Tomoaki Nagao aka Nigo is a modern day legend in certain sects of streetwear. In these sects of fashion he’s seen as a visionary and his work in pioneering south east Asia’s streetwear movement has been instrumental. In Tokyo’s reputed Bunka Fashion college he met his second In command Jun Takahashi and also his mentor and the Godfather of Harajuku(Tokyo’s Fashion district), Hiroshi Fujiwara.
In fact, Nigo literally translates to “Number Two” in Japanese due to Nagao being both Fujiwara’s apprentice and bearing a striking resemblance to him.
The Tokyo-based label “A Bathing Ape” began in 1993, and was soon thereafter shortened to "Bape". Originally named "A Bathing Ape in Lukewarm Water", after a Japanese phrase, which describes the complacency and sheltered lives of Japan’s consumption obsessed youth. The name is also a subtle nod to Nigo’s love of science fiction, and a reference to pop culture's blockbuster "Planet of The Apes" Franchise.
But the brand became popular in its obscurity. When Nigo started the brand he was printing about 50-60 T-shirts a week, selling one half and giving away the other to friends. This minute amount of stock meant the brand was on everyone’s radar but copping it was no easy task. Eventually the stock only matched about 10% of expected demand making resale prices skyrocket and also generating a market in the west amongst collectors and hip-hop figures who dabbled in streetwear.
Bape's iconic silhouette, The Bapesta is an exemplar for collectable footwear. The sneaker infamously duplicates the Nike Air Force 1 in almost every aspect, but instead of the swoosh on the side, it has Nigo's Bapesta logo, a star with a lightning zap extending out of it. The sneaker had a surge in popularity across South East Asia in the late 2000s as it mimicked the Air Force 1, perhaps one of the most important sneakers for the region. Contrary to the Air Force 1 which was a readily available sneaker with unlimited stocks, the Bapesta came in limited batches of different colorways making each shoe exclusive and noteworthy to a collector.
The Kanye West x Bape "Dropout Bear" Bapesta Sneakers (2007) remains till today a sneaker grail and the foremost iteration of the Bapesta silhouette. The shoe featured a "Dropout Bear" mascot on the heel, and the brown, orange, and tan color scheme inspired by the cover of Kanye's rap debut album ''The College Dropout'.
With long-time supporter Pharrell, Nigo launched two highly successful brands in 2005 -- Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream along with long time collaborator Sk8thing.
Fujiwara’s column “Last Orgy” in the popular subculture magazine, Takarajima, was all about the best new stuff from streetwear, skateboarding and DJ equipment, which eventually took the form of a video series for late night Japanese TV.
Tomoaki Nagao, being the biggest fan, was videotaping each episode. Nagao, aspiring to be like Fujiwara, was given the nickname “Nigo” which translates as “Number Two” by a local store clerk for his friendship and resemblance to Fujiwara.
Carrying the torch for curating, plugged into Fujiwara’s network, Nigo started his own column, "Last Orgy 2" for Popeye magazine. Between the column and DJing weekly parties, Nigo had made a name for himself and moved out of his mentor's shadow.
Takahashi and Nigo spent most of their time at the Bunka College hopping back and forth from parties to concerts. But as they forged their friendship they also worked on their first joint venture and on April 1st 1993 they launched NOWHERE in Tokyo.
The concept of the NOWHERE store was a rather alien one to the Asian market. The store had streetwear brands, vintage clothing items and basketball and skating sneakers all the way from the United States. The name was inspired by the Beatles hit, “Nowhere Man” and also as a recurring theme in the work of the rock band Sex Pistols.
Later that year A Bathing Ape was founded by Nigo and SK8THING and released at NOWHERE.
Today Urahara aka the “Hidden Harajuku” is known to be a hub for a number of high fashion retailers. But back in the 90s, when NOWHERE was conceived, the area was a more unconventional spot with small boutiques which specialised in collectable clothing items and vintages. This made NOWHERE’s unique brand ethos a huge hit with the local audience who were already akin to hip-hop, sneakers and other western niches.
In 2006, Lil Wayne riding the success of multiple solo and collaborative albums was featured on the cover of Vibe magazine. The photograph featured Weezy in a pink Bape camo jacket, with Bape boxers and a Bape belt.
Pusha T at the time rapped in the rap duo, Clipse with his brother No Malice and the Bape camo happened to be the duo’s signature style for most outfits. As a callout to the magazine cover, Clipse dropped a song “Mr. Me Too” featuring Pharrell and implying that Wayne copied their look “from the shoes to the watch.”
In an interview with Complex following the song’s drop, Wayne claimed that when Clipse wore Bape everyone thought Bape was weird, now he wears Bape and suddenly it’s a hip-hop phenomena. “I don’t see no f***** Clipse. Come on man. Weezy, man. They had to do a song with us to get hot, B. “What Happened To That Boy?” C’mon B. Don’t do that, dog. This is a f****** legend you’re talking to right here. 14 years, B. How many years them n****s been around? Who the f*** is Pharrell?”
From here the feud soon embroiled Wayne’s protege, Drake who had just signed to Young Money Entertainment (Wayne’s music Label). Pusha signed to Kanye’s label G.O.O.D. Music and dropped “Don’t F**k with me” and “Exodus 23:1”. This prompted Wayne’s diss track “Ghoulish” and Drake’s reply “Tuscan Leather”.
From 2006’s Bape jacket incident the beef traverses more than a decade till Pusha’s last blow to Drake “The Story of Adidon”, a song where Pusha exposes to the world that Drake in fact has an anonymous child with a woman he never married or even publicly dated.
Nigo continues to work on his label Human Made and is now generating waves in the music scene of South East Asia – as DJ of Teriyaki Boyz group and running the BAPE sounds record label.
He is also the creative director of Uniqlo’s UT division.
In 2020, Virgil Abloh joined forces with Nigo to drop a critically acclaimed Louis Vuitton capsule collection called the "The LV² collection".
Directions by Harkrishan Alag
Written by Aditya Chopra