Origins examines some of the most iconic figures, brands, stores and neighborhoods in the Highsnobiety universe, breaking down how they left an unforgettable mark on street culture. This installment looks at US street artist Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS.
“When I was doing graffiti, my whole thought was, ‘I just want to exist.’ I want to exist with this visual language in the world… It meant nothing to me to make paintings if I wasn’t reaching people.” — Brian Donnelly in conversation with Germano Celant, New York, November 2009
KAWS, Skira Rizzoli (2010)
It’s hard to imagine that KAWS started out by breaking into bus shelter ad windows and painting over billboard advertisements now that every brand under the sun is scrambling to work with him. From the beginning of his career, Brian Donnelly’s work has been innately connected to the world of commerce, and more importantly, product.
Following in the footsteps of the United States’ most famous contemporary artist, Andy Warhol, KAWS’ work took Warhol’s transformation of products into art to the next level, turning art into products.
From turning household characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants, Snoopy, and the Simpsons into his own creations using his signature X’ed-out eyes, to creating affordable, accessible art in the form of figurines, plush dolls, and $15 T-shirts, KAWS has always been about connecting the dots between art and commodity culture.
When you think about some of the world’s most popular brands — Supreme, COMME des GARÇONS, and Balenciaga, for example — you can see that same formula at work. In a time when Supreme was doing collabs with everyone from conceptual artist John Baldessari to spray paint brand Rust-Oleum, KAWS was inserting his art into cartoons and comics, fashion editorials, luxury goods, sneakers, and even toy collections.
As a result, the cultural point we’ve now reached, where all culture has been folded into one and the lines between high and low are increasingly blurred, is precisely the melting pot KAWS has been stirring for years.
To understand how an artist can move so seamlessly from designing Air Jordan sneakers to doing work for a label as prestigious as Dior, you have to examine the history of KAWS’ products. In this way, you see it’s not so much a case of an artist making a product as it is an artist making a product that people view as art.
The early figurines
KAWS first experimented with creating collectible figurines of his Companion character in 1999 after being approached by cult Japanese toy and streetwear brand Bounty Hunter. Produced in brown, gray, and black colorways, each figurine was limited to just 500 pieces and sold out quickly.
It’s worth noting how the bodies of these figurines differ from later Companions, clearly taking influence from classic Mickey Mouse cartoons and pointing to the playful transformation of popular cartoon characters underpinning much of KAWS’ work.
Other notable releases from this period include “The Kimpsons,” a series of collectibles limited to 3,000 pieces, featuring KAWS-style appropriations of Matt Groening’s The Simpsons characters sealed in cases reminiscent of action figure packaging.
After the popularity of the first Bounty Hunter series, a few years later KAWS struck up a longstanding relationship with Medicom Toy, the iconic Japanese toy and collectible company behind the popular Kubrick and [email protected] series.
This collaboration saw a wide variety of KAWS figurines produced in limited quantities, including variations on his signature Companion and Chum characters, as well as adaptations of pop culture characters such as Star Wars’ Boba Fett and Darth Vader, Disney’s Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket, and A Bathing Ape’s Baby Milo character.
The Medicom Toy collaboration was produced at a number of scales, creating KAWS Companion figures at 100 percent, 400 percent, and even 1,000 percent sizes, as well as using a variety of different materials, such as wood.
This set a precedent for the artist’s later creation of supersized sculptures, which have popped up everywhere from London to Qatar and Hong Kong. The series also featured collaborations with artists Hajime Sorayama and Robert Lazzarini, reinforcing KAWS’ connection of contemporary art with commercial product.
The streetwear collaborations
KAWS first made his ventures into fashion by collaborating with many of today’s most popular streetwear labels. In the ’00s, he worked with A Bathing Ape, UNDERCOVER, Supreme, COMME des GARÇONS, and visvim, applying signature details like his X eyes, “Chomper” teeth pattern, and distinctive hand-drawn artwork to many of the brands’ most popular products.
Notable products from the era include the Bapesta sneakers, BAPE apparel with KAWS characters blended into the Japanese brand’s trademark camo pattern, Supreme’s KAWS box logo tee — which turned the brand’s iconic red logo into a pencil-drawn outline — and a Supreme T-shirt featuring Kate Moss wrapped in a snake-like Companion character.
The artist also worked on a number of lesser-known collaborations, including items with skate-centric companies such as DC Shoes, Real, Krooked, and Vans.
Around 2005, KAWS was approached by Wonderwall, the Japanese interior design firm behind many of BAPE’s store designs, with a proposal to design an outlet in Tokyo. Although KAWS was attracted to the idea, he felt that if he was going to design a shop, it should be filled with his own products.
This led to the creation of OriginalFake, a high-end Japanese streetwear brand that translated KAWS’ artwork into a fashion context, aided in production by Medicom Toy and designed by the same team behind Japanese fashion label NEXUSVII.
OriginalFake launched in 2006, and over the next several years would serve as the main hub for KAWS’ output, selling clothes, collectibles, homeware, figurines, and more, all decorated with details such as X motifs, Chomper teeth patterns, and Companion skulls.
Although the brand was popular in Japan, its high prices meant OriginalFake rarely sold outside of the country. In 2013, KAWS announced OriginalFake’s closure, moving more toward independent collaborations with established fashion brands over the next years.
Working with Kanye West
In 2008, KAWS gained global exposure when he worked with Kanye West on special edition artwork for the rapper’s 808s & Heartbreak album, as well as a number of promotional images featuring West against a backdrop of Japanese “superflat”-influenced imagery, which has become KAWS’ main style on canvas in recent years.
In the years that followed, KAWS art was rarely far from the public eye. Just as George Condo has become indelibly linked with West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy period, it’s difficult to think of 808s & Heartbreak without thinking of KAWS.
Breaking into the mainstream
In the post-Kanye, post-OriginalFake years, KAWS started collaborating with a number of large, mainstream brands, cementing his place in pop culture.
In 2011, he worked on the creation of a special-edition bottle of Hennessy VS cognac, decorated in his trademark bright color scheme with instantly recognizable motifs. That same year, he also teamed up with The Standard Hotels chain on a set of collectible light bulbs that featured a filament in the shape of the artist’s double-X motif.
In 2014, he collaborated with COMME des GARÇONS and Pharrell Williams, creating the artwork for the latter’s signature Girl fragrance. KAWS and Williams had long been associated through mutual cultural and social connections, including West, NIGO from BAPE, rap duo Clipse, and more. Their shared fascination with all things bright, colorful, and pop culture made them a perfect fit.
Other notable collaborations included a number of limited-edition jackets with Lebanese designer Mira Mikati and a range of luxury leather handbags for Nancy Gonzalez.
Uniqlo x KAWS
In 2014, after departing A Bathing Ape, the company he founded two decades earlier, Japanese streetwear icon NIGO was announced as the new creative director of Uniqlo’s popular UT line of T-shirts. True to form, he got straight to work linking up with a number of his former collaborative partners, including KAWS.
Since then, Uniqlo has released a number of capsule collections with KAWS. While the first collaboration focused on the Companion character and variations on KAWS’ artwork, the next release turned to Charles M. Schulz’s iconic Peanuts comic strip and included plush editions of Snoopy with X’ed-out eyes. Later followed a collection featuring KAWS-ified versions of popular Sesame Street characters.
Offering consumers the chance to own a piece of KAWS artwork for as little as $10, the Uniqlo UT collaboration is arguably the epitome of KAWS’ Warhol-esque vision for creating art that’s accessible to everyone.
Souvenirs and collectibles
As KAWS transitioned from street culture icon to one of the contemporary art world’s biggest names, the collectibles he released with Medicom Toy gradually reduced in frequency. In their place, he started releasing collectible plush dolls and “open editions” (art releases with no limit to their production numbers).
Notable examples include a blue BFF plush doll for an exhibition in Bangkok as well as a plush edition of his original Companion character for an exhibition in Shanghai. On his own website, the artist has also released a number of collectible plastic figurines, with every release selling out almost instantly.
KAWS x Jordan Brand
Air Jordans have been a vital element of street culture from the moment the sneakers first hit the shelves, and early 2017 saw the announcement of a collaboration that, frankly, should have happened years ago: KAWS x Jordan Brand.
Despite having collaborated with virtually every streetwear brand under the sun, even creating a pair of Nike Air Max 90s in 2008, KAWS took no half-measures on his Jordan collab.
The Air Jordan IV sneaker was constructed using premium suede, decorated with the artist’s popular hand pattern details, and finished with joint “XX” and “AIR” branding on the shoe’s heel panel. This was all placed atop a glow-in-the-dark translucent outsole, complete with the hand pattern just beneath. The shoe sold out instantly, prompting the release of a black colorway later that year.
During his tenure as men’s style director at Louis Vuitton, Kim Jones established himself as a bridge between high fashion and streetwear, culminating in the Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration for Fall/Winter 2017.
As an alumnus of respected streetwear distribution company Gimme Five, and with lasting connections to the UK’s streetwear scene going back for years, Jones used his elevated position to tap into and promote the streetwear cultures of London, New York, Tokyo, and other cities around the world.
So when it was announced he would be moving on from Louis Vuitton to the position of creative director at Dior Men’s, it was no surprise to see Jones reach into his bag of tricks and pull out another no-brainer collaboration from the world of streetwear.
To debut an extravagant inaugural collection, Dior under Jones commissioned KAWS to help realize the runway show’s set design and add design elements to the collection itself. Signature KAWS details were peppered throughout the presentation space, including a supersized pink version of the BFF figure made of flowers and wearing a Dior suit.
The collection itself featured a brand new KAWS character in the form of a black and yellow Dior bee decorated with X’ed-out eyes.
As Jones had done with Louis Vuitton’s Supreme collaboration a year earlier, his debut Dior collection fed the growing union of high fashion and streetwear, and mirrored KAWS’ own blend of consumer culture, high art, and graffiti.
When Warhol used easily replicable techniques such as screen-printing and mass-produced items such as records, clothing, and even television shows to create his art, he championed the view that everyday objects and familiar symbols were of artistic value, that there is an aesthetic beauty to the uniform, factory-formulated philosophy of mass consumption.
When you turn to KAWS’ work, you see an evolution of that same ideal. By transforming familiar characters, brands, and products through signature “KAWS” elements and releasing them in accessible, affordable forms such as T-shirts, figurines, and collectibles, KAWS doesn’t just turn a commodity into art; he turns art into commodity.
His “career” began by transforming bus shelter ads for commodity goods like perfumes and fashion brands. That work became art in its own right. Finally, it became a series of products. And when we buy those products and place them on shelves and on coffee tables, they’re transformed back into art.
The price or value of an individual KAWS product or piece is in the eye of the beholder. It can be irrelevant or it can be the most important object in the world. What matters is how the owner of that commodity perceives it. The distance between something being a toy or a sculpture is as wide as two Xs.