It's 80 degrees on the last Friday in April in New York City, and mobs of people are lined up at Uniqlo's SoHo store to attempt to buy T-shirts or plush toys from Kaws' second collection with the brand. The collection—Kaws' ongoing work with Peanuts—is releasing at a time where his buzz is at an all-time high. In his 20 plus year career, Kaws has gone from graffiti artist to having installations in museums across the world and releasing some of the most high-profile sneaker and streetwear collaborations of the past decade. This past March, he dropped a pair of the limited-edition, highly-anticipated Air Jordan IVs.
The Uniqlo collection is important for Kaws. It not only proves that he can still sell clothing after shutting down his label, Original Fake, in 2013, it’s also growing his name to a mass audience who may or may not have been fans of streetwear previously. But even with all the hype surrounding everything he’s done lately, Kaws is cool and collected as ever and focused on the next project, whatever it may be.
We had the opportunity to talk to him at Uniqlo’s office in New York City on the day of the release. Kaws discussed the collection, his recently released Air Jordans, and the first time he got paid as an artist.
This is your second collection with Uniqlo. Why’d you choose to do Peanuts characters this time?
I thought Peanuts was the perfect way of working with Uniqlo but doing something new. I’ve worked with them in the past, and I knew that Uniqlo also worked with them, so I thought it would be the perfect fit.
You’ve done your own clothing line, Original Fake, and done collaborations with a ton of brands. What’s it like to work with a fast-fashion brand?
Honestly, for me, the process is the same. Working with a company like Uniqlo, the distribution is so great. What I was doing with Original Fake, I couldn’t have possibly reached as many people, and I feel like it’s the right climate to do projects like this.
Do you ever think of doing Original Fake again?
No, not at all. I enjoy hopping around. I’m working on this project right now, and next week I’m doing a show, and I don’t have to think about clothing. Before, when I had a company, I was always thinking about the season approaching in the back of my mind. It’s not fun.
Do you have a different work process between doing clothing and your art?
No, it happens under the same roof. I do my paintings in the same building as I do the design. It just depends on what fires I need to put out. Sometimes I’ll work on one thing, then something will occur to me that works for the other project, and I’ll just drop it and move over. There’s no rule book or plan that I follow when I do any of these [projects].
What’s it like to do these projects and see a 1,000 kids outside waiting for them?
I’m designing these very simple collections, so it’s really not different from other things I’ve done; just the outlet has changed. Seeing it disseminate globally on a day is amazing to me. I forgot that Asia was opening 12 hours ahead. I woke up to a barrage of activity happening.
When you started doing clothing, did you ever think it would last this long?
Honestly, no. I did this today, and I don’t know what next year will bring, or if I’ll ever do this again. I go with what I think is working and what opportunities present themselves. Masamichi Katayama, who’s a friend of mine, designs all of the Uniqlo stores, and he invited me when he opened the Fifth Avenue store. His company is called Wonderwall. [It was] knowing him and Nigo [that made this collaboration happen]. Nigo moved on from Bape and started to [creative] direct Uniqlo, and it all happened in a casual way.
You recently did your version of the Air Jordan IV. What was it like working with Gemo Wong on the sneakers?
It was casual. I designed the shoe, it came out months later. It was great, it was a fun project.
You said you made a sneaker you wanted to wear. What’s it like to see kids sell them for, like, $2,000?
I always say I want to wear [the things I do], then I become too self-conscious about stuff, and I don’t want a conversation [about my shoes] to happen on the train. It’s an interesting thing: I’m not really embedded in the inner workings of that world. There are all these little circles and people only tend to think about the one that they’re in. They’re collectors of art, and I’m sure there are collectors of vases who are very intense about that, too. I appreciate the different circles and don’t try to think about one over the other.
But when you see someone wearing your T-shirt or sneakers on the train, does it make you do a doubletake?
It’s awesome, I think it’s great. It’s weird because I’m somewhat removed from it. I can look at it like, “Oh, wow, what a coincidence.”
You worked on Doug early on in your career, what was that like?
I painted backgrounds for Doug, and I’ve worked for other animation companies. It was a check. When you’re still in school, you’re in this little isolated world. Then you hit your fourth year and say, “Wow, I’ve got to make a living.” Then you think, “Oh my God, what am I going to do for work? This is real.” I started working in animation because it was a way to paint every day and it was a steady check. It was fun, it was good. I did it when I had to, then I moved on to other things.
Did it satisfy your artistic urges?
I was shocked that I could make a living doing art. I didn’t care if it was for animation. I was like, “Really, I can get paid to paint all day?” I wasn’t raised in a way where people got paid to do that. I was like, “Great, I can rent an apartment in Manhattan and move?”
What’s your take on the current graffiti scene?
I don’t think I’m qualified to have a take on the current graffiti scene. I’ve been out of it for so long. It was great that I was so young and exposed to so many kids in different countries. I had a sense of community through the stuff that I made. It’s really unlike any other art form. My first time out of the country was to Germany, because their government paid for me to be part of some graffiti exhibition. We went and painted this exhibition and hit billboards down the train line all night. It was sort of a playground. After 9/11, things got a little [weird]. For me, I transitioned out of graffiti and started doing phone booths. After 9/11, there became such a suspicious element on the street.
Do you miss bombing?
Not really, I don’t harp on the past. I see stuff that I’ve done and say, “Wow, that was 20 years ago, I’m old.” I did it at the time to get the work out in front of people and have a dialogue with them. Over time, other outlets have opened up. The complete landscape of communication has changed, and there are other things to do.
You’re known for always wearing the hat. How many do you own?
These are Original Fake. When did I close that company, how many years now? I have so many boxes left over. You can tell your photographer to Photoshop me out of a photo 10 years ago, and I’ll have the same outfit on. It’s good. It lets me give my attention to work, and I can wake up and reach into my closet half asleep and dress myself.
Do you ever want to wear the brighter stuff that you design?
[Laughs] You know what? When you make stuff all day you tend to put it out in the world and let it have its own life. I don’t need to spark up conversations about my own designs with strangers.
Do you pay attention to the blogs?
No. Some of them I definitely see. Over time, I’ve grown and Complex has grown into this different thing, and I appreciate just how people survive. When Hypebeast first started to post my stuff, I would email them and say, “Why are you using my images? These are my photographs.” When people first started to blog stuff, they would just steal a photo. Now it’s common. It’s a repost or whatever. It’s natural. It’s embedded in every kid. Sometimes you’ll give credit. But at the time it threw me off.
Do you think it’s cool that you have a generation of 16-year olds who started buying your stuff, because they saw it on Hypebeast and they wanted your brand, and now they’re becoming art collectors?
If my work can get people into new things and get them inching onto new territory for themselves, that’s great. When I was young, Keith Haring was an artist that I felt comfortable with. He’s a person that made product, but he also did exhibitions. Aside from him, there weren’t a lot of contemporary artists who made me like, “Oh yeah, let me go see that or let me think about that.” He was a gateway. New artists got me into new circle of artists. You’d always look at what’s happening around them geographically. There are all these rabbit holes you can crawl down.
What inspires you now?
I don’t know. It’s whatever. My kids. They’re fun. They take up a good portion of my mental space. Other artists, different things.
You and Nigo have a close friendship. What’s the reason you get along so well?
I don’t know. I think I met him at a time in the ‘90s, when he was really getting into what he was doing. But he was doing it in such an advanced way to anyone doing streetwear in the U.S. I think there’s a sensibility that we share that adds a comfort level to the relationship. He’s a mellow guy and easy to be around, but also a fascinating person.
Your work always has a fun element to it. Are you ever going to transfer onto more serious or darker things?
I’m glad you think my work has a fun element. Is it? I look at some of my sculptures and think they’re horrifying. But if that’s fun to you, that’s great.
Your work centers around pop culture. Do you have a fascination with that?
I think about the stuff I grew up around, observed, and coexisted with and think about how it enters and populates the world. I constantly think about how things exist and what remains relevant.
Is there something you have on a checklist that you haven’t done yet?
Not really. I’d like to think I have a plan, but I take opportunities as they come. I think of things that I want and try to bring them to fruition.
You said you don’t like to harp on things, but do you have favorite things that you’ve done?
Yes, everything. [Laughs]. No, I don’t know. It’s all there, and it’s part of the work. You take the good with the bad, and you try to build things.