The long-standing understanding between Nike and A Bathing Ape (BAPE) has finally come to an end. What was once rumoured in streetwear circles to be a blind eye turned, Nike has now changed its tune, setting its sights on the Japanese label as its next target on its recent crusade against infringement, copies and dupes.
On Wednesday 25 January 2023, Reuters reported that a federal court lawsuit had been filed against BAPE for trademark infringement on Nike’s legendary silhouettes—the Nike Air Force 1, Air Jordan 1, and the Nike Dunk. It cited that “BAPE’s current footwear business revolves around copying Nike’s iconic designs.”
For those who don’t follow the streetwear scene closely, BAPE was founded by renowned Teriyaki Boyz DJ, Nigo (who took over as Kenzo creative director in 2022).
The aforementioned is a longtime hip hop collaborator and close friend of Pharrell Williams, with whom he has partnered with on countless occasions. The Japanese label was launched in 1993 and rose to prominence in the following decade as over-the-top and boisterous streetwear began to rule the rap scene. Remember those Shark hoodies? You have Nigo to thank for that.
The multiskilled creative’s legendary BAPE STA debuted on the scene in the early 2000s and sought to capitalise on the popularity of the Nike Air Force 1. And capitalise it did. The shoe bears the same silhouette as Nike’s classic but has subtle differences like the use of patent leather, and BAPE’s own Star design replacing the Nike Swoosh.
Streetwear fans have long speculated as to why Nike never did anything about it sooner, but fashion YouTuber The Casual said on the topic that it simply came down to the fact that US patent law only protects utilities for 20 years. The AF1 first appeared in 1982, and the BAPE STA was available commercially from 2002. Paired with just enough changes to make the shoe different, BAPE has been able to get away with its loving copycat shoe for years.
So, why is the sports industry titan able to go after BAPE now? Nike claims that the company, now owned by Hong Kong retailer I.T Ltd, has “drastically increased the volume and scope of its infringement” since 2021, which up until that point saw sporadic releases.
In a surprising statement found in the lawsuit, what sneakerheads had long speculated over was confirmed, “BAPE’s copying is and has always 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.”
According to Nike, BAPE has “refused” to stop infringing on the multinational corporation’s trademark when asked, which is why it’s now facing legal action. The ultimate aim of the lawsuit is monetary gain for Nike and a subsequent termination of the famous Air Force 1-inspired shoe.
Users online have been speculating over whether or not the courts will rule in Nike’s favour on this, given that it’s let it slide somewhat over the years. Even if US patent law would have made it difficult to challenge, the option was still there for the multi-million dollar company.
This lawsuit is just another battle in Nike’s holy war against copycats, with MSCHF—the controversial art collective behind the Lil Nas X Nike ‘Satan shoe’ —being one of the most talked about targets. Sneaker reselling platform StockX was also met with a Nike lawsuit in 2022.
Nike is trying to secure its future by stopping anyone from stepping on its toes, or in this case—shoes. Is it worth the bad press it’s going to face for chasing after a cherished streetwear name like BAPE? We don’t think so. Thom Browne’s successes against Nike rival Adidas should be enough of a warning sign.
On Monday 29 March, the infamous internet collective MSCHF released 666 pairs of the ‘Satan Shoes’ made in collaboration with rapper Lil Nas X in a PR stunt to promote the artist’s new song ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’, which debuted on YouTube the Friday before. The controversial shoes sold out in less than a minute. In fact, everything about Lil Nas X’s recent stunt was aimed to shock and divide, and it did. What most of us didn’t expect is that Nike would go after Satan, but not Jesus.
The $1,018 (£740) trainers, which feature an inverted cross, a pentagram, the words ‘Luke 10:18’, and “1 drop human blood,” were made using modified Nike Air Max 97s. Shortly after the drop was announced, Nike denied its involvement in the project, and has now claimed trademark infringement. “It has asked the court to stop MSCHF from selling the shoes and prevent them from using its famous Swoosh design mark,” reports the BBC.
What the brand didn’t seem to mind was MSCHF’s drop #7 of the ‘Jesus Shoes’—customised white Air Max 97s with soles containing water from the Jordan River that the Brooklyn collective had blessed by a priest. Nike didn’t bother to disavow the shoes then, to the disappointment of at least one designer on MSCHF’s team who spoke to The New York Times last year. “That would’ve been rad,” he said.
Nike stated in its filing that “there is already evidence of significant confusion and dilution occurring in the marketplace, including calls to boycott Nike in response to the launch of MSCHF’s Satan Shoes based on the mistaken belief that Nike has authorized or approved this product.” It included screenshots of comments from social media users expressing their outrage or vowing to never wear Nike again.
It further noted, “In the short time since the announcement of the Satan Shoes, Nike has suffered significant harm to its goodwill, including among consumers who believe that Nike is endorsing satanism.”
MSCHF is known for its viral stunts, from MasterWiki, its own WikiHow-style rip-off of MasterClass and its live recreation of all 201 episodes of the American version of The Office series over Slack to its latest ‘Birkinstocks’—Birkenstock sandals made from Hermès Birkin bags. According to Quartz, MSCHF “originally conceived of the Jesus Shoes as a way to troll sneaker makers and their fans about the proliferating number of sneaker collaborations.”
The Satan Shoes with Lil Nas X were nothing less than a logical follow-up. However, they could prove costly; in addition to asking the court to make MSCHF cease fulfilling orders for its Satan Shoes, Nike is also seeking damages. Was it worth it? If you ask Lil Nas X fans, they’ll probably answer positively.
“Since publicly coming out as gay in June 2019, Lil Nas X has unapologetically embraced his queerness in the face of his crossover fanbases of country and rap, two communities who—he remarked in a BBC interview the same year—were not overly accepting of homosexuality,” reports gal-dem in a love letter dedicated to the artist’s latest music video.
In an Instagram post accompanying the release of his new song, Lil Nas X wrote to his teenage self, recalling the fear of rejection that is still a sad reality for many LGBTQI+ people: “Dear 14-year-old Montero, I wrote a song with our name in it. It’s about a guy I met last summer. I know we promised to never come out publicly, I know we promised to never be ‘that’ type of gay person, I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist. You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry. They will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am. The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
It would be an understatement to say that not everyone is thrilled with the directorial choices in the video, especially as it relates to Lil Nas X’s sexuality, but that’s not stopping him from taking the criticism in stride. The musician has been all over social media, from Twitter to TikTok, with some top clapbacks. Here’s one, for example, where he rightly points out that religious diehards always warn queer people that they’re going to hell—only to be pissed when people embrace the idea of damnation.
Although Lil Nas X’s mastery of memes is nothing new, he admitted himself to being affected by the hateful comments he received following the launch of both his new song and the Satan Shoes. “I’ll be honest all this backlash is putting an emotional toll on me,” he wrote in a tweet. “I try to cover it with humour but it’s getting hard. My anxiety is higher than ever and stream ‘Call Me By Your Name’ on all platforms now!”