West found inspiration in the disaffected youth of the London riots, staging a racially diverse performance runway with artist Vanessa Beecroft – so why the vitriol?
With the hip hop royalty in the front row, the dropping of a new track with Sia and the official debut of the Yeezy Boost trainers, you could just about be forgiven for not paying attention the actual clothes that made up Kanye West’s adidas collection, revealed on Thursday in New York. You could hardly have missed the reaction to them, though. First it was on Twitter, where he was criticised for hypocrisy in light of the recent Grammys incident: “Think Kanye West should respect the Artistry. Next week I'm releasing an album,” tweeted menswear designer Matthew Miller. Next, a five-page thread on The Fashion Spot – dedicated to working out which Helmut Lang, Margiela and Raf Simons looks West had borrowed – was picked up and circulated by fashion news sites. It’s nothing new for pop culture's most divisive man; similar comments were levelled against him after his show at Paris Fashion Week in 2012. But if you turn down the noise, was the hate really warranted?
In collaboration with Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft (whose often political work troubles notions of spectatorship) the runway was replaced by a performance space, models standing in neat rows. They wore a mix of flesh coloured leggings and tights, layered with underwear over the top, ripped up jumpers and utilitarian outerwear. The collection itself referenced one of Beecroft’s pieces in particular, “VB55” (2005), where a hundred women stood in a space, nude save for skin coloured tights. “I wanted the women to be slightly hypnotised, so they appear removed and detached from the audience,” the artist told The Guardian at the time, and it seemed West’s models had been given similar instruction, appearing bored, looking down, even yawning – a subtle rebellion against the rules of the fashion week presentation that many seemed to miss the irony of.
“The collection referenced one of Beecroft’s pieces, “VB55” (2005), where women stood in a space, nude save for skin coloured tights. “I wanted them to be slightly hypnotised, so they appear removed and detached from the audience,” the artist told The Guardian at the time, and it seemed West’s models had been given similar instruction.”
The casting was much more diverse than the typical New York Fashion Week runway, where during the AW14 season, 78% of models were white. There were both men and women of various races, heights and body types, including teenage Instagram prodigy Luka Sabbat and model/muse Ian Connor. Despite expectations, there was no Kendall Jenner in the show; instead, her younger sister Kylie appeared. Although the formation of the models (and the prominent khaki and MA-1 pilot jackets) felt distinctly militant, West reportedly drew his inspiration from a moment of chaos rather than order – the riots that swept through London in 2011, when anger over the police shooting of local father Mark Duggan sparked racial antagonism that boiled over into protests followed by looting.
“What was the connection?” people questioned. It surely would’ve made more sense for West to reference the recent events in Ferguson and elsewhere in the States, but this collection has been in the works for a year and a half. For him to draw on a political event seemingly so removed from him may have seemed tenuous, but there was a reasoning behind it – besides his criticism of institutional racism. West has proved himself acutely aware of the complex relationship between fashion and aspiration, something that would prove key in the London riots. “Now everybody playin’ / Spendin’ everything on Alexander Wang” he spits on 2013’s “New Slaves”, and just last week spoke about the limits people will go to attain the latest must-have items in deprived neighbourhoods. “When I was growing up, kids wanted Jordans – kids got killed for Jordans,” he said. The coverage of what happened in London had a similar focus – the stores amongst the most raided were the shoe shops: teens were rising up to claim the status symbols out of their reach, rebelling against what had been denied them.
It’s easy to criticise West for encouraging such demand-driven violence, but he has been upfront about the realities of the collection’s exclusivity. “I want to apologise to all the kids and all the parents that can't get the shoes currently because there's only 9,000 [pairs]. And also, ’cause they’re $350...Just be patient...Now that I'm in a position, I’m gonna make sure EVERYONE gets Yeezys,” he promised on air. Likewise, his decision to stream the show to locations across the country was rooted in a desire to open the walls that surround the fashion industry. “If you're in Atlanta and you're a fresh kid, and you wore the Margielas ’cause you saw me up there at the Yeezy tour with them...and you find out ’Ye’s got this fashion show that you can go to a theater at 4 o’clock to see, you're gonna go see that!” he explained excitedly. West started his Valentine’s day by surprising fans at the adidas store in NYC, hand delivering pairs to the first customers.
When those famous for one thing attempt to cross into another discipline, it’s a struggle to be taken seriously. Miley Cyrus, Shia LaBoeuf and James Franco are recent examples, each seeking to gain legitimacy in the artistic world beyond the Hollywood bubble. West has spoken repeatedly of his snubbed attempts to enter the fashion world – while acknowledging the opportunities fame has brought, he claims it has also “boxed [him] in creatively.” Indeed, it’s easy to criticise those like West trying to make this transition – as taking opportunities away from legitimate artists or designers whose work doesn’t get the exposure that comes with an A-list name or millions of Instagram followers, or simply because in our celebrity culture we feel entitled to tear apart anything people in the public eye do. The same can’t really be said for major fashion designers, whose collections are rarely shredded to such an extent on social media. If anything, people assume that not liking something means that it’s somehow beyond their understanding. Considering the use of sampling in West’s music, can we really be surprised at the fact it carried over to his designs?
West has never been silent about the lack of diversity within the fashion industry. “Don’t discriminate against me because I’m a black man,” he said in his semi-infamous Wireless festival rant. “You know damn well there aren't no black guys or celebrities making no Louis Vuitton nothing.” If Vanessa Friedman’s shocking feature on racial diversity at New York Fashion Week is anything to go by, West is right: “Of the 260 shows on the men’s and women’s wear schedule, only three with any global reach are by African-American designers,” she wrote this week. Should we tear West down because he’s a rapper or be thankful that that means he can “crack the pavement” (his words) of spaces often closed to people of colour? Things aren’t getting better elsewhere either – music is becoming whiter, and the Academy continues to snub black filmmakers and actors. “I want to create something better for you,” West’s monologue at the show said, and it was easy to read it as an address to those kids who took to the streets in London out of anger that simply being black could get them killed by a policeman, a sentiment as true today as in 2011. “We have been limited.”