By: Derek Nelson
Photos by: Sara Fares
Kanye West is not a rapper.
At least that’s what he’d tell you. The man who has won 21 Grammy Awards from 57 nominations for his prolific skill crafting hip-hop music would tell you that “rapper” can’t even begin to describe what he does. He’d describe himself as an artist. A designer. An innovator. At this year’s MTV VMAs he likened himself to Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and Henry Ford.
But if you could ask Kanye one place he’d like to make an impact beyond music, he’d probably tell you the world of fashion. And he’s been successful, though not exactly in the way he would have hoped. In early September, Mr. West brought the fourth iteration of his Yeezy Season collection to Roosevelt Island for New York Fashion Week. Organized with artist and Yeezus Tour choreographer Vanessa Beecroft, the show was live-streamed on Tidal and saw roughly 100 models stand outside in the blistering heat. Despite the fact that it’s impossible to get your hands on a pair of Kanye’s Yeezy Boost sneakers, NY Times Chief Fashion Critic Vanessa Friedman called this collection “Not ambitious or exciting or even surprising. Yawn.”
Is this proof that Kanye has finally stopped innovating? The answer is resoundingly no — we’re just looking in the wrong place. To understand the impact the GOOD Music founder is making on the fashion and artistic community, we must look not at his attempts at runway couture, but on the apparel he is producing and selling to most of his fans — that is, his Life of Pablo and Saint Pablo tour merchandise.
In 2004, College Dropout taught the world that gospel works on a hip-hop album. 808s showed that rappers could be lonely, anguished, and introspective, allowing artists like Drake and Lil Yachty to earn the popularity they see today. Yeezus paved the way for the stripped down and industrial trap beats co-opted by Travis Scott and Young Thug. Now, Pablo invites fans to be a part of the creative process for the artists and albums they so fervently await. The entire mood for this album, tour, and merchandise has been collaborative, as if we get to peer behind the curtain and see West himself at work. He released The Life of Pablo (streaming on Tidal) two days after the promised date, as he added the track “Waves” last-minute, only after persuasion from co-producer Chance the Rapper. Still, the album wasn’t done. When fans expressed they liked a previously released version of the track “Wolves” better than the album version (from which guest Sia had been removed), Kanye tweeted “Ima fix wolves,” and the track was replaced shortly thereafter. Calling the album a “living breathing changing creative expression,” he developed a current version that now has different cover art than the original, a title that has been changed several times, and a new track, “Saint Pablo.”
His tour and merchandise have come together in much of the same manner. I saw Kanye’s Saint Pablo tour at the Verizon Center on September 8th, and had the fortune to have been studying in Paris when his Pablo pop-up shop opened there during men’s fashion week this past June. A huge crowd gathered outside the tiny art gallery where his shop was housed, with people called from the line five or ten at a time. Once inside, the walls were white, with the exception of “Paris” printed in large black letters near the entrance, and clothing hung on simple racks around the room. Since clothes were printed on a one-time basis and customized to the location, many things were sold out, but I was able to grab a t-shirt and a sweatshirt for about $50 and $100, respectively. This price tag is not matched in quality, with the shirts clearly printed on cheap Gildan cotton, but purchasing this apparel feels more like participating in an artistic process than overpaying for a t-shirt when you’re there.
Kanye has repeated this model for over 20 other pop-up shops, everywhere from New York to Cape Town to Singapore, and the colors, city printed on the breast, and Pablo lyrics on the back are custom for just about every location. This is even reflected in the t-shirts sold on-site at his concerts, many of which feature dates of the shows, or a picture of West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, on their recent trip to Mexico. In this way, the merchandise itself is like a piece of performance art to which fans can contribute. Apparel designs were not pre-made by a marketing team in a boardroom, but on the fly — haphazardly screen-printed by Kanye himself. Despite the lack of critical success for West’s collections, the same has not been true commercially for his tour merchandise. He just broke the Madison Square Garden record for apparel sales, beating the Pope by over $200,000, and Drake has emulated his pop-up shop model with “Revenge” merch on his Summer Sixteen Tour.
During the concert, Kanye forewent the stage for a small platform (to which he was anchored) that moved throughout the show, suspended above the General Admission crowd a few feet below. This put him much closer to his fans, who were lit up during the entire performance, flocking around the platform as it moved to a new region of the floor. The line between performer and fan blurred, as it has throughout this creative album experience, and the scene played out like some bizarre religious gathering —everyone encircling one man in the center.