Just before noon on a December Saturday, A Bathing Ape logo beams from the scoreboard,over a not-classic match up in Arlington, Texas, between the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs and the Kansas State Wildcats. The Big12 conference is in jeopardy, with University of Texas and University of Oklahoma, its two most money-making programs, set to leave for The Southeastern Conference. Neither team came close to qualifying for this game, which was actually well-matched and well-played, neither of which is guaranteed or even the point of college ball. I’m minding a basement shop with the game on, a customer leaves and my attention goes back to the screen. The camera focuses in on TCU quarterback Max Duggan, who, unfortunately for those who bet the TCU moneyline every week, looks like he’s been wandering a parking lot for hours and still can’t find his car for at least 10 minutes every game, then randomly proceeds to make miracles happen. TCU is up to this moment undefeated. They’re at their own 30 or so, underfoot are the Big12 roman numerals, filled in with iconic BAPE camo.
Horned Frog receiver Taye Barber looks like he just got hit by a car, getting hit from either side mid air catching a high rope of a pass. TCU are across the field now, closer to a Dr. Pepper logo that’s been painted on the field. Although it’s the namesake brand for the conference championship, the BAPE camo has somehow snuck its way into equal visual capital. Such is the flexibility of a company that has partnered with Puma, Adidas, and Reebok, amongst many others. (But not Nike, Nike just wishes it could sue the living shit out of them, but never will). The candyland child soldier pattern has a way of becoming kudzu. Creeping, inevitable, finding its way to collaborate with anything at this point. But still, what’s it doing in Arlington, Texas?
The comments under BAPE’s US Instagram post ranged from “Why is this happening, who is this for” to “Do an SEC one please”. In another life, the “for why?” of it all would have been the stunt itself, seemingly random and gigantic collaborations were an early calling card of BAPE. What happened in between its founding in 1993 and it appearing on the larger US radar in the mid aughts was pioneering in ways that would find a loud echo in the not so distant future, thought to say it was large in relation to something as broad as say, BIG12 football, even now, would be eyebrow raising.
At a certain point Bathing Ape defined what it was to drive sales and brand interest through limited access. Everything sold out, nothing was available. Desire grew. Combined with outsized retail experiences, the right collaborations and high visibility on the right people, the legend grew. The growth economy is anathema to the brand’s original appeal, and by the time it started to make waves in the United States (particularly a now decades long spat that seemed to use a sweatshirt as a reason) it wasn’t really cool in Japan, or any market in Asia. The exclusivity that filled the Paul Frank adjacent shirts with meaning and cool was waning. It was so damn hard to get stateside that the cache lived on, somewhere, but that consumer desire was not managed properly. In 2012 the founder Nigo sold for 2.8 million dollars, a number which felt infinitesimal for something so influential and iconic in the moment, let alone a decade later (Sporty and Rich, a newer project for a certain kind of put together woman was recently valued at $50 Million by Forbes. How those valuations get mathed is another article entirely).
At this point I should take a hard left. I should admit Kansas State exists in my reality mainly in March Madness (and even then they were absent the mid 90’s to the mid aughts, my prime youth sports watching years), or some other such happenstance when they re-enter my mental universe. The father of the bride at a recent wedding I attended is a big K State fan, at a next day hangout type event I watched him watch Kansas State kick the living shit out of Oklahoma State, who’s never as good as Oklahoma, (who is leaving the conference), except for this year, when they were way better than Oklahoma. But goddamn they got boat raced by the Kansas State Wildcats. I was thinking about that when I bet TCU again, but I’m betting TCU again because reason has escaped them thus far. They win in unreasonable and bizarre ways that underline roster talent while also underlining how weird stupid and wonderful college football can be. K State rips another big play, tearing out blades of grass over the BAPE camo in the process, giving the whole thing a surreal tinge that speaks more to niche interest on my behalf than whatever’s really happening.
The partnership between the football conference and the streetwear company makes sense twofold: BAPE, far past its saturation point, must move to mean less than it ever has before. Brand Potency of a certain nature is the enemy of a broad consumer base. If I’m going to put on BAPE at my big age, (and in most likelihood, outside of patent Bapestas I’ll purchase out of misguided nostalgia, around $300 MSRP in the name of my long dead childhood, I won’t), I need it to mean so little that it doesn’t matter that the BIG12 merch, will be, domestically, aimed at Travis Scott fans from suburban Texas with names like Kincaid or Mason. It would be illuminating to see a headcount of Big12 BAPE shirts sold in Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and West Virginia combined. I dimly imagine a Mason or Kincaid trying to explain to their great uncle why the camo in the BIG12 logo is Based. Surely this straw man great uncle would feel the game he knew and grew up with slipping away. Conferences shifting, rivalries falling by the wayside and now the conference itself, in a way, admitting a sort of defeat, at least of the old ways and values, partnering with a brand foreign in every way, to desperately try and engage a younger fanbase.
There is a certain grace that’s been stumbled into. Bottling up and branding Texas Christian University Vs. Kansas State, and the environment this sort of game is conjured by, is an ambiguous but potent gesture at the notion of Americana. Neither of these institutions would bring forth any concrete image but said altogether it is field lights and the product of Texas, Friday night American Football games, and other gestural things, like someone who’s never been here liking buying and wearing a vintage Wyoming University hoodie. It’s probably a stretch to assign that kind of whimsy to BAPE’s parent company, Hong Kong based I.T group, who own a range of brands that connote a core philosophy, e.g. a range of BAPE brands and longstanding respected streetwear brands like WTaps, and Undefeated, but also own assets like French Connection, and Fred Perry. The business of fashion may be passionate in glimmers but it is always non denominational. And yet, an I.T brand is under stadium floodlights as good boys from Texas and Kansas play the most popular sport in the United States. Access to this potent Americana is gatekept in many ways but the lingua franca of the land is money. Why did the BIG12 open the gates?
The BIG12 has one more year to ingratiate itself to its current viewership before it loses the gigantic chunk that UT and OK will take with them. Their needs mirror those of BAPE, who must go broad to survive in between their moments of cultural inflection. While the BIG12 is a power five conference, a one time titan, it must seek out silos of interest with which to plant seeds (House rockets? Weird metaphor). Each of these programs harbor their own lore, customs, representing a particular fiefdom. The trick is that even though the athletics are almost entirely removed from academics at these Universities, the experience of the two intermingling is inextricable to the student body. When adding alumni and local non-attendees to consideration, the emotional bond between fans and institutions nears that of Europeans with their local soccer clubs. But the as the BIG12 loses their most dominant teams, the conference must reimagine whose loyalty they want to earn on Saturday afternoons.
With just under 2 minutes to go, TCU’s Lost In the Parking Lot Quarterback (who is also a Heisman Award finalist) takes over a drive as a runner. He is visibly exhausted. He must be helped off the field. The announcers note he’s littered with 30 something cuts all over his body. He scored 8 points, and the game is now tied. I am nearly ready to print pamphlets with his name on it and preach the TCU moneyline on street corners every Friday night as the sun tucks below the skyline. Despite the valiant effort they are stopped at the 1 yard line in overtime. K State turns it around and kicks a winning field goal. A team that wore purple wins, a team that wore purple loses. Kansas State players sway and pogo center field, and off to the sides are our loyal BIG12 sponsors, Dr. Pepper and BAPE. The Southeastern Conference championship game is up next. It won’t feature a youthful on-field sponsor, but it also doesn’t need one. The name of their conference is brand enough for them.