A Brief History of NOWHERE and the Rise of Japanese Street Culture
A Brief History of NOWHERE and the Rise of Japanese Street Culture
- Words Rocky Li
- Date July 5, 2016
Streetwear through the 1990s was a regional phenomenon. The success of a label was determined through its ability to proliferate amongst a local scene. Brands of the time found an audience through adjacent subcultures like BMX, skateboarding, punk and hip-hop to push their products. The '90s saw the emergence of Stussy as a mainstream brand and Supreme as a force within New York's downtown scene. As American streetwear brands built their empires, so did a young generation of streetwear designers from Japan.
Within the greater Japanese fashion industry, a particular area held strong influence: Urahara. The neighborhood was home base for those who ultimately would become the leaders of Japanese streetwear. Brands like A Bathing Ape, Bounty Hunter, Undercover, WTAPS and Neighborhood owe much of their success to Urahara and the community that grew around it. In particular, Jun Takahashi and Nigo started something special by opening NOWHERE in 1993. The original store was the first place to sell both Undercover and BAPE and it’s unique reputation and product mix gives it a legendary status in the streetwear world to this day.
A Urahara Tale
To properly recognize the role that NOWHERE played in the culture, it helps to understand the neighborhood that served as the scene's incubator. Urahara is short for ura-Harajuku, meaning "the hidden Harajuku." Just a few square blocks nestled between Harajuku and Aoyama, the area is characterized by its back alleys and side streets. Today, Urahara has become fully commercialized and is home to retail giants such as Burberry, Paul Smith and Uniqlo. While the area has retained some of its original character, it's a far cry from the independent bohemian vibe of the '90s.
Back then, the neighborhood was home to plenty of independent boutiques, many of which specialized in vintage clothing or items that catered to hip-hop and punk collectors. This made the area a natural meeting place for like-minded youth who valued music, gear and expressing their personal style through specialized clothing and hobbies.
Takahashi and Nigo need little introduction at this point in their careers. The two have ascended to icon status, each leading their respective style cult. Both men met in 1990 while studying at Tokyo's Bunka fashion college, quickly becoming friends through their shared interest in music and fashion. Takahashi and Nigo spent much of their time in school hitting clubs and concerts in Tokyo, their friendship turning professional when they opened NOWHERE on April 1, 1993.
The store was the first place Undercover was ever carried, with selected pieces designed to sell at launch. It was also around this time that A Bathing Ape was conceived, in conjunction with Nigo’s friend and frequent collaborator, SK8THING. BAPE was released at NOWHERE later that same year.
In a 2009 Silly Thing interview, Nigo reflected on the experience saying that NOWHERE was opened with a meager budget of just 400,000 Japanese Yen (about $4000USD today). The store was stocked with mostly items sourced from America: new designs, vintage and deadstock trainers and Undercover. The name NOWHERE itself was derived from the song "Nowhere Man" by the Beatles and as a noticeably present phrase from the Sex Pistols' artwork, another of Takahashi and Nigo's beloved bands.
Other notable lines carried at NOWHERE included 40% Against Rights (designed by Sk8thing and WTAPS head Tet Nishiyama) and 1994 saw the introduction of AFFA (ANARCHY FOREVER FOREVER ANARCHY), the label co-designed by Takahashi and Hiroshi Fujiwara. The first formal collaboration between the two, AFFA referenced 1970s punk music and clothing re-interpreted with a '90s punk element in the design, taking inspiration from the legendary partnership of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. Each product was hand or custom made and the line gained popularity through their peer group despite never achieving larger mainstream success.
When it comes to Japanese street culture, Hiroshi Fujiwara is its go-to figurehead. Fujiwara’s interest in the punk scene lead him to London where he befriended the one and only Malcom McClaren, artist, musician, designer and, most famously, manager of the Sex Pistols. It was McClaren who told Fujiwara to forget about new wave and punk and move onto the sound of hip-hop. Similarly, Nigo started exploring the scene by importing hip-hop records and learning to scratch and DJ. He put many local DJs onto the sound and eventually started his own hip-hop group Tinnie Panx ("tiny punks"). The group opened for Beastie Boys in Tokyo and co-founded Japan's first hip-hop label, Major Force.
It was at this time that Fujiwara also became the fist Japanese member of the International Stussy Tribe—the brand shipping him boxes of product each month which he then shared with local influencers—and started a column called "Last Orgy" in the popular subcultural magazine of the time, Takarajima. The column aimed to put readers onto the best new stuff from street culture, from hot new rap and punk albums, to films, skateboarding gear and DJ equipment. The column was accepted as gospel by Japanese youth and Fujiwara became a full-fledged legend in just his early 20s.
"Last Orgy" eventually expanded to a video series on late night Japanese television. One of its biggest fans was Tomoaki Nagao who religiously videotaped each episode. Aspiring to become like his idol, Fujiwara, Nagao was ironically given the nickname "Nigo," or "Fujiwara Hiroshi number 2," by a local store clerk for his resemblance to Fujiwara. The name stuck and he eventually met his hero, becoming Fujiwara’s assistant. Plugged into Fujiwara’s network, Nigo started his own column for Popeye magazine, affectionately named "Last Orgy 2," carrying the torch for curating the most relevant street culture items of the moment. Between the column and DJing weekly parties, Nigo had made a name for himself and moved out of his mentor's shadow.
A Bathing Ape in Lukewarm Water
The opening of NOWHERE came at an important time in Urahara. Harajuku had been badly hit by an economic downturn at the time and the shop breathed new life into the neighborhood by attracting a new generation of youth. The store was split into two sections, with half of it filled with UNDERCOVER and the other with items curated by Nigo.
Due to press from UNDERCOVER and its reliance on the neo-punk trend which was popular at the time, most of the visitors to the shop drifted to Takahashi's side of the store. Nigo realized it was necessary for him to start his own brand: A Bathing Ape.
Nigo had tasked his graphic designer pal Sk8thing to help think of an concept for a label and after watching a 5 hour Planet of the Apes TV marathon, he came up with the original ape face concept and the name A Bathing Ape in Lukewarm Water. Nigo took the first part of the name, A Bathing Ape, and quickly printed out a small run of items in a style referencing vintage American style. BAPE was officially born.
Nigo and Takahashi were then given another platform in Asayan magazine with a column called "Last Orgy 3" and the two wisely used the space for their own self-promotion, drawing new traffic to the shop through their product recommendations. Nigo aligned himself with Japan’s growing hip-hop scene as a way to differentiate BAPE from other labels and it was through rap group co-signs that BAPE really started to gain traction and popularity. Other popular labels in this period included Fujiwara’s GOODENOUGH, the biker/punk label Neighborhood from Shinsuke Takizawa and Bounty Hunter started by Hikaru Iwanaga.
By 1996, NOWHERE came to represent a shop that truly filled a cultural void. As Japanese pop stars slowly lost influence the country's youth were looking for a new style to inform their shopping decisions. This style was given the name "Urahara Kei," or Urahara style. This uniform consisted of American casual items thoughtfully put together. Crisp screen-printed brand tees were matched with camo jackets and dark denim, or striped skater tees paired with high-tech backpacks. Nike Air Max 95s, Adidas Superstars and Clark's Wallabes were the popular footwear choices of the time.
Urahara style quickly captured the imagination of many youths, with Undercover, Goodenough, Neighborhood and BAPE becoming the preferred labels thanks to each brand's compelling visual style, backstory and feel. In a 1996 poll of Asayan readers' most admired celebrities, no pop stars or actors made the list. Instead, Fujiwara and Takahashi came out on top along with NOWHERE being voted the most popular store. This pre-Internet period in Japanese fashion gave all the power to the gatekeepers of the culture. Leaders of the Urahara scene rose up together and became the most influential figures in Japanese fashion.
After its height, NOWHERE went through some defining changes. The shop moved from its original Harajuku location to Aoyama. The store ended up closing entirely in 2000, with Takahasi and Nigo going on to create their own respective retail ventures, with NOWHERE's legacy both legitimized and romanticized in retrospect.
In 2009, a temporary NOWHERE store opened in Hong Kong, carrying reproductions of "Last Orgy 2" designs, though the true bookend to NOWHERE and Urahara's reign is often seen as the sale of BAPE to Hong Kong-based apparel maker I.T Ltd. Nigo stepped down as creative director in 2013 and has since gone on to his start a new label, Human Made, as well as a significant role at Uniqlo.
Clearly, NOWHERE was a focal point to the rise of Urahara style throughout Japan and beyond. The same American style that was popular there, is still a major defining factor in what streetwear is today. One only has to look at street style shots from Paris to Milan to see it’s continued lineage. As pioneers of the Urahara scene, Nigo and Takahashi were able to usher in a new genre of streetwear; one that emphasized strong storytelling and subcultural references. As new Japanese brands take the torch from the old guard, it's clear that nothing has quite filled the void that NOWHERE left and arguably never will.