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The fashion industry couldn’t quite agree on the best way to respond to Kanye West’s YZY fashion show held on the second-to-last day of Paris Fashion Week. West wore and sent down the runway T-shirts reading “White Lives Matter,” a slogan the Anti-Defamation League calls racist. Conservative commenter Candace Owens also attended wearing the T. The shirts prompted criticism from many, including Vogue Global Fashion Editor-at-Large Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, who bore uncomfortable witness to the spectacle. Karefa-Johnson’s response in her Instagram story was nuanced and considered, yet in subsequent Instagram posts, West ridiculed her appearance. Gigi Hadid defended Karefa-Johnson, calling West “a bully and a joke.” West then posted that he had met with Karefa-Johnson and that Anna Wintour’s friend Baz Luhrmann filmed it, stating, “GABBY IS MY SISTER.”
What the fashion industry could agree on pretty immediately was that West's shirts and subsequent social media posts were upsetting. Raven Smith wrote for Vogue.com, “For me, [the shirts are] empowering right-wing ideology, further enabling its airtime when we should be stamping it out.” The industry also agreed that Karefa-Johnson should be wholeheartedly defended. Regarding West’s attacks of her, Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Versha Sharma wrote in an op-ed, “In addition to the blatant disrespect this signifies, we know from Donald Trump, from Tucker Carlson, what happens when you sic a cultist following on a woman on social media: everything from trolls to death threats. Gabriella deserves precisely none of this.” And there was the widely shared sentiment that it was horrible that the first fashion month with no pandemic-related disruptions in years, which should have been about beauty and art and celebration, had to end in a cloud of wild drama created by West.
Different ideas emerged about what should be done. Many called for Vogue to stand with Karefa-Johnson (the magazine posted a statement of support; British Vogue Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful called the show “insensitive” and “inappropriate” in the New York Times). Others were so disgusted that this fashion week was brought to such an indecorous, ugly end at the hands of West that they encouraged people not to talk about it at all, in hopes of depriving him the attention he seems to crave. Still others wondered why the fashion industry wasn’t talking about it more, since the story was being heavily covered elsewhere. (It is a fantasy in 2022 to presume that fashion ignoring West would result in, say, Jonathan Anderson’s beautiful anthurium dresses for Loewe getting those headlines instead.)
By now, you likely know that West doubled down on his statements on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show; that he veered into anti-Semitism; that he was restricted from Instagram and then Twitter.
Here’s what I predict: that despite of all of this, the fashion industry will not abandon him. And I don’t say this because almost no one truly gets canceled (even Harvey Weinstein has recently been granted the opportunity to appeal his conviction in New York). I say this because fashion almost never seems to shut out certain creatives on the basis of inflammatory actions or statements.
West’s relationship to fashion has been integral to his image since his first album The College Dropout came out in 2004. Also integral to his image is how aggrieved he has long felt, much of that stemming from fashion. GQ.com notes that in 2004, West stood out for his “brightly colored rugby shirts, pink polos, and Louis Vuitton backpacks” which “complicated the image of rappers wearing baggy jeans and XXXL tees.” The article continues:
“No one would give me a deal,” West said during a performance at Webster Hall. “Maybe it’s because of what I had on… I guess they judged a book by its cover.” In other words, West’s persecution complex was there from the beginning.
He went on to collaborate on a sneaker with Bathing Ape in 2007, make shutter shades a thing after wearing them in his “Stronger” music video, and to intern for Fendi. He launched the clothing line Pastelle, which went as quickly as it came.
The fashion collaborations started in earnest in 2009, when West attended Paris Fashion Week. Louis Vuitton showed their Kanye West sneaker collaboration, but that didn’t have nearly as much of an impact as street style photographer Tommy Ton’s now-iconic photo of West with the late designer Virgil Abloh, Don C, Taz Arnold, Chris Julian, and Fonzworth Bentley outside the Comme des Garçons Homme show.
In 2009, West also debuted his first Yeezy sneaker with Nike. It sold out almost instantly. The next year, he worked with designer Phillip Lim on clothes for the Runaway short film and music video.
He famously wore a women’s Celine top at Coachella, collaborated with then-Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci on album art for Watch the Throne, and, in 2011, finally debuted his own line of women’s wear at Paris Fashion Week, resulting in a slew of negative reviews. Suzy Menkes wrote in the International Herald Tribune:
For all his personal style, his striking jewellery and his grasp of modern glamour, his collection of sexpot low-bodice dresses and skintight pants, decked out with heaps of ginger fur, did not inspire the fashion crowd to tell him to give up his day job … A celebrity tag and a lively audience filled with music-business friends does not cut it in Paris.
The only thing produced from the collection were the shoes, which were created with Giuseppe Zanotti.
In 2012, West started dating Kim Kardashian, famously making over her style as a first order of business. Another Yeezy sneaker came out around this time, and was met with even more enthusiasm than before. In 2013, West attended the Met Gala with Kardashian, who was pregnant and allowed to go for the first time after years of calling the Vogue office and asking to be let in. West performed, drawing headlines for screaming “I am a God” on stage (this was the title of his Daft Punk-produced song).
Then, he rolled out the single “New Slaves,” which included the lyrics: “Doing clothes you woulda thought I had help/ But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself.” West launched it by projecting visuals onto a selection of physical buildings. Gaby Wilson wrote for MTV.com:
The track itself is fraught with controversy, its lyrics jarringly blending racism and consumerism, and with projection sites like FIT University, New York's 5th Avenue Prada store, the Chanel boutique on Rodeo Drive, and Versace's Miami house, it's unavoidably clear that fashion is at the center of focus.
West’s fashion momentum failed to slow. He collaborated with Martin Margiela on his Yeezus tour wardrobe, and artist Wes Lang on concert T-shirts, one of which bore a Confederate flag, which many unsurprisingly found upsetting. In a Guardian piece titled, “It’s really hard to be a Kanye West fan at times,” David Dennis wrote, “The shirts… are provocative to say the least and counterproductive to any revolutionary message Kanye would hope to perpetuate.” Rather than apologize, West said in an interview with L.A.’s AMP 97.1, “React how you want. Any energy you got is good energy. You know the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way — that's my abstract take on what I know about it. So I made the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It's my flag now. Now what are you going to do?”
This incident also didn’t stand in the way of West’s fashion clout. Sources told me when I was reporting ANNA: The Biography that West had something to do with the planning of the Vogue cover of him and Kardashian pegged to their wedding that came out in 2014, and discussed it in advance with Anna.
West’s relationship with Nike started falling apart in 2013, he said, because the brand wouldn’t give him royalties on every pair of sneaker sold. He told New York’s Hot 97, “As soon as [the Yeezy] was too big, it’s scary. Nike is, like, ‘No. We’re not going to let you blow to [that] level. We already have Jordan Brand, we already have that one baby. And we don’t even like that we have to compete with brand Jordan.” That didn’t stop Adidas from going into business with him next.
Adidas launched their collaboration in 2015 with a fashion show that was streamed in 50 theaters across the U.S. West worked with Demna on the collection. When the first Adidas Yeezys came out, they created the same frenzy they had before. (Adidas recently said its partnership with West is “under review.”) West showed his second Yeezy line at New York Fashion Week in September 2015, and the shows continued regularly from there. One was a concert-like display in Madison Square Garden that served as a launch event for West’s Life of Pablo album. Another show that began hours late included shoes models visibly struggled to walk in. West skipped a show altogether for season 6 in 2017, debuting it on social media on people like his then-wife Kim Kardashian.
West incited backlash again in 2018 when he called 400 years of slavery “a choice.” He then tweeted that he was “being attacked for presenting new ideas.” Later that year, he visited President Trump in the White House wearing a MAGA hat, which he said made him “feel like Superman.”
By the time he entered into the ill-fated agreement with Gap in 2020, however, he had had such a successful track record selling Yeezys that the partnership may have seemed like a no-brainer. Bloomberg reported that in 2020, sales of Yeezy sneakers totaled $1.7 billion. Gap hoped to emulate that success, projecting that the partnership with West would become around a $1 billion business. Maybe that was the amount of money Gap needed to overlook West’s past controversies.
I have been thinking about why West’s show in Paris this season was so hyped before it happened. After all, it’s not like he had a track record of presenting critically acclaimed new fashion ideas in his past Yeezy shows. Nor did he treat his guests — prominent, busy people — with particular respect, as evidenced by repeatedly making them wait hours for shows to start.
The excitement leading up to the latest show seemed to mostly stem from it being a surprise? And so few people being invited? Business of Fashion ran a story the day before with the headline, “Kanye to Reveal Collection at Surprise Paris Show.” It read, “The new work will be presented at an intimate venue in Paris’ 8th arrondissement for as few as 50 invitees.” Vogue.com followed with a preview story that included an interview with West. It read, “Tonight at a Parisian location that would be irresponsible to share, Kanye West — or Ye, as he now prefers — will present his eleventh fashion show, an event that came together away from the official Paris Fashion Week calendar.” The sub-headline to the story about the show being an exclusive surprise was that Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver worked on the collection, which was a much better reason to go.
The day of the show, some of fashion’s biggest names gathered at that secret location, apparently near the Arc de Triomphe — Anna Wintour, John Galliano, and Demna among them. LVMH Chief Bernard Arnault’s son Alexandre, an executive vice president at Tiffany, also attended. West made them all wait an hour and a half for the show to start.
Why was his show worth so much of all these people’s time? They probably didn’t know West would show up wearing that shirt, or that he’d use the show as a jumping off point for all those social media provocations. (If they had listened to the Alo Yoga podcast, they would have known, though, that West took particular pride in running his own Instagram account.) But they probably knew that he had a strong track record of unabashedly stirring controversy. They probably also knew that his fashion collections never tended to be that good.
Related in Back Row: Alo Yoga Became a Behemoth by Claiming to Be Something It's Not
But this group of people is in the same circle of fashion elites that knows that Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana also have a long history of causing mass offense — something that hasn’t stood in the way of their label’s continued success, as evidenced by Kim Kardashian’s recent #CiaoKim collection for the brand. Anti-Semitism also didn’t stand in the way of YZY guest of honor John Galliano’s career, which Anna personally helped to rehabilitate. (Galliano apologized and attempted to show remorse for his actions in a way that West has not.)
The whole deeply unfortunate spectacle serves as a reminder that fashion’s highest ranking members are too often wiling to ignore problematic behavior in favor of basking in a halo of glamour and exclusivity. This will be on full display at the Met Gala next year, which honors the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of the work of the late Karl Lagerfeld. Lagerfeld was an enormously successful designer who repeatedly expressed disdain for fat women and, in 2017, criticized Angela Merkel for bringing Syrian migrants into the country by saying, “I know someone in Germany who took a young Syrian and after four days said: ‘The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust.’” But sure, give Lagerfeld the museum exhibit (which, by the way, he never wanted anyway).
Fashion will not cancel Kanye West. It will make a temporary example of him in the near term, and then, when he stages a secret event he’s only printing 50 golden tickets for, leaders of the industry will walk back in like none of this ever happened.
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This was an upsetting read, but necessary. Kanye West is such a disgusting person, I don't understand how he continues to have so much credibility in the fashion industry...
Thank you for your work!
This is so disturbing. He seems clearly mentally ill, and I don't know what to do with that in this context but it feels relevant.