It’s difficult to remember the last time a fashion show attracted a reaction as overwhelmingly negative as YEEZY Season 4. Various headlines have described it as a "kidnapping," a "disaster" and a "hot mess," whereas fashion editors have been busy flooding their social media accounts with calls to boycott Yeezy. Models collapsed in the crippling heat; others buckled as their stilettos crumbled beneath them, while one took her shoes off and sat down, seemingly defeated.
The continued involvement of Vanessa Beecroft has always indicated that Yeezy shows are less a conventional runway presentation and more a unique brand of performance art—Season 3, for example, combined an album launch, a stadium-sized party and a choreographed recreation of a famous image depicting the aftermath of Rwandan genocide.
Season 4, however, seemed to take things too far. It begged the question: is Kanye West guilty of exploiting his fame to mistreat his models?
West’s perfectionist tendencies are well-documented. His painstaking attention to detail saw his latest album, The Life of Pablo, undergo several revisions, whereas his notorious micro-management of wife Kim’s designer wardrobe has stirred up debate over the last few years.
His debut appearance on Keeping Up With The Kardashians saw him cleaning out Kardashian’s entire wardrobe to make way for new “dope shit,” and she later admitted in a US Weekly interview that she dresses more for her man than she does for herself.
Over the last few years, Kim has become a walking Yeezy advertisement in her own right; a point proven when she was snapped wearing the transparent Season 4 thigh-highs before they were officially revealed. Apparently Kim trusts West’s opinion more than she trusts her own. In an interview with LOVE magazine, she slammed her own taste: “I was obsessed with glitter, rhinestone heels and the type of clothes I now laugh at, and he threw them all out,” she said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to save them for my daughter one day,’ and he said, ‘if it’s going to be our daughter, she’s never going to wear those!’”
His influence has undoubtedly worked wonders, and Kim has been welcomed into the fashion sphere with open arms: she regularly sits front row for designers such as Givenchy and Balmain, and has cultivated a strong aesthetic based largely on skin-tight knits, statement jackets and the occasional flash of latex. However, it seems that Kim’s inextricable affiliation with West and Yeezy seems to allow Kanye unquestioned control over her aesthetic.
But how visionary is Kanye, really? He continues to rely upon the same staples and, much like the heat-fatigued models of Season 4, the fashion press is becoming exhausted by his repetition. Jackets seemingly lifted directly from military surplus stores, body-con minidresses and spandex bodysuits in various shades of beige continue to characterize the Yeezy aesthetic.
High-street stores have battled to counterfeit these coveted pieces, resulting in moth-eaten sweaters and rust-colored hoodies populating stores worldwide. It seems that West’s relentless obsession with control is proving to be his undoing: his telltale aesthetic is so meticulously calculated and relies on such distinctive staples that it seems unlikely to truly progress.
The clothes can be forgiven; the accusations of exploitation can not. The moment West tweeted an open casting call for "multiracial women," thousands flocked to answer his call. But why? These women were subjected to a torturous six-hour wait in queues which snaked for miles across the streets of New York, only to be dismissed in the thousands before ever getting a chance to meet their idol.
No information was given regarding model payment, but street-casting clearly saves thousands upon thousands of dollars in comparison to booking top models. Moreover, these were not only hopeful models, they were presumably either die-hard Kanye fans or young beauties desperate to affiliate themselves with one of the world’s most lucrative brands. This determination to become part of the Yeezy story often goes hand in hand with a willingness to do just about anything to fulfill that dream.
It’s not the first time the rap megastar has exploited his star power to score cheap labor. Anonymous accounts suggested that Season 3 models were paid just $100 for a 10-hour workday, whereas thousands of extras apparently didn’t get paid at all; a revelation which contradicts his open Twitter call for 1,200 paid interns. It’s unlikely that Season 4 models were paid much more, despite being made to remain motionless in the blazing heat as show delays inched from minutes to hours.
There are conflicting reports with regards to the treatment given by the Yeezy camp to the suffering models. Some articles insist that models were given water, whereas others report that the women were given little to no assistance in coping with the crippling heat. Resulting videos from the presentation more closely resemble The Hunger Games than they do a fashion show: models can be seen ambling along the runway with the help of show attendees and sitting to take off their shoes.
These feats of endurance can be expected of trained performance artists; the likes of Marina Abramović and Petr Pavlensky have racked up countless column inches over the years for their admirable tenacity and willingness to withstand pain. The problem is that these Yeezy models are not trained performance artists, yet they had been seemingly recruited to participate in a show which more closely resembled an endurance piece than it did a fashion show.
This isn't fair. With the exception of a few big names including Jourdan Dunn and Teyana Taylor, these were untrained models hand-picked for their aesthetic and subsequently thrust in front of the world’s fashion elite as their footwear fell apart. A handful have already become viral internet memes. It is, in a word, humiliating.
The most harrowing takeaway from YEEZY Season 4 is the power that comes with Kanye West’s name: he’s a global rap megastar exploiting his fame to recruit beautiful fans for little to no pay. Whether or not these women knew what they were getting themselves into, the fact remains that watching models struggle to stay upright in the New York heat and follow commands to remain motionless is uncomfortable.
It isn’t fashion, nor is it performance art – the former places an emphasis on the clothing which, it has to be said, Yeezy does not; whereas the latter is a form of artistic expression embarked upon by consenting creatives.
Remember the lyric, “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye”? It seems the world – and the fashion industry – is still struggling to understand whether this was a knowing parody or a genuine statement. The fact is, West’s unwavering self-belief has made him an unstoppable figure in today’s world.
Calls to boycott Yeezy will likely yield little success and the clothes will doubtless sell out in the thousands. Unfortunately, he can ultimately do whatever he wants and continue to sell. The world knows it, the fashion industry knows it and, most importantly, Kanye knows it.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
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