NEW YORK — Nigo feels the vibe.
It doesn’t have the electricity of Tokyo’s teeming streets, but it’ll do.
Holding forth with his entourage at the Mercer Kitchen on Monday, Nigo, the designer of the Japanese brand A Naked Ape, surveyed the SoHo neighborhood where his first American store will open in September.
The 3,100-square-foot BAPE — the nickname for A Bathing Ape — store at 91 Greene Street will carry T-shirts, jeans, watches, handbags, furniture and toys, as well as some new classifications.
Nigo, a 33-year-old music and fashion impresario, who looks and acts like a taciturn teenager, is to Japanese youth what Russell Simmons is to their American counterparts.
The designer’s streetwear with its ape-face logo has become a cultural icon for Nigo’s fans, who helped land him in the number one spot on a list of Tokyo’s richest designers. He has a six-story state-of-the-art house reportedly worth $30 million and a fleet of exotic automobiles.
“Nigo is number one, above Yohji Yamamoto,” said Riko Sakurai, his New York partner, explaining that the list of wealthiest designers was calculated by the amount of income tax designers paid. “Maybe the other designers had better tax attorneys,” she quipped.
In Japan and Hong Kong, many of the stores — Sakurai said there are about 15 — are in out-of-the-way locations with barely visible signs announcing vague nameplates such as Nowhere Inc., the name of A Bathing Ape’s parent company. There are also BAPE, Foot Soldier sneaker stores and Busy Work Shops, which in 2002 opened a unit in London.
Nigo operates his stores like the “Seinfeld” Soup Nazi of fashion.
Customers often wait on long queues to enter stores. Once inside they’re allowed to purchase only one item from a line and the product must be in their size. “He has to have those regulations,” said Sakurai. “In Japan, brokers come in and sell his merchandise to other stores. We are trying to prevent bootleg copying as much as possible.” Nigo’s sneakers can be found on eBay for $300.
A Bathing Ape sells its merchandise to upscale boutiques including Collette in Paris.
For the youth of Japan, the market for A Bathing Ape’s camouflage prints is akin to the popularity of Louis Vuitton’s Takashi Murakami bags several seasons ago. And like the Murakami handbags, Nigo limits production to keep the demand high and the aura of exclusivity alive.
While Nigo said he won’t change his approach in the U.S., the designer’s high-profile location is calculated to expose Americans to A Bathing Ape. “It’s a Japanese product and we would like to approach as many people in the U.S. as possible, not to sell products, but to show them,” he said. “We’ll only sell to people who appreciate our products. This is not a mass market company.”
Christopher Owles, a broker at Sinvin Realty, who represented A Bathing Ape, said, “When SoHo started to get really popular it was a place for the arts, a really vibrant community. It lost some of its appeal when it became more mainstream.” BAPE could help reestablish the neighborhood’s edge, he said.
The company’s fashion consists mainly of T-shirts with the words “A Bathing Ape” and “Ape Shall Never Kill Ape.” The ape-face logo is tucked into the pockets of jeans and hidden in Nigo’s signature camouflage patterns like Hirschfeld’s Ninas.
The clothes aren’t cheap. T-shirts can cost between $60 and $150 and jackets are about $450 to $500. When questioned about the sales volume of his company, Nigo declined to comment. Nor would be venture to estimate first-year sales for the store. Retail experts said based on SoHo market rents, BAPE would have to generate about $3 million.
Nigo is a man of few words. Wearing a black wool cap on an 85-degree day, he spoke in a barely audible Japanese whisper. With a mouth full of gold-capped teeth, he looked like one of the rappers he’s befriended. His T-shirt bore the legend “Billionaire Boys Club” from pal Pharrell Williams’ line. Nigo is helping him with the brand.
Aware of his sway over young people, Coca-Cola asked Nigo to design a camouflage-print Coke can. He created a camouflage-print makeup case for MAC and is working on other MAC items along with a top-secret project with an unnamed U.S. company.
Nigo started his career as a DJ when he was in his late teens, then became a magazine stylist. “A Bathing Ape” refers to the complacency of Japanese youth. The designer, who has one of the largest collections of “Planet of the Apes” memorabilia in the world, said his simian logo was inspired by the film.
Wonderwall designed the stores, BAPE cafes, a BAPE art gallery and BAPE hair salon. Many are large multilevel affairs with minimalist decor, dramatic lighting and innovative merchandising such as conveyor belts for displaying sneakers.
If Nigo has one unfulfilled dream, it’s owning a hotel. “A Bathing Ape is a lifestyle,” he explained.
Asked whether he considers himself an artist, Nigo said, “I don’t call myself that. Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo are masters. A designer is Rei or Yohji. I’m more like a director or producer.”