LOS ANGELES — Guerrilla street artist Shepard Fairey’s latest project could either be a brilliant business move or the ultimate act of subversiveness for the man behind those ubiquitous propaganda-style posters plastered from Los Angeles to New York to Tokyo and emblazoned with the single command: “Obey.”
Fairey, who continues feeding the Warhol-meets-Big Brother-cult phenomenon he began in 1989 based on a crudely rendered image of pro wrestler Andre the Giant, recently introduced a contemporary women’s line with partner One3Two, the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based maker of his two-year-old men’s wear line, also called Obey.
While obedience to fashion trends is an Achilles heel for most women, the command is a declaration to disobey prevailing directives in attire as it is in the political and social commentary, and relentless humor, that Fairey conveys through his art work.
“I was pretty adamant with everyone involved with the clothing that I didn’t want to follow all the trends just to generate sales,” Fairey said last week from his 3,500-square-foot design studio inside the landmark Art Deco Wiltern tower on Wilshire Boulevard here.
The offices house Subliminal Projects, a gallery started to showcase other artists, as well as Studio No. 1, the design firm Fairey renamed after splitting last year from his longtime partners in the award-winning marketing company Blk/Mrkt, whose clients included corporate behemoths such as Sony, Ford and Pepsi.
Current clients under the new incarnation are Levi Strauss, Red Bull and a wide swath of bands requiring album and poster art, from Pennywise to Black Eyed Peas.
Fairey and his team have also pursued other manifestations under the Obey name. Bands as diverse as the Hives and International Noise Conspiracy contributed previously unreleased tracks to a CD called “The Giant Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle” released in late 2002. The brand, with Anthem Magazine, published a volume filled with essays and work exhibited earlier this year in-house based on the positive and negative aspects of corporate intervention in art.
At 33, Fairey has lost little of his “question everything” ideology in spreading his message through the more than one million stickers and thousands of posters he and his disciples have slapped on buildings, billboards and stop signs worldwide since he first designed and screened the “Andre” stickers as a freshman at Rhode Island School of Design.In recent weeks, in addition to the women’s line launch, Fairey was arrested in New York — his 10th time, for displaying his art which happens to have also had a more legal venue at the Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and as part of the permanent collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The following week he was on hand in Japan for the opening of two Obey stores, in Osaka and Tokyo, through a licensing deal with the Obey distributor there.
Now he is readying new works for this Saturday’s opening of This Is Your God, his largest exhibit to date, running through Oct. 25 at Sixspace in Los Angeles.
“The amazing thing to me is that people would say, ‘This thing right here,’” he said, pointing to the thickly lined graphic of Andre’s mug that has become the company icon, “‘women are never going to go for this. This is an ugly dead wrestler. Women don’t want that.’”
But orders of the collection, designed by 22-year-old newcomer Linda Nguyen, proved otherwise after the recent streetwear-related trade shows ASR in San Diego, TBC in New York and Pool in Las Vegas.
“I think it’s awesome [that] the women’s stuff is doing well, even if the icon is not a central part of many of the clothes,” Fairey said.
The art, or elements of it, however, is. The lightning bolt, from Fairey’s homage to Detroit’s punk pioneers MC5, layered with an image of a Black Panther militant from the Sixties, is part of the poster. This is a key motif in several of the best pieces: it zigzags across the front of slim-fitting yet puffy army jackets, cut and sewn in the same fabric, and a similar same-fabric bolt charges up the sides of dark blue jeans cut like flat-front flares. Fairey’s rendition of Joan Jett bleeds off a paper-thin scoop T-shirt.
The icon does appear in the form of a metal badges or buttons on most styles.
“It’s a step up from any basics I’ve seen, where basically it’s not a basic. It’s sophisticated streetwear,” said Mark E. Bennett, owner of Stackhouse in New York, who, having carried the men’s for seasons, heavily wrote women’s for his his-and-hers NoLIta stores. “It’s the details we look at when we decide on a line and these [styles] are refreshing.”Candise Cho, co-owner of Untitled in Chicago concurred, “What separates Obey from most women’s lines is the silhouettes and color combinations. We have a huge following of smart customers who understand these kind of details. They get what Obey is about.”
The inaugural collection begins shipping in late October. First-year sales are projected at $2 million. By contrast, Obey men’s is expected to rake in $5.5 million in 2004.
Although contemporary in design, the prices dip in the low end of the categories. Jeans wholesale for $33, jackets are $42 to $52, T-shirts go for $11 to $14 and skirts for $28. Even accessories, such as a clear, triple-row studded punk belt or a bag cut of vinyl that looks like cork are well priced from $12 to $22 wholesale.
“We wanted to create clothing that was moderately priced, but wasn’t dumb-dumb skatewear,” said designer Mike Ternosky, who recruited Nguyen to work on the women’s line after spotting her behind the turntables, deejaying at The Derby in Los Angeles.
Her only prior design experience was making jewelry for sale at a handful of stores.
“You hit 21, 23 years old and you’re looking for something more sophisticated,” Ternosky added. “You want a certain amount of design. But the prices don’t have to be out of control.”
While they won’t rule out an eventual price increase on parts of the women’s line, not offending the price sensibilities of the skateboard shops or skateboarding consumers who have long supported Obey products is key. Ternosky, Fairey and their Obey colleagues grew up on and were connected by skateboarding, and continue to live and design by the values of its culture, fueled by a soundtrack of old-school punk rock and hip-hop.
“It’s a philosophical thing,” said Fairey, who still insists on selling limited-edition, signed prints at $30 and $250 a pop through obeygiant.com, although his installations can go as high as $20,000. “It’s not about whether you can afford it, but if you can keep is more accessible. My art has been propelled by people who are not wealthy. For me to turn around and make an elitist clothing line would be a contradiction. It’s not really what I’m interested in.”Despite snickerings among some fellow guerrilla artists and skateboarders that Obey’s capital pursuits run counter to the tenets in his art, Fairey is able to reconcile his various enterprises.
“Doing all these different things offers all kinds of opportunities for me to be creative,” he said — and hopefully stay out of trouble, some would observe.
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