I first heard about Kanye West’s Pablo pop-up shop on Twitter early last week and was intrigued by the concept. Upon visiting his ultra-minimal website, I saw that San Francisco was one of just 21 cities across the globe that were going to play host to a temporary shop that would feature exclusive merch from Yeezy’s most recent The Life of Pablo album. For two to three days only, these stores would be selling merchandise that couldn’t be purchased anywhere else.
Being a loyal Kanye fan since eighth grade when I listened to Late Registration on repeat on my CD Walkman, I figured I should not take living in a major city for granted and check out the Pablo pop-up in San Francisco. It was 2 p.m. on Saturday when I braved the ungodly traffic deep in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown that seems to be perpetually under construction.
After moving an orange traffic cone to a more convenient location, I parked my car just a few feet away from the address I had screen-shotted from KanyeWest.com earlier in the week: 45 Wentworth Street. On a small one-way side street that I would have missed had I not been using my GPS, a massive line of teens and 20-somethings indicated that I had arrived.
The plain black storefront contained absolutely no signage or branding suggesting that the rap god’s threads were being sold amongst the heavy foot traffic and Chinese characters adorning every neighboring building. A few people walking past me were carrying translucent plastic bags with PABLO scrawled across them in the album’s signature Old English-inspired typeface, through which you could see unmistakable bright orange fabric.
A female security guard stood at the front of the line, next to an unassuming black door. The door would occasionally swing open just long enough for two or three swaggy young friends or lovers to enter and disappear behind the secretive plywood-covered windows, and then quickly close again.
I walked up to the front of the line and asked two guys around my age how long they’d been waiting to get to this most-coveted position at the front of the line. They said they arrived at precisely 9:48am, just before the shop’s scheduled opening hour of 10:00. They informed me that the line was already around the block when they got there. Now, after five hours of patient waiting, they were finally about to get in the store.
Prior to arriving at the pop-up, I searched the Twitterverse for any sort of information on what was being sold and for how much. Thanks to one Twitter user in Boston posting a photo of the shop’s “menu,” I saw that items were as overpriced as anyone familiar with Kanye West would expect them to be. Basic T-shirts began at $55 and prices went up all the way to a camouflage military jacket that you could take home for $325. Each piece of merch featured the recognizable Pablo typeface and various sayings from the album such as “I FEEL LIKE PABLO” and “I LOVE YOU LIKE KANYE LOVES KANYE.”
I looked down at the line and saw it disappear around the corner. It was almost entirely millennials dressed in brands like The Hundreds and Anti Social Social Club, smoking, texting on their phones and chatting with their friends. I saw a few younger kids in line with their moms, and even spoke with two middle-aged parents who were waiting in line. They informed me that they were waiting in line for their sons. When I asked them what they thought about the bloated price points of the merchandise, the dad answered: “I think we’re just paying for Kanye’s lawyer fees against Taylor Swift.”
My questions about the obviously ridiculous price of the merchandise didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits. “We’re paying for Kanye’s name,” one girl told me at the front of the line before being ushered inside. At the same time, a group of three girls emerged with their bags and instantly began taking pictures outside the store. After showing me what they bought and how much it cost them, I asked how they truly felt about the pricing of what they had just seen inside.
“Disappointed,” one said casually.
“Annoying,” said her friend with a laugh.
“It’s Pablo, it’s hype,” the other friend admitted.
Despite the girls’ answers, none of them seemed legitimately bummed out. After posing for a picture, they walked away with their Pablo bags in one hand and their snapping iPhones in the other.
I went back to the security guard and asked her if she could let me inside for just two seconds to take a photo. She informed me that she couldn’t do it. Similarly, when I tried to ask a question of one of the pop-up employees (I like to refer to them as Kanye’s magic helpers) who was helping maintain the line outside, I was quickly informed that they were not allowed to talk to any media.
After speaking with the security guard for a few minutes longer, she informed me that the store’s maximum capacity was 20 people and that she had been on her feet working for the past six hours. The first guy who I had spoken to at the front of the line with his friend emerged from the black plywood palace. He told me his name was Michael. I asked him to show me the $108 orange hoodie he purchased. Upon taking it out of the bag, he revealed the tag of the item: Gildan.
“They could have at least cut that off,” he said. “It’s overpriced as hell, but welcome to America.”
As he excitedly put the sweater on, an onlooker told him that he had it on backwards, to which Michael explained that he was doing it on purpose so everyone could read the back print rather than the blank front. The graphic facing forward read: “ANY RUMOR YOU EVER HEARD ABOUT ME IS TRUE N LEGENDARY.” Proudly rocking his new piece of merchandise, Michael smiled with all gold teeth. He told me the main reason he wanted the hoodie was because he had just bought tickets to Kanye’s Saint Pablo tour at Oracle Arena across the bridge in Oakland later in October.
After learning that these ultra-exclusive items being peddled by fashion forward Kanye share the same brand as little league baseball tees and family reunion sweaters, I was even more interested to see what people thought of the price of items they waited in line for hours to get a look at.
I walked all the way down to the end of the line, or at least where I thought it ended. As it turned out, security guards had to break up the line so it didn’t extend into the street. The line didn’t end in the shaded alley where I had been talking to people, but across the street where there was another line longer than the first one.
A 22-year-old girl and her boyfriend were at the front of this second tier of Pablo parishioners. When I showed them the pricing of the items and informed them that the merchandise came courtesy of the good folks at Gildan, the boyfriend laughed and shook his head, admitting that he had no intention of buying anything that afternoon. His girlfriend, however, was undeterred.
“I don’t think anyone would deny it’s overpriced,” she told me with Starbucks in hand. “By going to this pop-up, you’re paying for more than the physical thing. You’re paying for the experience.”
It wasn’t until I returned home to write about the pop-up that I saw how true that statement was.
So how much exactly are people paying for the experience of waiting in line for hours for screen-printed relics from Yeezus? On Gildan’s website, you can purchase a T-shirt for $6.00, long-sleeve tee for $9.00 and a hoodie for a whopping $13.00. Yet inside the hallowed walls of Pablo pop-ups across the world, the markups magically skyrocketed to prices of $55, $75 and $105 respectively. I think it goes without saying that screen-printing doesn’t cost that much extra. But to our generation, Yeezy’s touch does.
As Michael told me with his new purchase in hand, welcome to America. Indeed.
I finished talking to people in the back of the line and made my way to the storefront one last time to petition the security guard for access. She informed me that she couldn’t let me in, but as the door opened up wider than usual, I was able to get a look inside. I couldn’t see much, but the glimpse I did catch of nondescript white walls with matching white-clothed cashiers was honestly a little disappointing. Compared to snapshots I had seen of New York’s Pablo pop-up, I was at least expecting an aesthetic that would momentarily allow shoppers a visual escape from their aching feet and drained iPhone batteries.
All in all, the Pablo pop-up was an interesting look into why we buy what we buy and how much we’ll pay for a perceived piece of history. While my report may carry a skeptical tone, my Kanye fandom remains intact. If I was presented with a trip inside the temporary store without having to wait in line and given an opportunity to purchase a $55 T-shirt, I don’t think I would have hesitated in whipping out my debit card. Why? Because like everyone else there, I am a Kanye West fan.
I am dedicated enough to have bought every album since his sophomore release, but not dedicated enough to spend my entire Saturday losing years off my life standing in Chinatown for Gildan goodies while the West-Kardashian family laughs all the way to the Calabasas bank. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and what we are willing to pay for a piece of pop culture varies from person to person.
Regardless of whether you waited in the streets for hours for a piece of clothing, or if you are a casual listener of hip-hop’s most influential and polarizing star, one thing will remain the same: we put the life in The Life of Pablo.
Robbie Tripp is the author of “Create Rebellion,” an abstract manifesto for disruptive creativity. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Sarah.
Speaking of Kanye, check out the bizarre poem he wrote for Frank Ocean’s new magazine.
- Words and Lead image: Robbie Tripp