In 2004 Kanye West released his very first album, The College Dropout. It was with this record that he interrupted a steady climate of gangsta rap with his tongue in cheek braggadocio and avant-garde style. Pink polos, Louis Vuitton backpacks, and a preppy aesthetic were disarming to the hip-hop scene and many failed to take him seriously. “Maybe it’s because of what I had on… I guess they judged a book by its cover,” he implored to a crowd at Webster Hall.
Throughout his entire career West has been plagued by superfluous judgement on his behaviour and ideas. Celebrities often fall into side-projects borne from boredom—popstars turn to acting, reality stars become politicians, and the rich pour their wealth into fleeting hobbies. For West, fashion has always been as important as the music, rather than an ancillary pastime. In 2011 when he debuted his first women’s collection called ‘Kanye West’, the reviews were mostly negative. Lisa Armstrong of the Daily Telegraph wrote that the show “was the equivalent of Karl Lagerfeld launching a hip-hop career: ie absurd.” But what is more absurd than an industry that can’t fathom a black man existing as anything but a rapper? It’s been an arduous journey for Kanye’s clothing pursuits and despite being one of the most influential designers in the world right now, he remains an outsider; never getting the credit he deserves.
Recently Kim Kardashian took to Instagram to point out the similarities between Saint Laurent’s runway set and Kanye West’s Pablo tour stage. It was the rows of spotlights and hazy red lighting that piqued Kardashian’s interest. On Saint Laurent’s part, it was an interesting move considering West’s complicated relationship with former creative director Hedi Slimane. In 2012, when Slimane allegedly said West could only attend his runway show for Saint Laurent and no others at Paris Fashion Week, Kanye hit back; “Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go!” West later went on to admit he had taken shots at Slimane on his song, ‘I Am A God’. Saint Laurent’s current creative director, Anthony Vaccarello has however reportedly previously collaborated with Kanye, posing the question—is this a hijack or a miscommunicated homage?
Fashion was built on inspiration, emulation and appropriation but unlike other designers, Kanye’s impact has never been considered equal to that of his peers.
Between 2015 and 2016, before Kim Kardashian’s robbery, her and Kanye had found themselves deep in the inner sanctum of fashion’s elite. They had befriended the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour, were photographed front row at the most exclusive shows, and looked as though Kanye had finally found his place in an industry he was so desperate to be a part of. It was a triumph for him and similarly for the fashion community, who benefited from his celebrity and influence. Kimye’s Vogue cover was perhaps their most pivotal moment. The rapper and reality star had been given unprecedented validation by one of the most prestigious fashion magazines; before this they were deemed merely tabloid fodder. We watched as Kanye rose up the ladder and shed his public frustrations with fashion. He was no longer an outsider—he had found a way in.
Immediately after Kim Kardashian’s robbery, when the conversation surrounding the story’s credibility was at its ugliest, one of their biggest supporters, Karl Lagerfeld, was quick to drop his allegiance. “If you are that famous… you cannot display your wealth and then be surprised that some people want to share it with you.” As Chanel’s creative director, a brand built for those who possess fantastical wealth, it was a rich statement. Kardashian and West who once were friends with the fashion’s inner circle had been reduced to unwelcome guests once their public stock took a hit.
Kimye’s front row presence has since been non-existent; whether it be from a lack of invitation or a self imposed retreat, thus restoring West as an outsider regardless of his unwavering influence.
Despite Lagerfeld’s incongruous comments, at Chanel’s Spring 2018 show during Paris Fashion Week he showed a line of clear plastic boots, which bore a striking resemblance to the clear thigh high boots from Yeezy Season 4. Those boots that were mocked when Kim Kardashian donned them (as she does with so many of Ye’s upcoming pieces) were applauded at the Chanel show.
Kanye’s frustrations with the fashion industry have long been documented. He teetered on the perimeters of high fashion and took to collaborating on sneaker releases with Nike while he wormed his way into meetings and internships with luxury brands. West’s multidisciplinary tendencies were written off to his erratic nature and his inability to settle on a singular art form rather than for what it was—talent.
In a now infamous 2013 interview with Zane Lowe, Kanye revealed how Fendi knocked back his designs; “[I] 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?” The leather jogging pant story became a punchline but that interview preceded Yeezy and his now firm grip on the fashion industry’s neck.
It would be a disservice to diminish Kanye’s sartorial ambitions as an impulsive decision borne out of boredom with music. It’s always been there alongside his music. “I dreamed, since I was a little kid, of having my own store where I could curate every shoe, sweatshirt, and colour…I cried over the idea of having my own store.” And yet it’s his celebrity that has been both his ticket in and his biggest detractor as he’s pleaded for his seat at the creative table.
Whether it’s West’s ability to predict a trend or instigate one, his own collection has been his opus. Yeezy Season One, presented at New York Fashion Week in 2015, was the world’s introduction to Kanye’s vision. He circumvented his inability to attend Balenciaga shows and instead began to compete against Demna Gvasalia. Season Two is when he made his biggest statement with colour and caught everyone’s eye with an unlikely palette: beige. In a matter of months beige began to filter down into other designers’ collections and the racks of High Street.
From Zara to Forever 21, Sketchers to H&M, there are few stores that haven’t been accused for ripping off Yeezy’s designs. Kanye’s clothing line has been described as 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.” Despite Kanye’s promises for more affordable lines, it’s hard to compete with a $20 knock off from Zara. The latest in fast fashion fraud has been Missguided, who were not only speedy but also unimaginative in their plagiarism of Yeezy Season Six, with their ‘The New Essentials: Season One’ collection. No matter where you go, or where you click, Kanye’s fashion footprint isn’t far off.
Yeezy on its surface is a high fashion streetwear collection, but more than anything it’s one of the best revenge stories of our time. It’s a story of the triumph of a black man who infiltrated an industry that called his pursuits absurd, only to turn around and emulate his colour palettes, patterns, and stage designs. He transcends the boundaries of fashion in a way Chanel and Saint Laurent cannot—from High Street to Rodeo Drive everyone is wearing something that is Yeezy or inspired by West. In 2011 Kanye was laughed off the runway. In 2018 it’s time he gets the respect he deserves.