Kanye is clearly not afraid to bring high art to populist products like music videos and album artwork; fashion is just another way to put his specific, genius stamp on accessible art. But, as he said in a recent interview with his friend Sway (above), this is seen as distasteful, and even shameful, coming from a rapper:
[When you're] trying to learn about clothing, you got the whole hood calling you a f** for even liking clothes or being at the runway shows. [...] Then you got your constant public perception being brought down. [...] Then you got shoes like the Nikes [that Kanye designed] selling at $80,000, and the head [of Nike] won’t even get on the phone with you. [...] You got every single door closed on you.
This is not a request for pity—it’s a demand to be treated with the same respect as other people of his stature, regardless of his race or his main profession. In addition to his wildly successful Nike designs, Kanye has collaborated on two collections with the French label A.P.C, designed shoes for Louis Vuitton, Bape, and Giuseppe Zanotti, and has a collaboration planned with Adidas. That’s all in addition to the two collections he showed at Paris Fashion Week in 2011 and 2012. If any other person—celebrity or not—had a résumé like that, there would be no question as to whether they “deserved” their own line. But the rules are different for Kanye.
“I think this is in part because he’s a person whose work is of enormous cultural importance to poor people and people of color,” Amy Rose said, “and he isn’t afraid to openly discuss his feelings on race and class politics in America—two things the notoriously racist and wealth-motivated fashion industry might not appreciate.”
Despite this disrespectful treatment, Kanye remains an impassioned fashion fan. Here’s Julianne:
One of my favorite moments this year was watching Kanye perform at Madison Square Garden, where he digressed into an angry monologue about the recently appointed creative head of Yves Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane, and how he was still mad that “Hedi” had tried to ban him from seeing the shows of “Phoebe” [Philo, of Céline] and “Raf” [Simons, of Dior] at Paris Fashion Week. Just as I was thinking, Like 350 people in this 20,000-person arena even know what the hell he’s talking about! my friend, who was in a different row, texted me, “What is he talking about?” But Kanye just wants everyone to be on his level, and that level is excellence.
At the end of their interview, after Kanye had spent AN HOUR bringing every question around to fashion, Lowe asked him why he’d want to spend (read: waste) his time pursuing clothing design, when he could be doing things that people would perceive as more “important.” Without any hesitation, Kanye responded: “You can’t tell me what dreams to have.” That made me cry the first time I heard it, because it felt like the summation of all his life’s work: Everything he’s ever done, he’s achieved in spite of people telling him there was something better or different or more “right” for him, and this is exactly what makes him the brilliant, innovative, and globally adored artist he is today.
That particular interview is also great because Kanye dedicated himself not only to advocating for and defending himself and his dreams, but also to professing a similarly deep respect and understanding for his listeners, reiterating what he’s been saying for years—that his work and career is really not all about him, but about all of us:
Go listen to all my music. It’s the codes of self-esteem. It’s the codes of who you are. If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going, to make you believe you can overcome the situation that you’re dealing with all the time. [...] I’ve always felt I can do anything. That’s the main thing people are controlled by: thoughts, the perceptions of themselves. They’re slowed down by the perception of themselves. If you’re taught you can’t do anything, you won’t do anything. I was taught I could do everything, and I’m Kanye West at age 36. So just watch the next 10 years.
Kanye inspires us to be creative and reminds us that we have something important to say, no matter how we choose to say it. And when I say “us,” I’m including Kanye himself. He needs that reminder to continue speaking his truth to power, even if the consequences might include being excluded from some music industry events or Fashion Weeks. His work gives voice to people without a platform, people too scared or quiet to speak for themselves. As Amy Rose remembered:
When I saw him perform, the number one message he had for the audience was to trust our convictions, and it came across as genuine and heartfelt, not self-help-y (I have a very low tolerance for “motivational” speeches). After a 15-minute monologue about disregarding anyone who tries to shut you down, he finished by saying, “The truth is inside you, and it always has been.” He was crying, and so was I—that bond between Kanye and the audience was like nothing I have ever felt, for real, because his belief in himself and in all of us was so palpable.
That’s the root of this conversation, really: It’s not just about Kanye West, the person, and it’s not just about the music or the clothes or the videos or the album art. It’s about pushing yourself to think harder—to be better—and to give your creations to the world and hope they follow that example and do the same. This is the truth at the heart of Kanye’s message. I’m so glad he’s never stopped challenging expectations in pursuit of his dreams, because his dogged insistence on seeing his artistic vision through has given the rest of us a new creative standard to aspire to, an ideal about which we can all say with certainty, “Yeezy taught me.” ♦