Nike Suing Bape Is 20 Years In The Making
Why hasn’t Nike sued Bape? The question lingered for years, popping up in discussions about intellectual property ownership in footwear and as a defense employed by designers who earned lawsuits from Nike for copying its most recognizable silhouettes.
A Bathing Ape—Bape for short—was founded in Japan in 1993 and emerged in the US 10 years later. Its hoodies and sneakers, impossibly colorful pieces that announced a new era in streetwear at the turn of the millennium, became status symbols in hip-hop.
Bape’s biggest shoe, the Bape Sta, was popular in part for its garish looks—the most desirable pairs wore uppers of shiny patent leather in shades like candy pink or tropical yellow—but also for its shape, which conspicuously riffed on the Nike Air Force 1. The Bape shoe is a copy of the Nike model, one that rips the Swoosh off the side and replaces it with a cartoony shooting star.
How did Bape get away with it? Years ago, posters on sneaker forums wondered if Bape had quietly struck a deal with Nike.
Bape founder Tomoaki Nagao, better known as Nigo, told Complex in 2008 that he was impervious to the online chatter about him taking so liberally from Nike. Ironically, he was engaged in his own battles against lookalikes.
“I never read blogs,” Nigo said. “So, I don’t even hear the criticism about us doing Nike take-offs. I’d like to say that other brands doing Bape knockoffs shows that the brand is recognized and desired. But in reality, it’s really annoying to have to deal with it.”
Bape’s most famous sneakers waned in popularity at the end of the 2000s; their shape shifted to look less like the Air Force 1 in 2010s; and then, in the 2020s, they seemed set for a resurgence. Through the decades, Bape ducked litigation from Nike, even as the sneaker company became more aggressive about pursuing knockoff designers.
Bape’s good luck expired this week. On Wednesday, Nike filed a lawsuit against the streetwear brand in New York district court accusing Bape of trademark infringement and false designation of origin. “Bape’s current footwear business revolves around copying Nike’s iconic designs,” the lawsuit reads. Nike’s complaint highlights the abundant similarities between Bape designs like the Bape Sta, the Sk8 Sta, and the Court Sta and their corresponding Nike inspirations—the Air Force 1, Dunk Low, and the Jordan 1, respectively.
Bape did not respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit explains Nike’s long delay in pursuing legal action by saying that before 2021, the amount of sneakers Bape sold in the US was insignificant. Nike’s lawyers say that starting in 2021, Bape scaled up its footwear business and began to sell even more “copies of iconic Nike designs.” This escalation, Nike says, forced the lawsuit.
Nike lawyers say that Bape’s sneakers have created confusion in the marketplace and that consumers could falsely associate its products with Nikes. In a warning letter to Bape in August 2022, Nike claimed that a recent collaboration between Bape and Marvel was likely to create an “erroneous association” between Bape’s shoes, Disney, Marvel, and Nike.
But those who sold Bape Stas during the shoe’s cultural zenith in the 2000s didn’t encounter regular misconceptions about the footwear’s origin. Bape’s SoHo store in New York City, which opened in December 2004, was a destination—you strategized, saved money, and planned for how long you might have to wait in line. If you were paying hundreds of dollars for a pair of the Bape Stas sitting on the mirrored conveyor belt inside, it meant you’d researched the shoes beforehand.
A stray tourist or ignorant parent might have confused the shoes for Nikes, store associates say, but the core audience knew what they were getting.
“The Bape Stas had a certain sauce you couldn’t get from a Nike sneaker—the drip you can’t replicate” says Frendy Lemorin, who worked the sneaker section at Bape in SoHo starting in 2006. “Obviously the sneakers were heavily inspired by the Oregon label, but Bape Stas had a soul of its own.”
Pharrell, who’s collaborated with Nigo over the years, was a fixture at the Bape store in New York. Kid Cudi worked there before his music career took off. (Soulja Boy got him some Bathing Apes, but neither his sneakers nor his connection to the brand were official.)
“It was a fucking madhouse in there,” says Lemorin. “I’m telling you, the store was like a club that had a celebrity appearance in there every single day.”
He remembers that the store was selling anywhere from 80 to 100 pairs of sneakers a week in that era. Nigo later said that from 2006 to 2007, the annual sales for Bape’s parent company reached $63 million.
Bape’s business in the US was by this point renewed—the brand now has stores in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. An investor announced plans in 2021 to accelerate Bape’s global growth, including in the US.
For Nike, Bape’s sneakers finally became significant enough to warrant a full-on lawsuit—the Bape Sta looked suspiciously like the Air Force 1 again, Bape was selling a bigger range of Nike-looking shoes than ever before, and more expansion was coming.
Nike’s complaint against Bape comes after a string of similar lawsuits it’s brought against bootleg sneaker makers in the past three years. When a whole wave of independent designers cranking out their own obvious copies of the Dunk and Air Jordan 1 emerged at the beginning of the 2020s, Nike sought to swat them down.
Bape, a hallowed brand that contributed greatly to the foundation of streetwear, is the biggest opponent Nike has yet faced in a fight like this. It doesn’t have the stigma that younger brands doing Nike homages do—it has long since earned a place in the culture of collectible shoes. And unlike many defendants in suits brought by Nike, it has the resources to fight back.
Bape may have been able to elude Nike in its infancy, but the threat sneakers like the Bape Sta now pose is too big to ignore, Nike says. Plus, the glut of other shoes aping Nike’s most cherished retros suggests that the trend has yet to fully ebb.