The name Brian Donnelly might not ring out to many fans of art and design. Donnelly can walk the streets without being mobbed by fans. (I once saw him on the subway in New York City, and am pretty sure I was the only one in the crowded train that recognized him.) But when you refer to Donnelly by his nom de guerre KAWS, then the Q score rockets up exponentially. KAWS is Donnelly’s tag, or alter ego. He first gained attention for his graffiti (before it was called “street art”) in the 1990s. He created a series of characters, often with stylized X’s over the eyes, and would draw them on top of existing advertising in phone booths and bus shelters. KAWS’s work was much more than mere vandalism, an artistry clearly shined through. And after some time, he began to rise through the ranks in the world of fine art.
KAWS translated some of his two-dimensional characters into large-scale 3D sculptures and has shown at numerous esteemed museums and galleries. His work now commands top dollar and celebrities such as Pharrell are known collectors.
While KAWS now operates in the rarefied air of upper echelons of the art world, he has never lost his connection to the broader world of street culture, whether it’s through his Companion series of vinyl toys or collaborative T-shirts with Uniqlo that sell for less than $20. But few projects have garnered the hype of the sneakers KAWS recently released with the Jordan Brand. Even though he had worked on sneakers with Nike in the past, most notably on an Air Force 1 and Air Max 90, there was nowhere near the frenzy for those models as there was the Air Jordan 4 that dropped last Friday.
Police had to shut down a raffle that one London sneaker store held for a chance to win the shoes after the crush of people grew too large. And the shoes are fetching exorbitant prices on the resale market. The Jordan 4s had an already-high retail cost of $350, but are being sold for more than $2,000 at aftermarket locations like Stadium Goods.
Part of the reason for the hysteria is due to the inflated size of the sneaker market these days. There are just a lot more people that know about and are into a shoe like this than there were 10 or even five years ago. But equally important is that the sneakers are just that good. Every once in awhile, something is incredibly hyped and then manages to live up to it. With its unique hairy suede upper that is embroidered with an outline of the hands of KAWS’s Companion character and glow-in-the-dark outsoles, this is the kind of shoe that people will still be talking about long after the hype has died down. Forget about sneaker of the year, this is in the running for sneaker of the decade.
Even the New York City location chosen to release the shoes was befitting of that sture. Instead of dropping at a regular sneaker store, the KAWS Jordans caused lines to snake around no less of an institution than the Brooklyn Museum, with the collaboration logo projected onto the facade of the Beaux Arts landmark. It was there, in a small room off of the Museum’s cafeteria, that Kaws gave a rare interview to a select group of reporters to talk about the shoe, its design and the sneakerheads trying to slide into his DM’s to snag a pair.
Were there any other colors you thought about working on for this shoe?
The only thing that we sort of entertained was black, not to be confused with that weird thing that leaked early that had nothing to do with the shoe. We looked at [black], but grey was it. I wanted to do grey from the start but we were just looking at options.
What was your reaction when it leaked?
When I saw it I was like I don’t even want to say anything. I don’t want to either confirm nor deny. I want to stay out of it.
What was your first pair of Air Jordans growing up?
I’m not really a sneaker guy. I just make them. I just had the simple ones, the high top versions of these [the Air Jordan 1s].
Is there a detail on this shoe that you’re most proud of?
Not particularly. I’m just glad we did this shoe. If you were to ask me blindly which shoe would you want to do, I would pick Jordan because I feel like this is a company that started with an individual that grew into this enterprise. I’m fascinated by that story. I just think it’s a great thing to be a part of.
How did you end up working on the Air Jordan 4?
That’s just the shape that I liked. I went out to Portland [to Nike headquarters] and looked at everything. We were just talking about what the possibilities were. I also liked these a lot [Air Jordan 1 low]. Obviously, since I’m wearing them.
Thanks everyone who came out to the #KAWS @jumpman23 release at the @brooklynmuseum today! I’m seeing a lot of comments from people upset about my website not releasing the product today but I never mentioned product would be on my site today. For every release on kawsone I have sent a mailer the day before announcing the release and time it will go live. I wish I caught wind of this sooner so I could prevent wasted time and expectations.
Was there anything particularly challenging about designing these?
Getting the drawing style stitched to come out in the shoe and be visible but not overwhelming. That might have been the only thing we had to focus on.
What was it like for you to see the reaction for the shoe and see the buzz keep escalating?
It’s a strange thing. I’m not the connoisseur of shoes. I don’t know what came out last year or last month. To see such a wide response and in these different countries is fascinating to me.
People tried to hack your website to get a pair. What did you think about that? Nobody ever hacked my website before [laughs]. I’ve gotten DM’d endlessly on my account. Every comment, no matter what it is that I post, is inevitably, “I’m an 11”, “I’m a size 9”, “Yo, brah.” People were approaching my brother, who is completely out of my world. There were endless random requests.
Weren’t you already experiencing that with your limited edition toys?
No, it’s a different thing. It’s a totally different frenzy in the sneaker world than it is in the toy world. It’s just a larger market.
Was this different than when you did Nike collaborations in the past?
Absolutely. Those seemed big at the time, but you can’t even compare it [now].
In sneakers and art, there are parallels where there is a collector culture. For the lucky kids that get their hands on your pair, would you suggest they let it appreciate like a piece of art or go out and wear them?
I would hope that people would go out and wear the shoes. For me, the shoe is a functional object. That can be a hypocritical statement because I collect furniture that you can’t sit on. To each his own. I’m not going to tell you not to save [them] and keep something brand new. But if you’re wearing stuff I’m going to be like that’s totally normal. It’s a shoe.
Are you looking at this more as a one-off or looking at this as a start of a relationship?
I think we’ll let the smoke clear and see how it disseminated and see what was good about it and see if there’s a reason to do something more. It will just need to make sense.