PARIS — When the Hong Kong retailer I.T Ltd. bought the Japanese label A Bathing Ape six years ago, the move symbolized the growing weight of Asia for fashion-related M&A activity.
Now, the upscale streetwear brand — known for its cult-like following — is setting up its first store in France. The new Bape store is both a response to demand from French consumers and an effort to fortify local legitimacy for the label in France, explained Billy Choi, chief executive of the brand’s parent company Nowhere Co., and Guillaume Pats, a Galeries Lafayette executive charged with directing the brand in France.
Flashing a photo of someone wearing a shark-toothed hoodie in a Paris setting that garnered over 6,000 likes, Pats noted that the label’s French Instagram account had 20,000 subscribers a month after it was created. The figures illustrate the logic behind bringing the label to the country.
“We said ‘hmmm, this is interesting,’ — there’s an underlying trend that is coming from Asia, from Japanese and South Korean trendsetters,” Pats mused in an interview.
Pats had braved early morning rush hour traffic to drive into the city center with a Jaguar outfitted in the label’s signature camouflage motif in hues of the French flag: blue, white and red. He wore a black cardigan with a small brown ape head patch while Choi sported a white-toned sweatshirt in the camouflage pattern — American cotton — with patches of white fluorescence and a matching cap.
The pair initially considered bringing the label to France a year ago, with Pats prodding Choi, who responded positively after noticing an uptick in orders from France over the previous six months.
“It’s a Japanese label but a kind of global brand, street label, ” said Choi.
“There are not too many, just a few labels in the top tier — we’re in the top tier,” he asserted, also citing Supreme and Stussy.
The executive has worked for I.T Ltd. for 14 years; a company that started out as a shop in Hong Kong introducing new brands to locals, moving on to expand into mainland China. It operates stores for a wide range of brands, including high-end European labels as well as its own multi-label branches.
For the past four years, I.T has been managing Galeries Lafayette’s Beijing outpost, a joint venture belonging to the two retailers. This explains how Pats and Choi — who recently attended a Paris Saint Germain soccer match together — knew each other.
Here, in the case of the Bape store, management roles are reversed, with Galeries Lafayette taking ownership of the Bape brand in France.
The pair criss-crossed streets in Paris to view possible store spaces with I.T chief executive officer Sham Kar Wai before settling on the location: Rue de la Verrerie, a street running parallel to the Rue de Rivoli near the capital’s City Hall.
Outfitted in white marble with a sparse backdrop for the colorful caps, T-shirts and sweatshirts, the store also features works by Adam Lister, the artist known for exaggerated pixel renderings of famous paintings.
Another store is scheduled to open on Melrose Avenue in L.A. early next year, according to Choi.
The challenge for high-end street brands such as Bape, is to find the right balance, said Pats.
“The appeal draws from limited distribution. It is important they have a certain scalability in order to exist on the global market, without going too far in order not to lose appeal…it’s quite complicated,” he noted.
Founded by the Tomoaki Nagao, known as Nigo, in 1993, the brand’s notoriety was boosted by a partnership with singer-producer Pharrell Williams.
I.T stepped in to buy the label, which was struggling financially, in 2011. It restructured the business and shifted much of its production from China to Japan, bringing back profitability in six months. When announcing the purchase, Sham said the company wanted to bolster business in China as well as tap into international markets.
In addition to Japan, where it has the right balance in terms of store numbers, Choi noted, the brand has a handful of stores in China and is also sold in Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand. The success of the store in N.Y., which was established 13 years ago, was one of the reasons for seeking to set up in L.A., he added.