This story is taken from Issue 18 of Highsnobiety magazine. You can buy the new issue here.
Whether designing the aesthetics of Kanye West, JAY-Z, and Drake, launching Nike’s NBA uniforms, or redefining the Stüssy retail experience, Montreal-raised, Los Angeles-based creative polymath Willo Perron has been shaping the look of contemporary culture for years. Haven’t heard his name? Perron is perfectly comfortable being the shadow behind the curtain as the audience looks skyward and gasps, “How is that Ferrari flying?!”
Most people who have met Willo Perron would probably describe him as a visionary. His impressive career spans more than 20 years in different disciplines, including design, retail curation, and creative direction for luminaries such as JAY-Z, Kanye West, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga.
On the day I’m sitting across from him in his Silverlake studio, Perron hides his eyes behind dark glasses, which he pairs with a gray hoodie, white jeans, and New Balance sneakers. This isn’t some Hollywood power move or an attempt to maintain an air of mystery. Rather, Perron’s pupils recently became dilated during an eye exam, causing him to have trouble making out the titles of the books on the walls, including the unfortunately named — right now at least — Double Vision: The Photography of George Rodriguez.
He sits on a brown Mario Bellini sofa parked opposite one of similar design by Tobia Scarpa. There are custom-made blue chairs by Dutch designer Joep van Lieshout overlooking a plastic model of one of the many venues where he has worked his magic. He thinks it’s London’s O2 arena but looks at it like a person would view a hammer. It’s a tool, not a memory.
The walls are covered in paper printouts. At first glance, they could be interpreted as a series of geometric shapes. A closer inspection reveals a universality to the clusters, as if one were looking at different renderings of a sword’s blade or even prototypes of a chaise longue. Perron believes that an understanding of patterns is what fuels his company’s expansive reach across a multitude of disciplines. “They don’t need to be logical,” he says. “They just need to be your patterns.”
Like so many children who go on to live creatively rich lives as adults, Perron was uninterested in school while attending Fine Arts Core Education (FACE) in Montreal. Despite a deep love for ingesting all types of information, Perron says he believes the school’s delivery system and approach are what caused him to drop out at just 14 years old.
“I feel like all my education — my important education — came after I left school and I started digging into topics and different things about myself,” he explains.
“That’s really what my career is… It’s been identifying things and making it all work as a language.”
Since the beginning, music has played an integral part in Perron’s life. The son of a jazz musician father, he made an early connection between the finished product, such as songs and records, and the various peripheral elements including artwork, live show, and merchandise.
“That’s really what my career is,” Perron admits. “It’s been identifying things and making it all work as a language.” This becomes a recurring theme as we talk. He has a childlike curiosity about everything; specifically, why some things work and others don’t.
As he looks out of the window at Santa Monica Boulevard, it’s like he’s assessing everything from the speeding cars to the building next door, which his staff of 15 will soon expand into. Mental wheels spinning, he appears to be solving problems that don’t even exist yet. When I ask what specifically can be improved, he says bluntly, “Everything,” before asking, “When was the last time you saw something [and] went, ‘That’s perfect’?”
He realizes this hyper-awareness isn’t always a good thing, however. “I don’t think people should do that necessarily, because I think [by overthinking] there’s a layer of enjoyment that’s probably gone, where you have to be analytical about everything,” he explains.
Perron later describes what it’s like watching a movie with him. Whether observing a minute camera movement or a lighting choice to influence the mood, he’s continually cataloguing what he sees.
“We’re all sort of a pile of references and influences,” he says. “You see [something] and you’re like, ‘Oh, that really had an emotional effect on me. What is it that they did that I can observe and decompose and take parts of and make my own?’”
Attention to the details is what defines Perron at every step. After dropping out of high school, he taught himself graphic design using first-generation Photoshop and Illustrator. He parlayed his newfound skills into an eclectic mixture of gigs, getting his feet wet in action sports design and record label ownership (alongside A-Trak and Dave 1 of Chromeo), before becoming creative director of underground hip-hop monolith Rawkus Records. That latter role certainly makes sense of the gold record for Big L’s The Big Picture resting in the corner of the room as we talk.
Perron has a theory that young people more widely exposed to the same tools he worked tirelessly to master make the new generation particularly suited to disrupting different industries. To his mind, the only barrier to entry is a lack of courage.
“I think there’s really nothing stopping you besides yourself,” he says, adding, “It’s not going to be because the software or hardware costs money; it’s going to be because people don’t have the balls to do it themselves.”
It would have been easy for Perron to coast on his digital skillset as the new millennium began. Instead, he moved into something more tactile: designing retail experiences. This included the Goodfoot sneaker store in Montreal, which stood in stark contrast to more traditional brick-and-mortar spaces such as Foot Locker and Finish Line.
On the subject of sneakers, Perron seems genuinely surprised that sneaker culture is as big as it is today. Although he hypothesizes that a major factor is adults looking to score classic sneakers they couldn’t have as children, he believes the reason to collect anything — be it sneakers, baseball cards, or stamps — is the company one keeps, rather than the physical rewards.
“I think it’s super-bizarre for me that [sneaker culture] still exists and it still matters,” he says. “I’m just impressed that it’s sustained this long. But I’m happy also that people find community in that. I think it’s cool.”
Goodfoot eventually led to Perron becoming the man responsible for the look and feel of American Apparel’s retail outlets, as the company ballooned from a single location in 2003 to 143 stores in 11 countries by 2007. Highlights included transforming a bank into a retail experience in Calgary, hints of avant-garde Italian architecture at the Chicago location, and the merging of two existing spaces in Atlanta. In every instance, Perron considered how the elements, from the lighting to the surfaces the clothing sat on, established a mood for shoppers.
“Whether it’s a store interior or something like a stage design, how do you balance making a spectacle — making something feel big — without distracting from the product that’s in the store or the artists themselves?” he asks. “It’s a tough balancing act to make something feel grandiose while at the same time making it feel accessible to a consumer audience.”
This ethos carried over to more recent renovations. At Stüssy London, Perron added perforated metal and molded fiberglass to an existing design to evoke the Californian spirit of adventure. The YEEZY studio in Calabasas, California, meanwhile, was designed by Perron along 20th-century brutalist principles, merging wood and concrete to give the warehouse space a stark yet functional look.
When you observe the low-key vibe Perron exudes, paired with his track record of understated interior designs, it seems surprising that he has gained a reputation for genius-level visual flair on major tours for artists such as Kanye West, JAY-Z, Drake, Migos, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, and Florence + The Machine, as well as a psychedelic festival stage show for Tame Impala and St. Vincent’s multicolored “Los Ageless” video. This assessment isn’t lost on Perron himself.
“This is going to sound so fucking backwards, [but] I don’t love big venue shows,” he admits. “Maybe it’s why I’ve always wound up working behind the scenes. I love music but I never was a mega-fan of anything. There are certain things that were really influential, but they never seemed bigger than human — or they never seemed that distant from me.”
And yet Perron’s work on arena shows is mind-blowing, whether making a Ferrari fly like a kite held aloft by a stiff breeze, overseeing 200 drones buzzing over a full LED floor — both for Drake’s “Aubrey & the Three Migos” tour — or the 360-degree octagonal stage and angled screens for JAY-Z’s 4:44 shows, letting the audience feel like they’re up close with the rapper and reflecting the personal nature of the album.
“He is one of the most talented people I know and has paved the way for many creatives,” says 1017 ALYX 9SM founder Matthew Williams. “He has defined what it means to be a creative director for an artist today.”
The same thirst for information Perron had as a kid is what inspires his ambitious show direction. He jokes that the Ferrari theatrics will probably be noted on his tombstone, but he’s unafraid to share how such stunts come about.
“It’s much simpler than you know,” he says. “How does that conversation go? So, part of doing live productions is being really aware of what’s out. What new technology is there? What can you do with it? What the limitations with technologies are.
“When we started on the Drake show, he’s very much all up front — all newness, big. There’s a sense of ostentatiousness to everything that he wants to do. He’s not the type of dude who’s going to go do lo-fi or pull back.”
When the NBA and Nike asked him to design an activation to launch their partnership on jerseys and apparel, the result — a series of giant moving LED pillars that corralled attendees — was culled from personal experience.
“I lived in New York and there was that big power outage,” he recalls. “I lived on the same street for a few years and I’d never met a single neighbor, and then all of a sudden we were all fucked equally and there was no hierarchy anymore. In one night, I knew every single one of my neighbors.
“I was like, ‘How do you fuck people equally so everybody feels like they’re in the same boat together?’ And the Nike thing was by sort of assaulting everybody to move and scramble out of the way — there’s camaraderie.”
Technical accomplishments of this type can take months, if not years, to realize. But for another notable career milestone, when Kanye West tasked him with designing the artwork for 808s & Heartbreak, Perron waited until the last possible moment to pull it off, in the belief that great things happen under the gun.
“I definitely like working like that,” he says. “I think that if you gave me six months to do an album cover, I’d probably do it in the last four days.” But why? “If you came up with an album cover six months ago, by the time the record came out, it would probably feel dull.”
“The hybrid has always been a goal… To make it artful and thoughtful and super-commercial at the same time.”
Perron is a rare creative who can simultaneously be mentioned in debates about who belongs on the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop as well as in the pages of Architectural Digest. When I bring this up, he for the first time appears satisfied with all that he’s achieved.
“The hybrid has always been a goal,” he says. “To make it high and low at the same time. To make it artful and thoughtful and super-commercial at the same time. For me, there’s beauty in XXL and architecture sitting on the same plain. The idea of hierarchies seems really antiquated.”
I can’t help but think of a quote from The Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” There’s something to be said for someone working toward an end goal wherein others get the praise and attention. Perhaps that’s the whole point. The doing is enough. It certainly seems to be enough for Willo Perron.
Highsnobiety magazine Issue 18 is available now from our online store and at select premium stockists and boutiques worldwide.