Even inside densely packed convention exhibit halls, WeLoveFine is hard to miss.
There are the swarms of shoppers handing over money in exchange for apparel and the eye-catching signs. More importantly, though, there are t-shirts, rows of t-shirts with characters from Adventure Time, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and other hot properties. Sure, there are t-shirts dotting aisle after aisle at conventions, but these are different. These look more like the unusual fan art pieces that so many have reblogged on Tumblr. There are 8-bit renditions of characters and tiny versions of heroes known as “chibi” characters. It’s a fan art explosion in an area reserved for dealers.
For the past few years, WeLoveFine– an offshoot of Mighty Fine– has been building a name for itself both inside the convention halls and online. Working with the motto “for fans by fans,” they’ve assembled a team of up-and-coming artists who devise clever takes on everything from Star Wars villains to Marvel heroes. It’s fan art that has been licensed and it’s a hit. Like so many other stories of Internet sensations, WeLoveFine didn’t start out that way.
“We would do things we really liked,” says Guy Brand, Mighty Fine’s Vice President. But the quirky, geeky styles that the WeLoveFine crew dug just couldn’t find a spot on on retail racks. “We couldn’t sell it anywhere. So we started selling it on our site.”
In the beginning, they held licenses for a smattering of entertainment properties, amongst them Adventure Time and Marvel. It was the focus on the latter that, according to web manager James Kim, helped launched them online. The specific t-shirt featured Doctor Doom, the famed Marvel villain, perched on top of a unicorn, green hood obscuring his face and a rainbow looming behind them.
The “Doom Steed” t-shirt, as it’s named in the online catalog, was a hit. “It kind of hit around the same time as the double rainbow meme,” says Nicole Campos, who handles marketing for WeLoveFine. (Disclosure: Campos and I previously worked together at another publication.) She’s referencing a viral video featuring a man’s genuine astonishment over seeing a double rainbow. That’s part of the charm of WeLoveFine t-shirts. They aren’t just referencing popular characters, but also a host of other phenomena. Sometimes, that pop culture mish-mash hits the right nerve and they end up with a massive hit, like “Doom Steed.” That particular t-shirt is still a big seller. Kim notes that people ask him about it at conventions often. And, yes, it’s still available.
WeLoveFine began to understand their audience. They were fans of comic books, television and film who didn’t want the standard gear. They wanted something a little more unexpected– villains and rainbows, for example– and the folks inside the L.A.-based headquarters could give it to them. WeLoveFine picked up more licenses and churned out more shirts, which are printed inside their downtown facility. They go beyond t-shirts too, offering items like Lumpy Space Princess leggings, DJ Pon-3 backpacks and Hatsune Miku tunics. Currently, their most popular licenses are My Little Pony, Star Wars and Marvel, followed by Adventure Time and The Bravest Warriors.
Certainly, the staff of WeLoveFine are fans of the properties they license. Their enthusiasm is contagious. But, what put them over the top was bringing in fan artists from outside their fold to create the work emblazoned on the t-shirts.
“With fan art, we discovered that there are a ton of artists out there who love certain properties and they don’t know how to get it in front of Lucasfilm or Marvel,” says Brand. Since WeLoveFine was working directly with the companies, they could do that for the fans. “We get [the art] approved and we work with the artist. We pay them commissions. Every time it sells, they get paid too. It’s kind of like we’re licensing their work too.”
These creative minds typically work with WeLoveFine through the Mighty Fine Artists (MFA) program.
MFA artists are, essentially, freelancers who work with WeLoveFine. They have their own pages on the company’s website, which showcases their t-shirts and gives a little insight into the artist’s style. It’s an eclectic group of artists, each of whom puts an unusual stamp on familiar characters. There’s Brian Kesinger, who has given a steampunk edge to Transformers, Star Wars and GI Joe shirts. Ninjaink injected a dose of cute into Marvel shirts with chibi characters. Topshot combines action and fun in My Little Pony designs. One of the newest members of the program is Antony Rozwadowski.
Like some other MFA artists, Rozwadowski started out by entering WeLoveFine’s regular art contests. He won two, one for Avengers and one for X-Men and Wolverine. The contests have become an important part of WeLoveFine’s business model. They bring in celebrity judges, like Nichelle Nichols, Pendleton Ward and Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto. They offer cool prizes, not just cash, but also trips to conventions and Cintiq tables, depending on the contest. They also serve as a pool from which WeLoveFine discovers its new talent. That talent, is what’s keeping WeLoveFine on the radar of superfans.
“What I love about [fan art] is that it’s real,” says Brand. “It’s not us trying to market something. It’s really what people like.”
All images courtesy of WeLoveFine.