Kanye’s runway shows exist at the meeting of his work as a designer, musician, performer and creative thinker – the actual garments are only one element
Fashion, as we know, has changed. The role of digital media is far more important than ever, with designers and brands trying to find new ways of adjusting to a world where regular people can become signed models in an instant, and entire collections can be devoured with a scroll down on Instagram feeds. Fashion’s continuous exchange is no longer limited to an elite, exclusive group – the digital revolution fuelled an influx of new voices and perspectives into a once rarefied world.
Celebrities working in many aspects of the entertainment industry can also become fashion designers in their own right, parlaying their influence into hype. Some figures like Victoria Beckham, and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen have already made their marks by running successful brands, while the likes of the Jenner sisters and Rihanna work on huge endorsements, playing designer on immediately successful collaborations. The idea of the rich and famous becoming fully-fledged fashion designers is still strange to some though – especially in the case of a controversial artist and musician like Kanye West.
Since his entry into the music industry, West has been involved with fashion; first by releasing footwear collaborations, then working on capsule and runway collections with other brands (names including Reebok, adidas, Nike, Louis Vuitton and A.P.C.). However, his own experimentation with high fashion through collections shown in late 2011 and early 2012 wasn’t received well by critics or the public in general. It was only when West left Nike for adidas that he embarked on a remarkable artistic and sartorial journey.
In February and September 2015 respectively, West presented two fashion collections that were choreographed by his long-time collaborator, performance artist Vanessa Beecroft. Eschewing the traditional runway, the collections (named Yeezy Season 1 and 2), comprised of models standing in phalanx formation. All of them donned clothing designed in an earthy palette and wore custom adidas footwear. Both collections were soundtracked by his own music that included two tracks – “Wolves” and “Fade” – from his highly anticipated new album. Again, responses weren’t positive across the board. Of all the critics, Cathy Horyn most notably dismissed West’s efforts, saying that he “can’t be taken seriously as a designer”. The critiques from fellow writers also revolved around the drab clothes and embraced Horyn’s criticism.
But did they all miss the point?
Most of the critics gave sole weight to the apparel rather than seeing the clothes in the context of the military-inspired show. Maybe they were right – that the clothes subsequently released in November didn’t have much worth other than being collector’s items. But it’s important to note that the clothes were really a minor part of the shows. West, in addition to being adamant about a comprehensive collection that blends elements of music, performance art and fashion, is also aware of the commercial realm of fashion. The real centrepieces presented in the Yeezy collections were the footwear that amplified the hype to the nth degree in the sneaker community, sparking queues, crazy re-sell prices and one man who said he’d trade a pair of his Yeezy Boosts for a new kidney.
The aesthetics of the collection were mainly informed by a gamut of concepts that also inspired West’s Yeezus Tour. The ideas about theology (references to Jesus and crucifying), power (being carried), self-realisation (mountain as a set) and uniformity (women dressed in nude bodysuits as stage props) ran through his concerts, which had scenography created by Beecroft. The imagery of a group of women in nude bodysuits carrying West during the concert reappeared in his Yeezy shows where models stood upright in similar outfits. In other words, West’s fashion and his performances make the most sense when seen together, not apart. The decision to turn Yeezy season 3 into a public event, where fans can buy tickets to the Madison Square Garden show and hear West’s new album streamed for the first time, further demonstrated the ways in which the different strings to West’s bow are united on the catwalk.
“At a time where designers are multitasking as creative directors, ostracising West on the basis of his lack of expertise in practical fashion design is outdated”
Building on this melange of disparate elements is what brought Yeezy collections to life. So why ignore and dismiss a thought-out production based on the clothes alone or accusations that West was stealing other designers’ spotlights? Such criticism is unfortunately rooted in the romanticised notion of a trained fashion designer. Having a limited hands-on training in fashion doesn’t exclude West from contributing to the exchange. At a time where designers are multitasking as creative directors, ostracising West on the basis of his lack of expertise in practical fashion design is outdated. Not only that, but it is also a disservice to the coterie of creatives working in production, architecture and design for his existing company DONDA.
That West also simulcast his Yeezy shows in movie theatres is a testament to his interest in democratising the fashion show and opening it up to the general public. What West’s doing is giving back to fashion by stimulating interest inside and outside the industry, not indulging in self-interest, as detractors claim. A fashion collection that corrals a multitude of elements in the nexus of fashion, music and performance art is just another page in West’s artistic chapter.
It’s time that we welcome celebrities who can mesh their distinctive perspectives with fashion – just like we accept fashion designers who draw from an assortment of inspirations for their own runway collections.