Kanye West has gone from a behind the scenes producer, totting a Louis Vuitton backpack and rapping about consumerism, to a megastar. He’s consistently name-dropping fashion editors and sitting front row at fashion shows. There are sites dedicated to his every sartorial choice and the Yeezy co-sign has the power to sell out collections. West’s clothes are always declared GOOD but perhaps, he’s now simply a conduit for trends. Can anyone talk critically to West about style, or will he truly “motherfu**king embarrass you”?
West’s ascent from a fashion fan folding tees at the GAP to a tastemaker and designer in his own right, seems authentic, which endears him to fans and the fashion world. He’s always struggled with his love of consumer goods as he’s “always had a passion for flashing, before I had it I closed my eyes and imagined.” His background as a child in an arts high school and his aptitude for producing layered beats and unexpected wordplay express his creativity. His fashion resume reads as though he’s a star design school pupil – he’s interned with Fendi, collaborated on footwear with Giuseppe Zanotti, Nike and Louis Vuitton, he counts Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci as a close personal friend and sits front row with the influential editor Carine Roitfeld. West is foremost a student of fashion and he uses his famous friends deftly. Without question, no new designer could get his or her debut collection a spot in Paris Fashion Week, without celebrity status. West’s lukewarm reception for his ready–to-wear women’s clothing collections and decision to stop showing, may indicate that he’s taking it more seriously and for now, leaving it to his favorite experts to keep Kim in that “new Phoebe Philo.”
Kanye West is adept at shifting his image for every album, from backpacks and Polo gear during “The College Drop Out” album to sad nerd swag and tailored suits for “808’s and Heartbreak” to the high end monotone looks for “Watch the Throne.” It’s not just about the content, but how the content is produced. He’s not only talking about style, he’s living it through his clothes, videos, performances, and of course his music.
West is one of the best artists at molding his image to his rap message and aligning his brand according to both his music and also what’s on trend. He has an eye for not necessarily what’s directional in fashion, but what is salable, which is often better as high-end brands are more able to convince consumers to pay the premium price. West was one of the first celebrities to begin wearing Balenciaga Arenas, now the shoes are often on wait lists and resold for obscene prices, much like West’s footwear designs for Louis Vuitton and Nike. Athletes, rappers and Hypebeast forum members all followed Yeezy’s lead.
Kanye is also an example of an artist keeping the right people around him whose positions are based on having the right eye for trends and timing. His presence at fashion shows allows him to access gear before it’s up for pre-order. Now, his crew is becoming as influential as him, with advisor Virgil Abloh’s store “RSVP Gallery” and brand “Pyrex Vision.” Team Kanye’s influence is as extensive as his closet.
As West’s money has gotten longer, his wardrobe has decidedly gotten more experimental (“Wussup” to A$AP Rocky). Not many rappers (besides mentor/friend/collaborator Jay-Z) were name dropping serious fashion references when West debuted and, as he’s become further entrenched in the fashion world, the stylish nods have only increased. West has found a way to ascent into high-end fashion rather than bringing high fashion to a street level. Hip-hop’s love of brands like Versace, Polo, DKNY, Gucci and Prada in the 90’s changed the way many people bought designer items, and fashion’s perception of the rap world. Yeezy has taught the rap world how to grow your style as your influence grows.
West also has a pretty set uniform that includes designer denim, usually Balmain or Dior Homme, sneakers (his own, classic early release Jordans or Balenciaga Arenas) and layered sweaters and jackets with chains. That way when West does something so different, it has more of an impact. He takes advantage of splitting his personas between dressing for the stage and dressing for everyday. He’s not just a rapper in denim and kicks – he has performance gear that is often custom made couture, like his Givenchy leather kilts and Maison Martin Margiela diamond encrusted masks. These items are not only different, but also what’s new in fashion. The kid who wear J’s and fake Balmain jeans might not get it, but the fashion assistant at the show will. His market reach is far beyond the rap fan, but his image and music is popular with a varied demographic that is unmatched in hip-hop.
It’s hard to say how Kanye will dress and how his image will grow once again. But West’s adept knowledge of fashion, insider friends and image obsession makes it certain that the streets and the blogs will keep watching.