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Nike Files Sneaker Trademark Lawsuit Against Bape

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A display of Bape sneakers circa 2005 Pharrell Williams Hosts Store Opening of Nigo's A Bathing Ape at Bathing Ape in...

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The sportswear giant is calling out the cult streetwear brand’s longtime designs, deeming them “verbatim copies” of popular Nike silhouettes.

The American sportswear giant Nike filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Japanese cult-favorite streetwear brand A Bathing Ape, known colloquially as Bape, in a New York court this week, saying the company’s “current footwear business revolves around copying Nike’s iconic designs.”

According to court filings shared by Reuters, the suit reflects what Nike sees as nearly 20 years of tension between the two companies, beginning when Bape first began selling its often candy-colored footwear in the United States in 2005. The document includes a full-page chart, with photos, comparing a handful of both brands’ most popular shoes—A Bathing Ape’s Bapestas next to Nike’s Air Force 1s, Bape Sk8 Stas alongside Nike Dunks, and Court Stas adjacent to Air Jordan 1s—with detail shots highlighting specific design elements, including eyelet and sole-ridge patterns. The filing also marks the second major trademark infringement claim that a multinational sportswear company has brought against a relatively smaller-scale brand in Manhattan’s Southern District Court this month: two weeks ago, Adidas lost its lawsuit against Thom Browne over the luxury label’s lateral stripes motif.

“[Until] recently,” the Nike suit reads, “BAPE’s sale of infringing footwear in the United States was de minimis and inconsistent. For fifteen years, the presence of BAPE’s infringing footwear in the United States resembled the famous Whac-A-Mole arcade game: infringing products appeared and then disappeared from the United States market for years; BAPE opened stores in the United States and then shuttered them a few years later; and BAPE was purchased by a Hong Kong fashion conglomerate that shifted BAPE’s focus to markets outside the United States.” 

In the suit, Nike concedes that, prior to 2021, the number of “infringing” pairs Bape sold “was never more than a small fraction of the millions of pairs Nike sells annually,” and said the company approached Bape in 2009 about footwear similarities, after which Bape purportedly agreed to redesign its flagship Bapesta sneaker. But in 2021, Nike says, Bape reverted back to the original “copycat” design.

“BAPE’s copying is and always has been unacceptable to Nike, and because BAPE’s infringements have recently grown to become a significant danger to Nike’s rights, Nike must act now,” the suit reads.

A Bathing Ape founder Nigo sports a pair of the brand’s sneakers at an event hosted by Pharrell in New York City, January 2005.Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

This is a careful timeline, covering a key segment of the brand’s history: the legendary streetwear designer Nigo first founded A Bathing Ape in Tokyo in 1993, and in the mid-aughts the brand found its way onto the shelves of Supreme’s blockbuster Lafayette flagship store and into the closets of big names like Pharrell, Ye, and Pusha T. Nigo’s reach made him one of streetwear’s most influential godfathers; he and Pharrell went on to found the brands Billionaire Boys Club and Icecream together, and he became a key mentor to the late designer Virgil Abloh. Nigo sold Bape’s parent company, Nowhere Co. Ltd, to a Hong Kong-based holding company called I.T. Ltd. in 2011, and a decade later, in 2021, he became the new artistic director of the Japanese luxury label Kenzo. “I realized I’d done pretty much everything you can do in the world of streetwear,” the designer told GQ last year. “I realized I needed a new challenge.”

In the sportswear economy, there’s always been a thin line between the output of a megabrand like Nike and a cult-favorite company like Bape, which has allowed for plenty of cross-permeation through the last few decades. In 2005—the same year Bape first rolled out its footwear in the US—Chris Gibbs, owner of the influential Los Angeles-based streetwear boutique Union LA, collaborated with Nike on a sneaker, designing a colorful take on the high-top Air Force 180s.

“Streetwear was a rebellion against the fashion industry at large, which typically only played in blacks and navies, so I wanted the colors to be in contrast to that,” Gibbs told GQ about the shoe last year. “I took the camo from my favorite jacket and changed the colors around to be more playful. It was probably inspired by Bape, who was doing a lot of that at the time.”

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