Fashion

Why the Uniqlo x Kaws T-Shirt Caused a Riot

Welcome to the weird world of KAWS, the artist who can sell anything.
IMAGE ESQUIRE UK / GETTY
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One of the strangest videos uploaded to the Internet this week came out of China. In it, swathes of people, their faces obscured by the grain of a camera phone, are pushing against a Uniqlo storefront barrier inside some lonely strip mall. As it's slowly raised, the crowd burst into the shop, a hive manically scooping up piles of T-shirts and raiding mannequins for their display outfits. There's a clip of two men wrestling on the polished mall floor, clawing at each other as they're pried apart by bystanders. A woman screams throughout. In another video a group of young men are filmed careering through a different shopping center, their shoes squeaking comically. A phone flies out of one's pocket and slides from view, the owner keeps on running.  All of these people are on the hunt for the same thing: A piece from the KAWS x Uniqlo collaboration. 

For the uninitiated, KAWS, whose real name is Brian Donnelly, is enjoying a turn as one of the hottest artists in the world. A timid 45-year-old from New Jersey who began his career tagging the bridges, underpasses and Subway trains around New York. His work, which spans painting, sculpture, and toy design, is colorful and cartoonish, featuring an array of characters with crossed-out eyes and white-gloved hands. He's become a sort of Charles Schultz-meets-Jeff Koons for the Supreme generation.

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One of the Uniqlo t-shirts that sold out almost-immediately
Photo by UNIQLO.

This April, at an auction at Sotheby's Hong Kong, a painting by KAWS done in the style of The Simpson's that parodies the Sgt. Pepper album cover smashed expectations by selling for $14.7 million despite an initial estimate of $1 million. The sale officially cemented the artist's status as an auctioneer's dream and a legitimate mainstream success. 

"KAWS navigates seamlessly between street culture, high art and the mass commercial market," Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s Senior Director, European Head of Contemporary Art tells me over e-mail. "His references to popular culture truly capture the essence of zeitgeists past and present, subverting cartoon heroes to reinforce the idea that he makes no distinction between concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art."

The artist with some of his work
Photo by GETTY IMAGES.

Kim Jones, the creative director of Dior, chose KAWS as a collaborator for his debut collection, a giant black-suited figure of his making, crafted out of pink and white roses, loomed over the brand's Paris catwalk. Elsewhere his graphics were present on clothes throughout the spring/summer 2019 collection, including a re-working of the Dior house bee. 

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"I’ve always wanted to work with KAWS, I think he’s super chic and also his work speaks to a lot of people." Kim Jones told Esquire Singapore in a recent interview. "I’ve grown up loving KAWS but now he’s like one of the major artists of his generation and it’s for everybody really." 

This sort of high-low appeal is what has made his third and final collaboration with Uniqlo, part of the brand's UT T-shirt project overseen by BAPE founder Nigo, such a rabid success. It also goes some way to explaining why people have lost their collective minds over the chance of acquiring a piece. One of the Uniqlo T-shirts costs less than £20, while a Dior T-shirt with his take on the bee comes in at £420 and rising. A plush toy version of the pink KAWS Dior character will cost prospective buyers around £17,000 on resale website StockX.

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A model walking the Dior runway for the brand’s spring/summer 2019 show, the Kaws sculpture visible in the background
Photo by GETTY IMAGES.

The queue outside of Uniqlo's Oxford Circus flagship on Thursday morning is calmer than I expected, around 250 people, including a HypeBaby in a pram snake down the street. AirPods in ears, eyes averted down to phones, little bags strapped across chests, as non-KAWS-loving pedestrians stop and gawp. "What is going on here?" a man in a black suit, also wearing AirPods, asks me as I linger outside. "I thought it was for a job interview!" he laughs, shaking his head before going on his way after I explain. A woman is particularly disgruntled to discover that, no, she cannot return any items right now. This morning is for KAWS-heads only, please come back later. 

"I just love KAWS as an artist," Matteo, an Italian in his mid-30s tells me. "I really hope I get a piece."

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The queue outside the Uniqlo store in Jinhua for the release of the KAWS collaboration
Photo by GETTY IMAGES.

Clearly the London staff have learned from the lunacy that took place in China earlier in the week, as only 10 customers are allowed in at a time. 

Luca, 17, who is wearing a Palace cap and side bag and has very blue eyes, was the first in the queue, waking up early to travel from Billericay in Essex down to London with his friend Chris, who is wearing an orange Supreme x North Face jacket. He bought four T-shirts and looks very pleased about it. "I'm going to wear them all, yes, definitely!" he says. "I like Brian Donelly's work a lot!" 

"All the guys who are into Palace and Supreme are into KAWS, too. I'm not sure why, but they are," he adds. "I thought, it would be stupid not to queue up for a bit, seeing how cheap the T-shirts are, you know?" 

A woman stops and shakes her head, two workmen in pain-splattered jeans ogle as they pass by, a continuous shuffle of nice trainers enter in and out the store. Matteo gets in, then the baby. I see zero mannequins being torn apart. No phones flying or men wrestling in the name of hype.  I'm almost disappointed.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Finlay Renwick
Finlay Renwick is the Digital Editorial Assistant at Esquire.co.uk
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