In the spring and summer of 2014, shutters were slamming in front of the doors and windows at Kidrobot’s retail stores in Manhattan, Miami, and Boulder. The brand synonymous with art toys and responsible for bringing the craze to the western world was nowhere to be seen at the conventions it typically dominated. There were murmurings of major money issues. The company that dwarfed the handful of remaining art toy producers, no longer seemed like an unstoppable force of niche culture. Basically, Kidrobot was screwed. And that had a lot of fans and artists— countless numbers of whom had their careers effectively launched by the company—biting their nails. If Kidrobot went down the toilet, it was very possible that the entire designer toy industry would be dragged along with it.

But let’s back up for a second. For the uninitiated, designer toys (a.k.a. art toys, vinyl toys, and urban vinyl) are pieces of art that typically utilize the same production processes and formats as toys from ’60s and ’70s-era Japan. Before the age of G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers, toys weren’t mold-injected, but rotocast. Toy manufacturers melted vinyl and placed it inside a spinning copper mold. The centrifugal force pushed the vinyl into the curves and crevices of the mold until it is cooled and solidified. The different pieces were then painted, assembled into the final figure, placed in a box or bag, and sent to stores. This process is extremely affordable, especially at a large production scale, making it a perfect way for artists to create three-dimensional, mass produced versions of their art. Come the mid 2000s, the cool factor combined with the nostalgia of collecting and playing with toys as a kid turned out to be a hit, mainly for urban-dwelling 20- and 30-somethings with an eye for design.

Vinyl toys have their roots in Japan. As the legend goes, Bounty Hunter, a small clothing brand in Harajuku, was looking for a way to increase sales in 1997. The founder, Hikaru Iwanaga, had grown up on a military base that sold American cereal. A toy was hidden inside each box, which in turn was decked out with caricatures of pirates, ghosts, or classic monsters. He figured the same principle could be applied to boutique clothing. Hikaru and Skatething of A Bathing Ape fame created what is accepted by most as the first example of a designer vinyl toy. Dubbed Kid Hunter, this portly, punk-rock bastardization of Cap’n Crunch stood nine inches tall and was only available when purchased alongside Bounty Hunter clothes. But the clothes quickly became an afterthought. People simply wanted the toy, just like children pick a cereal not by taste, and certainly not by nutrition, but for which toy is included in the box.