KAWS Mania: Making moves with Brian Donnelly

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!

  via JeremyRiad
via JeremyRiad

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.

  via Hypebeast
via Hypebeast

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.

His final season can still be viewed here…

  via Wonderwall
via Wonderwall

Pharrell – Back to the USA

  via Upscalehype
via Upscalehype

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!

 via The AlleyGallery
via The AlleyGallery

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!

KAWS at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

What a crazy week this has been!

First Robert Del Naja aka 3D presented new prints and a limited edition EP at the “Ritual Spirit” launch at Lazarides Editions, then Martha Cooper had a big show at Stolenspace gallery (interview is getting posted soon!) and now I had the chance for a meet and greet with the legend that is KAWS at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I am exhausted!

As I love the intersection of consumer products and art, KAWS is right up my alley. After starting out as a Graffiti Writer KAWS quickly climbed the ranks thanks to endorsement by big collectors like A Bathing Ape founder NIGO and super producer Pharrell Williams.

I witnessed the guy collaborate with my fave label from back in the day BAPE, launch his own fashion label after, redesign the MTV Video Music Awards statue, collaborate with Kiehl’s and Hennessy and flew his Companion balloon high in the sky at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

KAWS is definitely making moves!

 Image via  dotherpix
Image via dotherpix

But even with all the success with his product design KAWS always pushed his art game too: When he started blowing up his toy designs to epic scale the art world took notice.

After showing his monumental sculptures at the Frieze Art Fair in London, Harbour City in Hong Kong and at CAC Malaga it made sense that the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield would order his sculptures for their vast art park and threw a couple of newly commissioned paintings into the mix as well!

One can understand that I was VERY excited when I managed to get two tickets for a meet and greet with KAWS at the YSP and the chance to be one of the first people to see the new show!

As the guided tour started at the ungodly early hour of 8.30AM on a Saturday morning it was all about charging my iPhone and getting an early night. As the sculpture park is approximately 180 miles from London I was lucky to be able to stop over at the place of a good friend and fellow KAWS enthusiast in Nottingham. In order to head to the sculpture park we planned to hit the road early in his car, or as I like to call it, The KAWS-MOBILE!

Arriving at the museum we were greeted by a massive banner and many friends and fellow KAWS-obsessives, all dressed to impress and ready to rock!

First point of call: The merch stall. Enter Through The Gift Shop is how true players of the collecting game roll, trying to avoid missing out on limited goodies like totes bags, note books and postcards. I kept it casual, purchasing only a couple of nice postcards, the exhibition catalogue and a KAWS tote bag that is quite useless thanks to its miniature size. As if form over function ever stopped me…

After some tasty Bacon Sandwiches provided by the museum it was time to man up, face the harsh Northern weather and start to slide down the muddy hills of the sculpture park…

Although the rain was dismal everybody was in good spirits, snapping happily away. Thanks to the perfect preparation of my friend I was equipped with proper boots, keeping my feet warm and dry amongst all the rain and Yorkshire mud. Thanks Gav!

Many of my fellow visitors weren’t that wise… I don’t think I ever saw so many limited edition trainers covered in dirt in my life (RIP those Yeezy Boosts)…

 via  stphndnld
via stphndnld

What can I say, standing in front of a massive representation of a toy you have back home on your shelf is pretty impressive. Honey I Shrunk The Geeks! What’s even more awesome is when suddenly their creator pops onto the scene as well.

After taking a group shot via a hovering drone ( it’s 2016 after all ) the group trekked to the Longside Gallery Space on the other side of the park. Turning down the shuttle bus to the rest of the show was a big mistake, with me barely reaching the other side thanks to my lack of regular exercise.

Things I suffer in the name of art…

The second we reached dry land things got real: An orderly queue was formed almost IMMEDIATELY to get things signed by KAWS. It’s swiftness and efficiency surprised even me, being German and all.

Grails* were pulled left, right and centre to be signed by the man himself.

I can’t praise KAWS enough for taking the time to sign everything that was handed to him. In my case it was the Rizzoli KAWS book from 2010 and the vinyl cover artwork he designed for Kanye West… and a catalogue… and a little scribble… yeah I pushed it a bit…

(*Grail: A extraordinarily limited collectible item that’s on the wish list of many of your fellow collectors) 

It had to be done…

Loved the five new canvasses by KAWS called “Survival Machine”.  Loved the Chums, Accomplices and Companions. Loved meeting up with with friends and meeting the main man. What else can I say? Great success!

After having taken it all in, it was time to head home. Of cause not without a second visit to the gift shop and a longing look at the five prints that were available to buy but to 510% out of my price range…

So what’s the verdict? Great show. KAWS’ clean and colourful style is as eye popping as always and his sculptures make me feel like an ant on a toy shelf. Thumbs up! 

Big thanks as well to Yorkshire Sculpture Park for curating this great show and organizing this awesome InstaMeet!

Now, to the KAWS-MOBILE my friends!!! It has been a pleasure…

Ok so Urban Vinyl is kinda over but…

Hi kids!

After breaking down the sneaker queueing game I thought I address the next essential puzzle piece in a street geeks identity: Collecting expensive toys.

Now when I am talking “expensive toys” I do not talk Porsches or Rolex watches here, I mean actual TOYS made out of plastic or vinyl! Now how did that become part of the Hypebeast DNA you wonder, well, let me enlighten you…

Ok so why do grown dudes collect toys in the first place?

There was this small underground movie getting released in 1977, you might have heard of it… Star Wars? Not only did the movie blew every kids mind back in the day but it kicked off one of the biggest toy franchises on this planet.

As the product design of Star Wars was so damn iconic and awesome it translated like a treat to the toy lines. Basically every person ( guy? nerd? ) that was born around that time got caught up in the Star Wars toy blizzard and has fond memories of the pieces owned.

Then came puberty and most of us sold their Star Wars collections on for peanuts. This should later be revealed to be a massive, traumatising event that lead to many men later in life mumbling: “I used to have that one” through salty geek tears.

So yes, I blame the urge to collect on the trauma of selling on the childhood Star Wars toys!

Ok, so how did certain toys become cool and hip then?

Fast forward and the boy from back in 1975 is the Twentysomething of 1993 who witnesses the birth of street wear and other cool shit: Records, Sneakers and Graffiti. Brands like FreshJive, Fuct, Holmes and Stüssy and nerdy Breakbeat labels like Ninja Tunes and MoWax appear and go big. The traumatised boy from back in the day suddenly has the consumer power to buy all the geeky shit he wants without getting told off by his parents. Yay!

Meanwhile in Tokyo man-boys started to connect their love for street culture with their love for toys. Japanese fashion label Bounty Hunter ( yep, Star Wars reference, told ya! ) created together with BAPE designer Sk8thing 1999 the first “Urban Vinyl” toy: Kid Hunter.

An evil riff on American cereal mascots, this lump of plastic is still on many collectors “must find” lists and signalled the dawn of what we would call Urban Vinyl. Personally Urban Vinyl for me means any toy that has been created to appeal to adults instead of being aimed at kids.

Next thing you know Japanese Toy companies, Western Graffiti artists, Music Label owners and Streetwear hustlers all embrace in one sweaty geek group hug and birth a new category of nerdy collectable that references all the stuff that makes street culture cool and taps directly into the Star Wars shaped hole left from selling all those childhood toys: Urban Vinyl aka Designer Toys!

From top left clockwise: Martin toy for UK street wear label Silas, first Companion toy by US artist KAWS, P.A.P ( PEACE AND PROSPERITY ) toy by US fashion brand Stüssy.

Damn son! I didn’t know that. So who produces all this crap?

When we talk toy companies actually producing these things look no further than Medicom Toy in Japan. It became THE toy company of choice for artists to release through and their iconic Kubrick and Bearbrick shapes kickstarted the blind pack and artist toy edition culture Kid Robot made extremely popular in the West years later with their own spin on the Bearbrick concept, the Dunny.

With more and more known artists creating editions for Medicom toys and global tastemakers pushing the medium, Urban Vinyl became less of a toy and more of an art sculpture that was affordable for the regular collector.

Medicom upped the collecting game as well by introducing the “Blind Box” concept where collectors didn’t even know which artwork they would get, with extra rare “chase pieces” thrown in for good measure. So in order to get the whole series one had to buy a lot of doubles in order to get lucky with the rarer pieces.

Fashion Label A Bathing Ape launched their own toy company Bape Play and the British record label MoWax regularly created promotional collectables for their record releases. Very unsurprisingly both NIGO of BAPE and James Lavelle who ran MoWax were massive Star Wars nerds.

 Futura x MoWax toys produced by Medicom to celebrate the second album by British band UNKLE

  Futura x MoWax toys produced by Medicom based on the cover art for British band UNKLE

From top left clockwise: Futura x UNKLE x BAPE, Policeman by James Jarvis based on his comic “World of Pain”, Kubrick toy by Graffiti artist Stash, Dissected Companion toy by Artist KAWS. 

Ok awesome! What happened next?

After the first wave of Urban Vinyl from Japan, US based Kid Robot made Designer toys a household name in the West pushing artists like KOZIK, Ron English and Gary Baseman and they own spin on Medicoms customizable Kubrick and Bearbrick toys called Munnies and Dunnies…

 via  avroko
via avroko

From top left clockwise: Toby toy by Gary Baseman, A Clockwork Carrot Bunny by KOZIK, “Grin” Evil Charlie Brown by Ron English and various Dunnies by Kid Robot.

This unholy marriage between art, fashion, music and collectable toys can be highly addictive. With the easy access to merchandise via eBay and online stores and the never ending flood of cool stuff getting released it’s hard to stay sane. You just can’t Collect Em All anymore. Well, apart from when you a super collector Selim Varol. Apart from having the luxury to run his own toy and art store he has amassed one of the most amazing collection of art and toys on the planet…

And then… when you least expect it… suddenly the whole thing flips and goes full circle and you end up collecting Star Wars again… DAMN! But this time the Vader costs £1,250 on eBay because KAWS designed it and that little monkey with the Boba Fett helmet £100 because it’s a collaboration with fashion label A Bathing Ape. Raising the stakes here!

So Solaris, still on that vinyl?

My big epiphany regarding collecting actually came to me in the home land of characters and limited edition: Japan! After spending three days in a row in the Nakano Broadway Toy Mall I was just a shivering, sweaty mess…

The sheer amount of amazing stuff that was available just blew my mind and didn’t correspond with my financial situation or display space availability. At that point I realised I can’t have it all and that I need to get off the crack.

And when even Mega Star Wars Fanboy NIGO get’s rid of his collection you know it’s time to size down!

Times have changed and I am not really collecting toys anymore. There is just too much stuff out there and the golden age of collecting in early 2000 is definitely over for me.

STILL… there are companies and artists out there that excite me… so here we go!

My Top 5 toy things that still rock in 2016

1) Hot Toys

Slowly but surely Hot Toys from Hong Kong seized the toy crown from Sideshow Toys in America and Medicom in Japan by producing the craziest detailed licensed toys out there! The head sculpts look so freakishly real you might think they decapitated Robert Downey Junior and shrank down his skull using some toy voodoo magic. Is it cool to have Hot Toys? I doubt it get’s you laid but respect from your chubby mates is guaranteed! These are definitely BRO toys… and still awesome…


2) 3AA Toys

Like a fucked up dark version of Hot Toys, 3A are creating crazy detailed figures but with an added art edge. Founded 2008 by Kim Fung Wong and painter and illustrator Ashley Wood 3A’s appeal lies in the withered and distressed look, the post apocalyptic feel and unique design of their characters.

I still need to own one of their pieces someday…


3) Homemade Bootlegs

Toy Hustlers and one man bands like The Sucklord8 Bit Zombie or Streets of Beige might be stuck deep in nostalgia but bring enough freshness and mutation to their hand made pieces for them to be awesome. Being it splattering each toy with paint, creating the best Masters of the Universe toy that never existed or creating a gay empire: Bootleg toys are unique, awesome and damn funny!



4) Cute shit that can’t be ignored

What can I say, I still have a weak spot for cute, well designed characters. Three designers who come to mind are Fluffyhouse, Friends With You and Pete Fowler

5) Super 7 

In 2001, Super7 started as a magazine about vintage Japanese toys. In 2004 they opened their first store in the Japantown district of San Francisco to carry not just toys, but everything else that they wanted: t-shirts, posters, books and more. Told ya it’s all connected!

Somehow they are really OG to me and I love all the weird toys they are stocking…

So there you have it!

My super quick rundown of the toy game. I know I left out many toys, artists and companies and I apologise. Plus I like to acknowledge that women collect toys too! It’s just from my own experience that mostly men sweat over the latest toy releases…. #dontjudgeme #itsacompliment

For more things related to being a toy looser check out: 

www.vinylpulse.com, www.kidrobot.comhttp://toysrevil.blogspot.sg and Toybreak