Monkey magic: The future of fashion

Why would an Italian luxury brand team up with Japanese 'street' label A Bathing Ape? Because, says Susie Rushton, this mix of the urban and the über-luxe is the future of fashion.
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The Independent Online

For the global launch of what Fendi hopes will be the cult bag of 2007, the company decided to try out a new marketing approach. It chose Tokyo as the location and, instead of simply recreating its European ready-to-wear catwalk show in Japan as a way to create local buzz - as Chanel and Louis Vuitton have done in recent seasons - Fendi threw a hip-hop party. The event, staged in a purpose-built yellow marquee in the middle of the 1964 Olympic Stadium, targeted the hard-to-impress Tokyo fashion insiders. Headlining the night, Kanye West flew in to play a set for the crowd of 700. And who played host at the party? Neither Silvia Venturini Fendi nor Karl Lagerfeld - but Nigo, the 34-year-old entrepreneur behind A Bathing Ape, who has become a close friend of Venturini Fendi and the company CEO Michael Burke.

Nigo started out with a T-shirt store in the Harajuku neighbourhood in 1993. A former drummer, the native Tokyoite studied at the famous Bunka fashion school and worked as a fashion stylist before founding his own label. He has always decreed that customers can't buy in multiples and have to buy their own size: a tactic intended to prevent a black-market trade in his designs, which are manufactured in deliberately limited numbers. This restricted-supply strategy has made Nigo a multimillionaire and, in Japan, a massive star.

In 2004, Nigo - a nickname that translates as "Number Two" - made the cover of Time Asia, where he was dubbed "an internationally famous arbiter of style". Very shy and reluctant to give interviews, Nigo models his personal style on that of the superannuated rap star. He lives in a £15m home in Tokyo with a "Warhol Room" crammed with silk screens, and buys custom-made, diamond-encrusted jewellery from Jacob the Jeweller (although it was a Japanese dentist who fixed the diamonds on to his front teeth). He is also one of the world's biggest collectors of Star Wars memorabilia.

Nigo's fame in the West might be slight in comparison to his popularity at home, but that's set to change, particularly since American music stars began to pick up on his designs. Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z have taken to wearing Nigo's trainers in their videos. An offshoot label, Billionaire Boys Club (with his friend Pharrell Williams), is augmenting his reputation abroad. In addition to a London store, two years ago he opened a New York shop and another will follow in LA this year. The corporates have taken note and in Japan Nigo has completed collaborative projects with Pepsi, Disney, MAC Cosmetics and Reebok (Ice Cream, his line for the latter, is also designed with Williams). In Tokyo, there is now a Bape Café and a hairdressing salon, Bape Cuts. Like Armani and Versace, Nigo also plans to open a hotel. In short, Nigo is succeeding where fashion brands with a more obviously elevated product have failed: by building a profitable global empire without sacrificing credibility.

It's 11am on a bright winter morning at Bapexclusive in Aoyama, a chic shopping district in Tokyo. The two-storey shop, one of three A Bathing Ape outlets in the city, might be unsignposted, but the hooded hipsters that amble through its doors wearing the brand's fruit-cocktail-coloured trainers are something of a giveaway.

This particular grid of manicured shopping streets is also home to several of the hyperbolic flagship stores that French and Italian luxury houses have built in recent years: Prada's multifloor boutique, its exuberant bubblewrap glass façade the work of in-demand architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron; Cartier's sail-shaped glass edifice; and a nine-storey, 3,400sq m Louis Vuitton palace, designed to resemble a stack of the company's steamer trunks.

At Bapexclusive, however, the draw isn't the glorification and purchase of imported status symbols. In the store, camouflage print decorates the ceiling of the ground floor, where a dozen or so hooded sweatshirts with splashy prints hang on rails, alongside boxy leather backpacks and a glass cabinet of pricey, subtly embossed accessories. At first glance the goods for sale - baseball jackets, oversized sweatshirts and caps - are the basics of an urban street style familiar anywhere in the world. But garish, cute cartoon prints (a goofy-looking monkey, or a shooting-star emblem that could be borrowed from a kid's story book) and meticulous construction distinguish these garments from regular sportswear - as does the extremely limited stock the store carries. Prices are also luxe; a baseball cap with diamante logo is ¥13,440, or about £58, rising to around £150 for a bubblegum-pink American-jock-style jacket - and that's from the less expensive diffusion line. Upstairs, Bape Sta trainers - a style reminiscent of Nike Air Force Ones - in lurid patchworks of gold leather and Incredible Hulk-green patent, snake around the room on a sushi-bar-style conveyor belt.

For their vividly coloured hip-hop style, fans of Bape - as A Bathing Ape is nicknamed - are easily identifiable. On this particular morning at the Aoyama store, however, one customer, a glamorous blonde Italian woman who buys a single sweatshirt, stands out from the crowd of eternally teenage male shoppers.

It is Silvia Venturini Fendi, the creative director of menswear and accessories at the fashion brand of the same name. She is the granddaughter of company founders Edoardo and Adele, who set up the Roman handbag and fur workshop in 1925. While Lagerfeld is charged with the design of women's ready-to-wear collections, Venturini Fendi is responsible for what is now the most profitable category for a luxury goods brand: the "it" bag. Her most famous design to date is the Baguette handbag, shaped like a stick of French bread and intended to be carried squashed in the armpit. Launched in 1997, it was eventually rendered in hundreds of styles and kickstarted the millennial fever for must-have handbags. More recently, Fendi has scored hits with her big, squashy Spy bag and B, a ladylike number fastened with outsized buckles. The LVMH-owned Fendi brand also recently won praise for its ready-to-wear collections, and last year it renewed Lagerfeld's contract. It is in confident, expansionist mood.

"For me, Fendi is a huge brand, with a history. It's a luxury brand and my background is street fashion," says Nigo, the morning before the party that he will "produce". Although he has every reason to be arrogant, and dresses accordingly - a Billionaire Boys Club T-shirt, red-and-white Bape Sta trainers and a weighty-looking, diamond-studded Jacob & Co watch - Nigo is modest to an almost maddening degree. In fact, he has designed the venue, chosen the guests and will finish the night as DJ, with his MCs The Teriyaki Boys - four ersatz Beastie Boys dressed in matching primary (omega) coloured Bape gear. "I was going to decline the invitation [to produce the Fendi party], but I came to really like Michael Burke," Nigo says. "This year in Tokyo there have been so many fashion events, and I went to them. But what I felt was that nobody who actually knows Tokyo was involved in organising these parties."

While both Nigo and Fendi hesitate to call the event a "collaboration" - and there's no Takashi-Murakami-for-Louis-Vuitton type commercial product in the offing - both acknowledge it is part of an ongoing personal and professional alliance.

It is a cross-cultural arrangement that indicates a subtle shift in the global marketing of luxury goods. "The luxury goods consumer is changing," says Burke, when I interview him and Venturini Fendi at their hotel in the smart Roppongi Hills district of Tokyo. "The next generation will be different, and certainly communicating with them will be completely different. And it's going to happen in Japan first, before Europe and before America. And what's happening is you have the street and couture mixing."

Burke describes with enthusiasm how in Japan streetwear does not translate as mass-produced sweats but a category that retains a luxury status equal to the fully fledged ready-to-wear French and Italian fashion brands. In America, he says, streetwear is intrinsically a "mass product, whereas here you have people such as Nigo who have a 'street' approach to fashion, and yet he also has the exact same approach that we do to our products: very high-end, exceptional attention to detail, exclusivity". By the same token, he adds, "We wouldn't be able to do an event with Kanye West in New York. Then it would be too hip-hop. Here they turn it into something else: luxury."

For Nigo, meanwhile, the allegiance is another opportunity to convey to the West a new sense of confidence in the Tokyo fashion scene, confidence that had been dented by a weakened yen. "I feel that it's my responsibility," he says. "I'm thinking about the next generation. I don't want Tokyo fashion to go bad. I want the culture to have an established position worldwide." In fact, he says, it was as a kind of advertisement for Japanese street fashion that he decided to open a store in New York at all. "The purpose of opening a shop there wasn't to make money. Since 20 years ago and [the Paris debut of] Comme des Garçons, Tokyo has not been sending out any messages to the world and I feel that Tokyo is very hot now - and important globally."

Certainly local consumers are no longer treated by European luxury brands as an alien market that will only buy narrowly defined goods: special pastel-coloured accessories, for example, or shoes with low heels. "The Fendi sisters [Venturini's mother Anna and her four siblings] were among the first to open shops here," says Venturini Fendi of the generation that saw the biggest expansion of the label. "Designers used to make special things for different markets - for the Japanese and for the US. Today, that's totally finished. We just do one collection and it's for the whole world. There used to be rules about how to appeal to Japanese women. That's so naff."

No more the "other" culture that requires tailor-made goods, Western luxury goods companies have realised that Tokyo is an important testing-ground for new ways to market their products. The Japanese fashion industry has coined a term - "Tokyo-ism" - to express the dynamic by which what is first "hot" in Tokyo, will soon be hot all over the world. Already well-established in Japan (most obviously by Nigo), upscale "urban" clothing that gently sends up 1980s hip-hop style, has now started to filter back to the West; last month the International Herald Tribune identified a "new luxury streetwear" phenomenon picking up momentum in New York.

The business brains at Fendi, then, are forecasting that it is Nigo's mannered interpretation of street culture, and not a more obviously bourgeois source, that will give some indication about the shopping behaviour of the next generation of label-lovers. As such, both parties see the collaboration as open-ended. And, as unlikely as it seems, the bond between Nigo, Venturini Fendi and Burke is also based on friendship - despite the lack of a common language. What began with a formal introduction in early 2005 developed into a personal bond when the three travelled to Naples for a weekend that summer.

On a digital camera, Burke flicks through snapshots of the trip. In one shot, Nigo sits on the stern of a motorboat hired to take them around Capri. Angled into his characteristic hip-hop stance and baseball cap, the self-made millionaire looks incongruous, to say the least. "Then we just walked for hours looking at the architecture," recalls Venturini Fendi. "We didn't talk so much."

Shortly before the group of three travelled to Capri, Nigo had visited the Fendi company HQ in Rome. Venturini Fendi says she noticed his interest in the double-F logo canvas, and that this unspoken enthusiasm contributed to the monogrammed patterns on the new B Mix, a holdall-style bag folded in the corners like a tortellini. "In Rome, I saw him looking at the luggage with the double-F, and that meant a lot to me," says Venturini Fendi of two styles (which date from the 1980s and 1960s) she has revived. "He knows that that there's a lot of history behind it. When I see people who look at our things in such an enthusiastic way, it makes you think differently. Because, you know, it was a long time since we stopped using that logo canvas on our luggage. When I saw him looking so excited, it was a 'click' for me."

And echoing the irony with which Nigo reproduces pop/hip-hop culture logos on his baseball jackets and T-shirts, both Burke and Venturini Fendi acknowledge that the gratuitous use of the double-F logo on the brand's new must-have bag is a deliberate pastiche. "When I look at this bag, I laugh a little bit," says Venturini Fendi. "It's important that a bag has a sense of humour." And for once, it's a joke that travels.

Fendi, 20-22 Sloane Street, London SW3, tel: 020 7838 6280. Bape London, 4 Upper James Street, London W1, tel: 020 7494 4924,