KAWS certainly wasn’t born yesterday; everyone has seen iterations of the cross-eyed skull character possess some of our most treasured icons, including Snoopy, Mickey Mouse and The Simpsons. Not only have its references to popular culture captured the essence of zeitgeists past and present, its associations to mainstream fashion and other entertainment labels have also ingeniously turned the KAWS brand into a household name.
Most recently, the committed KAWS x Uniqlo relationship launched a new line of UT graphic t-shirts in collaboration with Sesame Street.
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This took place days after KAWS had been heavily featured on the Dior Homme spring/summer 2019 runway show, a calculated decision seeing that it was creative director Kim Jones‘ debut collection for the house.
The proliferation of KAWS may pose as a problem to consumers, who might therefore buy into the name without any actual understanding of what it stands for. Which begs the questions: Why is everyone vying for a piece of KAWS-related merch? And, if they are, is KAWS truly democratic (i.e. readily available for anyone to buy), or just another troupe of limited edition-ness to jack up the prices of clothing/products?
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An illustrator by trade, Brian Donnelly is the man behind the cross-eyed mask. In the 1990s, New York City was plastered with advertising, taking up a lot of physical space which could otherwise be used by street artists as canvases to spray paint on. Instead of relenting to back alleys or under bridges, Donnelly would “deface” billboards and bus stops, working in his characters like The Companion, Bendy and The Accomplice, as well as the nickname KAWS.
In case you’re wondering, the name ‘KAWS’ itself doesn’t mean anything other than letters which Donnelly felt, placed together, suited aesthetically. A similar sentiment also seems to apply for his animated skull characters. The artist has mentioned in interviews that he wants his characters to be so universal, they’re instantly understandable to his audience, in spite of their cultural backgrounds.
Some might speculate that KAWS is not as literal as it seems; The Companion, for instance, has a tendency to be portrayed covering its face, which reveals a similar cross detail on the back of its hands. A skull character pulling its hands over its face to reveal more “death” doesn’t seem optimistic, for starters.
This visibility landed Donnelly the opportunity to design a small line of toys with Japanese clothing company Bounty Hunter, which became cult collectibles. Retailing at about US$50 to 100 each when it first launched, these figurines would now probably resell at about ten or more times their original price.
KAWS, a name Donnelly would by now have assumed, moved on to clinch deals with some of the most recognisable names in entertainment. Projects like his toy collection challenged his skill set, as he would no longer just work two-dimensionally; thinking about form introduced him to dream bigger, such as envisioning he would one day build a fifteen feet (about 4.6m) tall version of The Companion.
Since 2004, KAWS has been scouted to work with various hip hop artists, most notably Kanye West on his album cover for 808s and Heartbreaks, designed footwear for Nike and Marc Jacobs, collaborated with fashion brands A Bathing Ape, Comme Des Garcons, Undercover, and Vans, mashed up characters from The Smurfs, Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, Spongebob Squarepants, Family Guy, the Michelin Man, MTV’s Moonman Video Awards… just to name a few.
Above hitting home runs in many pockets of entertainment, KAWS broke grounds with his 14-foot balloon at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade 2012 in New York. This was the first time he’d broken into mainstream consciousness proper; many who’d watched the parade didn’t even know who he was then.
A common thread that seems to have run through KAWS’ career is the tension between social commentary and establishment. Is it possible, or correct, for someone whose shtick is so much about subverting pop culture, to also benefit from the privileges of that system? Can the argument be made that it’s imperative to be a part of establishment to impact it?
Or maybe KAWS is the Vetements (it’s just clothes) of the art scene. It’s interesting to note that the same criticism that has been directed at KAWS has also been part of his predecessors’ lives. Think Jeff Koons or Keith Haring, whose styles are so recognisable it’s rude to discredit their power.
In a recent interview with Complex, KAWS explains his goal for Uniqlo, “I felt like I needed to do something to exist on a more candid level.” If for nothing else, the aim towards democracy is a beauty we can all appreciate. His recent attention-grabbing work at Dior Homme and Uniqlo UT are a testament to his artistic and commercial reach, but in the large scheme of things merely a snippet of his illustrious career.
Check out Brian Donnelly describing his success: