Tokidoki Time: An Interview with Simone Legno [Full]
Japanese pop culture refracted through an Italian lens.
What happens when you take a young Italian man raised on a steady diet of old robot anime, Japanese pop culture and comic book characters, a penchant for design work and an international audience? You get the wildly successful (and often adorable) brand known as tokidoki. From the mind of designer Simone Legno, tokidoki puts Legno’s unique spin on the kawaii culture that has come to define much of Japan’s modern visual culture to make vinyl toys, apparel and art. Hamburgers, superheroes and punk rockers are all mainstays of Legno’s visual work and we were able to catch up with the jet-setting Italian to plumb the depths of his creative mind.
TOKYOPOP: You’re from Italy, but much of your art has a strong Japanese pop culture influence. Where did this influence come from? How did you get interested in it enough to start the tokidoki brand?
Simone Legno: It started out in the Eighties because, growing up in Italy, Japanese pop culture was huge in Italy. Even if you talk to my mom, she knows characters like Mazinger and Doraemon. It was so popular that every kid of my generation was watching Japanese anime. For me, it’s not just about the dialogue of the anime; I would see the Japanese lifestyle. I’d see the fast trains, the students, the cherry blossoms, the rice balls, the kimonos, the sliding doors…so much so that I grew up and started to develop this passion for Japan. I would buy books, big thick photobooks of everything from Japan. When I was 19 or 20, I went for the first time to Japan. Now I just came back from my 29th trip to Japan. [laughs]
TP: How big of foothold does the tokidoki brand have in Japan?
SL: Not much yet. We’re trying to synergize and prime the market. We test the Japanese market with collaborations. We’ve worked with EDWIN, Asahi, quite a bit with Medicom Toy and a bunch of others. I just went to a licensing show and it was interesting to see how well-received I am there. Many character licenseholders are eager to work with tokidoki. I am surprised, but getting confident that we can break into Japan properly. It’s a bit of a complex not to be Japanese. For them, it’s very exciting – first they appreciate that you love their culture so much, but you put your own twist on it. I don’t have a Japanese hand, so my work will be different than theirs. It’s more of a punk rock / kawaii style. I’m very excited.
TP: You mentioned both punk rock and kawaii. What other design influences do you find within your style?
SL: Design influences? Of course, the kawaii/Japanese pop culture as a starting point, but then I take influences from everything I experience. There’s a big part of punk rock in there because, for ten years, I was in a punk rock band. I was touring, playing with other bands, so now I’m doing a full line about punk rock and punk rock characters. Before my style was obsessively Japanese, but now I’ve added way more icons from American pop culture like burgers, diners, cars or like elements like diamonds, bling-bling everywhere. I’m really just mixed up with a bunch of different street cultures.
TP: You said everyone in your generation grew up watching anime. What were some of your favorites?
SL: There are many because, as a boy, I was so into robots. I still am. When I shop, I look for old robots that were produced during the period when I was a kid that I couldn’t have. [laughs] Because I was not spoiled at all! I was just drawing when I was 8 years old. Between robots, there are some that aren’t as popular as Mazinger or Gundam. One that I really like was called [Invincible Steel Man] Daitarn 3. I also really like boxing anime like Ashita no Joe or Ganbare Genki and Tiger Mask very much. When I get married, I’m going to put on the Tiger Mask on my head. [laughs] For cute stuff? Doraemon.
TP: You’ve had some very successful partnerships with characters from Marvel and Street Fighter. Tell us how those come about. Are they something you wanted to draw in your style or did they approach you?
SL: I have to tell you that we’re not a very proactive brand in a sense that we’re always so busy with everything that we have. Basically, people from Marvel contacted us and said they’d like to see their stuff redesigned by me. In Italy, it wasn’t just anime; everyone grew up with American characters and stuff like A-Team, Starsky & Hutch, GI Joe – so Marvel was a big part of my growing up. When I designed my Marvel pieces, I did it in more of a classic, vintage style rather than the new style. CAPCOM, they contacted us. I don’t want to tell you guys everything, but Street Fighter was beyond huge. Me and my brother used to get blisters from playing so much, just like bleeding. We grew up playing Street Fighter.
TP: Is there a partnership or a company that you’d really like to work with so you can put their characters in your style?
SL: There is. It’s always an honor to work. Like Star Wars – it’s always an honor to work with pop culture icons. Hopefully it will happen. We don’t want to crowd the field. Since we’re working with Marvel, now wouldn’t be the right time to pursue a big collaboration with Star Wars.
TP: Is there anything coming up that you can share with us?
SL: Actually, in a couple of months, I’m doing a toy with the Guggenheim Museum in Venice. It’s not a big project like Marvel, but it’s a big honor to work for such a museum. It makes me feel special. I’m doing other interesting toys that I’m very excited about with Mr. Cartoon. It’s very street, very LA. For me, it’s fantastic to work with such a cool dude and, at the same time, to be able to do Hello Kitty.
TP: What do you think about the rise of this whole boutique toy industry?
SL: I think now it’s big, kind of like the poster in the room in the Eighties. Unfortunately, lots of the classic toy stores are dying, but you can find vinyl toys in Barnes & Noble, where they sell books and culture. Obviously, I’m happy because it’s like when you listen to punk rock, you can only listen in little clumps. There’s pros and cons to everything.
For more on Simone Legno and his Japanese pop culture tinged brainchild tokidoki, you can visit their website.