Uniqlo dropped the bomb this week and revealed the pieces of their upcoming collaboration with pop artist KAWS! I am very, very happy about what I see, not only because the bags and shirts look great and are affordable but because it’s funny to see how I am growing up alongside my heroes of the past. Time to reminisce about the rise of KAWS and my favorite pieces and collaborations that explain how Brian Donnelly made the leap from painting panels at Disney to the top of the art food chain in 2016.
1997 – Bus shelter interventions
Let’s start with the KAWS bus shelters: What a great idea defacing ads with your own brand! KAWS clean style fused perfectly with the beautifully shot adverts, raising his art in the process. Instead of destroying the ad this could be seen as his first ( illegal ) collaborations with high value brands as the slick visuals of the source material were always preserved if not enhanced by KAWS colourful and witty style.
Funnily enough the toys Medicom created based on the bus shelters are the cheapest and most readily available toys in his catalogue. Weird as I think they are a lot of fun and the concept is great!
14 years later and the collaborations became a bit more official! Again I really think this is because of KAWS ability to create graphics which are so crisp and clean that they don’t feel out of place connected to high fashion and lifestyle brands. I wonder when he creates his first capsule collection with LV!
1999 – The birth of designer toys
Covered this part of his contribution to the Urban Toy phenomenon in my blogpost about Designer Toys here. Still it’s worth mentioning them again as they represent the first of many collaborations KAWS created in Japan where the scene embraced him first. I doubt he would be as popular and well known as he is now without the fandom of NIGO of BAPE fame and the support of the emerging street fashion Harajuku scene consisting of brands like BxH, Neighbourhood and Undercover. I am still loving the idea that a brand can embrace fashion, art and toys in one go.
2005 – Big in Japan
It’s good to have people who believe in you and push your career forward. Being one of the favorite artists of a mega rich Japanese streetwear mongul certainly isn’t the worst thing in the world! Nigo didn’t only commission a lot of pieces for his private art collection, but had KAWS create a whole season for his mega hype fashion brand BAPE. This didn’t just include pieces for the clothes line but artwork for his music label Bapesounds and covering his Bape Cafe in Tokyo with artwork as well.
Some of my favorite pieces from the BAPE x KAWS era are the early toys and the CD cover for Japanese singer Cherie. I was lucky enough to pick some of these items up on my trip to Japan in 2007…
A honorable mention goes out to ex Deee-Lite member Towa Tei who was one of the first people ( apart from Nigo ) who commissioned KAWS to do some artwork for him… Japanese people just have great taste!
2006 – Original Fake
Next step in the quest for world domination was opening his own store in Japan together with toy company Medicom. The Original Fake line felt decidedly less cartoony and more upmarket compared to the designs he did for BAPE. Architects Wonderwall created the impressive yet understated looking store and I am still annoyed about the small Japanese sizing of the goods! Most of his later toys were released via Original Fake as well and queues used to form around his impressive Tokyo store on the regular. In 2013 KAWS pulled the plug on this business venture to concentrate more on his art hustle and less on the fashion retail side of things. I am sure though that he learned as lot about crafting his brand from this venture.
Pharrell – Back to the USA
As much as Pharrell caught the BAPE bug from Nigo, he caught his KAWS obsession as well. This early picture of Skateboard P rocking a diamond encrusted pendant based on a KAWS Blitz toy shows how hard Pharrell was riding on the KAWS fan train. I feel Pharrell can be credited for bringing KAWS back to the US alongside fellow NIGO bro Kanye West after he reached cult status with devoted collectors in Asia.
Pharrells public endorsement put KAWS back on the radar of a more mainstream western audience. Creating Kanye West’s “808 and Heartbreak” album cover art was just another step winning America over. He should go on creating massive sculptures for the MTV Music Awards and Marcy’s Day Parade…
Art Hustle – Rubbing shoulders with the fine art world
KAWS learned a lot about collaborating with the right people during the early days in Japan. He proceeded to hand pick his art collabos to not over saturate the market and work with credible artists that would add an extra dimension to his art. People like Pushead, Hajime Sayorama, Yue Minjun and Robert Lazzarini gave his companion extra flavour and elevated his toy to sculpture status. And that Murakami became a big fan too might not surprise anybody…
Blowing up dolls
Talking about sculptures: Blowing up his companion character to insane heights started very modestly in 2007 with taking the 1000% size concept of Medicom toys to the next level: The 4ft Companion was born!
Sizes grew with time and impressive sculptures were created for exhibitions in Malaga, Switzerland and Hong Kong to name a view. KAWS cartoonish style gives his massive sculptures a very surreal edge and allowed him to break into the art world.
British KAWS lovers are fortunate to be able to see his Companions until June 2016 in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Read my write up of the YSP exhibition here!
Selling out… by selling out
KAWS is great at keeping prices for his art high but offering accompanying merchandise that’s still desirable but affordable to the masses as well. As original art sells in the upper ten thousands middleweight collectors can still buy a pieces of KAWS via his limited print editions which are not cheap but the closest a normal person can get to owning some KAWS artwork. When it comes to the masses KAWS follows the same approach of high fashion houses like Chanel or LV: You might not be able to afford a handbag but you can still pick up a low cost item to feel part of the gang!
Some merch from the YSP shop… not a piece of art put a piece of KAWS nevertheless…
XX for the masses: KAWS x UNIQLO
Now here we are, at the dawn of the next step of KAWS pushing his creations to become household names! Whilst other artists might be called “Sell Outs” for collaborating with a company doing mass produced fashion, this collaboration just feels natural. Especially with Nigo being the current creative director of UT at Uniqlo! Personally I am excited and already picked my favorite pieces.
The toy nerds won! Next KAWS might give a space shuttle his trademark teeth and crossed out eyes as the sky apparently is not the limited to a business savvy pop artists like Brian Donnelly!