From fashion’s dog house to critical acceptance, here’s how the rapper and producer has made his name on the catwalk
When it comes to Kanye West, fashion designer, there’s no umming and ahhing. You’re either a disciple of Yeezus or you’re, well, a Judas. Despite his critics and detractors – of which there have been many – West has wedged his way into the annals of high fashion. We all know how he’s pulled it off – called in favours, siphoned ideas from credible collaborators, begged for an education from the late Louise Wilson. We’ve followed him every step of the way, from his first artistic rant to his merch selling out at every last outlet. Taking stock of his professional fashion outing mirrors the collective intrigue that has kept fans obsessively charting his every move. Here’s a year-by-year cribsheet for Kanye West’s retooling of the fashion industry.
West’s video for his track “The New Workout Plan” features him wearing a polo shirt embroidered with the bear emblem created for the release of The College Dropout. He told Complex, “There were phases where I could just do the bear on a polo and it would’ve made $100 million, but I always say I was a designer before I was a rapper.” He also sported the bear polo in adverts for Boost Mobile, which supplanted the profits he surely would have reaped had he released a polo with a bear on it.
In 2005, West told the world he was pregnant with his first child: fashion label Pastelle, which he announced along with the start of his own record label (G.O.O.D.) and the Kanye West Foundation. “Now that I have a Grammy under my belt and Late Registration is finished, I am ready to launch my clothing line next spring,” he said.
For his first real toe-dip into design, West created several one-off pairs of “The College Dropout’ Nike Air Max 180’s. It was never released commercially, and only a few pairs were made available. The year also failed to yield any sign of Pastelle, begging the question of whether West was serious about pattern-cutting.
Together with streetwear label A Bathing Ape, West designed a ‘Dropout Bear’ Bapesta trainer. Around this time West was freely name-dropping his label in songs like “Stronger”, despite its non-existence. Pharrell Williams announced via his blog that Pastelle was readying to launch, but West’s mother unfortunately passed away – a personal blow that likely put the project on the backburner.
“I have that opportunity to put my name on something and people will buy it, but I want to create something that has its own voice(…) I wasn’t put on this earth to make money – I was put on this earth to make magic” – Kanye West
While not necessarily an entry on his design CV, West sports shutter shades in his video for “Stronger” and during his Glow in the Dark tour. The frames were by Alain Mikli, who made the frames after West specifically requested them. It sparked a phenomenon, wherein everyone and their dog had a pair of budget shutter shades.
In the same year, he also teamed up with Australian fashion label Ksubi to produce eyewear for Pastelle. Instead of getting too DIY, West was to consult with designer George Gorrow, who previously created stage eyewear for his music videos. The designs would include limited-edition gold frames and carry a price tag of $2,000. Apart from the announcement, there is no evidence the designs ever surfaced.
Around this time, West also started expressing his desire to break into the realms of high fashion. “I’m in the same position I was in with music before I got it together and finally managed to figure out what my style was,” West told Clash magazine. “I used to have tracks that sounded like Timbaland and the next track would sound like DJ Premier… So when I’m doing designs I have one thing that looks like Venice and Ralph shit and the next thing is in the BAPE area. So it’s really about figuring out how to embody all of these things I like but have my own voice. I have that opportunity to put my name on something and people will buy it, but I want to create something that has its own voice and other designers can look at it and be inspired by. I wasn’t put on this earth to make money – I was put on this earth to make magic.”
Important to note: late in 2008, West first met Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft. He commissioned her for a performance art piece for an album listening party for 808s & Heartbreak. The piece consisted of 40 nude models silhouetted against a blue light panel.
To the surprise of no one, reports surfaced in 2009 that Pastelle was no longer happening, after four years of empty promises. Coinciding with that announcement came another, less expected communique that would become much more career-defining. At the MTV VMA awards in 2009, he stormed on stage to snatch the mic away from Taylor Swift to declare Beyoncé as a more deserving winner of the Best Female Video award. He was vilified by the press and shunned by peers.
Once he hit rock bottom, West decided to quietly sidestep into fashion and build up his experience organically. He was about to get serious. Picking up an internship at Gap, an insider relayed his dedication to learning: “He works all the time, and one Friday night recently, he stayed until 12am. He’s learning the fashion business from the inside and trying to do it quietly.”
Next he moved to Japan, then to Rome, where he took up an internship at Fendi. In a rare moment of self-deprecation, he told Hot 97 of his experiences picking up cappuccinos on the way into work, indicating his willingness to start from the bottom. One of his claims, which emerged post-placement in a recent interview with Zane Lowe, was that he “brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi, and they said no. How many motherfuckers you done seen with a leather jogging pant?”
Together with Vanessa Beecroft, he directed and released a 35-minute film to accompany his track “Runaway”. There was no outward-facing progress made in his fashion career, but an interview with Elle did yield this controversial quote: “Did you not see the Lindsay (Lohan) and Ungaro collection? That was 9/11 for celebrities doing fashion. After that I thought, ‘Well I can’t do a line now.’”
Saturday, October 1, 2011 held a lot of promise for Kanye West. For his first catwalk collection, a flagpole on the offical Paris Fashion Week schedule, the front row was packed out. Nearly every fashion critic flocked to see West’s debut, alongside Azzedine Alaïa, Lindsay Lohan, Olivier Theyskens, Jeremy Scott and the Olsen twins.
Unfortunately, the spectators were met with ill-fitting body-con dresses and more fur than a factory outlet. The critics did not give ’Ye an easy out. “Kanye West’s collection was so Givenchy-esque that it’s embarrassing that Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci was an expected guest,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Christina Binkley in her review.
Naturally, West hit back with a signature rant at the show’s afterparty. “This is my first collection. Please be easy. Please give me a chance to grow. This is not some celebrity shit. I don’t fuck with celebrities. I fuck with the creatives in this room, the amazing people who spend every day of their life trying to make the world a more beautiful place. The amount of people that tried to get me a celebrity fucking deal. They said, ‘You need to do boot-cut jeans, or you won’t sell.’ Shut the fuck up!”
“The amount of people that tried to get me a celebrity fucking deal. They said, ‘You need to do boot-cut jeans, or you won’t sell.’ Shut the fuck up!” – Kanye West
March 6, 2012, marked West’s second bite at the fashion cherry. More motorcycle jackets and fur followed; however, this season was pared down to only 20 looks. A sign of a shrinking ego? Perhaps. This collection was received more warmly than his initial effort, although he couldn’t shake the comparisons to Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci.
The end of 2012 left Kanye disillusioned. While everyone was dissecting the Mayan calendar’s definitive end, West quietly announced via a press release that he would no longer be showing in Paris.
Taking a back-door route for his return to design, he chose to work with A.P.C. for a capsule collection. “It took us two years to create just three items,” A.P.C.’s founder-designer Jean Touitou told W upon its launch. “Kanye has strong obsessions and wants to go in so many different directions – basically, he wants to redo the whole universe. When we finally finished this collection, I felt like, ‘OK, if I made this happen, then I can achieve peace in the Middle East.’”
In a sense, Touitou felt he was brokering a deal between West and the fashion elite, offering him that olive branch back into the fold. It worked. The collection consisted of nine pieces ranging in price from $120 to $250. They all sold out instantly, crashing A.P.C.’s website.
At this point, West ended his prosperous relationship with Nike, citing the reason for the move as unsatisfactory royalties on his Air Yeezy shoe and the brand delaying the release of his Red October trainers. He inked a deal with adidas for a reported $10 million.
His second collaboration with A.P.C. included entire looks including parka-inspired coats, streamlined cargo pants, and easy knits. Touitou lent a firm hand in steering ’Ye back on track, as West noted during the collection’s presentation. “Jean has basically taught me how to drive on the right side of the street, ’cos it’s like I started off in a Lamborghini drunk-driving down the middle of Paris and shit and he’s like, ‘OK now, let me show you the steps to take.’”
This year, West debuted his collaboration with adidas, presenting a new pared-back aesthetic for Yeezy Season 1. The collection marked his return to the catwalk, but this time he had a secret weapon: Vanessa Beecroft. Though they’d been collaborating on different projects since 2008, her ability to drill down to the essentials greatly influenced his return to fashion. Again, critics noticed. This time they were more obliging in their reviews, perhaps because they felt he had atoned for his fashion sins.
In an interview with Style.com, he was questioned about the inspirations behind his collection. “You guys know my influences. I’ve got four influences and it’s written all over the face(…) You see Raf Simons right there, you see Helmut, you see Margiela, you see Vanessa (Beecroft), you see Katharine Hamnett. It’s blatantly right there.”
Yeezy Season 2 was more of the same. This September, his presentation was live-streamed in cinemas across the United States. Long before the show started, West landed himself in hot water by scheduling his show outside of the official fashion show calendar. In doing so, he effectively bulldozed over the slots of several designers who would lose out on attention from press and buyers flocking to see West’s designs. Designer Anne Bowen of streetwear label Nomad VII vented her frustrations to WWD. “Kanye knows he is a media sensation and it is just not ethical to do this,” she said. “It’s like we are David and he is Goliath. We have put our heart and soul into our show, and should not be stepped on like this.”
Together with Beecroft, he staged a presentation where models marched out to barked orders from a drill sergeant. Wearing a mix of basics and undergarments, they lined up in rows with darker-skinned models at the front and fairer-skinned at the back. Many in the audience took this staging as a commentary on race, as America was still reeling in the aftermath of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, two unarmed black men who were shot dead by police officers.
West, however, refuted this assertion, telling Vanity Fair, “It had nothing to do with race. It was only colours of human beings and the way these palettes of people work together and really just stressing the importance of colour, the importance of that to our sanity, these Zen, monochrome palettes.” The real inspiration behind what one commenter called a “load of stained women’s underwear”? His Claudio Silvestrin-designed Manhattan apartment. Go figure.
Pandemonium struck on October 29 – the release of Yeezy Season 1. Fans queued around the world and vigorously refreshed e-tailers’ websites to be among the first to purchase Yeezy. “Yeezy Season 1 has been one of the fastest-selling brands on Farfetch this season,” said Candice Fragis, buying and merchandising director at Farfetch, in an interview with Complex.
The frenzied consumers weren’t fazed by the critics. Cathy Horyn’s takedown included lines like, “I’m not sure why so many writers are so unquestioning of West’s design qualifications.” Sam Lobban, buying manager for Mr Porter, was more generous. “The styling of the show may have been specific for some people,” he told WWD, “but ultimately it was a show and thus a statement. As individual products, these are very well made with high-quality fabrications in easy wearable shapes.”
It flew off shelves and cleaved opinions, which, like it or not, is the hallmark of a singular artist. Whether he has design merit or not, West’s fashion ambitions are a continued exercise in elbowing the haters off the path along the route to success.