Where the runway meets the street

In the storied television drama The Wire, recovering heroin addict and consistent tugger of heartstrings Bubbles managed a variety of hustles – most prominently pushing his reliable iron horse of a shopping cart around West Baltimore in hopes of slinging a couple white tees in order to earn a couple dollars. One white T-Shirt equaled a few bucks. As we know, The Wire creator David Simon prided himself on presenting the gritty and politically charged series in as realistic a manner as possible in order to educate instead of deliver opiates to the viewing public. Sure, there’s a precedent for the rise of the white T-shirt and a direct correlation to monetary sales. Take for example Marlon Brando’s wearing of one in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 – resulting in $180 million dollars worth of sales by years end for the tiny piece of fabric. There’s no denying that it’s a staple piece – a worldwide uniform for all men of shapes and sizes. But there is something distinctly wrong about putting that item on a pricy pedestal – suddenly taking the hustle to the consumer in an exploitative manner. It begs the question, is the A.P.C. x Kanye West collection worse for a hip-hop culture already defined by consumerism or a fashion industry where hype and resale is a perpetual stain that won’t disappear?

When French label A.P.C. announced a capsule collection with Kanye West, it was undoubtedly assumed that there would be backlash – as West’s consistent foray into production of clothes is met nearly with as much criticism as his on stage ensembles and look at me/what are you looking at? demeanor. The 8-piece collaboration is easily forgettable – comprised of the aforementioned tees as well as hoodies and jeans. It’s a “non-statement.” It’s a piece of art you’d see at at museum sectioned off by velvet ropes and security guards only to discover a large, blank canvas with a couple of dots haphazardly applied and a bronze placard indicating the artist’s name. I can appreciate the minimalist attempt – specifically A.P.C. staying true to it’s casual designs. The story isn’t the collection, it’s with the prices – specifically for a piece bearing the name “Hip-Hop shirt.”

The Hip-Hop shirt will run potential shoppers $120 USD – with the keyword being “potential” given the sold out nature of the entire collection that temporarily shut down A.P.C.’s website due to an influx of traffic. A.P.C. and Kanye certainly didn’t set the exorbitant price point by chance, given other designer T-shirts of the vanilla variety running about the same price (Balmain charges $425 USD for a three-pack). It’s that they’ve chosen to attach this piece to a specific culture and consumers as if insinuating that this thin smock is an integral piece of ownership for hip-hop heads like owning a copy of Illmatic or being able to recite Biggie’s verse from “Juicy.”

The contradiction from this shirt comes from trying to make a sartorial square peg fit in a round and record-shaped hole. When I first became involved in the world of fashion, I was immediately off-put by how exclusive the entire industry was. Originality was purchased in capsule sized bites – surely bringing on an alphabetical revolution for the letter “X” unseen since the times of the Times Square peepshow. A.P.C. x Kanye West: luxury rap further personified. Part of the initial allure of hip-hop music is that it seems to have one of the most eclectic fan bases – spanning race, age and financial situation despite the art form’s roots. Somehow suggesting that this is a representation of the music or the culture is why Kanye West’s side projects fizzle and draw further ire from those on the fence about him, and why Jay-Z’s empire continues to grow. Jay-Z hides exploitation in innovation while his protege relies on obscurity masked as high art.

From a fashion standpoint, it reiterates an age old trope that demand is dictated by a nom de plume rather than design aesthetics. Designer labels charge more for pieces that upon first glance look like something you could get from the Gap – but a trained eye can see the exotic fabrics and hand detailing that takes a sample and turns it into a composition. The problem with these limited and “in demand” collections is that it awakens the second hand capitalist who sees an opportunity to cash in with no plans to appreciate the clothes. One perusal of eBay reveals that most pieces from the capsule are already going for triple their face value. Hype surrounding clothing no longer creates “beasts,” it creates monsters.

During season 5 of The Wire Bubbles receives a quotation from Kafka which reads, “You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” Both the hip-hop community and the fashion world could have done without this collaboration.

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for Esquire, Details, Maxim and Playboy in the past. Follow him on Twitter @smart_alec_

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