On the heels of his LA show, the rapper-slash-designer discusses how fashion industry rebuffs led him to carve out his own defiant vision
“The devil doesn’t wear Prada, I’m clearly in a fucking white tee,” rapped Tyler, The Creator on the opening track of his sophomore album Goblin. The line was the denouement to a six-minute diatribe where the 19-year-old delivered a slew of shockingly candid insights into his life, from his father walking out when he was a child, to thoughts of committing suicide. It was 2011 and the LA rapper-cum-producer was on the cusp of fame and, at the same time, still sleeping on his grandmother’s couch. The same Tyler appeared on a stage in LA little over ten days ago, though he now raps about riding his bike and ‘finding his wings’. But he wasn't on that stage to rap. With cartoon-like clouds projected onto the ceiling and exaggerated plastic daisies and roses lining the stage, the 2,000 fans packed into the complex had come to see Tyler, The Creator’s show for his clothing label Golf Wang, which was showing as part of MADE LA. Five years on from proclaiming he was the devil, the white t-shirt had been replaced by an iridescent bowling shirt – this was Tyler grown up, successful and, ultimately, happy.
“It was sick man, I gave niggas who don’t have a voice a voice,” he exclaims in a deep, gravelly tone that belies his tall frame. It’s 2pm on the following Wednesday and it’s the first opportunity he has had to reflect on the show. “The fashion world, just from what I see it, they don’t let many people in. And because I wear t-shirts and shorts, I’m not all like high fashion they don’t take me seriously...So, I just wanted to make sure when infiltrating their world with my runway show, it was t-shirts and big girls and short guys and black kids on the runway because they don’t accept none of us in that world, for the most part.”
This defiant, fuck-you attitude has long been a signature of the 25-year-old’s work. He is loud, profane and undoubtedly contrarian, but he is also driven by originality – his first two albums contained barely a single sample, a rare feat for any artist in a genre built upon the idea. Against a backdrop of trap and music made specifically for clubs and radio play, his last two albums have been a heady mix of jazz, neo-soul and rock, with features by the likes of Roy Ayers and Erykah Badu. Similarly, the clothes he designs are perhaps unlike anything you would expect from a rapper – his show saw pastel pinks clashed with yellows, hoodies emblazoned with colourful flower graphics and prints ranging from zebra to tartan. Multi-coloured polka dot motifs, reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s Spot Paintings series, appeared throughout, on socks, shirts and even bed sheets – part of the elaborate set for this show in which the rapper turned designer took centre stage. It was a cacophony of colour, within a decidedly skate-led aesthetic.
“I just wanted to make sure when infiltrating (the fashion) world with my runway show, it was big girls and short guys and black kids on the runway because they don’t accept none of us” – Tyler, The Creator
“Growing up as an inner city black kid, I wasn’t the most masculine, I wasn’t into sports, I liked pink ‘n’ shit,” he said, addressing the crowd. “Liking pinks and colours and patterns, all that shit wasn’t cool. But luckily I had people around me who trusted me and didn’t judge me.” Of course, there are rappers who have gone before him who have incorporated such things into their wardrobes – such as Pharrell Williams, Tyler’s idol and mentor, and Cam’ron. Both had their sexuality questioned as a result, and it speaks volumes for an industry’s failure to tackle homophobia that wearing pink can still be seen as a subversive act. Tyler then went on to recount a story to the audience, many of them wearing the loud designs of past Golf Wang seasons, about being mocked by a shop assistant in a store he used to hang out at for wearing a pink Fucking Awesome hoodie. “That’s not a real man,” he had said. “It’s crazy, I saw him yesterday. (He) probably doesn’t remember,” laughed Tyler.
The evening was a fascinating insight into the mind of an artist who, since rising to fame in 2011, has written, produced and starred in his own comedy show, released three solo albums, a photobook, a media app, launched an annual carnival and, as he boasted on Earl Sweatshirt’s “WOAH”, made a quarter of a million dollars from selling socks – Golf Wang socks, naturally. The show opened with Tyler rising from his bed and stumbling over to a sink to brush his teeth, while an internal monologue boomed out over the arena’s speakers. The set design was as much part of the event as the clothes, there was a skate ramp carved out in the centre of a circular runway, which two models spent the whole show skating on, as well as a chair fashioned to look like an oversized Coca Cola can with the top cut off. At the end, kids swarmed the stage to try out the chair and grab the man-made flowers that surrounded the runway as a keepsake.
You could sense that it was a proud moment for him, but the show was not without its reminders of the old Tyler – the one who would use the term ‘faggot’ with reckless abandon, rap about killing himself and construct detailed narratives about rape and murder in his songs. These lyrics, which first debuted on his breakout mixtape, Bastard, in 2009, saw him banned from the UK earlier this year for up to five years by Home Secretary Theresa May. He addressed this in a song which closed out his show, rapping: “I was young, I can’t apologise for that shit/They took my fiction literature for literal/I ain’t no motherfuckin’ criminal”. It is an issue that still rankles with Tyler, who released his first full album under London-based XL Recordings. “I have a clean record, I’m not a bad guy. There’s people who go there who say way far crazier stuff than I did when I was 17 or 18. And the only difference between me and them is that they were a bigger artist and are probably gave more respect. Or the fact that their skin is lighter than mine.”
“Growing up as an inner city black kid, I wasn’t the most masculine, I wasn’t into sports, I liked pink ‘n’ shit” - Tyler, The Creator
It doesn’t take long speaking with him to realise that the image painted of him by the UK Home Office, and a host of other detractors, is at odds with the real Tyler. He doesn’t drink or take drugs, instead spending his spare time sketching brightly coloured clothes, cartoon doughnuts or ideas for films (he says he would like to direct a comedy one day that is similar to Superbad); and spent the majority of his last album telling his fans to “find their wings” – a phrase he repeatedly uses to inspire his young followers. He is more class clown than menace to society: his fashion show was interrupted by a video interlude of Tyler playing the character of a retired golf-loving uncle named Thurnis Hayley, thanking him for sending him free clothes remarking “all the kids is saying I’m lit and my wife’s fucking me again”. Again, Paris Fashion Week this was not; meanwhile, Tyler’s friend, Kendall Jenner, and collaborator, Kanye West, watched on.
It was the latter’s Twitter declaration that Tyler’s video for “Yonkers” was “the video of 2011” that was arguably the tipping point in the then-unsigned artist’s journey to fame. The two have remained close, with Tyler referring to West as “a beautiful human” at his show. And while the self-directed video put him on the map musically, it also signalled his breakout as one of the most influential characters within streetwear – as iconic as him eating a roach in the video was, it was his personal aesthetic that captured the minds of many, with his slashed Dickies shorts, white tube socks and simple Vans. Supreme five-panel caps, like the ones he wore in the video, took on unprecedented levels of popularity. Before Tyler, rappers didn’t really wear Supreme, now, everyone from Chris Brown to Drake can be seen sporting the label. Arguably, it was Tyler that precipitated the transition of the New York brand from cult to a mainstream signifier of “cool.”
“It’s weird. People come out in like fashion magazines, the best dressed people in the world, the most stylish people in the world. And I’m like ‘dude, these people you have on your list have people on payroll that go and get the clothes that are considered cool, and then they just dress them’,” he says on the subject of his peers within the music industry. “How are you guys putting them on a list as the most stylish people when they look like everyone else? Old people, and like younger kids have the best style to me,” he continues. “Because they don’t really give a fuck anymore, and they wear colour and stuff, and they don’t really follow trends. 7-year-olds and 50-year-olds aren’t following the trends trying to dress like everyone, so they kind of have their own way of running things, and they wear the colours they like, and I think that shit’s cool.”
Tyler spent much of his teenage years skating around LA’s Fairfax area, where the likes of Supreme, Union and Stüssy have stores. He would occasionally get given free clothes by the former, and would spend hours debating the brand and seeking out grail pieces on Hypebeast’s forum under the name ‘Bloxheads’. He also spent a short time interning with Freshjive – a stalwart of the West Coast streetwear scene. “I always tried to show them a couple of my designs for t-shirts but Rick (Klotz, the brand’s founder) was never trying to take any of them,” he says. He had always sketched out ideas, usually drawing heavily from his hero Pharrell and his labels, Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream. The bright, graphic-laden sensibilities of his mentor’s brand – which was conceived with the help of Nigo, Japanese streetwear legend and founder of A Bathing Ape – are still present in much of Tyler’s design work.
“It’s like damn, like I don’t get respect in the fashion world at all. But niggas is doing shit that I’ve been doing. Which is cool... but, damn, can I get an interview Vogue?” - Tyler, The Creator
He launched his brand, Golf Wang, in 2011, with a pop-up in the same area of LA where he received much of his sartorial schooling. It was, and still is, streetwear, with early collections reflecting Tyler’s love of cats, doughnuts and “shit that pisses off old white people,” such as inverted crosses or 666 motifs. When Tyler would tour, he would set up pop-up stores in whatever city he landed in – swathes of teenagers would gather outside the likes of London’s now-defunct Hideout Store in Soho, where him and his Odd Future cohorts would set up shop for the day.
In many ways, this would serve as the precursor for what is now considered standard for artist today. The likes of Kanye and Bieber are eschewing traditional tour merch in favour of streetwear-led designs and launching pop up stores to sell it in. Just last month, a line of kids snaked around a Fairfax block hoping to get their hands on The Life of Pablo merchandise, conceived in collaboration with artist, Cali Thornhill DeWitt, at an impromptu pop up. Drake too has hosted a number of impromptu events to hawk his owl-branded OVO gear. It is something that has not gone unnoticed by Tyler: “I never wanted to do merch. It was always like, I see it as a clothing brand, let’s open up shops all around the world. This was in 2011, and now everyone’s doing it… It’s like damn, like I don’t get respect in the fashion world at all. But n***as is doing shit that I’ve been doing. Which is cool, I don’t need the accolades but, damn, can I get an interview Vogue?”
On his opening track on Bastard, the project that started all of this, he rapped: “My goal in life is a Grammy”. It is a line that he has since denounced – as the years have rolled on, he has become increasingly aloof to the opinion of his industry peers. And that’s where the charm of Tyler, and by extension Golf Wang, lies – it is utterly and unashamedly uncaring about what is deemed cool or on-trend. There is an independence and originality that courses through his work – it’s why his runway show featured what’s likely the most diverse cast you’ll see at any fashion week this year, and it’s why his runway show was more fun than any you’ll attend this year. He ended it by announcing that everyone in attendance would get a free pair of shoes from his soon-to-launch sneaker label Golf Le Fleur. Sweating and shirtless by this point, he proceeded to sprint round the runway yelling and pointing, “YOU GET A SHOE! YOU GET A SHOE! YOU GET A SHOE!” like streetwear’s answer to Oprah Winfrey.
Tyler, The Creator operates in two worlds where appearances are everything, and where it’s often easier to hide behind a persona than to be real. A rapper designing baby-blue boiler suits and declaring “I like flowers”; a designer delivering a post-show monologue to everyone in attendance – these are things that don’t typically happen, but in the world Tyler, The Creator has built for himself they can. “I've got some sick ideas and I’m happy I’ve got enough people around me that trust them,” he told the crowd. When Tyler first burst onto the scene with his shocking lyrics, many dismissed him as a fad, someone who would quickly fade into obscurity – but he has since proved himself to be one of the most intriguing characters in his field, with a vision unencumbered by the views or perceptions of others, be they fellow musicians, fashion critics or store assistants. In an age where being on-trend is vitally important for both rappers and designers, Tyler, The Creator is offering a radical alternative.