For over a decade, the rap superstar has made music that pushes boundaries, courts controversy and divides critics. Now, the man who has compared himself to Jesus and Steve Jobs just wants to make clothes for the masses.
On a Sunday afternoon in early February, Kanye West was in a makeshift conference room at the downtown New York showroom of Adidas, mapping out his vision for fashion, and everything else, too. It was three days after the presentation of his first sportswear collection, Yeezy Season 1, at New York Fashion Week. Produced in collaboration with Adidas Originals, Yeezy was the culmination of more than a decade of striving, self-teaching, self-humbling and agitating for attention.
The Yeezy presentation — where Jay Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Alexander Wang, West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, and their squalling daughter, North, sat in the front row alongside Anna Wintour — was not a traditional runway show. Instead, West had staged a phalanx of 50 models, many of them selected from an open call. The aesthetic of the unisex clothes borrowed from contemporary “athleisure” wear and traditional military surplus, distorting familiar silhouettes and distilling high-minded influences into street-ready looks. Not all the feedback was positive, but West seemed unfazed. “We destroyed the first village, the fashion village,” he told the group of 10 or so, graphic designers and members of his creative team obliged to attend a Sunday lunchtime meeting.
West, who is partial to lofty rhetoric, is most at ease when sermonizing, delivering extemporaneous speeches that are part Vince Lombardi, part Tony Robbins, part Martin Luther King Jr. (“They classify my motivational speeches as rants!” he has said.) As the group listened, rapt, he segued from his plans to teach feng shui and color theory in schools, to having passed on what he says was a multimillion dollar partnership with Apple, to — in language both admiring and profane — the surpassing perfection of Kris Jenner’s progeny. And then he got to his point.
“It’s literally like . . . I know this is really harsh, but it’s like Before Yeezy and After Yeezy,” West said. “This is the new Rome!” He was referring to his thunderous arrival in the fashion world, to his oft-mocked bid not merely to design clothes but to build, in his words, “the biggest apparel company in human history.” But he could just as easily have been talking about his own life and his recent attempts at self-transformation: his dogged efforts to remake himself, to find a comfortable balance between the self-proclaimed genius and provocateur with the hair-trigger temper he’s been, and the more moderate, approachable, self-controlled designer-of-the-people he’s trying so strenuously to become — all without losing his essential Kanye-ness.Continue reading the main story
IN THE CAR on the way home from the meeting, West took a call from Kardashian, the high priestess of reality television and America’s leading entrepreneur of the self, whose own towering fame has combined with West’s to create a historic blizzard of celebrity. When the couple appeared together on the cover of Vogue last year, the move was, depending on your perspective, a stroke of PR genius or a naked plea for highbrow validation.
“It went really good up at Adidas today,” West told Kardashian, and they chitchatted for a minute like any married couple. Then he paused, obviously listening to her. It was clear from his face that he enjoys this role — collaborator, producer, Pygmalion: “I like the black latex, also with the black fur, and then maybe with tights and the Alaïa high lace-ups,” he said.
West is one of the true music superstars of the 2000s, the rare artist respected as both a pop musician and experimenter, renowned as much for his creative endeavors as for his tabloid exploits. He has remade hip-hop’s sonic palette three, maybe four times. His musical legacy is peerless. And yet, as accomplished as he is, West has, for the past five years, openly sought success and acceptance in the world of fashion. It’s a pursuit that many see as a quixotic fixation, and has often been poignant to watch: West, ever-earnest and transparent about his sartorial ambitions, has attempted to launch himself in a new realm where his massive, inescapable celebrity does not necessarily confer any significant advantage.
Of course, musicians have been crossing over into fashion for decades, capitalizing on their cool to do a T-shirt line or maybe a capsule collection. Some have even tried to build companies: Think Jay Z with Rocawear or Sean Combs with Sean John. But West wants something different — a seat not just in the front row (though he does want that) but at the creative table.
A couple of years ago, in 2013, West could be found inveighing against the gatekeepers he perceived as impediments to his success: the designers who wouldn’t collaborate with him, the financiers who wouldn’t back him. He did this in interviews as well as on stage, from the 60-foot tall mountain that was the centerpiece of his Yeezus tour. “I would scream — ‘Look at this mountain I just made! You don’t think I can make a T-shirt?’ ” he told me. “ ’Look at everyone in the audience — we’re selling $300,000 worth of T-shirts every night!’ ”
To West, his struggle was at root one against skepticism and prejudice. Because while it might be argued that his celebrity allowed for a line-skipping of sorts, he feels it was more frequently an obstacle (a sentiment that is perhaps not surprising from the man who has likened celebrities’ fight for privacy to the civil rights movement). “Fame is often looked down upon in the design world, so it’s actually been something I had to overcome,” he wrote on Twitter when Fern Mallis, the creator of New York Fashion Week, told The New York Post that she was “kind of over Kanye”: “I mean, I’m not a fan of his music, and the attitude and the agenda are not my style.”
In West’s telling, he’s had to howl because fashion people weren’t listening, and he needed their ear. “I one hundred percent had to scream,” he said. “I tried it every other way.”
In fact, he had: He’d previously made inroads via collaborations with Louis Vuitton and Nike (limited-edition sneakers), as well as with A.P.C. (two small collections that included jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts). He also, in 2011 and 2012, presented two women’s ready-to-wear collections that were pilloried for their amateurism. But those were arguably ideas born of the old Kanye, the one for whom luxury and exclusivity were the ultimate goals. New Kanye wants everyone to have a taste of luxury, but without the hefty price tag. He aspires to bring forward-thinking clothes to the masses. Clearly fast fashion has been done — and successfully, if not always ethically — by retailers like Zara and H&M. But West wants to design what might be called fast high fashion: clothes that are truly avant-garde in their design, made from the finest materials, and that would arrive with lightning-quick speed in stores where they could be bought by the public at affordable prices. The Adidas deal is one step — his contract guarantees him a retail location, he said, and stores have begun placing orders — toward a future he’s still working out.
West’s overall ambition is to be to fashion what he is to music: a mainstream innovator, a translator of tomorrow’s ideas for today. “Before the Internet, music was really expensive. People would use a rack of CDs to show class, to show they had made it,” West said at one point. “Right now, people use clothes to telegraph that. I want to destroy that. The very thing that supposedly made me special — the jacket that no one could get, the direct communications with the designers — I want to give that to the world.” Needless to say, there are plenty of differences between the path to success in either field. These days, a good song can travel a near-frictionless journey from creation to consumption. It’s harder to get from the fringes to the center in fashion; a designer needs money, infrastructure and channels of distribution for his or her work to get seen. Plus, it’s a world where exclusivity has cachet. When West says he wants everyone to have access to high-end style, there are plenty who find the idea the very antithesis of luxury.
Because the Yeezy collection is sportswear, there were no suits, no tailored trousers or collared shirts. The looks shown at NYFW were a streamlined, democratized version of what West (who has said, of his personal style, “I want to dress like a child as much as possible”) usually wears. Lately, that’s often been a velour sweatshirt by Haider Ackermann (retail price: $768), topped with a modified MA-1 bomber jacket by Takahiro Miyashita ($1,778). This is not, West clarifies, the level of affordability he’s striving for in the clothes he’s making. He claims that he’s not wearing luxury for luxury’s sake but rather as a form of research. “There’s a transition,” he says. “I need to partake in what’s of value and of quality and soul in order to understand it, in order to give it back.”
A COUPLE OF DAYS later, it was the middle of Fashion Week, and West was in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, killing time before the designer Jeremy Scott’s runway show, one of several front rows he’d enhance. It was a far cry from 2009, when he and a few flamboyantly dressed friends barnstormed their way through the Paris men’s collections. “That was the beginning of the sit-in,” he recalled, likening his quest for fashion-world access to an act of social justice.
“I dreamed, since I was a little kid, of having my own store where I could curate every shoe, sweatshirt and color,” he said. “I have sketches of it. I cried over the idea of having my own store.”
Kanye West was born in 1977, and raised primarily in Chicago. His father was a onetime Black Panther turned photojournalist; his mother was a college professor. He grew up with creative pursuits and social politics always on the agenda.
He draws a direct line between the sense of justice he was raised with and his quest to do away with elitism in fashion. “I’m not a celebrity, I’m an activist,” he says. “The fact that when I see truth it’s really hard for me to sit back and just allow it to happen in front of me on my clock makes me, a lot of times, a bad celebrity.”
Or maybe the best celebrity. West has always operated without a filter, and has long been one of pop culture’s great disrupters. He announced, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” into the camera on a live Hurricane Katrina telethon and rushed the stage to interrupt Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, saying, “I’ma let you finish but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!” In 2012, when the designer Hedi Slimane reportedly said West could only attend his first runway show for Saint Laurent and no others at Paris Fashion Week — a fairly standard request — West took offense and said so, openly and repeatedly; the two still don’t speak. “I’m not angry anymore,” West said, “but I had to get my anger out.” A few moments later, he pulls up a potential cover image for a forthcoming single: It’s a photo of the Saint Laurent store in Chicago after it was robbed last year, its front window shattered, the logo fractured.
Generally, though, the current-day West seems tempered — at least somewhat. Maybe this is owing to his newfound domesticity. He takes his role as a husband and father seriously. “I feel like now I have an amazing wife, a supersmart child and the opportunity to create in two major fields,” he said. “Before I had those outlets, my ego was all I had.” But he also speaks “all the time” to a doctor who specializes in anger management therapy, a fortuitous byproduct of an altercation with a paparazzo at Los Angeles International Airport. (He had two such incidents; the second time he was court-ordered to anger management.)
He claims he’s trying harder to let things go. When Beck beat out Beyoncé for Best Album at the Grammys in February, West walked on stage in a near-farcical echo of what he’d done to Taylor Swift, but then thought better of it and returned to his seat. (He later apologized to Beck on Twitter.) And adversaries are being greeted with warmth, which may actually be shrewdness. On Twitter, he invited Fern Mallis to meet: “If you wanna have a drink with me, book a table at the spotted pig when I’m back in NY.” More recently, after publicly chiding Bernard Arnault, LVMH Chairman and C.E.O., for refusing to take a meeting with him, West arranged a series of impromptu concerts through Arnault’s 22-year-old son, Alexandre, and performed them at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. The elder Arnault attended the first concert, later congratulating West backstage. (He got his meeting.)
West’s newly mellowed self is also beginning to come through in his music. Following the raw scrape of industrial noise-rap that was the “Yeezus” album, there was “Only One,” a tender number sung from the perspective of his late mother, Donda (who died unexpectedly in 2007) and recorded with Paul McCartney. Then came “FourFiveSeconds,” a stripped-down folk song with Rihanna and McCartney.
“I have this table in my new house,” West said, offering a parable. “They put this table in without asking. It was some weird nouveau riche marble table, and I hated it. But it was literally so heavy that it took a crane to move it. We would try to set up different things around it, but it never really worked.
“I realized that table was my ego. No matter what you put around it, under it, no matter who photographed it, the douchebaggery would always come through.”
WEST RESISTS CALLING himself a designer — out of humility, maybe, or to pre-empt criticism. But he has certainly invested time (and plenty of his own money) to teach himself the business. In 2009, he and longtime collaborator Virgil Abloh interned at Fendi to learn how a fashion house operates. And like many established designers, West took counsel from the late Louise Wilson, the Central Saint Martins professor who mentored Alexander McQueen and Mary Katrantzou, and who died last year. His poorly received ready-to-wear women’s collections were paid for completely out of pocket, which he says put him in debt. “I gained because I had the privilege to be educated,” he now says. “I had enough of a value to be able to go into debt, and that was a blessing. Some people don’t even have the opportunity to be able to go into debt.”
He also seems to be constantly looking for ways to improve. Just after the Jeremy Scott show, he slipped into Sweet William, a children’s store in NoLIta, to buy some stuffed animals for North. After selecting a pig, an owl and a South African bat-eared fox, he turned his attention to the clothes. He picked a tiny purple sweater that looked like Missoni for the children of hippies. The store didn’t have a size small enough for North, but the sales clerk assured him it would shrink in the wash. He then took a preschool-size denim jumpsuit off the rack and added it to his haul. “Who’s this for?” the clerk asked. “It’s for reference,” he said.
The day before the Yeezy presentation, in an overcrowded studio space in NoHo, West looked like any other designer in the final throes of pulling a show together: conferring with artist and collaborator Vanessa Beecroft on how the models should stand, making a plethora of last-minute tweaks, calling out for a Hennessy and Coke. At one end of the space, a combination of models, downtown cool kids and Kardashians were being photographed in various outfits. At the other, makeup artists were trying out explosions of color around models’ eyes, and pattern-makers and seamstresses appeared to be building garments from scratch.
West moved swiftly and decisively. He was presented with fully outfitted models and he adjusted their looks, swapping out jackets or sweatshirts or socks. From time to time he sneaked behind a rack of clothes and tried on an ensemble himself, seeing how the clothes hung on his body. “Too shiny,” he said, when presented with a pair of Tyvek pants. “I want them to look matte.”
Some critics called the collection derivative, citing Raf Simons and Helmut Lang as far-too-obvious references. But West didn’t feel any anxiety of influence himself: “I would like to be influenced as much as possible,” he said. “I don’t care if you can see the influence in something, as long as I made it better.” And of course, though Helmut sent bulletproof vests down the runway in the late ’90s, Tupac Shakur and other rappers were wearing bulletproof vests as fashion years before that. Influence can have many tributaries, if you’re willing to see them.
Scorn is the lingua franca of the fashion world, and it’s not surprising that West has come in for so much of it. But scorn for West the designer overlooks what has made West the tastemaker so exceptional in the world of pop music. The shift in the hip-hop silhouette from baggy to slim, the mainstreaming of Balenciaga and Givenchy for men, the rise of athletic wear as high fashion: West’s style legacy would have been secure even if he’d never shown a collection of his own.
During New York Fashion Week, West met one of his idols, Ralph Lauren, at the latter designer’s show. Like West, Lauren began as an outsider — a Jewish kid from the Bronx who remade himself as the originator of America’s preppy fantasy. Early in West’s music career, before he discovered high fashion, Polo was his uniform.
In a widely circulated photo of the two men meeting, Lauren has placed his hand gently on West’s cheek. “Do you know what he said when he did that? ‘This is my son,’ ” West said. “And I was thinking, ‘I knew it! I knew Ralph was my daddy!’ ”Continue reading the main story