The Brand Radar: Talking art with Vice Press’ James Henshaw

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes talks with Vice Press’ James Henshaw to get an insight into Vice Press and their approach to the art category.

Licensee Vice Press have carved a significant niche for themselves in the area of art licensing. They are part of a growing movement of licensees who are working with established IP to create art collections inspired by the original IP – but given a fresh styling by artists and illustrators.

This type of licensing requires careful handling and a sensitive approach. There needs to be a creative and commercial balance struck and Vice Press have built up a great network of artists they work with. This is a great example of a new category of licensing that is gaining momentum, not least because of the way it nurtures relationships between classic IP and talented artists.

I spoke with Vice Press’ James Henshaw to get an insight into Vice Press, their approach to the category and discover some of their key learnings.

James Henshaw, Vice Press

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Vice Press and how you first started in licensing?
Vice Press was established six years ago by myself, James Henshaw and Matt Ferguson. At the time, Matt’s reputation as an artist was growing and I ran a website dedicated to featuring artists, galleries and new releases.

We first met when I interviewed Matt for the website and we discovered we shared a common interest in 2000 AD and a number of other classic British brands, like Wallace & Gromit, Thunderbirds and more. We thought it a shame that these properties were massively under-represented in art and decided to set up our own company to do just that. Our first releases were with 2000 AD and from there we developed our licence portfolio.

James Henshaw, Vice Press

How has consumer demand for wall art and limited edition art changed over the last few years?
The type of artwork we produce is very different from what historically has been available to UK consumers as all our releases are bespoke designs, created by artists we work with from around the globe. As such, there wasn’t a ready-made market for what we do.

In the United States, this has been commonplace for a while, with a dedicated collector base. We somewhat had to start from scratch. We did this by fundamentally trying to appeal to fans of the licences we work on, rather than artwork collectors.

While this meant slow growth in the first couple of years, as the awareness of what we do has grown so has the market’s appetite. This has been helped by a number of larger retailers such as Zavvi, owned by The Hut Group, and HMV expanding their product range into these markets.

The past 12 to 24 months have been our best yet. We have expanded from being exclusively direct to customer retail into working with retailers. This has really helped build our brand.

Vice Press have a great portfolio of licences. How do you select which properties to work with?
Essentially, they’re all properties either Matt, myself or both of us love. We proactively seek out licences we care about and hope that resonates in the work we produce.

The artists we work with all love the properties, too. That is essential to us as we don’t ever just want an artist to feel like it is “just another commission”. This can also sometimes be restricting as an artist you may really want for a project just doesn’t connect with that licence.

Occasionally we are approached by artists we love about properties we have little knowledge about. Once or twice we have taken that risk, but not without us sitting down to watch or read those properties and make sure that we connect first.

James Henshaw, Vice Press

Given you are operating in the world of ‘pop culture’ and fan merchandise, how do you keep up to date with new properties and emerging trends?
As fans and collectors ourselves, we always keep an eye out on what new merchandise is coming out, but we’re also conscious we don’t replicate a trend or jump on the band wagon. We have evolved some of our product lines to help introduce more people to collectible wall art, which has been really successful. This was through our Editions line.

We were getting a lot of feedback that our limited-edition releases were selling out too quick in some cases… Or by the time someone discovered us, something was out of print, so we introduced Editions. The idea being that we had some releases that were limited by how many we sold during a release window; either six or 12 months. The benefit being that there is always something in store. These are also a lower price point than some of our other releases as they are a little smaller and printed using different methods, but never sacrificing quality of art or the final product.

You work with a range of artists and illustrator; how easy is it to build a relationship with the creator community?
I think the key here is making sure the artist has a great experience and that they are working on something they love. We try to be as transparent as possible going into a project with an artist and make sure they have a good understanding of the property. This makes approvals much easier too, and the likelihood of significant changes much smaller.

The other side of this is reputation. If an artist has a great experience, they tell other artists. This creates new connections and helps us to establish ourselves as a company people want to work with.

Finally, there is Matt. Having Matt as co-founder and creative/art-director really helps as he is well respected and highly regarded. This helps a lot with newer artists too, as he can help develop and guide them.

James Henshaw, Vice Press

Do you have a set criteria for selecting artists?
Not really. We don’t look for “names” and focus more on the artists’ style and quality. Both Matt and I use social networks a lot to seek out new artists and take recommendations. We also have artists reach out to us and we take the time to look at everyone who does.

How do you handle approvals with rights owners? Are they open to you and artists reimagining their brands?
When we approach a new rights owner, we are very open and transparent about what we would like to do and give examples of our works and the type of artists we would like to work with on those properties. Where possible, we also like to meet, either virtually or in person, to discuss our plans and how we can work together.

It also helps that we know the brands well and have a love for them and can speak about the characters and the world’s they inhabited. While we are generally pushing the brands often in a direction the rights owners haven’t been before with regards the products, there is the safety that Matt and I have this passion to ensure we do it in a way that has a reverence for the property.

What have been some of your own personal favourite collections that Vice Press have launched?
Oh this is like choosing your favourite child! What I would say is that the favourite project of mine that we have worked on is the 2000AD 40th Anniversary Gallery show we ran for Thought Bubble a couple of years back. That was the culmination of a lot of hard work, and we got to produce releases and work with some of our heroes, sadly some of whom are no longer with us.

James Henshaw, Vice Press

Can you let us have an insight into any new launches?
We have two very big projects we are currently negotiating that we hope to launch in Q4 2021 and Q1 2022. We will also be revisiting the world of Aardman, which we are very excited about – and continuing Florey’s much-loved series of prints for that!

Finally what trends in regards to art styles, wall art and collaborations should we be looking out for over the next 12 months?
Something we are very keen to get back to – and are looking to launch later in the year – is larger format releases. In the UK, movie posters in cinemas have been produced at a standard 30 x 40 inches since the early 20th century. We are looking to launch our own spin on that with a range of 30 x 40 posters, both re-releases of classics and re-workings of popular releases we have produced over the years – and also brand-new designs!

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