How a graffiti sprayer became a sales anchor for Nike, Uniqlo, Dior & Co.

Brian Donnelly, known as KAWS, is arguably the hottest artist in the world with over 2.3 million Instagram followers

Hunting scenes in a Chinese department store: Before the doors are correctly opened, customers storm the Uniqlo store. The Japanese clothing brand has not triggered the hype but with fat discounts, but through a collection in collaboration with the artist KAWS. And the scenes in China are just a symbol. The complete T-shirt collection is sold out in seconds online. Why an artist, in collaboration with Nike, Uniqlo, and other brands can provide such hype and how he could win 2.3 million Instagram followers with his art, we break down here.

Brian Donnelly, known as KAWS, between his characters (Photo: KAWS / Hye-Ryoung Min)

Originally from New Jersey, Brian Donnelly first caught his attention in the mid-’90s in the sizeable neighboring city of New York. He sprinkles billboards and bus stops and decorates them with his characters “The Companion” (reminiscent of Mickey Mouse), “Bendy” (a sperm head) or “The Accomplice” (a kind of hare). What unites his characters, two X instead of the eyes – as it is known from dead cartoon characters. And it is precisely these signs that become his symbol throughout his career. In time Donnelly gives herself the stage name KAWS. “There is no meaning behind this,” the artist explains as early as 2010, “These are just letters that I like: KAWS. I had the feeling that they work well together. “Today, KAWS is the artist around which there is probably the most hype around the world – even digitally.

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#KAWS #1998 ish #tbt Good morning…

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Breakthrough with toys

“When I started out-of-home advertising, I noticed that the advertisements placed my works in a precise time,” says Donnelly. “You could see dozens of painted walls and could barely tell if the graffiti was from the 80s or 90s. But if you over-paint advertising, it immediately clicks. “With his anarchistic way of making art, KAWS ‘career starts to do its thing from well-known motifs and figures and to cooperate with other brands – albeit in the early days without consent the brands. At times, Donnelly also works as a freelance illustrator for Disney. A job that apparently has had a major impact on his work in designing his character “The Companion.”

Donnelly made his first splash in the crowd in 1999, when he released vinyl figurines with the Japanese fashion label, Bounty Hunter. Limited to 500 pieces cost at the time of 50 to 100 US dollars. Today they are traded for over $ 3,000 on art platforms or eBay. “I put the money I earned with it into the production of my next toy. In 2002 I started my own website and sold it directly to my customers. So I was able to produce more and more characters, “said Donnelly.

The first toys launched by KAWS in 1999

KAWS continues to do so today, offering only one product on its site. The current “cuddly toy” (a pink version of his “Companion”) was put online in April 2019, costs $ 200, was limited to 3,000 pieces and of course, sold out within minutes.  Just one day later, resellers call almost $ 1,600 for the figure.  In this case, KAWS uses the Drop’s marketing technique in his direct-to-consumer business, which has been perfected by various hype brands such as Supreme.

Pharrell Williams gives a push

From an early age, Brian Donnelly has quite influential fans who give him a boost after the success of his first toy collection. In the early 2000s, he met Tomoaki Nagao, known by his stage name Nigo. The Japanese are now known worldwide for his streetwear brand “A Bathing Ape” short Bape, which he founded in 1993 as a simple shop in Tokyo and 2011 sold for several million US dollars. In 2001, Nigo and KAWS started their collaboration, which triggers the rise of both. They work together to create several collections for Bape and work on art projects by KAWS. “Nigo is one of my biggest supporters to this day. The only pictures in his house in Tokyo are from me. Otherwise, he only collects Bentleys, “, says Donnelly.

KAWS later got to know Pharrell Williams about this Nigo. The art and fashion crazy singer and producer (you just have to mention “Happy,” and you have an earwig) brings Donnelly finally into the hip-hop scene – and collects similar to Nigo everything KAWS does. Through contact with Williams, Donnelly designed the cover for the deluxe version of Kanye West’s 2008 album “808s & Heartbreak”.

To this day, Pharrell Williams and the artist are intimately connected. Williams keeps making (possibly unpaid) ads for KAWS art and products on his social channels. An Instagram photo with a KAWS stuffed animal also brings nearly 120,000 likes on the singer’s channel. In 2014, the two work on the perfume bottle for Williams’ fragrance “Girl,” which he brings to Comme des Garçons on the market. To this day, the colorful KAWS-style bottle is available on the market.

Pharrell Williams with the perfume bottle designed by KAWS

Cartoon icons as a springboard

In the mid-2000s, KAWS caused a sensation with a new idea – and finally laid the foundation for the ongoing hype surrounding its brand. In 2005, he released a series of pictures titled “Kimpsons” in which he paints the Simpsons in his style and with double X instead of eyes. In April 2019, an image from the series for $ 14.7 million will be sold at auction in Hong Kong. “I like the Simpsons because they are so fast to read. You can be in any country in the world, and just, Doh! ‘ says and everyone knows what you’re talking about, ” says Donnelly.

In 2008 he repeated the game with the Smurfs under the title “Kurfs” (the Smurfs are called “Smurfs” in the USA). Several images from this series will bring KAWS over $ 2 million this year. Also, Spongebob Squarepants is alienated by the artist.

Collabos with the big brands

In his, work, KAWS shows a sense of what is equally vital in the art scene and in the general public. No wonder some of the world’s best-known brands work with him – and sell products with his creations in no time. As early as 2008, he designed a sneaker for Nike within an action in which 18 different artists plan well-known Nike shoes according to their ideas. 2017 is followed by the significant extra charge with the Nike daughter Jordan. The joint collection, which also includes a sneaker for $ 350 new price, it sold out immediately. The shoe with the KAWS-Xen on the hoe is now traded for over $ 1,200 on resale platforms.

Since 2016, KAWS has been working intensively with the Japanese fast-fashion brand Uniqlo. His old buddy Nigo is now creative director of the UT division (“Uniqlo T-Shirts”). “It’s not that I want to make Collabos a big part of my job. It’s just something I’ve always done, “says Donnelly. “For me, it’s a funny win-win situation. You can learn a lot and at the same time find out how you can work better yourself. “The collaboration starts with typical KAWS motifs and his characters. The shirts cost only 20 US dollars but are still traded for some 100 dollars today.

One last big run on KAWS shirts

2017 follows a threesome collabo between Uniqlo, KAWS and the Peanuts, 2018 are characters from the Sesame Street turn. Uniqlo and KAWS once again relied on the artist’s motifs for the collection, which was released on June 2019. And the hype is obviously more significant than in the years before. From China, there are videos of chaos and brawls in Uniqlo stores. Everyone wants a $ 20 shirt from an artist who otherwise earns millions of dollars in sales.

Pieces from the current KAWS x Uniqlo collection

Alone with the announcement of the group and the simultaneous announcement that this will be his last with Uniqlo, KAWS recorded on his Instagram account almost 200,000 likes and over 2,500 comments. This announcement fuels the hype again. Even online, his shirts are sold out immediately, in the meantime, the Uniqlo shop collapses under the onslaught. “I actually like the situation that people can buy something relaxed, without looking at the Resale,” says Donnelly Vogue. “Many people are building their lives to resell my belongings. Uniqlo helps me to get around this. They have 2,000 shops worldwide. “

An Instagram artist?

Friendship with Pharrell Williams, pop art with familiar characters, collaboration with major brands. All these points have indeed resulted in KAWS now has nearly 2.4 million followers on Instagram. According to the analysis tool InfluencerDB, its channel continues to grow by an average of 10,000 fans every three days. Since mid-2018, KAWS has gained more than one million followers. A growth factor of the past year may have been the cooperation with Dior. The artist had worked with the luxury fashion house for their spring/summer collection in 2019 and designed several (costly) pieces.

On the catwalk show was a vast, made entirely of roses “Companion” KAWS (dressed in a Dior suit) in the center. The figure alone caused a stir on Instagram – even among the more than 27 million Instagram followers of the luxury brand. Mega-influencers like Bella Hadid (25.5 million subscribers) posed with little plush versions of the Rose “Companion” on Instagram.

The “Companion” of roses at the catwalk show by Dior

100,000 website visitors in two days

For Donnelly, Instagram is the best way to interact with his fans – while also generating traffic for his own website. “My homepage used to be dusty. Then I decided to sell something on it. Within a day or two, there were over 100,000 people on the site and over a million if you count all the bots that tried to tap something, “the artist says.

The hype should not decrease in the future. Currently, large installations of inflatable KAWS figures are causing a stir in Asia (and long lines). The names by auction sales of his artworks only in 2018 to nearly 35 million US dollars exploded (previous year: nine million dollars). The purchase of one of its 14 million units is expected to further increase in 2019. However, this is not money that KAWS can put in his pocket. After all, the artist does not sell the pictures himself. It just shows how the art scene is now celebrating Donnelly. And the next collab with Jordan for a new shoe is rumored already in the works.

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