Anime made its debut in American around the 60s. Since then its become a mainstay, with various facets of American society embracing it little by little. By this point Anime is as American as apple pie. Anime and clothing have had some type of relationship in America since, at least, the 90s. Though this has evolved from unlicensed merchandise to corporate merchandising to it finally having a wider acceptance in the world of Streetwear.
It started with skate decks
To fully understand Streetwear’s incorporation of Anime as an aesthetic. One has to look towards the origin of Anime in American society. Specifically in the 80s, when Anime had its second big run in America with the Robotech series. At the time it was highly acclaimed and had a strong fan base, as many Americans had never seen that style of Animation with a deep story line. It went on to influence various artists, one artist is particularly important. namely Jeremy Klein. Jeremy Klein is an important figure in the skating world, the man has designed many iconic boards, and was one of the people responsible for turning World Industries into a prominent skating company.
He had quite a wide array of art styles in his early years with World Industries. Drawings that echoed Norman Rockwell with a twist, referenced video games, were punk influenced, very sexual, basic flips, and even an Anime style that was the standard of that era. 1991 was the time that Jeremy released many hit decks, however the one thats probably helped define him was his Dream Girl deck. Released in 1991 for World Industries it was a major release. Jeremy has only given small insights as to why he designed something that was obviously inspired by Anime of the early 90s. It summed up his interests at the time, which were Anime, Mechs, and of course women hence the name. He would eventually take the concept of Dream Girl and expand it to create Hook-Ups Skateboards in 1994. Hook-Ups boards were very controversial as they often had Anime women with big beasts posed sensually. Though he also included various facets of Japanese culture and even gave nods to it in his videos and ads. Jeremy’s Hook-Ups boards have since become collectibles, especially his older boards.
Though whats important is that Jeremy was possibly the first person to put and sell Anime characters on clothing. This is pretty significant, considering that at this time it was definitely not a cool thing in fashion, nor was it even on Streetwear’s radar. Its important to note that Klein used Anime more or less as a mascot for Hook-Ups. Some designs expressed Japanese culture, so in some ways it was a bit educating, though that probably wasn’t the point. Hook-Ups has used Anime primarily in a one dimensional context in order to give the brand a strong identity in the skating world.
Klein would go on to ride for Birdhouse, continuing his style of controversial graphics, and making a few Anime inspired designs.
People like it, let’s sell It
1996 saw Dragon Ball Z have its debut on public TV. Many kids, and even teens were in awe. DBZ had nearly blasted the doors open for Anime in America. It was nearly a revolution.
Though finding official tees to rep your favorite shows is easy to do today, years ago it wasn’t the case. It was rare for cartoon shows to have tees or hoodies available to people. Even in the 90s. Only Disney and Warner Bros were really making apparel featuring their most popular Animated characters. Companies who made cartoons were only interested in selling toys or action figures to kids.
This lack of officially sanctioned merchandise eventually led to people creating unofficial merch. This is pretty interesting, as companies that owned the rights to certain Animated series may have thought that licensing things other than toys would be unprofitable. Yet people were clearly profiting off other companies’ intellectual property.
I can recall going to Venice beach as a kid and visiting various shops with my siblings. On one of these trips we stumbled upon a shop that carried a multitude of DBZ merch. They were selling VHS, posters, coasters, poker decks, and clothing. In hindsight I know that all that stuff probably wasn’t licensed by whoever owned the rights to DBZ at the time. Needless to say, you could have found shirts at certain swap meets, with Goku or Vegeta. Of course those shirts would never say Dragon Ball Z on them. You could even find some crappy toys that looked like the Z fighters.
There was obviously a market for clothing with people’s favorite TV characters on it, more so with cartoons. It wouldn’t really be til the first few years of the 2000s that studios would realize that they could make money by putting popular characters on t-shirts. Even when Animation studios did do this, it was a slow relationship for Anime and fashion. In the late 80s Vans had made shoes for Disney, it was the start of making cartoons fashionable, and making them more financially marketable.
It became more typical to find American animated series apparel in retail and department stores. Spongebob would be an obvious example, as countless clothing items could be bought from places like JC Penny to Walmart. However Disney broke ground a bit earlier with their Disney stores, making their licensed apparel somewhat more available, besides having to go to Disneyland itself.
However as American animated shows saw a boom in merchandised clothing, Japanese Animated shows were still on the fringes of society. Eventually bootlegged DBZ items were more or less stopped as Funimation who held the rights to DBZ tried to further capitalize on its popularity. The Early 2000s saw some decent looking tees be released. The tees were pretty straight forward, having prints of the individual Z Fighters. However they were pretty hard to come by. The tees were almost always found in places that sold DVDs/VHS, think FYE. They’d typically be segregated in the Anime section, plus there would only be a few tees. By the mid 2000s DBZ was over, and not much had changed with Anime and fashion. Other Anime series in America continued following DBZ’s method of selling clothing and other merch.
Part of the reason why Anime apparel wasn’t widely available at this time, may have been due to it being seen as too foreign. Although shows like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and DBZ were popular. It was undoubtedly clear, probably to adults and American retail stores, that those shows were definitely not American. Perhaps as a result, these shows became fads, instead of initially becoming classics, on par with shows like Dexter’s Lab, Invader Zim, or Samurai Jack. While Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and DBZ had great fan bases at the start of their first runs in America, eventually it drove away its initial audience with various elements that are found in Japanese Animation.
Things would soon change in the latter 2000s with the mass opening of Hot Topics across many malls in America. Though the store has no viable link to Streetwear, it did serve as a platform for fashion and Animation’s relationship to evolve. While its demographics were strongly held in the goth world, eventually they decided to start selling various Animated series merch. Of course it started with American Animated shows. However Hot Topic soon started looking towards Anime, not as a niche culture, but something that was obviously going to appeal to millions of Americans. As such, something perceived as being on the fringe for years, finally had a much stronger presence.
Triumvir’s last stand
In 2008 the Recession was officially recognized in America. The world of Streetwear was going through changes. Brands that were thriving before were not doing so well. This was also true with Triumvir, a brand which had quite a rep for their products and concepts. The economic turmoil as well as Streetwear’s doubted financial market caused rifts within the brand.
One of Triumvir’s last great releases were their Street Fighter collabs. At face value the collabs seem uninspired or lazy. They are important, as it was the first time a major Streetwear label decided to tap into Anime. Moreover it may have been the first time Anime and Streetwear came together in America. While most people may think that Street Fighter is wholly a gaming thing and has no connection to Anime, thats not the truth.
The original concepts for the characters were drawn in a very 1980s Anime style, by of course Japanese illustrators. Likewise there was a manga series, an Animated movie, and even an Anime series. With all of this in mind Triumvir had decided to formally collaborate with Capcom. Again this was something pretty rare at the time. The collab was met with a mix of anticipation and hate. People were obviously questioning whether a capsule collection that involved video games and Anime even belonged in Streetwear. Look in the comments section of blogs and you’ll understand why this collab was a bit too ahead of its time.
The focus of the collab was quality and artwork. The first collection was the Shadaloo Psycho Brigade drop. An entire wardrobe that did a good job at balancing Streetwear and Anime. It managed to be stylish, without coming off as being too geeky or otaku. The collab was followed with graphic tees that showcased artwork based off the original concept art for the Street Fighter games. Most of the tees were line art, complimented with watercolor graphics that added a sense of motion to a seemingly flat piece of art. However the concept of the collabs eventually lost interest in the Streetwear community. By 2011 the collabs were over and Triumvir was fading away.
The Street Fighter collabs proved that well designed graphic tees with Anime or video game inspired backgrounds, could indeed be accepted in Streetwear. Triumvir’s collab was something that crossed over into other territories. Specifically into the gaming and Anime communities. Capcom used the collab as a way to generate hype for Street Fighter IV, along with other famous street artists, like Futura. It seemed to work well for both entities. Triumvir actually ended up on Wired’s radar, as well as Kotaku, though their respective communities were not as fond of the collab. It would still be a while before any major Anime Streetwear collab would come about. Bape’s collabs with One Piece and Mastermind Japan’s Gundam collabs were major steps in Anime’s relationship with Streetwear in America. As both brands had a strong presence in America, with an equally strong reputation. The Japanese fashion community has a good relationship with Animation/Manga. They know how to treat the medium with respect, but more importantly they see it as part of their culture.
Probably the biggest challenge for Anime to become an accept Streetwear element, is Anime’s far flung otaku and cosplay communities. Otakus are people who more or less thrive on Anime and its glorification. Though otakus usually come off as being geeky and, unfashionable. People’s sense of fashion is the last thing Otakus may focus on. Whereas in Streetwear its basically the opposite. Theres also Anime’s cosplay community, which at times can paint Anime fans as being too enthusiastic for something that is often perceived as childish. However due to some high profile collabs with big name Streetwear brands, Streetwear’s view on Anime has finally started to change.
Though the Anime industry has begun to change in a general way. Japanese culture has become more prominent, things that were once thought to be weird, are more accepted now. Things like Pocky, a popular Japanese food item which could be seen in various Anime shows, has nearly become an American mainstay. It can found in Wal Mart and other big chain grocers, however 10 years ago, you’d probably be hard pressed to find some. Theres also the fact that every major streaming service in America has a sizable amount of Anime in their libraries. Theres also a huge fanbase of Anime fans, including celebrities, who probably wouldn’t qualify as being otakus. Kanye West is an examaple, as his Stronger video was obviously a nod to Akira. Probably the most damming evidence that Anime has reached a strong acceptance in America, is Victoria Secret’s 2012 fashion show, in which a model wore a body suit that ripped off Rei Ayanami’s plugsuit.
Don’t trust the new kids?
Streetwear has grown to great prominence, becoming a legitimate rival to the fashion hierarchy. Stussy is often regarded as starting the movement, while other brands have helped the evolution of Streetwear by adopting certain themes. Such as guns, drugs, women, flipping logos, and most importantly referencing.
Referencing and appropriation of different cultures or scenes has become a very defining characteristic of Streetwear as well as other American industries. Some of the best examples of referencing in Streetwear are tees that try to use the least amount of its source material to bring about a certain mood or idea. Movies are a good examples, as sometimes characters or even phrases have been taken out their context in order to become something else. Heres a good example using Goodfellas, a nice little reference and appropriation by SSUR. It possibly suggests that anyone living the “life” will always meet a brutal end. There has also been the referencing of music icons. This tee, referencing 2-Pac, basically shows its disdain with the current trend of music of the time, circa 2009. There was also Rouge Status’ once infamous gun show tees. That last example is strongly significant because it shows how Streetwear can appropriate things from other cultures and use them to create a strong tone. The gun show design featured guns, specifically military grade weapons, and threw it on a tee to bring about a really aggressive attitude.
All of these examples have taken their inspiration from various corners of American society. America is perhaps where Streetwear is at its strongest. Thats not to say that it is a purely Western style of design. Various Streetwear brands have popped up in places such as Europe and Asia. Though Eastern brands have a strong unique aesthetic, like Bape and Clot.
In America this is significant, as there are various Asian ethnic groups, who for the most part have never been greatly represented. None Asian American’s love of Anime have ultimately sparked an interest in various Asian cultures. Anime itself has a bigger acceptance in Asia, whether its in Japan, Korea, China, etc. However Asian Americans are not defined by where their parents came from, or the customs they may share with their distant families in Asia. Instead they have begun to grow their own identities and have even had a strong hand in shaping modern Streetwear. Like Bobby Hundreds and Brian from Triumvir.
However progress has slowed. Things that are readily accepted in mainstream America, are what most Streetwear brands use to create their aesthetic. Its why you’ll see more tees that say Fuck in English, but maybe none with Chinese curse words. It’s why you’ll see tees with 40s on them, but not sake. Its why you’ll see more references to American action movies, but maybe not samurai flicks. This also poses the question as to whether or not Anime can be considered a Streetwear thing? The same can said about brands that have done flips on Garfield, the Peanuts gang, and even Disney. People should be able to appreciate well drawn artwork, it shouldn’t matter what the influence is. Anime in particular, with the right artists, can produce very amazing drawings.
Over the last few years a kind of revolution or more appropriately a new generation of American Streetwear brands have sprung up that have brought Anime back into the Streetwear scene. More importantly they’ve brought along their Asian backgrounds, fusing together an aesthetic that is a strong combination of American design with obvious Asian undertones. Ronin is perhaps the first of these brands. Having a strong samurai culture theme, specifically the ronins. Their Mugen tee was possibly the first American Streetwear tee to reference Anime, even using it as an aesthetic. It was released back in 2012, since then other brands have been upping the ante and using Anime more as a theme or motif.
While these newer brands may use Anime, it definitely doesn’t label them as Anime Streetwear brands. It has instead been able to give Asian culture a stronger footing in Streetwear, its also brought back the artistic element, it will perhaps even revitalize Streetwear as a whole. Beyond Anime, each brand has their own unique aesthetics that aren’t easily defined. Many of the newer brands like Sequence, Third Vision, and Hidden Characters employ artists to their rosters.
Thats not to say that brands using Anime or referencing Asian customs have to have an Asian background, Jeremy Klein would be an obvious example. Even Hmn Alns, and his famous stylings of Anime characters in streetwear.
While people may not understand how art and Streetwear’s relationship has been over the last 25+ years, there have been times when the two fields closely worked together. Obey’s Shepard Fairey is an example as the man is a highly recognized street artist, who eventually crossed over into streetwear with his limited graphic tees that showcased his sought after prints. This was also true for artists like Futura and KAWS, whose early Streetwear collabs were highly acclaimed and made brands push Streetwear in new directions. Though as of today Streetwear is in a vexing situation. While the industry has grown to great financial heights, it can be said that its golden age is over. The community has developed a formula to keep money flowing, which many can’t argue with. The biggest brands in the game aren’t really bringing anything new to Streetwear. Likely the lack of newer artists or ideas has caused these brands to rely on what they already know, instead of taking risks and looking for new inspirations. In its heyday the golden age of Streetwear, as a whole, was pushed along by multiple people from various backgrounds, today its mostly left to the graphic designers.
This newer generation of Streetwear may be known as the Anime era someday, or not. These guys use Anime, but it doesn’t pigeonhole their style. Many of these brands express a love of Asian culture, but its not their crutch. They’re very American brands, their attitudes reflect this. One day they may be compared to brands like Supreme or Stussy. Another interesting observation is that Anime’s new found relationship with Streetwear is almost an isolated event. While Jeremy Klein and Hook-Ups may have been the first guys to put Anime on their tees, it can’t be said that they influenced the current trend of Streetwear brands doing the same thing. Even though they did collab with The Hundreds on the Dream Girl design. Unfortunately Triumvir may also be in the same boat, though they used Anime as an inspiration, they didn’t use it as an aesthetic per say. Instead their executions were typically straightforward, and their link to Capcom ultimately leaves their designs in the realm of licensing. Not flipping or appropriation, as many Streetwear brands in the past and even today use other companies’ designs without their consent to bring a more authentic feel to their designs. Flipping/ripping is almost always the Streetwear way.
The future looks bright for the newest crop of HB brands. Every year their fanbase grows, and they keep redefining what Streetwear can mean. While their possible precursors are returning to much anticipation. Jeremy Klein has headed Hook-Ups graphics department since 1994, and even retroed his Dream girl design multiple times. This year he finally decided to reissue his old designs from his early days at World Industries. Some of his biggest being Veggies, Chun-Li, and of course the OG Dream Girl design. Likewise Triumvir is looking to make a return in Streetwear, earlier this year they held a preorder for 2 reissue tees. Brands tapping into the vastly unused Japanese art of Anime will continue to break barriers, it can also be said that they’ve helped give gaming and Asian culture a new found acceptance, only time will tell how these brands will change Streetwear in the long run.
Brands to watch, in no order of prominence:
*Dangerers Death Tribe (defunct)
*Motiv USA (defunct)
*Third Vision (defunct)
2016 brands to watch:
2017 brands to watch: