 1920s, in the film Japanicky. In the land of geishas, he taught the Japanese how to sit on chairs—creating them from the number 4 and the capital H—much to the chagrin of a local priest!
His typical juvenile, even culturally insensitive, antics aside, Felix has endeared himself to Japanese city life to the point that even when his cartoon shows are no longer seen on local television and few of today’s Japanese children know who he truly is, his cheerful face still lives on, to my amusement, in the wrapping of the 56-year-old Felix Gum, a-JPY10 dagashi (literally, cheap sweets) that’s found in convenient stores.
The re-emergence of Felix the Cat alongside Baby Milo may revive the interest in a feline that has largely been overtaken by cooler and more “pop” characters. While I think many may consider it jejune to be so in love with a cartoon, message-free figures on a T-shirt beat rude wording that antagonises onlookers into confrontation in MRT trains. I am all for renewing the popularity of Felix the Cat, including his yellow bag of tricks (which I think bears an uncanny resemblance to LV’s Monogram canvas!).
There is, however, such a state as too much of a good thing and an eventual slide. By 2010, Nigo’s star label, once the untouchable biggie in Tokyo’s Harajuku, specifically ura-Harajuku (ura = “back”), where the brand quietly emerged, started closing shops in Japan, as well as in Los Angeles, where the flagship was once frequented by hip-hop stars. The in-the-know, cool kids on both lands had moved on to other trendy luxury urban brands such as HBA. In 2011, it was announced that Hong Kong’s I.T. Group acquired 90 percent of Nowhere, the parent company of A Bathing Ape. By then, Nigo was close to declaring bankruptcy.
Still considered an influential Japanese street-wear original, Nigo was soon hired as creative director under Uniqlo’s UT line. It is arguable if Nigo has really brought UT to another level other than involve his friend Pharrell Williams in a one-off project. Is there still a craze for street-wear in the style that Nigo once imagined it?
As much as Felix the Cat and Baby Milo together are a cute pairing, their appearance is but one in a long line of Baby Milo/A Bathing Ape partnerships with other brands that are fronted by adorable mascots. Increasingly, the collaborations, too, are looking predictable. Perhaps, the Ape needs a bath after all. Nothing like a good soak to wash away the stale to start afresh.
The Bathing Ape X Felix the Cat cotton T-shirts, SGD169, and other articles of clothing are available at A Bathing Ape, Mandarin Gallery. Product photos: A Bathing Ape