Uniqlo x Keith Haring: Cool or Cringe?


Uniqlo x Keith Haring

As part of their 2013 collection, Uniqlo (a rising Japanese apparel company, specializing in high quality basics) is offering a range of graphic t-shirts featuring Keith Haring designs for men and women. The series is called Uniqlo x Keith Haring. When I first saw the t-shirts through the Apple-esque glass storefront of Uniqlo’s Fifth Avenue flagship location where the t’s are displayed in sky-high, gridded shelves, like rainbow chocolates in a Japanese, H&M/American Apparel inspired Candy Land, I was flooded by a stream of conflicting consciousness: “Oh wow, is that goofy stick figure on that t-shirt a Keith Haring drawing? Is it a copycat knock off? Why is this Japanese megastore selling American Pop art? Do the hipsters shopping here even know who Keith Haring is? Does it matter at all? Who is profiting? Would Keith Haring hate this or love this? I want one.”

Uniqlo x Keith Haring: Cool or Cringe?


Essentially, I was caught in a paradox of cool or cringe: Is Uniqlo x Keith Haring a thoughtful homage to the artist, spreading his art and ideas to a wider audience, art-lovers and the general public alike? Or is it corporate exploitation of intimate artistic expression, an abusive degradation and/or cheapening of Haring’s joyful imagery?

Uniqlo x Keith Haring: Cool or Cringe?


Reasons Why Uniqlo x Keith Haring is Cool:

  • Haring is one of the best, coolest pop artists of the 1980’s. His artwork is visually and emotionally exciting/looks cool on a t-shirt.
  • Haring is well know for his social activism, having created hundreds of public artworks that explored important universal ideas, like birth, life, death, unity, sex and war. By sharing his work, Uniqlo is furthering Haring’s social commentary.
  • Famous for his subway drawings, Haring wanted his work to be accessible to the general public. Therefore, it is cool that Uniqlo is continuing his philosophy by making his art available for easy consumption at $19.90 per shirt.
  • In 1986, Haring opened the Pop Shop in Manhattan (closed in 2005), a boutique shop, decorated by Haring murals, that sold inexpensive clothing and gifts featuring his work. Uniqlo x Keith Haring can be seen as an extension of this vision, selling shirts similar to those once available at the Pop Shop.
  • In 1988, Haring opened a second Pop Shop in Tokyo. Though short lived (the shop closed within the year), it represents a connection between Haring and Tokyo. Uniqlo is a Japanese company, with its headquarters in Tokyo. Perhaps Uniqlo x Haring is the modern day embodiment of Haring’s original dream to connect with Japan.

Uniqlo x Keith Haring: Cool or Cringe?


Reasons Why Uniqlo x Keith Haring is Cringe:

  • Haring was a New York street artist, most well known for his painted wall murals throughout the city. He rose to fame drawing cartoon-like images with chalk on blacked-out subway advertisement boards. He represents old, gritty, dirty, 80’s New York. There is something weird about seeing his work in the pristine, spaceship-like atmosphere that is Uniqlo. Something “old New York” is lost.
  • Haring’s images, though stylistically simple (kind of like symbols), are highly emotive: people hug, dogs dance, babies crawl. Uniqlo is the opposite of emotion: the same polo in twenty-five colors drape single file Mannequins with drill sergeant posture. Haring created work meant to unite people, Uniqlo is anonymous. This juxtaposition lessens the emotional thrust of Haring’s work, therefore cheapening his intended message.
  • Haring, being a social activist, saw art as a way to spread social messages, exemplified in his famous “Crack is Wack” mural in New York’s East Harlem. Uniqlo’s presentation of Haring’s imagery (alongside fifty shades of tube socks) seems to promote mainly consumerism, not social change.
  • Haring and his Pop Shop were homegrown, Uniqlo is inherently corporate. It was one thing when Haring was selling his own art, out of his own store—it was an extension of his work—but when a megastore like Uniqlo takes over this authority, it becomes largely a faceless, commercial enterprise.


The Eternal Paradox

I still can’t decide if I hate or like Uniqlo x Keith Haring. My gut says “ew,” but my eyes say “I want to buy that shirt because I like Keith Haring.” Why does it matter where I bought it? Plus, I never have to tell anyone anyway.

The essence of Pop Art as a movement was to challenge the traditions of Fine Art by creating equally viable art out of pop culture imagery, like advertisements, TV, movies, magazines, etc. So while seemingly distasteful, maybe Uniqlo’s Walmart-like appropriation of Haring’s work is simply a pure realization of the Pop Art ideal.

What do you think? Would Keith Haring adore or abhor Uniqlo x Keith Haring? Does the partnership celebrate or decimate Haring’s work? Cool or cringe? Let us know in the comments below.

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