Lost Kaws — Lamenting the Death of OriginalFake

Streetwear, menswear, alternative fashion, ‘culture-based clothing’/desperate cry for help—whatever contrived phrase you ascribe to the modern phenomenon of contemporary clothing, it’s fair to say a lot of things come and go. Such is the nature of fashion. Earlier today my mind was wandering and I started thinking back to when I first got into clothes back in 2008. I had a part-time job and started saving up my wages for trips up to London every so often to check out stores like Mash on Oxford Street and The Hideout. It feels like a long time since then and lots of stuff has come and go. Remember Undercrown, or Second Son, or the golden days of A.IN.T and MHI?

That’s just how things go. Trends change, and most of the time when something dies there’s a good reason for it. Second Son, for example, was just totally in that era of British graphic streetwear brands with really crisp Illustrator-esque graphics. Maybe things just got a bit vague in the whole heritage-clothing revival. I was sixteen and clueless back then and I’m hardly much wiser now so I can only speak about how things felt.

What’s stranger is when something disappears and you never really work out why. When Honma Masaaki announced that Mastermind Japan would be ceasing operations in 2013 after fifteen years of success—with even Karl Lagerfeld singing the brand’s praises—the move came as a huge surprise. After all, why kill something when it’s doing so good? It actually took a while for the whole thing to settle in, and when it eventually did it was understood that, in Masaaki’s eyes, Mastermind had effectively completed its original objective. In that light, his decision to call time on the brand himself rather than allow time to dictate its demise started to feel like an exit that fit the label’s own monumental status.

Things rarely go that way, however. Very few labels are privileged to experience the meteoric success that grants them mastery of their own destiny. More often, it is exactly the opposite that calls time on a brand, as was the case for a company that I still consider to be one of the best clothing labels of the 2000s.

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OriginalFake was the official clothing label of the infamous NYC street artist Brian Donnelly aka Kaws, who rose to fame in the 1990s when he altered New York billboards and bus stop advertisements by applying his ‘companion’ skull character to their subjects.

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A simple and cutting subversion of consumer advertising and modern promotional cultures, Kaws’ work soon became a hit, somewhat ironically developing into a brand in its own right. In the late ‘90s he started working with companies like Bounty Hunter and Medicom Toy producing collectible figurines of the companion in various iterations. By 2006, Medicom worked with Kaws to launch OriginalFake, enlisting the team behind NexusVII to help with the design and production of Kaws-inspired clothing.

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Most people who know about OriginalFake will probably remember it best for its graphic tees. Produced by Medicom Toy, the brand’s tees featured high-quality screenprints of Kaws’ artwork, often replicating pieces he was creating in real life at the time. For simple graphic t-shirts they were pretty amazing—easily some of the best examples of the legendary quality of Japanese clothing that we’ve all preached to a sceptic friend at one point in our lives. I’ve got a couple of t-shirts that must be five years old now and they barely look like they’ve aged a day.

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The real highlight of OriginalFake, however, was without a doubt the clothing proper. As I might have mentioned before, Nexus VII’s designers have this incredible, geometric approach to fashion that is so precise and mathematical it’s like everything has been built on a Fibonacci principle. Combined with Kaws’ trademark cartoon chompers, crossbone and cross symbols, the output was an incredible blend of quirky comic-book imagery on a razor-sharp sartorial canvas.

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Everything was just solid, from wardrobe staples with subtle twists like oxfords, chinos and flannel shirts to intricate outerwear with seemingly endless Kaws-centric details. OriginalFake’s blend of art, culture, design and fashion was arguably the epitome of what streetwear aspires toward. Every single piece of clothing was genuinely thought-out to the very last detail and loaded with relevance to its central concept.

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OriginalFake’s lookbooks were phenomenal as well. Collections were styled perfectly and everything always looked amazing. Sometimes you didn’t even need a model—the product would just be presented in a way that made it dynamic, exciting and appealing. OriginalFake’s lookbooks breathed life into its product and injected the clothing with the character and attitude that oozes out of Kaws’ original artwork. It literally had all the adjectives. Quirky, cocky, witty, et fucking cetera.

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How do I know that my subjective opinion is all unequivocally correct? Because I still have all of the lookbooks saved on my hard drive because I made the conscious decision all those years ago that OriginalFake is so culturally significant that it needed documenting, if not for the benefit of others, at the very least for myself so that I can open up these images every so often and remind myself, ‘Nice jacket, Gregk, but you still know that anything you wear is a total waste of time, money, energy and all-encompassing life force in the shadows of what has come before it.’

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Seriously, look at the engraving on the buttons of that duffle coat. Look at the Velcro cuff-fasteners on that dude’s jacket! Why are all other fashion labels now so mediocre to me? Why is this the only clothing label that brings tears to my eyes?

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The problem is, all that detail and intricacy came at a considerable price, however justified. I’ve written about a fair number of Japan-exclusive labels over the past few years, but few clothing lines have travelled out of Japan as little as OriginalFake. Aside from the odd sweatshirt or cap at Hideout and DSM, the most that British customers would have seen of OriginalFake was one of the graphic t-shirts, and those alone retailed for £90, so yeh, go ahead and take a wild guess what price the outerwear was and then make sure you add an extra zero just to be sure.

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In 2013, after just seven years of business, OriginalFake announced it was ceasing operations. It’s hard to say what happened, but in my own memory the majority of the brand’s time on the scene was totally embodied by the t-shirts. Any regulars on the big streetwear sites rarely saw anything more than the printed tees, and it wasn’t even until 2010 or so that OriginalFake seemed to really start pushing its cut & sew output. By that time their identity was sealed to many as a glorified t-shirt brand, even though the feedback was overwhelmingly in the “shut up and take my money” camp. Even then, as explained, the vast majority of people couldn’t afford the amazing pieces even if they tried. For me it genuinely felt like a tragic scenario of too little, too late for too much to too few.

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As time goes on I still feel like nobody has come through with anything as impressive as OriginalFake. Every so often I dig around on Japanese stores and shady-looking websites and concoct an elaborate scheme to acquire triples of the whole collection that I can store in vacuum-packaging and slowly rotate to last out the rest of my days, but then I remember that I’m a man of grandiose ideas and diminutive wallet. Seriously though, I really do think OriginalFake was one of the best labels to ever grace the scene and I will forever rack my brain trying to understand how it was that one of the true streetwear greats seemed to fizzle out despite so much raw power.

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So here’s a load of images and photos so that you can feel my pain and collectively wince with me. I like to think one sunset you’ll see me on a street corner, stood over a smoking metal dustbin. As you get closer to me, you can see I’ve printed off these images onto glossy photograph paper and am gradually tearing each image up, dropping the scraps into the bin’s still-burning ashes, a faint sizzling noise emerging every so often as tears drip from my eyes into the smoldering depths. You look across the street to the window of a chain menswear store and see a single mannequin dressed in Obey beanie, Diamond t-shirt, high street denim and red Vans eras. You look back at me as I wipe my sniffling nose and bitterly mutter, ‘It just isn’t right.’ Stood to my left, you place your hand firmly on my shoulder and gaze off into the sunset. ‘Forget it, Gregk; it’s Streetwear.’

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