Companies like the Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo and the anime streaming service Crunchyroll have been turning your favorite anime series into small collections of T-shirts and accessories. Every time one of these collections drops, I find myself making a mental wishlist of the pieces I want, even if I don’t really need new clothes. To find out how they keep pulling me in, I asked Uniqlo and Crunchyroll what it takes to make a quality anime streetwear collection. It seems like the answer boils down to one thing: truly loving anime.
Understanding streetwear is easy. See someone, usually a young person experimenting with their clothes, wearing a bold look on the street? That’s streetwear. The most immediately recognizable streetwear scene is probably Harajuku in Tokyo, whose outlandish fashions were documented in Fruits Magazine starting in 1997 and are still celebrated in zines and blogs all over the world. For Crunchyroll, the fashion of Japan helps serve as an inspiration for their anime-inspired streetwear lines, but they look outward for ideas as well.
“We start the process by intently listening to our fans and customers,” Kristin Parcell, Crunchyroll’s director of commerce, told Kotaku by email. “We are immersed in the anime community through our social channels, through conventions we attend, and we often visit Japan for further guidance and inspiration from local fashion and directly from our creators. A ton of our fans love streetwear (and so do I), so for me, it felt like a natural progression for Crunchyroll to start creating tailored streetwear collections.”
The proof is in the pudding—Crunchyroll’s Mob Psycho 100 and Darling In The Franxx collections have enough T-shirts for anyone who needs yet another one. They also have some fun accessories that wouldn’t look out of place in a fancy editorial shoot. Personally, I love the Franxx snapback, which takes the two X’s from the show’s logo and turns them into a bold graphic. Parcell also said that a Darling In The Franxx fanny pack is in the works, building off of a hot trend in streetwear.
Deciding what kind of graphics to put on their clothes all comes down to personal taste. Parcell said that Crunchyroll works closely with the creators of the series they’re making a collection out of to make sure they’re making the best possible design for both them and the fans. “Once we collectively determine the strongest approved assets, we move on to the creative process. This is the really fun part!” she said. “Our internal merchandise team gets together and brainstorms ideas and discusses exciting and important story arcs, characters we love, meaningful colors, etc. Then our designers turn on their ‘perfect minds’ and put together tons of design ideas for us to narrow down.”
For Uniqlo, a 70-year-old brand that started opening stores in the US in 2006, choosing what iconography works well on a shirt has as much to do with how iconic the moments are as how much the fans want to wear them. Uniqlo UT is their line of graphic tees, which frequently works with established media properties like Splatoon, Hello Kitty, or even Moomin.
“[Founder of BAPE and fashion designer] Nigo, who is the Creative Director of [Uniqlo] UT, has an immense understanding of pop culture, and selects partners carefully based on cultural relevance, iconography, and a shared brand ethos,” Suzanne Seymour, head of marketing for Uniqlo USA told Kotaku over email. “Under the theme of ‘Wear your world,’ the UT category intersects art and culture with thousands of carefully selected styles ranging from gaming to anime to iconic brands and artists. The idea is that everyone can find the exact UT that suits their life.”
“The Mobile Suit Gundam UTs feature key scenes from the first television series to commemorate the 40th anniversary, the most impactful for this animation,” Seymour continued. “We interpret the iconography through different design elements on the T-shirt—whether it’s an image repeated throughout the entire tee or an understated symbol on a pocket tee—making the collection an artful archive of favorite brands.”
That thoughtfulness is evident in their designs. While many of the shirts in the Uniqlo Gundam collection feature the titular robots, there are also designs that just depict quiet character moments, like the shirt depicting Amuro Ray sitting on his bed, clutching his knees, with the caption, “You can do it, Amuro.” It’s something other characters say to him throughout the series, and placing it next to the character in an intimate setting shows a real contextual understanding of the show and why fans connect to it.
Anyone can make a T-shirt if they have a printer and access to a craft store, but it takes more to sell a shirt someone will really love, especially one depicting a beloved anime. It’s evident that the creators behind Crunchyroll and Uniqlo’s collections love anime as much as the fans they’re selling their shirts to. Crunchyroll even has their own staff model the clothes for the online store. “When I first launched these collections, I begged my co-workers (no budget for models!),” Parcell said, “and now I have a waitlist.”