How UNION Is Using Its Jordan Release to Tell Black Stories Through Anime Culture

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Sprite ads in the ’90s really hit their stride when they began to speak the language of the hip-hop community. One of the beverage company’s most bold campaigns of the time took the adage “forming like Voltron” to heart: tapping Goodie Mob, Fat Joe, Mack 10, Common, Jazzy J, and Afrika Bambaataa to act as pilots of the giant anime robot’s five colorful lions (each also repping a specific era and territory of hip-hop culture).

In the span of two-and-a-half minutes, they realize the only way to defeat the evil Robeast is to literally link and build, uniting over their differences to save the world through hip-hop.

The ad was masterminded by Reggieknow, a Chicago native who, like any self-respecting Toys “R” Us kid, refused to grow up. Instead, he found a way to channel his childhood interests into modern cultural expressions, from the Sprite Voltron ads to Fashion Figure Inc., his designer toy company that makes miniaturized versions of super-steezy garments, and even guys like Chris Gibbs. He was most recently tapped by Virgil Abloh to design the cartoon animal mascots known as “Zoooom and friends” for Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2021 menswear collection.

On a similar wave, the life-sized Chris Gibbs was simultaneously working with the youth-minded marketer on the campaign for UNION’s latest collaboration with Jordan Brand. For that, Gibbs wanted to tap into Reggieknow’s It Was a Good Day, an anime series he’s been working on for the better part of a decade while looking for the right partners and platforms to launch it.

Reggieknow describes the show as a “hip-hop Seinfeld,” a comedy of errors based around the lives of four characters: the heavyset, pink-skinned lovable goof Diz; blue-toned, would-be Soundcloud rapper Khalil; the stylish lime green ladies’ man Lavell; and purple-colored conspiracy theorist Eamona. The resulting four-minute episode is called “It Was a Good Day: Hustle and Motivate,” and it came out last week on UNION’s YouTube channel, as well as the microsite it created for its Jordan collaboration.

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“It’s in a world where everything is hip-hop,” says Reggieknow of the IWAGD universe. “It’s in every breath, everywhere you look: the signage, the businesses — there’s even the EPMD Strictly Business Bureau.”

Part-love story to street culture and anime, part-sharp social commentary, the episode tackles everything from the resale sneaker market, the gentrification of streetwear, and the difficulty people of color and ex-felons face when doing something as simple as going on a job interview.

It follows in the footsteps of shows like Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, but speaks to the way sneakerheads and anime nerds are now often the same person. It’s the same reason Gibbs and Reggieknow decided that the accompanying lookbook for the collaboration would be a tribute to cosplay culture, dressing up models like the It Was a Good Day characters as part of a wheatpaste poster campaign.

In a paradigm where the NBA Playoffs are being reframed through the lens of anime series Cowboy Bebop, celebrities like Michael B. Jordan proudly create fashion collections inspired by Naruto, and a pair of Nike SBs nicknamed after the atomic anime cat Doraemon exist, Reggieknow’s vision comes at a perfect time. Even though he’s been to Japan enough to make the average otaku jealous, Gibbs admits he was never an anime head.

“I was definitely the guy calling you a nerd for the last seven years,” jokes Gibbs, whose son is an avid anime fan. As a result, Gibbs is finally beginning to come around: “I apologize. I’ve evolved.” He’s recently gotten into the series Death Note and disappeared into a k-hole of that gray area where anime and streetwear fanart mix while pitching this idea to Jordan Brand, sending them images of anime characters dripped out in brands like Supreme and ACRONYM.

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“Anime culture and street culture are combining in this crazy way, so there was a lot of symmetry with all this coming together,” he says. “Originally, I wouldn’t have thought I could pull off the anime, but since I was going to Japan four times a year, it seemed more attainable. Then we started researching who we could team up with.”

Through the actor Jesse Williams, Gibbs was put onto D’ART Shtajio, Tokyo’s first Black-owned animation studio founded by brothers Arthell and Darnell Isom. After all, the most important thing any hardcore anime enthusiast will nitpick is the quality of the animation. So here was a chance to combine Reggieknow’s slice-of-life script and incredibly relatable Black characters with a high-caliber animation house that not only understood its cultural relevance, but could do it justice visually.

“Reggie and Chris are creating something new,” says Arthell Isom. “It wasn’t always cool for Black culture to really like anime, but now it’s become something basketball players and prominent Black actors like.”

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Indeed, Isom also sees this as an opportunity to shift the perception of Black characters in anime as well. Citing examples like Afro Samurai, which drew on the Blaxploitation imagery of ’70s cinema, and The Boondocks, which was more an American interpretation of Japanese anime, one milestone this project can set is the depiction of multi-faceted Black anime characters who aren’t just token individuals. It’s a problem he attributes to the homogeneity of the Japanese population, rather than outward racism.

“They weren’t real representations of a Black character; they were a stereotype; they were an idea; they were what people saw in magazines or what people saw on TV,” explains Isom. “So I never fault Japan for that, but I used to fault the West for that — because there are lots of Black people in America, but there’s not a lot in Japan.”

Like the Jordan collaboration the episode advertises, there’s also a strong sense of nostalgia throughout the aesthetic narrative. This is where the synergy between the shoes and the Saturday Morning Cartoon-esque appeal of the anime really shines. Although the sentiment around the first images of the UNION x Jordan 4s was largely polarizing, the stitched-down tongue and slightly faded colorways were made as an homage to how Gibbs used to wear his own pairs as a kid, and the imperfect haziness of memory.

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“What I wanted to do with the 4s was keep the energy and the emotion of the shoes through a nostalgic Jordan lens, but bring it into a new place,” says Gibbs. “The same way that shoe is an old thing that we bring into the now, there’s a parallel there with what we did with the anime.”

Despite the certain creative liberties Gibbs took while making the collaboration, there are some things that remain sacred. That includes how the kicks were painstakingly recreated in their anime forms as well. The bar for anime heat is Slam Dunk, the ’90s Toei series about the Shōhoku High School basketball team (whose uniforms clearly referenced the Chicago Bulls) that featured many hand-animated versions of Jordan Brand’s most famous models — a feat still as difficult today as it was back then, according to Arthell Isom.

“The animators have to think about how it’s going to move, and we have to think about the timeline of getting something done,” he says. D’ART Shtajio was able to execute this project in about three months, whereas it usually would’ve taken a year. “But at the same time, it’s a product that truly exists. When people see it, they look for visual cues. It needs to be true to the brand, because without those things, it’s not that anymore. That’s the difficulty: How do we make sure that we stay as true to the product as we can?”

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Given the intricate details on the Jordan 4 — the mesh panels, translucent wings, sculptural details on the sole, and even the tiny UN/LA tag — Isom’s team worked especially hard to nail those important nuances. Speaking of nuance, another thing eagle-eyed viewers will want to pay attention to are the easter eggs scattered throughout “It Was a Good Day: Hustle and Motivate.”

Some of them are obvious, and some are deep cuts to the universe Reggieknow has been building this entire time. Here’s one hint: Khalil’s fit in the episode is a nod to that ’90s Voltron ad. Gibbs hints that there will be a contest in the coming weeks, where someone savvy enough to spot them all will have a chance of securing something from the collab.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to get my favorite one,” challenges Gibbs, officially throwing down the anime gauntlet.