[MINDstyle is one of the premiere art toy companies. Based in Asia, they have released toys from notables such as Michael Lau, Brandt Peters, Buff Monster, Doktor A, Kathie Olivas, Ron English and more. Vinyl Pulse recently had the opportunity to interview MD Young, MINDstyle's co-founder and visionary mind, in a rare interview about MINDstyle, toys, and the scene as a whole. Here's part one of two. Enjoy.]
MINDstyle is now based in Asia. Why did the company make this move and what are the advantages? Is Asia the future in terms of growing markets for designer toys?
MD: Our move here was always part of MINDstyle's expansion plans and more so, the timing seemed was right allowing us to develop the emerging markets and create additional revenue streams. In addition, part of our expansion is the development of our own original content and properties. MINDstyle as a whole is a lifestyle brand versus just a toy company. In Hong Kong for example, we've opened a creative space and partnered with DNM. This now allows us to produce everything from limited edition lifestyle products to even furniture. Our Manila space will allow us to partner with the right creative team to launch new projects. More importantly, our China based offices allow us to oversee production and work closely with our factory partners. We have our own in-house design team and (QC) quality control staff to give us an edge in the market.
Asia is not the future, as personally I believe much of the collectible toy business started in Japan and Hong Kong. With the early Japanese action figures to the whole Hong Kong boom with Michael Lau, if anything, this is where it all started. As a collector, I started collecting everything from Ultraman to Kikaida and Kaiju. Of course, there were the early McFarlane figures but it really were all the Hong Kong designer toys, Bounty Hunter, Kaws and Medicom products that created the excitement. Today, it seems to have gone full circle, as Kaiju is seeing a tremendous resurgence in the states and Michael Lau (who we have the pleasure of working with) sell outs instantly and commands an amazing secondary market price; just as Medicom's products of Kaws does in the marketplace and I am a big fan of collecting all of them. Clearly, Asia is the pulse of the collectors market.
With that being said, what companies like Kid Robot, Toy2R, Toy Tokyo and StrangeCo did is equally important in expanding the market and attracting a new fan base. The buying habits are different in the each market but there is no question that the whole movement in the United States increased awareness globally. The community as a whole is small in terms of gross toy sales, however it would be safe to say it's the most exciting segment.
The term 'Art Toy' is used quite frequently these days. While it sometimes gets used interchangeably with other terms such as "designer toys", some see it as an indicator of creative quality — a step above so to speak. What's your take ?
MD: When we entered the market, we were a bunch of collectors with a background in the entertainment business and sales; with an understanding for pop culture and passion for art toys. At the time, the only terms used were urban vinyl or designer toys. What interested us most was the ability to license an artists original work and create quality collectible figures. It was our belief early on that such products were a great way for an artist to expand their fan base and reach a wider audience. Let's face it, with the world wide web everything is much more accessible and news spreads so much faster. While everyone's budget does not allows for a purchase of say a USD $10,000 original painting, most fans and collectors would spend USD $100. This had us focusing on the whole art and toy factor. Whereas art posters and art books were readily available of one's favorite artist, we saw art toys as another product for the artist to reach their fan base and more so, create a wider fan base therefore actually increasing their fine art value and collectibility. The term "art toy" is now loosely applied to roto-vinyl figures or at times used to define a product category.
However here at MINDstyle, we used the term from our inception to define the usage of original art by amazing artists Buff Monster, Kathie Olivas, Brandt Peters, Ron English, Colin Christian, Michael Lau, Cameron Tiede and Doktor A to name a few while producing collectible premium limited edition figures. For this reason, we were one of the first to readily use the term and is the main reason why we branded all our MINDstyle products as "art toys."
Currently, vinyl toys are defined in part by the limited-edition concept. Colorways are one tried and true approach the industry uses to balance collectors' desires for small runs with the need to produce a large enough total run to make production financially feasible. Increasingly, collectors seem to have some concern by manufacturers over the number of color ways. What's your take on this issue? How many is enough? Or perhaps things are not so simple ?
MD: We can't speak for other companies but here at MINDstyle, we have always produced figures in limited quantities. At times, this created a problem at retail not being able to service all accounts and meet the demand. In this sense, our best option was to create limited edition color ways for key markets, events and select retailers. It's important to look at the entire process of producing collectibles. We are not producing mass production toys nor do we benefit from the same margins and low costs. So, it's only reasonable that we do what the collectors-at-large would want; and that is to keep the runs low, maintain value and produce quality figures. Certainly we understand the segment of collectors who are completist and try to collect everything by their favorite artist. This becomes a matter of everyone having a choice and doing what makes sense for the individual.
If we were to look at a larger scale of blockbuster films, concerts or music, they often are released at the same time where we each of us must make a choice of where we spend our dollars. Seldom would we say, please don't have one concert after another or phantom the idea of a record company releasing only one artist or song at a time. The bottom line is this is a business and a very tough one because of the limited nature.
Our take is that color ways are meant to provide choices and create interest to stimulate sales in a very competitive market. Think about it, everything from clothing to cars are produced in a variety of colors, why would this be any different? Some people like black or red, some want the hard to find figure and the bottom line is most want something special, so this about giving fans and collectors choices. Perhaps there is a huge misconception that companies are making a killing with all the releases, simply that is not the case. One must consider the cost of sculpting, molds, rising production costs, labor, packaging, licensing fees and shipping costs; not too mention the high costs retailers face of rent and labor… such sales are welcomed!
Ok, let's talk about some recent MINDstyle releases. Some collectors have expressed surprise at what they feel is a large # of colorways for some of your releases. What's MINDstyle's strategy here?
MD: In what may seem like a lot of releases, this certainly is not the
case as our schedule reflects. First, it should be noted its a decision
the company makes and not the artist in the sense of edition size and
distribution. More importantly, we could have done similar to other
companies and easily manufactured 1,500 pieces of one color way to meet
the orders because it does make good business sense. But that would
really have collectors talking! However, what works for some is not
what works for others and it has always been part of our brand mission
to limit the edition size by releasing various colors for the different
markets to expand each respective artist's fan base. The Asia version
serviced an all important market where we are now based. It's the same
with Europe. The EU green color way is produced to service that market
and give fans something special.
First Day Release – Vinyl Pulse FDR Version (150 pieces/Sold Out)
January 2009 – Original Version (500 pieces/Sold Out)
Late January 2009 – Asia Version (500 pieces/Limited Availability)
February 2009 – NYCC Exclusive (200 pieces)
Late March 2009 – EU Version (200 pieces)
April 2009 – FX Show Orlando Exclusive (200 pieces)
May 2009 – Secret Version (TBA)
This reflects releases for a very limited production over a
period of nearly six months. Our target is to reach a wider audience
by creating unique and special products. In no way does even logic
find this to be excessive in manufacturing by industry standards for
First Day Release – Vinyl Pulse FDR Version (50 pieces/Sold Out)
December 2008 – VTN Exclusive (100 pieces/Limited Availability)
January 2009 – Original Version (300 pieces/Sold Out)
Late January 2009 – Asia Version (200 pieces/Sold Out)
February 2009 – NYCC Exclusive (100 pieces)
May 2009 – EU Version (150 pieces)
July 2009 – Taipei Toy Fair Exclusive (50 pieces shared)
Late July 2009 – SDCC Exclusive (100 pieces)
August 2009 – Singapore Comic Con (50 pieces shared)
September 2009 – DragonCon (100 pieces)
Clearly, we are building and serving the artist fan base with a
long term vision and plan. More importantly, the figures change with
accessories and not just the color way. If anything, that's a lot of
work and planning to be patient and develop markets. There is no easy
answer and I can't say what is enough when it comes to color ways but
for MINDstyle, we do our releases according to events, retail requests
and fans. While we can't please everyone, our releases do make a lot of
people happy and that's what it's all about at the end of the day.
Sure, some will be to quick to pass judgement without knowing the facts
or being realistic… but add it up, clearly the run is minimal by
collector edition standards and explains why MINDstyle products keep
their value and remain high demand. In this sense, our products have
not seen any decline or affect in prices because our production is very
limited and the demand high as the fan base continues to grow.
MINDstyle has led off the year with a very active release schedule highlighted in particular with multiple hit releases from both the Scavengers and Mechtorians line in what everyone is saying is a sluggish economy. Where do you see the market going in 2009?
MD: Wow, if only we could look into the crystal ball. With the art toy market being more widely recognized globally, there is no doubt the potential to develop new sales in emerging markets. For one, the marketplace is flooded with an abundance of collectible products, Retailing 101 comes down to the Big Three in manufacturing and retailing: design (quality and originality), merchandising (product placement and value) and operations (whatever the employees do). While seemingly separate; they are in fact completely intertwined and interdependent on one another in what would seem essential for any company to remain competitive in the marketplace.
The partners place a tremendous amount of energy on our customer service, training our staff, quality control and building our brand identity. We work hard to improve our products and offer the most value. In a time when we should be cutting costs, we are actually focused on the long term by increasing our quality of product (packaging, product detail, etc.) and service (training and benefits for our family).
2009 looks to be both challenging and exciting! The market will continue to grow in certain markets with the popularity of the art toys and the combined efforts of manufacturers working together. It'll come down to creativity and delivering really what people want to purchase.