Few artists capture the respect of the streets and the galleries as well as Brian Donnelly. Known professionally as KAWS, Donnelly has been blurring the lines between commercial and fine art for over 20 years. At the same time, KAWS has pioneered what it means to sell artwork during the Golden Age of ecommerce.
There’s no question direct-to-consumer is one of the 21st century’s defining retail trends. As ecommerce steadily became a feasible reality in the mid-2000s, a wealth of tools, services and platforms proliferated, allowing businesses big and small to run integrated sales operations from virtually anywhere.
What even the most savvy of forecasters might not have predicted, however, was that the practice would extend as far as the art world, with artists taking the same opportunity to sell art-cum-merchandise to everyday consumers keen to own a quasi-art piece of their own for a reassuringly affordable price.
Enter Brian Donnelly.
Donnelly, better known as KAWS, is a New Jersey-born street artist who first made a name for himself defacing New York billboard and bus stop ads with his signature skull-and-crossbones “Companion” characters. From the late ‘90s onwards, KAWS’ star rose precipitously, bounded by a series of projects that cemented his subcultural mythos while also establishing his value as a legitimate business proposition.
Collaborations with niche Japanese streetwear labels were followed by the creation of collectible plastic figurines courtesy of MEDICOM TOY®, monumental installations everywhere from London’s Regents Park to the Hong Kong harbor, and a series of offerings with high-street fashion retailer Uniqlo.
When it came to outlets through which to promote himself, KAWS was hardly short of options. And yet the allure of D2C was still strong enough to convince him to try his hand at direct sales from his own KAWSONE website, with releases increasing in frequency ever since they first began with a handful of sporadic sales of limited edition prints in the mid-2010s.
Since its launch, the KAWSONE website has been the envy of key industry figures. KAWS took Supreme’s drop model work and scaled it down, proving a website that’s open for business for minutes every few months can send the internet into a frenzy.
But how did a lone artist who refined his craft on the streets of Manhattan crack the D2C code while so many VC-backed brands rack their brains to understand what they’re doing wrong?
In order to fully understand, you first have to consider the artist on his own terms. And in order to do that, you have to go back to another artist who was equally, notoriously, commercially prolific: Andy Warhol.
From Commodity to Art to Commodity
50 years after his reign, it’s easy to be blasé about Warhol’s legacy, numbed as we are to the milieu of Marilyns, soup cans, bananas, polaroids and fluorescent color schemes that comprise his best-known works.
For younger generations who’ve grown up marinating in the water of commercialised creativity and off-the-shelf artistry, it’s difficult to grasp just how audacious a proposition Warhol’s was: turning everyday commodities and throwaway cultural signifiers into works of art on equal footing with any Rembrandt or Monet.
Donnelly, whose playful repurposing of pop culture figures including The Simpsons, Spongebob Squarepants and Snoopy are regularly compared to the Warholian project, continues where the legendary artist left off. If Warhol set out to turn everyday commodities into works of art, then Donnelly takes it one step further: KAWS turns works of art into commodities.
Alongside canvas paintings and sculptures that have sold at auction houses for eye-watering prices, KAWS has simultaneously produced a plethora of comparatively affordable products—skate decks, figurines and rugs—that offer his less deep-pocketed fans an opportunity to own a piece of his work. And while many pieces have been created in collaboration with international brands like the ones mentioned above, others are overseen end to end by KAWS himself.
KAWS’ gradual move toward D2C is continuous with the artistic project he’s carried out since he first came to prominence at the turn of the millennium: making gallery-worthy artwork accessible to the public.
His embrace of D2C means he can drop a new figurine or collectible, all the way from release through to shipping, on largely his own terms. As an artist that means nearly total creative control. As a fan of KAWS, that means reasonably priced art in the form of commodities.
D2C is Art
Andy Warhol once said: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” As today’s answer to Warhol’s singular genius, KAWS might tack on “D2C” to that expression.
Because what the case of KAWS shows on a larger scale is what D2C has promised all along: an opportunity to connect and reconnect with your customer, and grow with them as they grow with you. If you’re lucky enough to grab one of his $200 figurines, there’s every chance it’ll be worth twice as much before it’s even arrived at your doorstep. And that’s intentional.
By leveraging the mechanics of D2C, KAWS maintains creative, and perhaps more importantly, production independence, keeping the supply of his products artificially low while developing closer and closer relationships with his audience.
It’s 2021. Consumers are savvy. What they don’t like is inauthenticity. And one of the simplest ways to be authentic online is to cut out the middleman and just speak to them yourself.
Lead image courtesy of Skarstedt.
Gregk Foley is a UK-based writer. His works appear in Dazed, Highsnobiety and SHOWstudio. Follow Gregk on Twitter.