All roads may lead to Rome, but they seem to start at Yeezus’…
I know, it seems shocking. Especially since you are not of the cycle-spandex-wearing type. And yet… Indulge a little flashback before we start: the year is 2009 and the street style phenomenon is nowhere near the bilion dollar industry it is today, but pioneers like Tommy Ton are already dutifully posted outside big fashion haunts. At the exit of the Comme des Garçons show, a remarkable group of individuals suddenly shows up in front of his lens: “Oh my god, is that Kanye West?!” Yes it is, surrounded by a squad of colorful sidekicks. They all have a relationship to the rap god in common, alongside a future job in his notorious creative collective Donda, but more on this later. Their presence comes as an absolute surprise, as Kanye is more accustomed to red carpets and stages than the holy grounds of fashion weeks, and the press makes that very clear. The picture of the Kanye Squad is met with a lot of ridicule throughout the inner fashion circles and this doesn’t please the infamously touchy star. He pens down rant after rant after rant, raps about the elitist and exclusive fashion industry and complains about being discriminated against because of his skin tone and celebrity status. His volley of rants doesn’t make much difference and West can’t prevent being turned into a South Park parody, the ultimate humiliation.
Little more than a decade later, Don C (far right on the picture) owns an on- and offline retail imperium with successful concept stores and is credited for single-handedly saving the iconic Nike Jordan sneaker from extinction thanks to his fruitful collaborations with the company to revive the old model. Taz Arnold (green jacket) and Fonzworth Bentley (orange hat), who acted as P. Diddy’s personal assistant and bodyguard in a former life, are considered mighty trend oracles and regularly share their wisdom with desperate designers on the verge of bankrupt, teaching them how to survive the treacherous waters of millennial fashion. Kanye has famously auto-proclaimed himself a god and although he keeps fighting the fashion press over his own label Yeezy, the influence it has on day-to-day fashion is not to be underestimated –we have him to “thank” for those cyclist pants claustrophobically hugging legs everywhere. And then there is Virgil Abloh (far right in an electric bleu Raf Simons jacket), the man people bow down to nowadays, the genius behind much-hyped Off-White and the creative director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear studio. The fact this former paria, a black DJ from Illinois, is now at the helm of one of Paris’ biggest fashion houses speaks volumes: streetwear is nòt just up and coming, it has simply taken over the luxury industry.
What’s your story?
What has changed? Trends used to be dictated top-to-bottom, but nowadays it goes the other way around: the street is in command, which is a much more democratic phenomenon. To understand the rise of streetwear, we must look at its consumers: millennials, bred and fed with social media, reality shows and the internet, have all the purchasing power today and they long for… authenticity. They want to know the man or woman behind a brand and feel the need to recognize themselves in his or her voice. In the age of social media, it’s not just the form, but most of all the message that counts. This makes for a favorable climate for streetwear, which is rooted in political and social activism and expressive graphics. Streetwear, a celebration of subcultures and tribes, arms itself with irony, wit and snarky humor–just like the popular phenomenon of internet memes and the digital culture in general does. Street cred is all that matters now, the consumer wants to get to know a story through social media and assess if one are worthy of it or not. That is why genius storytellers of the likes of Abloh and West are thriving, the former in particular considers fashion a cultural conversation and quite appropriately made quotation marks his signature.
The battle of Donda
What’s Kanyé’s role in all this? His own designing skills may be questionable, but the man does have an outspoken vision and above all an eye for talent and the will to nurture it. Let’s make another time lapse, this time to 2012: Kanye becomes a laughingstock once again when he publicly announces the launch of Donda, “a creative agency bringing people the new ideas, products and experiences they didn’t even know they needed”. Again, this is met with a lot of derision and so West clouds his project in silence. Everybody assumes the idea was yet another outburst of the rapper’s megalomania and has died a silent death, but none of it is true: he appoints his good friend Virgil Abloh head of the studio and assembles an impressive bunch of graphic designers, directors, producers, musicians, architects and other creatives. Over the next few years, the collective comes up with more than one awe-inspiring multimedia project and is hired by the likes of JayZ, Nicki Minaj, A$AP Rocky, Lil Wayne, Big Sean and even Beyoncé. Its involvement in stage design, album covers, short films, guerilla marketing stunts and even entire fashion labels is only betrayed by a few obscure credits though. Donda creatives don’t just fit in one box, but collaborate on different media and platforms and thus infiltrate different cultural fields.
Their style is defined by innovative collage techniques, a lot of sarcasme, an overdose of megalomania and a downright bizar sense of esthetics that is more than hard to grab: the frankly weird videoclip of West’s single Bound 2, which has a topless Kim Kardashian riding both a motorcycle ànd Kanye at the same time, while also battling a wind turbine on overdrive, is a vivid illustration of it. The video is described as “the worst idea ever, carried out with such confidence that it became the best idea ever.” Same goes for the short-lived Been Trill, the ridiculous fashion label launched by Donda creatives Virgil Abloh, Heron Preston, Justin Saunders, Matthew Williams and Florencia G. It sold excessively expensive basics, printed with the most random graphics and charged over a hundred dollars for a shoelace (true story!). The whole project felt like a big f*** you to the fashion establishment and the “designers” stood grinning on the sideline, betting on how much money they could make by selling nonsense. The joke didn’t last, but three of the founding member went on to launch their own labels and those did turn out to be great successes: Off-White, Alyx Studios (by Matthew Williamson) and Heron Preston (by the eponymous designer). Another accomplished Donda designer is Samuel Ross, whose label A Cold Wall was nominated for the LVMH-prize in 2018.
All of that with Yeezy’s blessing. Who’s laughing now, hu?