Kaws sends China crazy with his design collaborations

US artist and designer Brain Donnelly, known professionally as Kaws.
PHOTO: AFP

American artist and designer Kaws, whose collaboration with Japanese fashion retailer Uniqlo sparked a frenzy among customers in China last week, has been no stranger to fashion tie-ups since he rose to prominence about 20 years ago.

The collections have boosted the profile of Kaws, 45, whose real name is Brian Donnelly, and the bank balances of buyers who have been reselling the limited-edition items for a profit.

Kaws' cross-eyed characters are derived from cartoon icons such as Snoopy, Mickey Mouse and The Simpsons. Starting out as a graffiti artist, he initially painted his figures on hoardings, bus stops and photo booths, but they soon became staples of T-shirts, toys and other products in commercial collaborations with brands.

Customers stampeded into Chinese branches of Uniqlo last Monday to snap up 99-yuan (S$20) T-shirts and other items designed by Kaws. They were later seen on Chinese resale app, Du, going for as much as 799 yuan. Kaws' street wear style is particularly popular with the younger, tech-savvy generation.

Kaws has collaborated with a host of other popular brands to create lines, including A Bathing Ape, Undercover, Medicom Toy, Supreme, Nike, Comme des Garcons, Nigo, Jun Takahashi and Michael 'Mic' Neuman.

One of the artist's earliest tie-ins began in 2002 when he produced a series or vinyl, bearlike figures for the Be@rbrick brand of Japan's Medicom Toy company. Kaws' figurines from that first Be@rback collaboration - the Medicom Bearbrick Series 4 - and subsequent tie-ins have been posted for resale on the internet for as much as US$4,500 (S$6,150), after originally retailing at a few hundred dollars.

Kaws began to gain popularity in China in 2007 when Original Fake - a street wear brand he and Medicom Toy created - partnered with the Clot brand founded by Hongkongers Edison Chen Koon-hei and Kevin Poon. The tie-up produced T-shirts printed with photos of the Kaws Bendy character hugging Taiwanese actress Shu Qi, which sold for US$113.

These shirts have not been as popular as collaborative items with bigger international brands, however, and prices on the resale market are in the region of just US$160.

A much bigger hit were trainers Kaws designed for Nike Air Jordan in 2017, with a price tag of US$350. They can now be bought on websites such as Fight Club for as much as US$2,750.

Photo: Reuters
A giant "Companion" inflatable sculpture by U.S. artist Brian Donnelly, known professionally as Kaws, is seen displayed at the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China March 22, 2019.
Photo: Reuters

Last year, Kaws worked with Dior Homme and Kim Jones to reinterpret Dior's iconic bee with a modern, street wear inspired design - while also featuring telltale cross-eyed bees. According to Dior Homme, the Dior x Kaws Bee cotton T-shirt, for example, retailed for HK$4,600 (S$800) in Hong Kong - about 46 times the price of the latest Uniqlo x Kaws Collection tee. However deep-pocketed Dior fans do not seem to be offering their collectibles for resale on the internet.

Kaws' collaboration with Uniqlo dates to 2016 with a range of 'lifewear' items. For the latest collection, his designs feature on a total of 22 Uniqlo items. One of the two characters depicted is Kaws Companion, the first vinyl figure he made in 1999 that resembles a skull-faced Mickey Mouse. The other is the Kaws BFF ('Best Friend Forever') plush, based on Sesame Street characters.

Despite the huge popularity of the Uniqlo collaboration - which had Chinese customers fighting for T-shirts and ripping them off mannequins in the stores - Kaws announced last week on Instagram that this, his third tie-up with the Japanese fast-fashion label, would be his last.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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