TLS turns 10!
The Loyal Subjects was born from a letter to friends, and family, aptly titled “The Loyal Subjects”. I was going through a transition; a failed attempt at a business, a musician, and a show creator. I had creative juju but zero business sense. A literal creative in the wholesome term – all things creative matter, everything else a distraction. After my failed attempts, I received a divine moment of whiplash, the godsmack upside the head, with the refrain “Son, get your head out of your “you-know-what”, grow up, welcome challenges (uncomfortable ones), be curious about all things (math, and accounting too), and take head on all things deserving to be faced head on.” In this moment of vulnerability/transition, I wrote a letter to my friends and family, titled “The Loyal Subjects”, which was a letter soliciting a much needed word or words of encouragement – “Stick with it, if you fall pick yourself back up, keep at it!” The spirit; “I loyal to you, you to me, we’re in this together, let’s lift each other up.” The first response was from Shepard Fairy, legendary street artist, with kind words of encouragement.
I had put the name (The Loyal Subjects) in my back pocket. At that time, I was discussing a possible partnership with the folks over at tokidoki, creating an offshoot Brand (offset from the core Brand, tokidoki). For whatever reasons it hadn’t materialized, but safe to assume due to the frenetic rise, and schedule the tokidoki principles had and were embarking on. 10 years has passed, they’re still humming at a hurried pace into the lexicon of pop culture.
“10 Years” - a frequent concept throughout my recollection.
I received a call from an old friend, the Managing Partner over at SA Studios (most notable for the creative driven by LA tattoo artists/icon, Mr. Cartoon, and LA photographer/culturist/documentarian, Estevon Oriol). My friend (an aside - oddly enough, received a text about two weeks ago from said friend) asked if I could follow through with a (second) meeting, regarding moving a “vinyl” project along with San Francisco Streetwear maven, Matt Rivelli, owner/proprietor of Upper Playground. It was Rivelli’s 10 year in business with “U.P”, the beloved Brand in the Lower Haight. He (Rivelli) wanted some “cool/wow” projects associated with his walrus logo to celebrate his 10 years being in business, including the artists who contributed to the look and feel of the Upper Playground persona over those 10 years. At that time Vinyl/Designer Toys was at a fever pitch, about 10 years in its infiltration of the pop arts (stateside/USA); graffiti culture, hip hop, sneaker culture, toy geek, dyi, alterna-toy geek, pop surrealism, Hong Kong and Japan toy culture, all rolled into one. Upper Playground had all those feels, persona grata. I said “Ok” to Matt’s quest to make cool “wow” vinyls to commemorate the UP decade. Matt Rivelli sent me a couple designs, and asked “Can you make this?” One design was from a friend/person I had known, Alex Pardee, the other from Bay Area artist, Sam Flores. Alex’ design incorporated the Upper Playground Walrus image, and had a strange sponge like unicorned creature, angst and ready to trompe le monde, with violence and wrath from the back of a three-legged Walrus creature. He named this design “The Walrus Rider”. I said, “Sure, I can make that.” Pretty true to Alex’ playful blend of cartoon, fantasy, innocence, horror, absurdity, and strange humor. The second design, slightly more complex, titled the “Kid Dragon”. (Kid Dragon) was outside the “Walrus” theme, but a continual thread, and reoccurring character from Sam Flores, and the main image of a new series of paintings Sam was debuting. The solemn faced, head down, blank expression, big hand and footed, knob knee’d adolescent boy draped with a Chinese style Dragon costume, the Kid Dragon had all the stylings which assumes all characteristic known by Sam’s fans to be authored in provenance by one, Sam Flores. I said, “Sure, I can make that too.”
The only issue, who’s paying? It was clear that Upper Playground was good for a small portion of these low edition Vinyl totems. Knowing the manufacturing process a bit (not to the extent I know now), the upfront investments were large; sculpts, tooling, tool models…could be over ten thousand (dollars). It wouldn't be prudent to pile on an investment that large for just a hundred or so units. The retail would be $1,000/a pop! I knew that I needed to pull together a larger unit run so the tooling could amortize across, hopefully, lowering the retail down to the low hundreds, a price threshold agreeable to the hardcore Vinyl collectibles enthusiasts. To sure up that support, I made certain to scale, to about 8”. Bigger = better value, for most folks, and would justify the price, trying to shoehorn a consumable entry price without losing my hat on all the fixed expenses. The rest of the vinyl scene was centered on the 6” collectible. The 8” size became a branding hallmark for TLS early on, separating TLS from the other vinyl collectibles.
Fast Forward – I needed a supplier in China to help me out. A friend of mine, who created Three-A with Ashley Wood, had a sourcing Co called Three-Zero, the namesake of his collectibles store/outpost in the Mong Kok toy building, same building/toy mall which spawned Hot Toys. I met with him (Kim) while (he was) visiting San Francisco, checking up on his client, Strange Co, who were also good friends of mine, dating back to the first days of Kidrobot (Strange Co spun off the Kidrobot genealogy tree, while Kidrobot was still in its infancy). We met at a café across the street from Strange Co’s SF offices. I pitched him (Kim) the idea, he fronted some credit, cut to 6 months later, a truck backing up into a garage dropping off 1000 Walrus Riders. TLS was born. We sold out of two editions, which financed the Kid Dragon. The Kid Dragon sold out of all editions almost immediately, TLS was funded; let’s make more…enter artist Joe Ledbetter, and 2 years of bunnies.
My first office was the dining room. I had a drafting table, a cheap LED “Dell” screen plopped on top, at a drafting/illustrator’s slant. I was good with Photoshop, and Illustrator. I had designed nearly 100 toys, packaging, marketing materials, and other creative hullabaloo. I saw myself as a musician first, and creator of characters/worlds/toys second. I liked to write, I liked to draw, I liked to tell jokes, and I was surrounded by Illustrators from early on; Tara McPherson was my roommate, so was Jonathan Blesser, aka Phyn (the stylistic illustration savant behind many of the Teenage Millionaire designs – the “Jesus is my Homeboy” brand). We would, by all intensive purposes, try to create things that made us laugh, especially Phyn. It was a fun time. (Back to the timeline); by this time, all roommates had left, I was living alone, my office was still my dining room, until opportunity! “Office Space for Rent” on Melrose, just a few streets down from my house in Los Angeles. By this time, I had incorporated TLS, making it official, right before the first shipment of Walrus Riders – May 23rd, 2009. Shortly after I was moving my drafting table down to Melrose. TLS occupied an office space on Melrose for 2 years, renting a “box” no roomier than 600 sq. ft’, right next to my friends recording studio (his recording studio wasn’t much bigger), and was the de facto recording studio for singer/songwriter Ryan Adams. Ryan (often times) would bust through the TLS door, pitching crazy toy ideas, and launching us all from our duties, marching up Melrose to pig out on vegetarian food at M Café. He was funny, filled with wonderment, a literal Peter Pan. TLS’ first office on Melrose was shared by two other businesses as well! That 600 sq ft’ quickly became 150’ dedicated to TLS. The TLS office was the former office for Agenda – the Surf/Skate/Streetwear tradeshow, later adding Complex Con to their bullpen of shows. The walls had a cabin in the woods feel…a sort of untreated redwood paneling, and if you rubbed up against it by accident, splinter hell.
2 years gone by, TLS is starting to make a name in the Designer Toy Scene. At this point, I had outgrown the office, my whopping 150 sq ft’ space, and was looking for new digs. I posted something on Facebook, to this effect “Hey, I need a new office space, any leads?” A person who I had met through tokidoki, he was managing a DJ named Tokimonsta, had responded, “Sure, we have a big space in Atwater, come on down.” I had been to this building before, it was a party place back in the day, it had an address hard to find, right up on Glendale Blvd., an old 1930’s building. I parked in front, plopped a quarter in the meter, walked up the rickety staircase where I was met by a couple friendly faces who wanted to show (me) the space. They guided me around the bannister opening up the first door…a disaster. First impression – flop house. The walls had corkboard floor to ceiling, graffiti on the corkboard, some strange make shift cabinet constructed out of 2’ x 4’s with nails aimless in approach, the door frames were ripped off, and the doors couldn’t close. I asked to see the second room, same thing. The first room was “sold” to me in a hippy/LA style pitch, “This used to be Mike D’s office for X-Large and Grand Royal”, the second, “(Mike D’s) partner threw his computer through the window out into the street in a fit of business rage.” I get the spirits who inhabited the offices, but that wasn’t the guiding light, the guiding light was that it was dirt cheap; some amateur carpentering, a couple clean coats of paint, and a little electrician work could turn this flop pen into TLS HQ which had space for more than one desk! Eli, Mike D’s partner in X-Large owned the building and had essentially rented it out to a Grand Royal intern from back in the day who eventually started a jewelry Co, Han Cholo. Han Cholo occupied the bottom portion of the building. The other upside; there was a loading dock, and a downstairs warehouse/shipping room. I crammed two U-Haul’s worth of stuff, the office stuff going upstairs., the inventory going into the warehouse. I had meticulously organized, separated, even creating alleys, and lanes inside an 800’ sq ft room/warehouse, complete with a shipping table, packing supplies, a computer, printer, and all the necessary Fed Ex, and UPS accouterments a single person operation could need! Organized, and ready for action!
The Atwater HQ was fun, nuts, creative, distracting – it used to be the Beastie Boys HQ, and several videos from Paul’s Boutique to Check Your Head were shot at this location. I ran into Mike D at a Lakers game, told him I occupied his old office…intrigued by this strange coincidence, we talked for a little bit. Certain the space had a permanent imprint on his creative history; Atwater marked the move from New York to LA for the Beastie Boys, where the Beasties recorded ‘Paul’s Boutique’ and everything in between up to ‘Hello Nasty’. Diplo occupied the Beastie Boys recording studio that lay adjacent to my office/tiny rooms. I had Diplo’s Martin guitar in my office for nearly a year, one day he came waltzing in and asked for it back. The Major Lazer guys, Tim and Eric, Riff-Raff shooting impromptu videos in the hallways…it was a turnstile for creative weirdos, tastemakers, and idiot savants. When MCA passed away, the back staircase became an impromptu visage to (his) legacy. Fans came and piled up flowers, letters, candles, notes…all thanking Adam Yauch for his creative impact and contributions. The space housed a creative voodoo, of the righteous kind.
At this point, I turned away from the idea of “Designer Toys”. I needed a new challenge. Designer toys were crude construction, simple roto bulbs but with a kaleidoscope of tampo (decoration technique similar to stamping or silk screening). The game became “how crazy can you print on a plastic bulb”. I wanted to stretch the brand, to make it more accessible, to provide products to a wider audience, other than the 250 folks who were actively pursuing TLS because of our rare Designer Vinyl. I wanted a challenging construction; more parts, more features, more engagement, more kinesis! Something that the roto totems weren’t. At this time TLS partnered with Hasbro, to help introduce Transformers and G.I. Joe to an evolving collector culture. After the first wave for both series, I had tinkered with breaking up the parts, elongating the limbs, getting away from the chibi factor and creating a more dynamic, story enhanced product…a product which would spark imagination, put the story telling controls in the consumers’ hands, promote play, activate the “fun” lobe and stem of the brain. This is the birth of Action Vinyls – “Action” referring to the features, articulation, accessories, and the gestural nuances which promote story, and “Vinyl” referring to the crisp details, deco, and high quality production elements inherent in Designer Vinyl offerings. Since Transformers, we’ve been refining this process, with each series lending new lessons, encouraging new tweaks, pushing to get the formula perfect. Coupled with the collectability factor, the “rare” items, and a price point that would match the small editions, and high quality experience – an action figure disruptor at 3” tall, with a collector card offering. Some figures having up to 16pts of articulation, multiple accessories, and interchangeable from world to world, a Universe without borders! The ultimate army building/toy chest experience.
After 3 years in Atwater, I moved the offices to Downtown LA, in an old industrial building that was the original Fashion Mart in the late 1920’s. A music theme again, although not as cool as the Beastie Boys, Ryan Adams, Diplo, et al. This time, TLS took over Justin Beiber’s dance and recording studio. I don't think we’re pulling any creative ghosts from his tenure here. We’ve been here for 4 years.
The adventure between is the meat of the experience. TLS has thrown or been featured with releases world wide; Amsterdam, Beijing, Manila, Paris…TLS has been a passport, an agent to reach across borders, to find commonality, and creative ground worldwide. No matter the language, the passions are the same. I’ve had hair-raising experiences in China, travelled the trains from Amsterdam to Paris, and walked castles in Bavaria, all because of TLS. Never without complete gratitude for the opportunity our customers provide, allowing us to tell our story to the world, to breach cultural divides, to promote play, to promote commonality, and cooperation, to teach, to learn, to better ourselves, our abilities to communicate, our abilities to create, our abilities to truly hear what is important to people. If anything, TLS has been a story about growth, and education. Although there are all the wild, crazy, insane stories which teeter on survival, not too far off, in spirit from the crazy comedies we all love; Romancing the Stone, Indiana Jones, The Sting (maybe a little hyperbole) – nonetheless, it’s nuts out there! A book will happen one day, trust.
Three years ago, on May 24th, 2016, TLS entered a partnership with a private equity group based in Boston. One day after our 7th birthday. My partner has been my best friend, my unwitting therapist at times (lol), everything a person could ever need in a human being, and a partnership. Unconventional at times, patient, if there’s a descriptor you name it, it applies. We’ve been building this little engine that could with all of our customer’s support. We’ve traversed herculean rubicons, minefields, and scaled walls, seemingly impossible fetes. We’ve sold to the most exclusive retailers in the world, retailers who only open the doors of opportunity to publicly traded companies, or big PE investments. We are none of those, and still, we exist in these stores. It hasn’t come easy, it’s a passion play, and here we are, 10 years later, 4 million figures sold, on the cusp of selling 2 million figures before the year’s up. A true ma and pa, out of the garage operation, never say die, and building from the passions, communion and commonality with everyone who is looking for a rich, engaging, creative and fun experience, building rich memories, and revisiting old memories rich with emotion. Late last year TLS partnered with Bandai for an exclusive sales and distribution deal. Can you imagine? Being partners with Bandai!? It boggles my mind, still! From my living room to Bandai running the Distribution arm…mind blown! 30+ licenses later, a real pop culture disruptor, a collectibles zeitgeist, Action Vinyls are real, tried and true. Here we are, 10 years in. A lot of 10’s in the story, a lot of music in this story, a lot of creative influences in this story! Fitting, TLS’ first offering was a commemoration for a Brand’s 10th year in business. We made it from there to here, full circle!
The TLS nomenclature started as a letter to friends and family, slightly licking my wounds, a confession what I wrongly perceived as “failure”, but most importantly a promise to friends and family that I will have their backs. Unbeknownst at the time, it was never failure, just lessons along the way, teachings which helped guide me to new places, new possibilities. I tried, I did, those are the most important steps. Refining becomes the “art”, the ability to render in details from lessons learned. The scuffs on the chin, and elbows were necessary to understand what was important; the journey, not the destination. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. The more years which pass me by the more success is clearly defined; the relationships, the time spent together caring for what is important to people, understanding yourself more, growing, and giving what you can to help make another person’s day shine bright. If that’s “failure”, I’m happy I chose this journey.
To commemorate the 10-year anniversary, TLS will launch a series of products from now to next May 24th, only available on three TLS website, and starting within the month of June. Keep posted to our social media and blog for time and dates. All products are extremely limited, and come with a commemorative 10-year anniversary stamp.
Let’s keep it up, let's have fun, and here's to the next 10 years!
Thank you for everyone who has helped TLS get to this point (countless folks), and thank you to my dedicated, and extremely talented core Team – Dane, Kimberly, Michelle, Abe, Julian, Steven, Figo, and Silva! We could never achieve our lofty goals without your talented contributions. I am humbly at your service, always.