Boofy Fashion: Student Start-Up Reps Japanese, American Culture

Young clothing designers find quick success in new line blending cultures and themes

courtesy of boofy

It all started with a text. Lily Borgenheimer, a graphic design student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, had caught aspiring fashion designer and student Kai Rasmussen’s eye with her abstractions of geometrical shapes. When they started talking, an idea for a clothing company came up. Her studies combined with his experience drawing political cartoons for a school publication could make for street art–style graphics, they thought. So came Boofy (a nonsense adjective Rasmussen was using at the time), a new fashion line of T-shirts targeted to millennials with designs featuring bubbly, eye-catching caricatures.

Borgenheimer still has the conversation saved on her phone. “‘Hey, do you wanna start a fashion company?’ he texted me. It was so spontaneous. It is great to see it blow up like it did,” she says.

Instant success struck. The two young artists’ work, influenced by Japanese pop culture and social justice issues, has made more than $600 since sales started early July, something they never imagined. Expecting mostly to sell to friends, the company has already earned multiple international sales and buyers outside their social circles.

“There was a lot of my old artwork I didn’t want to go to waste,” Rasmussen says, regarding some of his earlier cartoons which mainly featured over-exaggerated political candidates and slams on such issues as the state budget. “I like it to be vivid, defined, and use a lot of bright colors. And a lot of it is social commentary.” One design depicts an overweight child atop a pile of junk food, ammunition, a TV, a skull, and other things that he titles “The American Dream.” Many of his designs have elements of collage art. The work is busy. Every time you look, you discover something new in the image.

Courtesy of boofy

Courtesy of boofy

Other T-shirts merge Japanese and Western cultures—with cartoon samurais, police cars, suburban neighborhoods, and Japanese characters.

A blend of Japanese and American cultural symbols is not uncommon in fashion today. Contemporary designers include Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, known for her “in-betweenness” creating designs fluid both politically and in the divide between art and apparel, and Issey Miyake, known for his technology-driven, high-end fashion. Each derives influences from Westernized fashion while incorporating Japanese artistry, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, using “Japan’s rich visual heritage as a foundation for aesthetic, social, and sometimes political collages of cultures worldwide.”

Rasmussen, a Japanese American himself, says he has noticed many misconceptions about Japanese culture in the U.S. While some parts of that culture have found their niche in America, Western viewers often don’t know the origins and history behind what they see. For example: Some traditions depicted in anime (Japanese-style animation, often fantastical) parallel those in real Japanese culture—such as humility and honoring family. But many Western viewers take it in simply as entertainment.

Rasmussen sees fashion as a way to express his roots. One design he calls “JAPAN X BOOFY.” To the average American, the most recognizable drawing in this scrambled piece might be the Japanese flag. But when analyzed closer, the shirt shows off a hodgepodge of aspects unique to Rasmussen’s background. “Kozure Ookami, Takeshi Kitano, Boss Coffee, and kotatsu,” he says, are included (an anime character, a comedian, a coffee company, and a traditional Japanese table, respectively)—all harmoniously woven together for deeply personal branding.

Although their designs are very different, Alexander Wang, former creative director of Balenciaga and known for urban wear, and Vera Wang, most notable for her wedding gowns, are two Asian American designers Rasmussen looks to for their ability to strive in a predominantly white industry. Both emphasize practicality, with Alexander Wang’s designs based off street wear popular in Taiwan and Japan. Boofy’s shirts are similarly street smart.

Courtesy of Boofy

Courtesy of Boofy

It might sound unlikely for two students to make it far with a spontaneous clothing line birthed via text, but this is not Rasmussen’s first project. After winning a competition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he received $500 to launch a line based on a research project he was helping with called Astrobotany, its aim to grow plants in space. The line celebrated science, specifically botany, with floral designs similar to Boofy’s—compilations of drawings and bright colors.

Borgenheimer, with her abstract geometric designs, is new to the industry. Working in fashion had always been at the back of her mind, and this unexpected partnership opened the door. As head of design, she works with Rasmussen’s art, then overlays the company name in bold letters for a clean, branded image.

Courtesy of Boofy

By getting the Boofy name out there, the team hopes to break into the hip-hop demographic. Boofy T-shirts are already similar to clothing popular among hip-hop artists today: simple street style, with statement-making, brand-labeled tees. Musicians often create trends because wearing something during a performance can quickly catch the eyes of hundreds or thousands of people.

Sending products to rappers and hip-hoppers in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the Midwest—think, underground, Atmosphere vibes—Rasmussen and Borgenheimer hope to build brand recognition. “I think the reason we’ve had so much success is a lot due to the designs,” Rasmussen says, pointing to visual similarities in the bold, graffiti-like screen prints that are popular right now. “And I’d love to just be a strong Midwest name.”

While many of the illustrations do stem from deep-rooted places for the designers, the T-shirts aren’t just meant to make a statement. “I want people to buy the designs because they like them. I never want it to be self serving,” he says. “You should buy it because you like the way it looks. To me, that’s what fashion is, that’s what it comes down to.”

The team is in talks of donating some profits to charity, specifically one that focuses on safety and children. For now, though, they’re looking to expand business. Boofy is currently sold on Redbubble, an aggregate site for artists, but they plan to move to their own website and use local screenprinters as sales continue.

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